Whether you were frustrated every year that your vacation was too short to let you travel as far as you wanted, or for years you fine-tuned a bucket list of places you dreamed of visiting, senior travel tours may offer the perfect solution. While the "if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium" tours still exist, most today are a far cry from that.
The internet -- and cable shows on food and travel -- have made us far more sophisticated consumers. We have a better idea of what is available and what we want. Yet maybe we would rather travel with a few people who are like us, instead of traveling alone. As you can imagine, the tour industry is more than happy to accommodate us by designing and offering options that fulfill every conceivable whim.
Too many movies have depicted the horrors of bad tours: people loading their huge suitcases into the belly of a bus at 5 a.m., as the horde of sleepy grey-heads piles back onto the air-conditioned bus on the way to yet another city. "To your left -- if you look between those two buildings -- is the Chateau of Whatever ..." whines the guide.
However, the old idea that all tours are bad is out of date. These days, tours reflect much more of the diversity and adventurousness of the 1960s, back when today's seniors were discovering their independence and spreading their wings. While 'life' may have clipped those wings for a few decades, seniors are now ready to see and savor what they may have missed.
For a first-time international traveler, tours are a way to get one's feet wet, working into the travel lifestyle without taking undue risk. While tours are a great way to meet people, senior travel tours also ensure that fellow travelers are far more like us than not -- regarding needs, interests and activity level.
For an experienced traveler, tours are a way to relax, sit back and let someone else do all the planning and negotiating. For the woman whose retired husband does not want to see the inside of another airplane, it is a way to travel with girlfriends or in an organized group.
Because seniors are far less tied to work schedules and time-of-year limitations, they are available to travel in those ideal 'shoulder seasons' when the weather at the destination is approaching perfect, but the masses are not yet available to travel.
Not everyone who signs up for a senior travel tour signs up for a second one, but many learn with the first one what needs fine-tuning to make the second one perfect.
More seniors than ever are searching the internet for ways to see and do things that they have dreamed of forever. Now that they have time, they are seeking out travel options that reflect their financial resources, their interests and their level of activity.They are experiencing travel that is perfectly tailored to them, and their battle cry has become "On our next trip ..."
Finding a senior travel tour that matches our needs and wants can:
- make travel comfortable for someone traveling abroad for the first time;
- ease the awkwardness or concern of solo travelers, including senior women who are widowed, divorced or with a mate who no longer wants to travel;
- expand travel options to see places and do things we would not see and do on our own;
- remove the risk of unexpected costs by prepaying all the basics of the trip;
- pair us with others with similar interests, possibly leading to long-term friendships;
- allow us to see 'life at the local level' by taking us off the tourist path, in the hands of experienced local guides; and
- match our desire for adventure, leisure, simplicity or luxury both in the choice of itinerary and of fellow travelers.
Before even delving into where we want to go and what we want to see, one reason for considering a senior travel tour is for the ease it should bring us. To define that ease, we want to look at the cost, what recourse we have if we are not happy, how easy it is to sign up, what our cancellation options are and what access we have to customer support when we have a question to ask or a problem to resolve.
Next, as we investigate the senior travel tour further, we want to know about destinations, whom the trips are designed for, how we get there, what accommodations we can expect, whether medical insurance is included, the length of trips and whether special dietary needs can be accommodated.
Once you have defined your budget, you want to research how the different tour companies will charge you. Some are known for getting good value for your money, and others are not. Some will work with you, finding whatever discount they can; others will not. Your dialog with the senior travel tour company should be open and straightforward on both sides: you should tell them your real budget and they should tell you the real costs of the tours you are considering. No games.
Next, figure out towards whom the tours are geared. Sedentary couples? Active seniors? Mothers and daughters?Bird watchers? There is a tour for everyone, so don't settle for one where you are the 'odd person out.' Look at that tour's photos on the company website. It does not matter if they are actual customers or stock photos: the photos will be chosen to represent the company's target market. See if those people look like you. Read the tour description to see if it identifies the demographic they are targeting. Getting this part right is very important.
Then, what size group do you prefer? Something intimate with 12-15 people? Or groups of 40-50? The size of your group affects every activity, day in and day out, and should not be ignored.
Be certain the company uses guides who are knowledgeable and who can show you what you would not see on your own. They should be local, or at least long-time residents who are fluent in the local language. They should also be fluent in yours. A good guide can make all the difference on a trip.
When you are on a tour, you are in the hands of the tour company, so it has to be solid. To be sure of your complete safety, check that the company is registered with its home government, the government where it is taking you and with industry trade organizations. Accreditations and awards are helpful.
While you are doing that, check the company's reputation with other travelers. Review sites, of course, are complaint magnets, since not enough happy campers take the time to write a positive review. However, if you are looking at several tour companies, you can feel if one stands out as better or worse than the rest. Your best bet would be a personal recommendation from a friend, but that is not always an option.
If you are looking at a specific tour, consider the itinerary they are proposing and see if it matches your activity level. Insist on seeing it in detail before you make any decisions. Do you want to be on the go every day, or do you prefer to take a breather between activities? Is changing hotels every other night too much? What works for you?
Is environmental impact important to you? Many tours focus on responsible travel, using local guides and services, and reducing the footprint you leave in the area. Even if you do not consider yourself an environmentalist, ecotourism (as itis called) can open up a whole new perspective on travel.
Two areas differentiate what seniors prioritize from what younger people do when looking at travel tours: age-friendliness and health-related value.
The name itself, 'senior' travel tours, tells you the companies are sensitive to the needs of a senior. In their effort to appeal to seniors, websites have to be easy to navigate and provide complete information. The purchasing process has to be easy. Seniors will rarely sign up for a tour they cannot keep up with, but they should be honest and forthcoming about their physical condition when discussing a tour with a company, to be sure the experience will be positive for all.
Age is also relevant when it comes to travel insurance, as certain insurance companies 'age out' seniors from various coverages above a particular age. The complexity of understanding travel insurance policies makes them a whole other challenge: the fine print regarding coverage for trip cancellation (by you), tour cancellation (by the company), lost luggage, etc., makes it difficult to know exactly what you are purchasing.
On the other hand, the 'insurance' offered by many cruise and tour companies (known as "Travel Supplier Waiver Plans") is usually not age rated, which means it may be your only option if you are in your 70s or older. However, those waiver plans should not be confused with 'regular' insurance because they are not regulated by your state's Insurance Licensing Department, and they can offer minimal real protection.
As for the health-related value of senior travel tours, while anyone can get sick or have an accident while traveling, seniors are that much more vulnerable when away from home. Insurance companies know this and charge them more for travel insurance. If traveling anywhere in the U.S., your Medicare coverage goes with you. However, it is not valid outside the U.S., with few exceptions. If you have a Medicare supplement plan, you have some coverage but probably not enough.
Pre-existing conditions play a tricky role when you are buying travel insurance policies. Whether the policy covers them or not is linked to how soon you purchase the insurance after you purchase your tour, so you need to do your homework. One more coverage you need to research carefully is evacuation insurance or Medevac. A critical illness or incident far from adequate care can be devastating, and you need to know you will be flown to where you can get that care, whatever the cost.
Senior travel tours can offer a way to travel for very little (for several hundred dollars), or they can offer the 'trip of a lifetime' (for $10,000-15,000), or anything in between.
Expenses can include accommodations, meals, guided tours, group transportation, taxes, gratuities, field trips, port charges on cruises, baggage handling, entrance fees, and an endless list of other charges.
You should expect complete transparency from your senior travel tour company. You want to know exactly what is covered and what you are still going to have to pay while you are traveling. What fees and taxes are covered? Are attractions or museum entrance fees separate? Are tips included? Is there a 'single supplement' to pay if you are traveling alone? (The company should be willing to match you with a solo traveler of your sex if you are willing.)
What you do not want is surprises.
Selecting a senior travel tour starts with the cost, the warranty, the ease of signing up and canceling, and the accessibility of the company's customer representatives.
Cost: The cost of a trip may or may not include the cost of getting there, such as the airfare to get you to where the land trip or cruise begins. After that, if the tour is marketed as a package, you need to dig into every element to determine how much is covered and how much you will have to supplement once you are on the tour. Only by getting to that level of detail can you compare one tour provider with another, assuming that more than one company offers the tour you are considering.
Warranty: Doing your due diligence on the tour you select and pay for is critical, as there are virtually no warranties offered. Once you have traveled, you have very little recourse. Most companies state in the fine print of their materials that they do not "own or operate any entity which provides goods or services for your trip," therefore they cannot be held responsible for anything. Typically, any "controversy or claim" regarding any information relating to the trip "shall be settled solely and exclusively by binding arbitration."
Ease: Seniors place great value on the ease of transactions. In the case of senior travel tours, the transaction begins with studying the company's website and goes through the payment process, information transmission, trip preparation, tour participation and trip home. A successful company will have figured out how to make each of those facets function smoothly so the senior will have enjoyed the experience without incident.
Cancellation: Not understanding the cancellation policy on the tour you are considering can be costly. Cancellation policies in this industry are variable, often depending on how commonplace or exotic the trip is. Before your trip, on some tours,you might be able to cancel up to a certain date and receive your money back, with or without a small penalty. However, in one extreme case, a company requests a non-refundable deposit upon booking a tour, and final payment 120 days before travel. Canceling more than 120 days before departure results in the loss of the deposit. Anything less than 120 days results in the loss of the entire tour price.
Customer support: Although tours can be booked directly online, many companies seem to limit telephone access for sales purposes to daytime hours, seven days a week. Much of the contact after that goes through your online account page, FAQs or email.
When selecting a senior travel tour, you will obviously want to know of possible destinations, who that tour's target audience is and the expected level of activity, all so you can determine if it is a good match for you. All details regarding transportation, accommodations and tour length need to align with what you are seeking in the tour. If you have special dietary needs, knowing whether or not they can be met could mean being able to take the tour or not.
One of the more complex issues is travel insurance. Some companies require that you obtain it, and others offer it themselves, although through third parties. Travel insurance targets two aspects: (1) the trip-related aspects, such as cancellations, delays, etc., and the medical aspects, with all the exclusions and limitations. Most policies are convoluted and so filled with provisions and exceptions that they are hard to understand. They are definitely written to favor the operator. Unfortunately, they cannot be overlooked. Often, the amount of money invested in an upcoming trip is considerable, and that investment should be protected. More important, as seniors, we cannot take a risk in protecting our health.
Travel tour websites at times offer discounts, especially when operators are trying to fill cruise ships, barges or other means of transportation as departure dates are approaching. Also, if you find a senior travel tour that appeals to you and it is out of financial reach, you should ask the company whether any discounts are available that would make it affordable for you. You just never know.