The Travelling Boomer is dedicated to the older traveller – those of us who still want to see the world and discover new places, but at our own pace. And there’s no one who does that with more zest than Lauren Kahn – or as she calls herself, the AlteCocker.
Lauren, a retired lawyer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, was born in 1946, but she hasn’t let a few grey hairs stop her from travelling to exotic places around the world. And she still engages in a few hair-raising adventures, like zip-lining and white water rafting – all of which she recounts on her popular travel blog, AlteCockerTravels (alte cocker is Yiddish slang for, let’s say, “old fart”). You can visit her here.
Lauren often uses home exchanges to help control the costs, and hosts Alte Cocker’s Home Exchange Discussion Group on Facebook, where she helps other travellers make the most of the experience. She’s also a regular presence in travel discussions on Twitter (@laurenskahn).
Just back from a trip to Southeast Asia, Lauren agreed to answer a few questions from The Travelling Boomer on how she does what she does, and how being a little older affects her ability to travel the world.
Travelling Boomer: You’ve become well-known in the travel community as the AlteCocker who travels everywhere. How long have you been travelling, and how many countries have you been to?
Lauren Kahn: Strange as it may seem now, I was 16 before I flew in a plane. I went to visit a pen pal in Kamsack, Saskatchewan, Canada. I had to take three planes and it was the one time I threw up on an airplane. Those were the days of propeller planes and the second plane (Toronto to Regina, stopping in Winnipeg) ran into rough weather.
I took my first trip to Europe when I was 23, and I have been home exchanging since 1991. I have been to 38 countries. I have done 59 home exchanges since 1990: the 60th will be in Martinique in May.
TB: What have been some of your favourite places?
LK: I have liked them all, but my first trip to Turkey was an eye opener, as was my recent “haj” to Southeast Asia. I loved Angkor Wat.
I also love Europe. Belarus was special to me because I was able to see where my grandmother and great-grandmother came from, although almost nothing remains from when they lived there at the turn of the 19th century.
Belarus, which is allied with Russia and has a dictator, was very different than I expected. No one following me around and I could talk with anyone. They had internet too, but I had to go to someone’s house to use it because it was impossible in the hotel.
TB: You’re in your late 60s but you still travel as much as a 20-year-old. What keeps you travelling?
LK: Travel is a learning experience and you can learn at any age. I have a lot more behind me than in front of me so I have to do it now or not at all. You can learn at any age and when you stop learning, well, life is over.
TB: What challenges or restrictions does being an older traveller impose on you?
LK: Challenges to older travellers are really similar to younger travellers. Older travellers are slower than kids. It helps to have a suitcase on wheels.
I also do not take unnecessary chances. I carry and use a cane abroad, as pavements can be uneven. In Thailand, for example, sidewalks can be very uneven if they exist at all. I almost never use a cane at home. You always have to remember to look down when you are walking. And you have to arrange some sort of travel insurance as a senior traveller — something 20-year-olds do not think about.
I always see all my doctors before leaving. I take some contingent prescriptions, including a prednisone round of pills for my back. I also leave my travel insurance number with my ex-husband and instructions about burial arrangements if I die abroad (cremation on site; scatter the ashes where it can fertilize someone’s garden where I die).
TB: Speaking of meds, on AlteCockerTravels you recount the problems you had getting one of your prescriptions for a trip (see here). Tell us how you manage your meds on an extended trip.
LK: I make sure I have enough well in advance of any trip. I put them in plastic bags and count them out. I know what they are, so I don’t need to pack them in original containers. In fact, I say that plastic bags are my best friend when it is time to pack.
I do have a pain medication that I take occasionally for my back: that stays in its container because it is a low-level narcotic. I don’t want questions when I enter a country about carrying illegal drugs. Most of the other stuff is over the counter.
In some countries, I can pick up what I need without a prescription if I run out, and I have done that. But I’d rather just pack what I need and avoid having to ask, especially if I don’t speak the language.
TB: On the other hand, what advantages do you get from being an older traveller?
LK: I am retired and can go any time I want. People are sometimes amazed that I do what I do and ask me constantly (especially in places like Turkey and Thailand) how old I am. Then they ask about marriage (why there’s no husband; I’m divorced) and how many kids I have, etc.
There are occasionally discounts at museums, etc., abroad, but financially the flights cost the same for everyone.
TB: You take part in some high-octane adventures, like climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and white water rafting. Tell us a story about something you’ve done that amazed the people around you.
LK: I do not regard myself as particularly adventurous. I don’t, for example, ski. I never learned and I’d probably break something at my age. I would not bungee jump. In fact, I don’t even do roller coasters, but do go rafting. You figure.
Insofar as the Sydney Bridge climb was concerned, there are two options. I took the one where the ascent was gradual rather than the one where you had to climb some short ladders. You are tethered all the way, so it is really safe. I guess I am not afraid of heights.
I always rafted on holidays when I was younger, so it is not a question of trying something new now. I did raft recently in Thailand, but it was a bit rough and it is probably the last time. The worst thing would be getting hurt on vacation, and I have done that. It was, however, from slipping on cobblestones and not from rafting.
Zip-lining, which is really rather tame, was a new addition to AlteCocker’s holiday activities. I did it in Costa Rica in 2013 and again in Thailand in 2014. Now that I’ve done it in two places, I doubt I would do it again. It’s always expensive.
When I zip-lined in Thailand, there were a lot of young Chinese travellers in my group. They were amazed at what I was doing and took good care of me. One of them told me I was the same age as his mother (or was it his grandmother?) and she just sat at home.
The outfit where I zip-lined, Flying Squirrels north of Chiang Mai, was a bit taken aback when I walked in, but it went fine. I did tell them I had done it before so they would not panic that I was some old fart out to die zip-lining.
TB: You also have a popular travel website, AlteCockerTravels. What prompted you to start the site, and how has it enhanced your travels?
LK: I started the website as a way to remember my trips and have some fun. It is not set up to make any money, but if someone would offer me a writing job, I’d love that. I have made friends through the blog and when they ask for more information or photos of me, I just send them over to the blog. Very convenient.
The website has been much more successful than I imagined when I started. Recently, in Bangkok, another traveller took me out to dinner because she said the blog had given her so much help planning her trip. Free food is good.
TB: One of the ways you travel the world is by doing home exchanges. How does it facilitate your travels?
LK: Without home exchange I certainly would travel less frequently. Hotels are the most expensive part of anyone’s trip, not airfares. I don’t want to stay in a hostel at my age and I do prefer slow travel — remaining for weeks in one place and radiating out in side trips. With back problems, less luggage hauling is always good.
I have booked my exchanges principally through Homelink and Intervac. I have belonged to both services since 1990. Recently I joined homeforexchange.com. I have had less success with them but recently got a home hospitality exchange (you host them, they host you back at another time).
I almost always exchange homes at the same time, as I don’t have a vacation home where I could live while others used my house in D.C. I always say that your insurance is that they are just as worried about their stuff as you are about yours. More information on home exchange can be found here.
While there are problems with messy people in home exchange (something no home exchange website wants to discuss), I view it as a bit safer than house sitting because it is mutual. I don’t, by the way, take care of pets on an exchange. The pet people need to exchange with one another.
TB: How long do you usually stay in one house?
LK: Within North America, my exchanges are usually for one to two weeks. Longer-distance travel results in longer exchanges. Overseas it’s generally three to four weeks. I will be going to Martinique on an exchange of five weeks — which is the longest exchange I have ever done.
The length of the exchange is whatever you negotiate with the other party. I have done short exchanges in locations nearby, but I generally like at least four nights. Cleaning the house for less than that is not worth it.
TB: Tell us about your best experience as a house exchanger.
LK: That one is easy: In 1993 I exchanged in Bedford, Nova Scotia (a suburb of Halifax), with my children. The kids next door were the same ages as mine. That was the entertainment. We even discussed having them visit us but it never happened. And my son was happy that his bedroom had a game system.
TB: And about your worst: Have you ever had problems with the house or the pets you’re caring for?
LK: Yes. There was this house on Cape Cod where I agreed to feed some outside cats. There was a new kitten. When I backed the car out of the driveway, the kitten ran under the car and, well, the car ran over it and killed it.
I was mortified. I didn’t know what to do. It was not a case of trying to save the kitten, as it was obviously beyond that. I waited until the exchange (one week) was over before telling the exchangers because I did not want to ruin their holiday. They were good about it, but AlteCocker’s “no pets” rule came from that experience.
The worst exchange has to be the one in Scheidigg, Bavaria. It was an elderly couple. The house was dirty. I had to wash the dishes before eating off them.
We exchanged cars. Their car was a wreck. I took it back and forth to the repair place (they paid), but it was just beyond repair. The mechanic told me that he told them to buy a new car before the exchange. To add to the lovely story, I broke my left ankle during the holiday. What a mess that trip was!
TB: How long do you think you’ll continue travelling? You’ve talked about selling your house.
LK: I keep talking about selling my house, but I wouldn’t sell it to travel full-time. I think that would be too stressful. I like my house and it is full of pictures from my trips. I like coming home to my memories. I do not have infinite amounts of money, however, and my residence is my savings so I will have to sell it at some point and downsize.
Another reason why AlteCockers can’t travel full time is the need to see doctors on a regular schedule. I always say that, when I come home from a trip, I have a lot of doctors who want to see me. Since returning from Thailand, doctor appointments have occurred almost once per week. Almost finished!
I will continue travelling until some major health problem gets me. Right now it is just my back — nothing mortal. I may slow it down at some point, doing less travel abroad and more within the U.S. With home exchange, however, you never know where you will go next.
Martinique? Who thought of going to Martinique? And then they wrote me …