Tour Operators for Seniors

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A profile of the tour operators that court the senior market

In the world of travel, what do older Americans really want? That inquiry is the topic of the year among airlines and tour operators. As if, without warning, a new planet had swung into their sight, they've discovered that a startling percentage of all travel expenditures are made by people 55 and older. Not yuppies, not preppies, not even baby boomers, but rather senior citizens are today the "name of the game" in travel.

Young folks, it appears, go to the movies; older ones go on vacation.

"Our senior citizens," says one tour operator, "are feeling better about themselves, and that's why they're traveling more. They're healthier, living longer, more affluent. They have a new conviction that life is to be enjoyed for quite a while more, and this fairly recent attitude makes them the fastest-growing segment of the travel market."

Given that fact, it is surprising, as an initial note, to find so few companies serving the needs of the older American traveler. Apart from local motorcoach operators and purely ad hoc programs by regional firms, only four major U.S. companies deal exclusively with the marketing and operation of far-ranging tours for seniors, and three of these are headquartered in one city: Boston. They are: Saga Holidays, Grand Circle Travel, Inc., Elderhostel, and Your Man Tours ("YMT Vacations"). Having journeyed to Boston to view the first three, and spoken frequently with the fourth in California, I've been alternately impressed, startled, and educated by several uniform ways in which they do business. Traveling seniors may want to consider the following observations on the major "tour operators for older Americans":

Those that mainly sell "direct"

Not one of the "big four" deals with travel agents or sets aside a single percentage point of income for the latter. Each one heatedly insists that the processing of seniors' tours is a specialty requiring direct contact between them (the tour operators) and their clients (the actual senior travelers), usually via toll-free "800" numbers. Because the four firms adhere fiercely to their position, their brochures and catalogs are unavailable in travel agents' racks and can be obtained only by mail.

Nor, with the exception of YMT Vacations, do they advertise in the general media. If you are not already on their mailing lists, you must specifically request their brochures by writing to the addresses listed below. Once you do, you'll soon receive a heavy packet of attractive literature and application forms.

They cater to "older" Americans

Although people can theoretically use the services of the senior-citizen tour operators when they reach the tender ages of 50, 55, or 60, in practice they don't. The average age of Grand Circle's clients is 70, that of the others only slightly less. The apparent reason is that Americans no longer feel removed from younger age categories until they reach their early or mid-sixties.

Advances in health care and longevity, better diets, and attention to exercise keep most of us youthful and vigorous into our late fifties, and reluctant to cease socializing--or vacationing--with younger people. (I recall growing apoplectic with rage when, on my 50th birthday, the mail brought an invitation to join AARP). Who any longer even retires at the age of 65?

Their clients insist on the exclusion of younger passengers

But when those mid-sixties are in fact reached, the newly-elder turn with a vengeance to services of the specialists. After an initial reluctance to confine their travel companions to a single age group, today's 65-year-olds discover that they are of a different "mind set" from their younger co-citizens. Brought up during the Depression, sent to fight or work in World War II, denied the easy travel opportunities enjoyed by our blasé younger set, they better appreciate the joys of international travel, react with gratitude and awe to wonders of the world, enjoy the companionship of people who feel the same way.

They possess a historical perspective

Clearly, they share a wealth of experience and a common outlook; come from an education in the broad liberal arts as contrasted with the crudely materialistic, vocational outlook of so many of today's youth. And when they travel with younger people, they are often upset by the young folks' failure to share the same values or to be familiar with the events that so shaped their lives. What mature American can enjoy a trip through Europe or the South Pacific with people who are only dimly aware of Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill, or Douglas MacArthur or Field Marshal Rommel, of the Normandy Invasion or the Holocaust? Accordingly, they respond with eagerness to tour programs limited to persons of their own age.

Their clients receive custom-tailored travel arrangements

In addition to confining their groups to an older age range, the major tour companies earn their allegiance by providing arrangements that are significantly different from those designed for a general clientele. "We avoid the modern hotels, with their small public spaces, their in-room videos and bars," explains a specialist. "We look for traditional buildings with large lobbies for congregating and sitting--our clients prefer camaraderie to in-room movies! We also insist on a location within walking distance of everything important."

"We pace our tours to avoid overly-long hours on a bus," explains another.

"But we keep our passengers active, always on the move. Older travelers have had enough of sitting around at home; they want constant experiences and encounters."

Though the tours are of a longer duration than the normal variety, they are rarely for more than three weeks at a time. "People in retirement like to take two and three trips in a year," says the president of one firm. "They tour a particular destination for two or three weeks, then want to try something else."

In planning tours for the older American, the great majority of departures are scheduled for off-season periods--not in July or August to Europe, for instance, but in the "shoulder" and "off-peak" months when retired people are the best possible prospects for travel. "We get better rates for them that way," says a tour official. "And they're better appreciated at that time by the suppliers. They get more and better attention."

The programs

What do the specialists offer, and how do they differ one from the other? Here's a quick rundown:

Saga Holidays, Department W Saga International Holidays, 1161 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02215 (phone 617/262-2262 or toll free 800/343-0273 outside Massachusetts, or visit its Web site at sagaholidays.com), is perhaps the largest of the lot, resulting from the activity of its British parent company, which each year sends over 250,000 senior citizens on vacation. To tap into that major movement (and the bargaining power it represents), the U.S. organization routes many of its trans-Atlantic tours through London, to combine its older American travelers into one group with older British and Australian passengers. Such blending of English-speaking nationalities adds "zip" to any tour, they claim, and I agree. On board the buses, frolicsome passengers quip that Saga means "Send-a-Granny-Away" or "Sex-and-Games-for-the-Aged" (the latter very much tongue-in-cheek).

Saga's major stock-in-trade is escorted motorcoach tours: heavily (and throughout the year) within the United States, heavily in Europe, but also in Mexico, in Australia and the Far East, and in South America. Although it also offers cruises and extended stays, it is the escorted motorcoach, competitively priced, that most of its clients demand.

Grand Circle Travel, Inc., 347 Congress St., Boston, MA 02210 (phone 800/959-0405, Web: gct.com), is the oldest of the U.S. firms dealing only with senior citizens, but rejuvenated through its acquisition by an enterprising travel magnate, Alan E. Lewis, who has injected considerable new resources and vigor (quarterly magazine, Pen Pal, and travel-partner service) into it. In business for nearly 50 years, it enjoys a large and loyal following, who respond especially to offers of extended-stay vacations in off-season months, and to low-cost foreign areas with mild climates.

The greater number of Grand Circle's passengers are those spending, say, two to three weeks on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, in a seaside kitchenette apartment supplied with utensils, china, and cutlery. Others go for several weeks to Portugal and Madeira, Malta, and the Amalfi coast.

Wherever, the tour company argues (and quite successfully) that older Americans can enjoy a "full season" at these exotic locations for not much more than they'd spend to Florida or other domestic havens. While neither Spain nor Portugal offers swimming weather in winter, their low prices enable seniors (even those living mainly on Social Security) to vacation in dignity, enjoying good-quality meals and modern apartments in place of the fast-food outlets and shabby motels to which they're often relegated here at home. Grand Circle's extended stays are supplemented by nearly a dozen other programs--Alaskan cruises, European and Asian River cruises, hiking and biking holidays, Canadian holidays, inexpensive homestays, tours to Europe, India, Africa and the Orient-booked by thousands, but not yet as popular as those "stay-put" vacations for several weeks in a balmy, foreign clime.

Elderhostel, 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111 (phone 877/426-8056, elderhostel.org), is, in a nutshell, the much-discussed, increasingly-popular, nonprofit group that works with nearly 2,000 U.S. and foreign educational institutions to provide seniors 55 and over with residential study courses at unbeatable costs: from around $650 per week for room, board, and tuition (but not including air fare) in the U.S. and Canada; upwards of $4,000 for two to three weeks abroad, this time including air fare. Accommodations and meals are in student residence halls, underused youth hostels or standard motels, hotels and inns.

Those are the "nutshell" facts, which can't do justice to the gripping appeal of Elderhostel's course descriptions. Who can withstand "Confucian Shrines, Manchu Emperors, Modern Life" (taught in China)? Or "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Music But Were Too Afraid to Ask" (at a university in Alabama)? Or "Gods, Pharaohs, Mysteries and Miracles" (at a classroom in Cairo)? They make you yearn to be 55! Elderhostel is the once-and-future travel giant, fervently acclaimed by its elderly devotees. "Thank you, Elderhostel!" wrote one senior in a recent publication. "We've built beaver dams in Colorado, explored temples in Nepal, ridden outrigger canoes in Fiji, sat on the lawn sipping coffee at Cambridge University, eaten with our fingers at private homes in Bombay, where they venerate older people!"

YMT Vacations, Inc. ("Your Man Tours") (8831 Aviation Boulevard, Inglewood, CA 90301, phone 800/922-9000, or visit the Web site at ymtvacations.com), almost 40 years in business, operates almost solely in the United States, though it has branched out with tours to the Caribbean, Europe, and Panama Canal. Its tours are fully escorted, and sometimes consist of a mixture of tour modes: a one-week stay, say, in an attractive land location followed by a one-week cruise; a tour by air to all four of the major Hawaiian Islands (from $1,328 plus airfare); a cruise of Alaskan waters, followed by a land tour of Alaska. Of all the senior citizen specialists, YMT is perhaps the least expensive; in my experience, it offers excellent values, and takes pleasure in attracting cost-conscious seniors to its fully-escorted arrangements.

A lesser firm, Gadabout Tours, 700 Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262 (phone 800/952-5068 or 760/325-5556, Web: gadabouttours.com) 40 years in business, specializes in escorted tours of the United States, and utilizes an innovative method (on many, but not all, tours) of avoiding the fatigue and stress of packing and unpacking as participants go from place to place. How? By placing its groups into one hotel "base" per region, and then operating circular trips every day from there, returning each night to the same hotel, where participants stay for the entire duration of their tour.

They unpack only once. It's an approach that has found much favor with its mature customers. Though a few summer trips are scheduled to Europe, a few winter ones to Central and South America, Australia and Asia, most departures are to the standard national parks, country music hot spots (Branson, for one), and the historic towns of New England. A decided plus: rather moderate prices averaging only slightly more than $125 a day for domestic tours.

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