Maybe it's my widening girth, my whitening hair, my increasing nostalgia for "slow music." But the travels of senior citizens interest me more and more, and provoke these comments on recent developments.
That 10% Lure: Call me a grouch, but I'm not impressed with the discounts for mature travelers offered by most hotel chains. Since that's the exact amount that hotels pay out to travel agents, and since most senior-citizen travel programs require (in effect) that passengers avoid the use of travel agents, the hotels and airlines are frequently saving 10 percent on their senior-citizen programs and then simply passing on that 10 percent saving to the senior citizen.
In other words, they're not spending a red cent to obtain their senior business. Which seems a bit chintzy.
Best hotel bets
Does anyone do better by America's elderly? A few do. And they deserve acclaim as a means of nudging the others to do more. Here's a sampling: (keep in mind that discounts may vary from location to location)
Starwood Hotels (Sheraton, Four Points, W Hotels, Westin Hotels and Resorts): Though they caution that the discount can be withheld during periods of peak business, and is not applicable to minimum-rate rooms, virtually all Sheratons give a 50 percent discount to persons 60 and older. Phone toll free 800/325-3535. Web site: starwood.com/.
Marriott Hotels: At more than 2000 Marriott Hotels in the United States, seniors (62 and older) save at least 15 percent off normal rates. This includes Marriott's Fairfield Inns and Courtyards by Marriott (two subsidiary chains), and Marriott's Residence Inns. Phone Marriott itself at 888/236-2427, Web site: marriott.com/.
Days Inns: AARP members receive 15 percent off at participating Days Inns, and all Days Inns offer 10 percent off to senior citizens over 60 with proof of age. Reservations: 800/329-7466. Visit daysinn.com/ for more information and online reservations.
Howard Johnson's: 20 percent off for AARP members, at all the nation's Hojos. Phone toll free 800/IGOHOJO. Web site: hojo.com/.
Ramada Inn: AARP members get 20 percent off normal rates. Phone toll free 800/2-RAMADA. Web site: ramada.com/.
Radisson Hotels: Begun in September of 1997, the "Senior Breaks" program allows persons 50 or older to stay at any Radisson Hotel Worldwide (there are 427 in 300 countries) at a discount of 15-40 percent off the regular rate. For more information, call 800/333-3333. Web site: radisson.com/.
Choice Hotels (Clarion Hotels, Quality Inns, Sleep Inns, Friendship Inns, Rodeway Inns and Econo Lodges): offer 20-30 percent discounts to persons over the age of 60, and 10% for people 50+. AARP members get 15 percent off. Reservations must be made through the chains toll free number (800/4-CHOICE), so check first with the local hotels to make sure the "discounted" price you're getting from the nationwide reservations center beats any local discounts (sometimes it won't). Web site: choicehotels.com/.
Hyatt Hotels: Ages 62 and older save up to 50 percent on regular rates (Average discount: 25 percent) at participating hotels in the US and Canada. Web site: hyatt.com/.
Wyndham Hotels and Resorts: AARP members save between 35- 40 percent off regular room rates (the average discount is 15 to 20 percent off). Just call 877/999-3223 and request the AARP rate. Or you can book online at: wyndham.com/.
Travelodge: Members of AARP or CARP receive a discount of 15 percent off the regular room rate with advance reservations. Travelodge also offers the standard 10 percent off for those 50 and older. Call 800/578-7878 for reservations or book online at travelodge.com/.
As for the airlines, many of the major airlines no longer give any type of discounts to seniors. Those that do (and a good number of the discount carriers do) confine their senior-citizen airfare discounts to 10 percent. In fairness, they also make the 10 percent discount available to the senior's flight companion, even a younger one; and some of them also sell senior travel booklets for an average of $625 that contain four flight coupons, each good for a one-way trip on that airline's route structure within the United States. Using the coupons enables a senior to reduce the price of a one-way ticket to $137 ($548 divided by four) or at most, $156 ($625 divided by four). Seniors 62 years of age and older are entitled to buy them, and any airline reservationist will supply the details of how to do so.
But such programs are often overtaken by events-especially, the "airfare sales" that airlines are now conducting on a frequency of at least once-and sometimes more often than that-a month. When these sales are announced, fares are frequently available for less than the sum that seniors have paid for their coupon booklets.
Clearly, unless the airlines now devise new programs keyed to the levels of, and kept below, their own "sales" fares, they must--in my view--brace for outcries of protest from the seniors who purchased their fixed-price coupon booklets or year-long passes.
Here are three airlines with more enticing deals for seniors:
Virgin Atlantic: AARP members receive 10 percent off advance purchase fares, economy class only, to certain destinations in the UK. Be sure to ask about current sale fares: Virgin will offer 5 percent off already discounted flights, which may be cheaper than the AARP fare alone. (phone: 800/862-8621). Web site: virgin-atlantic.com/.
United Airlines: United's "Silver Wings Plus" program, for ages 55 and up, offers discounted fares, bonus miles, and discounts on hotels and cruises. A two year membership costs $75, and a lifetime membership costs $225. United also offers club members savings on cruise lines and car rentals, along with a 50 percent room rate discount at Westin, Sheraton and the Luxury Collection hotels. For Silver Wings Plus, call 800/720-1765. Visit silverwingsplus.com/ for more information and to sign up for the program.
US Airways: An AARP discount is available for domestic flights (within the continental US), flights to Canada, and selected routes to the Caribbean. The discount averages 10-30 percent off published fares. Phone 866/886-2277 or visit usairways.com/
While oldsters shouldn't expect any special treatment at tollbooths, they do get a break from the biggie ground transport companies: Amtrak (800/USA-RAIL or amtrak.com/) and Greyhound (800/231-2222 or greyhound.com/). The first offers the 62 and older traveler discounts of 15% of all Amtrak tickets, except for the coveted first class tickets on the auto train, the sleeper car, and weekday Acela and Metroliners. Check first to see what general discounts Amtrak is offering before cashing in the senior trip. While Greyhound does not have a senior discount program as Amtrak does, it offers 5 percent off unrestricted passenger fares and periodically throws sales for the over 55-crowd.
One of the best national discount offers for seniors is the "Golden Passport" program of the U.S. National Park Service. For a one-time fee of just $10, seniors are given the passport, which allows them free entrance into any National Park for life. The passports do not need to be renewed, and they will also cover the entrance fees of anyone traveling in the car with that senior (so put granny in the front seat!). Along with free entry, passport-holders are given a 50 percent discount on such in-park facility charges as camping fees, tours, fishing licenses and more. Full information is available online at nps.gov/fees_passes.htm. Seniors need to apply for the passport in person when they arrive at any National Park that charges entrance fees (some don't).
The big senior club
Of course, everyone is aware of AARP, which uses just the acronym now that Americans are waiting longer to retire. This massive organizations is open to anyone over 50, retired or not, and claims to offer significant discounts on travel products. Whether these discounts are better than what seniors would get should they use a hotel or airline discounter is a matter of much debate. Suffice it to say that card-carrying AARPers can usually save 15-30 percent (occasionally 50 percent) on lodgings and transportation most everywhere in the United States. A one year membership is $12.50. To contact the club, go to aarp.org/ or call 888/OUR-AARP.
Savings for the older skier
And would you believe there are discount-granting clubs for mature skiers into their eighties? One, the Over the Hill Gang International, (its motto: "Once you're over the hill, you pick up speed") has 6,000 members in all 50 states and 13 countries, accepts members starting at age 50, and promises major discounts. Members not affiliated with local groups can obtain lifetime memberships for $510 (for members over 63) and $760 (for members 50 to 63); most group members pay $175 for three years, $75 for one year, and join periodic ski tours of the group (they also go on sporting-type summer trips). Contact: Over the Hill Gang, 1820 W. Colorado Avenue, Colorado Springs, CO 80904 (phone 719/389-0022, Web site: othgi.com/).
Theme parks for seniors
While the largest amusement parks, Disney World, Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Busch Gardens, do not offer seniors cheaper admission, some of the nation's top amusement parks slash their gate prices sharply, and one of them waives admission altogether.
All Six Flags parks (sixflags.com/) offer senior prices and children's prices (kids under a certain height are free). Below are some of the most popular Six Flags parks.
Six Flags Great Adventure (Jackson, New Jersey): Age 55 and older pay $30 instead of $38.99. And that includes the amusement park and the safari park (but not the separate Hurricane Harbor Water Park). Phone: 732/928-1821.
Six FlagsMagicMountain (Los Angeles): 55 plus gets front gate admission for $30 instead of $48. Does not include the water park. Phone: 661/255-4100.
Six Flags Over Texas (Dallas): Those over 55 are admitted for $27, rather than the regular $42 fee. Phone: 817/530-6000.
Six Flags Great America (Chicago): Front gate admission is $30, not the full $45. Phone 847/249-4636.
Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom (Louisville): 55 and older get in for $22, and seniors 65 and older are admitted absolutely free. Phone 502/366-8746.