If The Travelling Boomer has a motto, it’s this: just because you get older, there’s no reason you should stop travelling. In fact, many of us find our older years are the best time to see the world and all its wonders.. We have more time and a little money to spend, and the knowledge to appreciate the marvellous things we find out there.
However, being an older traveller isn’t quite the same experience as backpacking in your twenties. Aging imposes its own limitations, as we all know: we don’t party all night any more, and a steep flight of stairs is not what we want to see after a long day of walking. And we’d rather not have Margaritaville next door when we’re trying to sleep.
There are ways to make travel as enjoyable and painless as possible, however. They’re about accepting the realities of mature travel, and doing the things that will keep us in one piece while we’re having a good time discovering new and amazing things.
With that in mind, here’s my list of commandments for baby boomer travel:
Get in shape
Travelling tends to be more strenuous than everyday life, so it’s a good idea to tone up in the weeks leading up to your trip. Otherwise, you may really feel it after a couple of days spent walking around the capitals of Europe. Worse yet, you might find yourself running out of gas and missing some of the things you wanted to see.
You don’t need to hit the gym like a pentathlete. Some long walks after dinner for a couple of weeks before you leave are usually enough to strengthen your legs and increase your endurance. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator once or twice a day is also good for building up stamina. (Note: if you’re going to try anything strenuous, or if you have health issues, check with you doctor first.)
Don’t be a hero
You’re in great shape? Good. Now – don’t overdo it. Especially for men, it’s tempting to jump in and see if you can beat everyone to the top of that Mayan temple. Unless you’re a competitive athlete, it’s usually a bad move. I took the steep climb at the Great Wall of China last year and ended up with torn cartilage in my knee. (At least I didn’t fall off and end up in an ambulance.)
There are times when you have to admit your age and accept a little help. If there’s a taxi that will save you the tough 20-minute walk up to the castle, take it – it’s money well spent if you avoid coming back exhausted. If you’re on a cruise, or booking group tours, pay attention to the difficulty rating: it’s usually noted in the details. Check the fine print to see how much walking there is, and how close to the attractions they leave you.
One thing that can add to the physical stress of a trip is your luggage. It’s a mystery of science how your suitcase seems to get a pound heavier every time you celebrate another birthday. The solution, of course, is to pack light. There have been volumes written on how to pack in order to minimize the weight, but the secret is a few pieces of versatile, multi-use clothing — remember, you can wash things out in the bathroom sink.
As for your suitcase, if you’re still checking in a huge bag at the airport, think about going carry-on. You can get an amazing amount in a 20-inch “spinner”, as I demonstrated here. And once you make the change, these little carry-on bags can save you a lot of exertion — and a lot of time standing around the luggage carousel. It took me a while to get used to mine, but now I’m a convert.
Make a medicine run
Most of us who are over 50 are taking some kind of drugs for some kind of ailment, and many of us are taking more than a few. So if you’re going to be gone for any length of time, it’s essential to figure out what you’ll need for the number of days you’ll be gone, and see if you have enough on hand. That applies both to prescription and non-prescription drugs.
It’s important to get on this early. It’s possible that the drug is out of stock at your pharmacy, or your prescription has run out, or there’s some other bureaucratic snafu: read my interview with Lauren Kahn (aka the AlteCocker) for a glimpse of the difficulties than can crop up. And don’t forget to find out if there are any special drugs you need for the places you’re going: check your local travel clinic, or the website of your government travel advisories.
Get the senior’s discount
Going to some tourist attractions on your travels? Don’t forget to ask for a senior’s discount. You’d be amazed how many institutions and businesses offer lower prices to those over 60 or 65 – even 50, in some cases. Museums, transit systems, theatres, boat rides, city tours, cruise lines, some restaurants and hotels: there’s no end to the places that give boomers a break.
The discounts vary from place to place, but usually you’ll save 10 percent, sometimes more. So don’t be ashamed to ask. It only hurts the first time; after that, there’s just the pleasure of saving all that money. (For a listing of some places that offer discounts in the U.S., go here.)
Stick to your routine
Travelling is a great opportunity to leave behind your worries and the drudgery of daily life. But going completely native and adopting a whole new lifestyle is not a great idea for baby boomer travellers.
We’ve taken years to arrive at a lifestyle that works for us – what we eat, when we sleep, how much we drink – and forgetting that familiar routine can have consequences on our health, or just how we feel.
It’s true that sometimes just the relaxation of a vacation can make us feel better, sleep better, and even have better sex, as researchers found in these studies. But it’s still a wise decision to stick to some semblance of a normal lifestyle – we’re not spring breakers any more.
Check out the crowd
Personally, I like to stay places that have a mixed age group – some young people, some families, some older folk. I just find it more interesting. What I don’t like is arriving at a place to find all my neighbours are 20-somethings hell-bent on partying loudly all night. When that happens, it means one thing: I haven’t done my research.
When you book a stay at a hotel or resort, it pays to do a little web surfing and see what kind of place it is. The guest reviews at Tripadvisor and some other hotel sites are good sources for this: true, reviews can be faked, but if you see several people complaining about the noise, it’s probably true. Be a bit choosy about the cruises you take, too: lines like Holland America and luxury lines such as Celebrity generally cater to an older crowd, while Carnival ships have been known as “party boats” (Carnival is taking steps to shake that image). If in doubt, consult Cruise Critic.
Try something new
Even though I’m advising you not to go overboard, it’s important not to go too far the other way and make your trip too safe: it ends up being a bit dull. It’s important to do new things after 50, to keep our minds sharp and our spirits bright. So do something you haven’t tried before: sample a new food, learn a new skill, have a new adventure (I did my first trip down a zip line on a visit to Panama when I was over 60).
That doesn’t mean you need to go scuba-diving or wrestle an alligator – best to stick to something you can handle. But push your boundaries a little and you may come back revitalized as well as relaxed. Remember, life is a journey, and we don’t want to stop exploring its possibilities just because we’re a bit older.
That’s my baby boomer travel survival guide. These tips work for me (most of the time, at least), and if you follow them, you’re likely to have a great time on your travels and come home safe and well. And if you have any boomer travel tips of your own, leave a comment so we can benefit from your experience. After all, baby boomers have been circling the world since the ’60s — we must have learned something along the way.