Discount fares for older and wiser travelers

Senior discounts widely available, but sometimes you have to speak up

Strategies

July 04, 2004|By Barry Estabrook | Barry Estabrook,New York Times News Service

For a few years in the early 1990s, my mother, recently widowed and living in a quiet St. Louis suburb, joined the jet set. She and the woolly bichon frise that was her constant companion became regulars at the American Airlines ticket counter at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

During that time, Mom dropped in on friends in Palm Springs and Key West, golfed at Greenbrier and in Naples, Fla., boarded a cruise ship in Fort Lauderdale and flitted back and forth several times between home and the family cottage in eastern Ontario.

She hadn't come across an unexpected inheritance, nor was she bent on squandering her retirement savings. Like many other retirees at that time, my mother simply purchased booklets of flight coupons that were then offered to travelers aged 62 and older by almost all major airlines. Each inexpensive coupon was valid for any flight leg within the continental United States.

For traveling seniors, those were the glory days. The booklets contained four or eight coupons, at about $75 a coupon, according to Terry Trippler, an air-travel expert who operates the travel information site www.terrytrippler.com. "You'd walk up to the ticket counter, flip open your book, tear out a coupon and go."

But by the late 1990s, said Trippler, one by one, cash-strapped airlines began discontinuing the deep discounts for seniors. "It started before Sept. 11," he said, referring to the 2001 terrorist attack. "And after Sept. 11, they all but abandoned them. I don't stumble on meaningful senior discounts often anymore, and when I do, there is usually another fare available that's actually better and less restrictive than the so-called senior discount."

America West Airlines (800-235-9292) still offers coupon books to passengers over 62 years old. A book of four one-way coupons good on any of the company's routes in the United States, Canada and Mexico costs $750, which means that a senior would only save money on round trips that otherwise would cost more than $375. There are blackout days, and flights must be reserved 14 days in advance. Booklets can be purchased by telephone, at ticket counters and through travel agents, but not on the airline's Web site.

However, experts agree that there are still good deals to be had for travelers age 50 and older.

Be inquisitive

"There are a lot of discounts out there, and many of them require no special card or membership in any organization," said David Smidt, president of Seniordiscounts.com, an online directory for people over 50. "But the problem is that many of these discounts can be hard to track down because businesses tend not to advertise them; perhaps they are reluctant to give that extra 10 or 15 percent unless people ask for it."

Smidt said that his Houston-based Web site, which was launched three years ago, listed 125,000 discount "locations" (meaning that each outlet of a chain is listed as a separate location). The listings include restaurants, hotels, airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines and other travel-related services.

But Smidt said senior travelers should make sure that the senior rate is actually the best rate offered. "You have to do a bit of research," he said. "Be sure to ask what other deals are being offered."

"Rule No. 1 for seniors traveling is to speak up and ask for a discount no matter what you are doing -- museums, attractions, restaurants, hotels, airlines, rental car companies," said Joan Rattner Heilman, author of Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can't Get Unless You're Over 50 (Contemporary Books, 2003, $14.95).

Heilman, herself a senior, has been tracking discounts since the late 1980s. She said that virtually all hotels in the United States offered some discount for older travelers. "If you are over 50, you never have to pay retail for a hotel again. You can always get a discount," she said.

Typically, according to Heilman, hotel discounts for older travelers range from 10 percent to as much as 50 percent, depending on the hotel and the age of the guest.

In early June, anyone 62 or older could get a room for the night of July 30 at Fairfield Inn and Suites in downtown Chicago for $127 a night, a little more than 20 percent off the regular rate of $160. At the more upscale Omni Chicago Downtown, anyone 55 or older could get a room for $170.10, a 10 percent discount from the regular rate of $189.

"Also, there is not a railroad, bus line, or public transportation system that doesn't offer a senior discount of some sort," said Heilman. "But again, you may have to ask. And it is very important to do so when you are booking a reservation -- not when you get to the ticket office or the hotel reception desk. By then it may be too late."

Amtrak offers a 15 percent discount to travelers 62 and over, and Greyhound takes 5 percent off the regular fare for the same age group.

Airfare discounts

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