Seniors asking more from tour operators

Older travelers like active approach with no worries


September 12, 2004|By Alfred Borcover | Alfred Borcover,Special to the Sun

How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?

These days, many seniors can ask themselves that question posed by baseball player Leroy "Satchel" Paige. They can check their driver's license for year of birth, but that number is relative because while they might be 58, 65 or 73, they might feel much younger.

Paige, who also said, "Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter," pitched in his last major league game at age 59.

Let's see. You can join AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) at 50 to garner some advantages of being a senior, all the while denying you're a senior. Some tour companies who cater to seniors also include age 50, but most prefer that you be 55 or older.

"The average age for seniors is getting lower," observed Bob Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association. "It used to be 60 to 70. It's getting closer to 60 now because of the baby boomers entering that market. The senior market is getting more soft-adventurous. Seniors are healthier. And they like to do what I call 'sight-doing' instead of 'sightseeing.' They like to participate in the places that they visit, get a feel for the culture and people, walk around the villages."

Whitley said that seniors gravitate toward escorted tours. "They are traveling with people with the same likes and cultural levels, and they like to have things done for them. They don't have to worry about any hassles about reservations and transfers, because on an escorted tour just about everything is done for them. For escorted tour operators, that's the bulk of their business."

But, Whitley reminded, escorted tours have changed drastically since the 1969 movie If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.

"No longer do tours cover 11 countries on a 14-day trip," he said. "Tours tend to be more in-depth, with more leisure time, and they tend to stay in regions longer. Often they do back roads and not necessarily big cities. They offer such options as white-water rafting and heli-hiking."

The downside of tours? "The only minus might be if you don't like spending two weeks with the same group of people," Whitley explained. "It depends upon the package you buy."

Besides destination and price, what should seniors look for in a tour package?

"They should look at the hotel location, and whether meals are included in the price," Whitley said. "The hotel location is the No. 1 thing. If you're someone who likes to shop or walk around on your own, you don't want a hotel near the airport in London. You want to be nearer the action."

Specialists in field

While major companies such as Tauck, Collette and Globus seek clients of all ages, some firms do only senior business.

Boston-based Grand Circle Travel, founded in 1958 as an offshoot of the AARP to cater to teachers and now an independent company, is the oldest firm dealing only with seniors.

Grand Circle, and its sister companies -- Overseas Adventure Travel, Grand Circle Worldwide River Cruises and VBT Bicycle Vacations -- offer about 100 different trips and will carry an estimated 150,000 clients this year, up from nearly 124,000 in 2003.

"For Grand Circle tours, the median age is 72, for Overseas Adventure 65 and, for VBT, about 50," said spokeswoman Priscilla O'Reilly.

Grand Circle recently acquired Continental Waterways and will add European barging and biking trips next year. This year's itineraries include such places as Egypt and the Nile, China and the Yangtze, Italy's Amalfi Coast, Dubrovnik and a Trans-Canada rail adventure. Rates start at $995 and can exceed $3,000 per person. Each tour description includes the physical demands of the trip.

Chicagoan James Crawford, 70, a retired law professor who taught for 22 years at the University of California-Berkeley, chose a tour to Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro.

Crawford said he found Grand Circle "extremely well organized for someone like me, who doesn't want to be bothered with a lot of details of traveling at this stage in my life. They make all the arrangements. The pacing is suitable for middle aged and elderly people. They always have very good tours usually led by local university lecturers or professors."

Grand Circle Travel sells its tours directly to the public. For details, check or phone 800-221-2610.

Elderhostel variety

For sheer variety, no one comes close to Elderhostel, a Boston-based nonprofit educational operation serving those 55 and older with 10,000 programs, 7,500 of them in the United States.

Elderhostel bills itself as America's first -- and the world's largest -- education and travel organization. Name your interest, and you'll probably find a matching program, from art and archaeology to wildlife study.

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