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Travel for Single Women

By Evelyn Kanter
June 4, 2005
You can travel safely and enjoyably alone

After a long, hot day investigating the Mayan ruins of Mexico's Chichen Itza, I was unwinding in the hotel pool. A mariachi band played at one end, my margarita was parked at the other, and a thousand-watt full moon lit the space between. I paddled back and forth, alternately lamenting, on the one hand, having no significant friend or family to share the day and moment-and yet delighting in the private, unshared experience of that serenade to the sole swimmer in a moonlit pool. And last winter, when I finished near the top of my group in a skiing race, I overlooked the lack of a loved one to hug me in my success and instead accepted congratulatory cheers from co-racers, many of whose names I did not know.

Certainly, traveling solo has bittersweet moments, but it's infinitely more rewarding than staying home. Whether it is conflicting schedules, conflicting interests, or because the number of unmarried people in the U.S. has doubled in the last few decades, solo travel is one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel business. According to the Travel Industry Association, nearly one quarter of U.S. travelers, or 34.8 million adults, have taken a vacation by themselves in the past three years, double the number of a decade ago. Traveling solo means never having to say you are sorry about wanting to do something your travel partner doesn't, whether it is all-day tennis, shopping, or museum hopping. Going solo lets you fulfill your "wish list," even make those you left behind jealous of your adventurous enterprise. It does not mean being alone and feeling lonely, since it is difficult to be alone in a crowd of like-minded people.

Book "outer-directed" vacations

The key to finding rewarding, exciting, low-cost travel for singles is to choose non-standard, nontraditional vacations. You do not purchase a vegetate-on-the-beach vacation, a look-at-the-sights vacation, a socialize-at-a-cookie-cutter-resort vacation-all of these are bound to disappoint. They frequently leave you feeling isolated and alone, constantly challenged to make conversation in artificial and pressured group situations that have no guiding theme. You constantly feel that the key daily goal is to meet as many other singles as possible (which rarely happens). Rather, the smart single traveler chooses vacations that concentrate on a topic, purpose, or activity outside the world of socializing. You choose to go with people who are focused not on themselves or their social needs but on an independent special interest, a desire for learning, a strongly held belief that has nothing to do with their own personalities or personal needs. And when you make that type of choice, you inevitably meet fascinating people and end up with strong friendships; you also spend less and enjoy more.

An Earthwatch Expeditions program (log on to earthwatch.org/) is that sort of vacation; with Earthwatch, you make a (possibly tax deductible) payment to accompany a noted university researcher into the areas of their study, perhaps tagging seals, making inventories of scarce plants, counting the number of animals or fish that pass a given point each day. You occupy lodgings rented to serve the particular scientific project, perhaps using a sleeping bag or cot in the living room, making communal meals. You pay no single supplement and meet other dynamic persons who are among our most outstanding citizens; and whether you are traveling as a single or as part of a couple becomes utterly unimportant (the majority of participants travel alone). You can learn more about Earthwatch Expeditions by accessing its Web site (see above), and you will find a similar, extensive program operated by the Research Expeditions Program of the University of California (extension.ucdavis.edu/urep) for projects initiated by its faculty and graduate students. Alternatively, you can also sign up to assist noted archaeologists in their fieldwork both in the U.S. and abroad.

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center (crowcanyon.org/) is a nonprofit group that conducts archaeological expeditions and solicits volunteers of all ages (and mainly singles) to assist in them. And for a great many other such volunteer activities, contact the Archaeological Conservancy at archaeologicalconservancy.org/aaabout.html.

...Or vacation at alternative resorts

As you might expect, singles of all ages are also the overwhelming majority of guests at America's most popular "personal growth" centers, arts-and-crafts schools, yoga and Buddhist retreats, and campus summer sessions; and the pricing policies of nearly all of these vacation institutions are favorable to the single person traveling alone. The Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York (800/944-1001, eomega.org/), America's foremost center for exploring personal relationships and psychological issues, maintains spacious dormitory accommodations for singles starting at $70 per person per night, including three (vegetarian) meals daily; it is primarily patronized by singles.

The giant Kripalu Institute in Lenox, Massachusetts (800/741-7353, kripalu.org/), a foremost yoga center, offers rooms and dorms with multiple beds (six to 22 bunks, hallway baths) for singles at $100 per night, including three vegetarian meals daily, and is also primarily visited by singles. (For other residential yoga retreats, simply subject "yoga" to a Google search.

...Or on A Sierra Club Outing

Also heavily booked by singles of all ages are the nationwide out-of-doors hiking or work trips ("outings") of that important defender of the American environment, the Sierra Club, headquartered in San Francisco (415/977-5500, sierraclub.org/outings). Since most of their programs employ sleeping bags, tents, or hostel-type lodges and huts, there is rarely a single supplement, and prices often average well under $100 a day for everything-accommodations, guides, and three meals daily.

Groups that help the single traveler

Finally, as the number of single travelers grows, so does the number of companies that aid the single traveler. More and more singles specialists emerge each year. But it's important to acknowledge what they cannot do. No singles travel organization can normally obtain a waiver of the single-room supplement from hotels, cruise lines, and resorts that charge a single-room supplement. That would be asking a travel miracle. Instead, they specialize in pairing you with another single traveler of the same sex (or, if you're a mature traveler and indicate your willingness, with a single traveler of the opposite sex but on a purely platonic basis).

The longest established of the companies that pair up single travelers for the purpose of enabling them to avoid (a) loneliness and (b) a single-room supplement, and to share and thus divide other costs (like the rental of a car) as well, is the 21-year-old Travel Companion Exchange of Amityville, New York (travelcompanions.com/), headed by a distinguished travel professional, Jens Jurgen, and his wife, Eul. They assist in matching up hundreds of would-be travelers each year-and, from all reports, quite successfully-but their clientele is almost always middle-aged or older, despite the Jurgens' willingness to perform that service for singles of any age. If you go to TCE's Web site (see above), you'll find an impressive statement of its principles and goals, which it achieves through circulation of an equally impressive bimonthly newsletter ("Travel Companions"); attached are several pages of classifieds placed by members seeking other members to share travel costs. Responses are initially passed on by the organization, thus protecting the identity of members until they have fully determined the bona fides of an offer.

Recently, the publisher of Shaw Guideshas created a somewhat similar match-up service that is apparently intended for younger travelers who utilize the Internet. Known as TravelChums (212/787-2621; travelchums.com/), it is an entirely free-of-charge service whose effectiveness we cannot yet gauge. The fact that it does not charge for the match-up will probably result in much less of the remarkable personal service provided by Travel Companion Exchange; but according to TravelChums, over 29,884 persons have already registered. A great many other travel organizations schedule periodic trips for singles and then match up the participants for double rooms, permitting them to avoid the dreaded single-room supplement.

Among the most active of these nationwide firms are as follows: O Solo Mio (800/959-8568, osolomio.com/) of Los Altos, California, is an especially active nationwide firm in business since 1991 that operates tours for singles of a broad age range (mostly between 40-60); it arranges roommates for all participants desiring to share. Recent trips have included long weekends in Las Vegas; Alaskan cruises; the lowlands of Holland; the high living of Paris, London, and Rome; and a number of South American packages.

Aim Higher Travel (877/752-1858, aim-higher.com/singlestravel) of Winfield, Illinois, is a cruise specialist with a "guaranteed share program": It will try to find a roommate for you, but if that fails, it will absorb the single-cabin supplement. Travel Buddies (800/998-9099, travelbuddiesworldwide.com/) of Cloverdale, British Columbia, Canada, operates active, interesting tours (wine-tasting in Italy, a golf tournament in Costa Rica, Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises) on which it will match up participants with roommates free of charge, enabling them to avoid the single supplement.

Singles' weeks

And then there are organizations that not only arrange "shares" but attempt to attract large numbers of singles for specific dates or departures. Foremost among them:

Windjammer Barefoot Cruises (800/327-2601, windjammer.com/) of Miami, Florida, the famed Tall Ship cruise company, sets aside a few cruises each year only for single travelers, who share cabins and thus avoid a single supplement. Perhaps the most popular of the line's sailings, these tend to fill up early.

The World Outdoors (800/488-8483, theworldoutdoors.com/) of Boulder, Colorado, a massive wildlife/adventure travel company, set aside 35 of its outings this year for solo travelers. And since many of these vacations involve camping, single supplements apply only when inns are used. But solos need not limit themselves to these specialty weeks: On most of the company's regular outings, a full 50 percent of the participants come alone. Sample trips from a recent catalog: "Alaska Wildlands Hiker," "Colorado Backcountry Multi-Sport," and "Canyonlands-Escalante Hiker."

Travel clubs for singles

And then there are the several nationwide and international clubs that look out for the needs of traveling singles: Travelin' Singles Club (travelinsingles.com/) of Anaheim, California, has been organizing tours for solos in their 30s, 40s, and 50s since 1980. Members can subscribe free to an online newsletter describing prospective trips.

Outdoor Singles Network (no phone number; kcd.com/ci/osn) of Haines, Alaska, is a long-established (1989) quarterly newsletter for outdoor-loving singles, ages 19 to 90, that helps to find them a travel companion; $55 for a one-year hard-copy subscription with your personal ad printed in the next issue, $35 for online membership ($75 for both), and $15 for the current issue.

Connecting Solo Travel Network (604/886-9099, cstn.org/) of Gibsons, British Columbia, Canada, is a network of traveling singles who host other traveling singles around the world. A constantly updated list of travel hosts is provided. Members also receive a bimonthly newsletter with free ads soliciting travel companions and also describing tours and cruises that are "singles friendly." A membership costs $30.

Going Solo Travel Club (800/475-3755, goingsolotravel.com/) of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is for singles of all ages. The club announces international tours, monthly activities, and weekend getaways in Alberta and British Columbia. It charges no membership fee.

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Philadelphia

Delilah's at the Terminal 12th and Arch Sts., open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Entree, iced tea, and dessert from $10 This first one up is a knockout, serving sensational southern fare in the heart of one of Philly's most fascinating tourist sites: Reading Terminal Market. In continuous operation since 1893, the Market is a must-visit - a sort of edible United Nations, if you will, where the city's numerous ethnic groups meet to turn the proverbial "melting pot" into a brimming stockpot. Within the space of a few feet, you'll see Amish farmers and Thai immigrants, old-world German butchers (Siegfried Maldener with his famed weiss-wurst) and New Age vegetarians. Nearly all the planet's food is represented here: tacos and nachos; brick-oven pizzas; souvlaki; Chinese stir-fry; fast-food sushi; traditional New England specialties such as chowder and fresh oysters; high-priced international gourmet tidbits-and of course, hoagies and cheese steaks galore. But topping them all is Delilah's, a little nook off a crowded aisle with table service, a counter for take-out, and the best down-home cooking we've had north of Virginia. All the specialties are available in sandwich form ($5.25), but I'd recommend splurging on a platter ($7.50). That way, you get a hunk of Delilah's perfect corn bread (not too sweet, not too gritty) and a choice of seven delectable side dishes, including an uncloying version of candied yams; truly cheesy macaroni and cheese; collard greens without a hint of bitterness; or a bright yellow potato salad crammed with crunchy carrots, onion, and chopped egg. Of the entr,es, the chicken dishes are supreme, especially the crisp and remarkably light fried chicken and the tangy chopped chicken barbecue. Finish your meal here with a section of peach cobbler ($2.50) or mosey down to the Dutch Eating Place on the other side of the Market for a hot apple dumpling ($2.40) served by demure, friendly young Amish women in traditional hair bonnets and Laura Ashley-esque dresses. Marathon Grill 1339 Chestnut St., 1818 Market St., 1613 JFK Blvd., 121 South 16th St., 19th and Spruce St.s; hours vary by location, more information at marathonrestaurants.com. From $10 for soup, entree, and coffee, tea, or soda The IKEA of Philadelphia restaurants, Marathon Grill is a group of slick, airy eateries, starkly designed in blond wood, black-and-white formica, and brushed metal. In this sandwich town, where wedging food between pieces of bread seems to be de rigueur in even the nicest restaurants, it's not surprising that many of the options here come between two slices of baguette, sourdough, or "rustique country roll." But there are also oversized salads, dinner platters, and un-Mexican "fajitas" (we'll explain below) to round out the menu. With a chain of five large restaurants, the key to good food is ingredients and training. Marathon boasts consistently fresh, high-quality produce, fish, and meats; and whoever is teaching the grill chefs their trade is a certified genius. At each location, the grilled selections are cooked to perfection, tender and juicy in the center, the outsides transformed into nice smoky shells. So order at will - we're sure you'll be pleased with the pepper-crusted or Cajun-rubbed tuna steak ($7.95); cowboy-style Cajun chicken ($7.95); the honey-mustard-glazed chicken with provolone and mushrooms ($7.95); or any of the daily specials. Don't make the mistake of ordering a starter salad-each entree comes with a generous helping of caesar salad (and herb-laden rice). Instead, request a bowl-sized cup of their daily-changing, always-winning soups ($3). For dessert, try one of the surprisingly rich fat-free frozen yogurts ($2) or a big chocolate-chip cookie ($1.50). The only dishes we'd avoid are their "urban" fajitas, which are, in truth, wrap sandwiches and tend to be a bit dry. Samosa 1214 Walnut St., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. lunch, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. dinner, Saturday and Sunday lunch begins at 12 p.m. $4.95 lunch buffet, $7.95 dinner buffet, both including as many helpings as you can handle of soups, salads, entrees, desserts, and spiced tea One of us is from New York where the Indian restaurants are cramped and crazy, strung with Christmas lights year-round, festooned with tinsel and elaborately muraled. So we were a bit suspicious when we first came upon Samosa. An austere, near banquet-size restaurant with large plate-glass windows, an abundance of hanging plants, and just a few subdued lights twinkling way in the back, it was almost elegant and soothingly quiet. How good, how authentic could it be? Our worries abated as soon as we took in the crowd with its many sari- and turban-wearing diners, and took our first bites - absolutely delicious. Although strictly vegetarian, Samosa offers up enough tasty options to seduce even the most confirmed meat-eater. On our last visit, we had the choice of piquant lentil or tomato-cauliflower soup, two satisfying cheese-laden stews (spinach- or pea-based), a mixed lentil dish, fried vegetable pakora, a tasty potato-eggplant curry, naan bread, and a refreshing rice-pistachio pudding (kheer). This came with the fixings for a mighty nice salad. While none of the dishes was particularly spicy, there was an entire section of the buffet devoted to diced jalapenos, hot sauces, peppery pickles, and other condiments for those who prefer a bit of fire with their food. A terrific find, centrally located. Alyan's 603 South Fourth St., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday. A full meal from $9 Off lively South St., from the front Alyan's seems like one of those faded, forgotten restaurants soon to be out of business. Walk inside, though, and you find yourself in an exceedingly pleasant place with Middle Eastern music thrumming softly in the background and a crowd of young customers (not visible through the window) happily devouring generous helpings of grub. The food here is as good as Middle Eastern gets, with an excellent, garlicky baba ghanouj ($3.50), tangy hummus ($3.50), and crisp, nongreasy falafel ($4). For a main course, try the perfectly spiced lamb shwarma platter ($8.50); flaky, aromatic spinach pie ($7.50), or one of the platters that combines the menu's succulent appetizers into a meal-sized dish ($7.50). You might want to treat yourself to a side order of french fries ($2.25), fried with onions and peppers, well-salted and sinfully delicious. For dessert, share a piece of baklava ($1.50) - it's a very rich dish and you'll be served a piece or two of seasonal fruit gratis (in this case, clementines) when your check comes. By the way, be sure to request the greenhouse room on the first floor. With its glass ceiling, elaborate hanging lanterns, and Arabic rugs and photos, it's a kitschy, fun spot for a meal. Harmony Vegetarian Restaurant 135 North Ninth St., 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Two courses and tea from $8.50 Don't be put off by the utterly bland appearance of our final choice. It's the chow that counts, and Harmony Vegetarian has some of the most unusual, absolutely delicious Chinese fare we've had anywhere. So what if you're sitting in a mint-green room with pink tablecloths and unconvincing paper flowers? There is a master at work here, able to turn even the most tried-and-true specialties on their heads. He does this, first of all, by substituting soy products in all the classic meat and fish dishes. Results vary, but for the most part, this trompe l'oeil food effectively mimics the texture and taste, if not always the appearance, of the real stuff. But more importantly, the chef uses blends of spices and cuts of vegetables that we've never had before. The hot-and-sour soup ($3.95, for a serving big enough for two), for example, doesn't contain the usual overload of pepper and limp black mushrooms. Instead, the vegetables are julienned and crisp, the taste as much sour as hot. "Chicken" with sweet baby ginger ($6.95) is an intoxicating combination of fresh peppers, faux chicken, and abundant slices of aromatic pickled ginger. And the orange "beef" ($9.95) should be illegal, it's that addictive - we kept filling our chopsticks long after we'd filled our bellies. Also more than worth a try: crispy spring rolls ($2.50), stir-fried noodles Shanghai-style ($5.95), and eggplant Szechwan-style ($6.50).

Senior Discounts, Travel Clubs, and Hotels

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/. Airline offerings 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/ Ground transportation 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. National parks 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.

Tour Operators for Seniors

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.

Birding Vacations

I admit it: We birdwatchers are an odd lot. Never mind those goofy brimmed canvas hats we like to wear (hey, it gets hot in the sun!) and the gigantic binoculars we lug around that look like something James Bond might use to hunt down enemies of state at night. It doesn't bother us at all to plunk down hundreds of dollars for high-powered spotting scopes or to get up at 5 a.m. to catch the morning's feeding activity. But we're like everyone else in one respect: We hate to get fleeced - or should I say de-feathered - on overpriced travel. Unfortunately, many tour companies do just that. Birdwatching jaunts to hot spots in Central and South America can set you back $3,500 or more, and even U.S. trips can be pricey. I was recently quoted an astronomical $695 for a weekend expedition through Florida's Everglades - food and airfare not included! But why spend so much? For around $100 a day, you can get decent or sometimes downright luxurious lodgings, savory food, and expert guides, practically anywhere in the world. Here are picks for the top seven deals that will leave you twittering "Cheap! Cheap!" United States Maine A destination with the word "camp" in it might not appeal to intrepid birders at first. But at the Audubon Society's weeklong ornithology camp in Hog Island, Maine, you're not hemmed in or stuck walking the same terrain every day. The camp, 60 miles northeast of Portland, is a base of operation for hikes over the 333 surrounding acres or day trips by boat to nearby islands. You'll see puffins - those cute, penguinlike birds found in only a few remote spots in the U.S. - plus a variety of shorebirds and warblers. Lectures and workshops are led by Steve Kress, author of The Audubon Society Handbook for Birders. Lodgings are admittedly primitive, in a nineteenth-century farmhouse where singles sleep dorm-style and couples get tiny private rooms. The food, though, is far superior to what you'd expect at this price: Homemade scones at breakfast; make-your-own box lunches from a carvery table; fresh fish or meat and salads for dinner. This year's dates are June 11-17, June 18-24, June 25-July 1, and September 4-10. Other six-day Downeast Expeditions, which visit important mainland habitats including Acadia National Park and Quoddy Head State Park, are operated June 17-23, June 24-30, and July 1-7. For all weeklong programs, both on Hog Island and the mainland, the price is $850 per person for all lodging, three meals a day, guiding, and day-trip transportation. To book: 203/869-2017 or see www.audubon.org, under "education." To get there, fly or drive to Portland and then travel by Mid-coast Limo (888/404-7743 or 320/245-2648; $40 per person one-way; $10 each additional person) to Damariscotta, a mainland town ten miles northwest of Hog Island. Audubon staff will escort you to the coast where you will meet the Puffin IV to take you the final quarter-mile to Hog Island. Kingsville, Texas There's a good reason that Kingsville, Texas, is one of the most popular birding destinations in the country. This tiny town 100 miles south of San Antonio abuts King Ranch, a parcel of land bigger than Rhode Island and home to one of the largest varieties of avian life - more than 400 species - in the country. Ferruginous Pygmy-owls and Tropical Parulas are regular residents here, as are road runners scuttling down dirt paths. You can't tour the ranch unescorted, but a full-day tour (and we mean full: 5 a.m. to 4 p.m.) led by a resident ornithologist is a reasonable $99-$109 per person, including transportation, lunch, and drinks. Tours are conducted several times weekly, September through June; check their Web site (www.king-ranch.com) for exact dates. To make reservations or arrange a private tour any time of year, call 361/592-8055. There are no lodgings on the ranch itself, but a dozen budget chain motels are close by; Best Western, at $45-$65 a night for a good-sized room, outdoor pool, and continental breakfast is just one example. Places for cheap eats, such as 24-hour pancake houses and seafood shacks, are plentiful. While in the area, also visit Bentsen State Park, 70 miles south of Kingsville, to glimpse Mexican species that cross the border. Call the Kingsville Convention and Visitor's Bureau at 800/333-5032 or 361/592-8516 and ask for their "Birder's Guide to Kingsville," which contains bird checklists and maps, plus info on food, lodging, and special events. Also see their Web site, www.kingsvilletexas.org. Arizona Santa Rita Lodge doesn't offer the most elegant of accommodations, but birdwatchers flock to it because it's smack in the middle of mountainous Coronado National Forest, 40 miles south of Tucson. At $73-$93/night (discounts available for multiple nights during off-season), it's an ideal headquarters for any exploration of southeast Arizona, one of the nation's most important birding areas. Owners Lyle and David Collister cater specifically to the binocular-toting crowd, and hang seed and hummingbird feeders outside every window. Rooms and cabins are modest, with fully equipped kitchens. There's ample birding on the grounds - at peak times, at least seven kinds of hummingbirds plus dozens of other species. Guided walks lasting three to four hours cost just $12 and take you to three sites at different elevations in Madera Canyon. Higher-elevation birds can be seen along the trail to the top of 9,543-foot Mount Wrightson; the trail starts about a mile down the road from the lodge. Another legendary site, the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, is an easy day trip, about an hour and a half's drive away. To book, call 520/625-8746. The lodge is open year-round. Hint: There's no restaurant on the premises, and the nearest town, Green Valley, is 13 miles away, so stock up on groceries before arriving. International Peru Here's a single big splurge among our economical selections. Peru has long been out of reach for budget-minded birders, but tour company Explorama, in business for 35 years, has introduced an eight-day package for $1,995 that includes airfare from Miami to Iquitos (575 miles north of Lima) and stays at three different reserves along the Amazon River. This is no mind-numbing "lister" expedition in which you race from spot to spot to check birds off a tally sheet. Instead, Explorama offers a more relaxed pace for beginning or intermediate birders. The itinerary includes daily hikes through assorted habitats - flood plains, pastures, and open fields-plus canoe trips along the Amazon shore and on interior lakes. And good birding abounds right on lodge grounds. At ExplorNapo Lodge, a 118-foot-high walkway offers a thrilling treetop view of the rain forest canopy. It's a great break from "warbler neck," the inevitable stiffness that comes from arching backwards to peer into trees, and a unique way to see species such as Black-headed Parrots and Chestnut Woodpeckers at close range. The trip leader is "Peru Guru" Dennis DeCourcey, a former curator for the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and birdwatcher for more than 40 years. Departure dates this year are March 16, June 17, and October 14. Custom tours can also be arranged. For more info, see www.explorama.com. To book, call Explorama's U.S. agent, Paul Caira, at 800/707-5275. Belize Birdwatchers have long flocked to Trinidad to view neotropical birds, but in recent years, prices there have soared. Belize is a great alternative: many of the same species but fewer crowds and better deals. One sleeper of a bargain is Lamanai Outpost Lodge, 75 miles east of Belize City. With its 18 thatch-roof cabins, each with its own veranda and private bath, plus a restaurant and bar overlooking the New River Lagoon, it feels more like a tropical resort than a hard-core birding lodge. The species here are spectacular: Scarlet Macaws, Tiger Herons, and the Jabiru Stork, with a wingspan of up to 12 feet, to name a few. There are also plenty of non-feathered attractions. Howler monkeys live right on the premises, and the Mayan ruins at Lamanai Archaeological Reserve are within walking distance. A popular activity is a Spotlight River Safari aboard a pontoon boat at night to view crocodiles, iguanas, and kinkajous, which are tree-hanging mammals with wrinkled, catlike faces. Peak-season cost is $125/day, including room and meals. Discounted packages are available. Some activities, such as guided canoe trips and ruins tours, are extra but reasonably priced at under $30. Ground transport can be arranged. The lodge operates year-round. To book, contact Kenneth Cruce at Center Travel, 800/324-5680 or 830/257-5000. For more information see www.birdtrips.com Ecuador Two lodges here offer value and great birding: One, Hotel Tinalandia, is located 50 miles west of Quito, on the western slope of the Andes. This 60-acre property features trails that snake past whitewater streams and up steep hills to put you at eye level with the rain forest canopy. Guided trips are also offered to nearby habitats. The thatch-roof guest rooms are comfortable and incorporate lots of native tiki wood and bamboo. Typical meals consist of chicken or fish, rice and beans, and lots of local produce such as hearts of palm. Rates run $90-$100/night and include all three meals. At Mindo Garden Lodge, a 16-room property 50 miles northwest of Quito, a big attraction is the Cock-on-the-Rock, a rare, red pigeonlike bird with a colorful crest. Guests here get up at 4:30 a.m. to trek over the lodge's 25 acres in hopes of spying one. Giant Antpittas, tubby ground-dwelling birds once thought to be extinct, have also been spotted. Other native wildlife includes pumas, Blue Morpho butterflies, and Poison Arrow frogs. Rooms are elegant, with hardwood floors and thatched roofs, and the owners happily cater to special dietary needs. Rates run $84/night, with all three meals included. Discounted packages are available, as is ground transport for $60 per person each way. Both properties are open year-round. To book, call Kenneth Cruce at Center Travel, 800/324-5680 or 830/257-5000. For more information see www.birdtrips.com. Costa Rica Sixteen years ago, the Erb family bought this 125-acre farm, and after failed attempts to raise pineapples, coffee, sugar cane, and black pepper, converted it into a luxurious birding lodge they dubbed Rancho Naturalista. It has since become famous, so it's all the more remarkable that they've held the line on price. About $135 a day (or $877/week) buys you a spacious room with panoramic mountainside views, meals of near-gourmet quality (roast pork loin, Spanish-style steak), and amiable guides with encyclopedic knowledge of the nation's 800-plus species. At 5:30 every morning, the staff hangs bananas in trees just off the main veranda while guests gather with coffee to watch a parade of exotic birds coming to feed, including toucans and florescent tanagers. Breakfast is followed by a guided walk over the property's many trails, through pastures, up a mountainside, and down to stream pools where hummingbirds bathe. Walks are repeated in the afternoon, but many guests choose to wander the grounds themselves. Maps are provided. The same family also owns Tarcol Lodge ($99/night, $643/week), which makes a great add-on trip. It's smaller (four rooms) and a more rustic, sink-in-the-hall kind of place, but its Pacific coast location is home to a stunning assortment of shorebirds. Ground transport between the two lodges or to the airport, is $75 for up to four people. To book year-round, call Mark Erb at Costa Rica Gateway, 800/593-3305.

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