Once upon a Saharan dawn in the spring of my 66th year, I climbed aboard a kneeling camel. “Morocco, Morocco!” my heart sang as I nestled amid the blankets. “Sunrise is going to be so…”
Wham! The camel straightened its hind legs, flinging me forward. As I grabbed for the handlebar, the first golden glimmers began to light the Merzouga dunes. This was going to be the best front-row seat anyone could … Wham! Now the camel was straightening its front legs, jerking me backward, then side to side as it marched through the sand.
I hung on, surrendering to the motion and the warring voices in my head. “Look how beautiful!,” crowed the lifetime traveler. “Boy is your neck going to hurt tomorrow,” warned a new, whiny voice I tried to ignore.
So goes the debate when we the adventurous but no longer young — heck, no longer middle-aged — go traveling. We are legion, we are determined and, now that one bad mattress can destroy our week, we are wondering how to morph those carefree young backpacker days into something not sedate but more … age-appropriate.
Maybe travel has always been your drug of choice. Or maybe you were just getting started when COVID upended life. Either way, if you’re 60-plus, you have little difficulty summoning the YeahButs. Want to travel? Yeah, but I’ve lost my traveling companion. Yeah, but I have health issues. Yeah, but I love my volunteer work and seeing my grandchildren. Yeah, but what if my money doesn’t last till I die?
Worries are infinite. Time is not. If you want to travel, just start — even if starting means driving an hour to take a walk in a place you’ve never been before. Face it: Whatever bumps loom now between you and your suitcase probably won’t be shrinking over time. But frailties are not fatalities, as I had reason to learn too soon. My late husband, Dave, and I spent most of our 39 years together taking off for somewhere as often as we could, hitting all the continents except Antarctica.
Even as Dave’s heart and lung problems worsened, his frugality stayed strong. After any hospital stay that had forced us to cancel a trip, he would rebook it for the last possible moment before the ticket expired, whether or not he felt well enough to go.
That’s how I found myself selfishly seething in London, a city we’d loved for years, on a trip during which Dave needed to stop and rest every hour or two. That’s how I found myself taking morning walks alone to a farmers’ market in Hawaii, where a man with a machete would prep a glistening fresh pineapple that I’d bring back to Dave as he sat on our rental’s tiny oceanfront lanai peering down at the colorful fish.
It took dense me way too long to recognize the obvious: We were privileged to be out in the world. He was having fun sitting, I was having fun walking, and nobody said fun in our 60s had to look exactly like fun in our 20s.
So by all means, if travel is your jam, get going on that bucket list. If you find it’s sprung some leaks, try plugging them with a few attitude changes the older me has learned to cultivate.
Designate a travel fund. First, of course, take a moment to appreciate your good fortune. If you’re lucky enough not to spend everything you have each month, pick an amount, no matter how small, and set it aside for travel. Keep doing that. The longer the money sits untouched, the less guilt you’ll eventually feel about spending it. You’ll know you’re expanding your world, not stiffing the kids or shrinking the household budget.
Flip your assumptions. Rather than “Let’s go X place on X date,” retired people can prowl the zillion travel sites and say, “What interesting place can we go for a good price sometime soon?” Rather than “Travel agents are for wusses and rich people,” you can bounce a trip idea off a travel agent (preferably one recommended by friends) and see what options that person comes up with. Bonus: In the cancellation age, travel agents will fight for you if things fall apart.
Expand your companion roster. Next to me on another camel in Morocco rode Karen, whom I’d met in the ladies room at a conference and had seen only twice before we took off for Casablanca. We had each lost our favorite travel companion, so it seemed a fine idea to book a tour where we’d have our own rooms and a friend to hang with. Actually, Karen booked the tour — and as she described it one night, I surprised myself by piping up, “Can I go too?” Not assuming everyone else has a surfeit of friends turns out to be good strategy, both for aging and for travel.
After Dave died, I traveled with my sisters, my childhood gang, and my college friends. Four years into widowhood I met Jeff, and through the pandemic we fantasized about where we’d go when house arrest ended. On our first trip, to state and national parks in Utah, a fellow grayhead in a parking lot volunteered that he and “my sweetheart in the car over there” had met just three months earlier and were now on a monthlong trip. Time’s a-wasting, we all agreed.
Seize the moment. Flexible bodies don’t come with age, but flexible schedules do. Take advantage. Jeff and I started mapping the Utah trip as soon as we made appointments for our second COVID vaccinations in spring 2021, switching dates to get the best flight and car rental deals. Boarding a packed flight to Vegas after seeing almost no one for a year was scary, and we’d been dumb not to realize how many people would use their new freedom to flock to national parks. Still, the magnificent scenery left plenty of space to find private slot canyons and make other discoveries — including the discovery, on our first long trip, that we could travel well together. Relief!
Buy trip insurance. What if you get sick in a faraway city? What if wildfires destroy your destination? Those aren’t reasons to stay home; they’re reasons to buy insurance. I learned this lesson from a former boss living with cancer. He and his wife felt instant happiness each time they booked a trip, so they booked lots of them, enjoying the anticipation while knowing they’d never board some of those planes. As Dave’s health worsened, he and I did the same. Each time, the reservations energized us.
Don’t cheap out. Finding bargains feels great. Crummy conditions, in contrast, feel crummier each year. The room Dave and I could afford near the Great Barrier Reef had an air conditioner that had to be fed quarters every hour all night. Thirty-plus years ago, that seemed a fair tradeoff for great location and low price. It still might today. But definitely I would not fall again for the $12 one-bed-wide “tourist cabin” in New Zealand, where a tropical storm meant tramping through deep mud in the dark to reach the campground bathroom. (And we were young then, so bathrooms weren’t nearly as important.)
Young travelers happily book the bargain flight with multiple stops and long layovers, landing at an airport not exactly in their desired city. At our age, that’s no way to save money. Arriving relatively fresh at a reasonable hour is in fact the bargain, as you won’t waste your first day napping.
Figure out what you love. That’s what’s worth paying for, and it’s different for everyone. Dave and I kept our little $50,000 starter Cape in New Hampshire for 25 years. The money our friends used for renovating or upsizing, we used for trips. Then we moved to a condo and kept traveling. Jeff and I, having met in our 60s, are still figuring out what we love. First small discovery: We love breakfast, waking up in a new place knowing that strong coffee and good food are waiting. Fortified, we can start the day. On a trip to Portugal last spring, we made a rule — first time for both of us — that each hotel booking had to include breakfast.
Feel free to change your mind. The Portugal breakfast rule didn’t last long. For a trip to Paris in November, our travel agent suggested a great-sounding hotel that included breakfast. Tempted, we instead chose an apartment where we’d be on our own — with no food or helpful concierge but with twice the space plus a washer and dryer. The place proved as magical as its advertising.
Do the harder stuff while you can. If you’re mobile, it’s not too late. A food trip through Italy will be great anytime. Now, though, maybe you can still manage a safari in Tanzania or some short hikes through the western United States. Or try combining the tough with the easier. In the week before we settled into that Paris apartment, we were supposed to take an event-packed group tour of Jordan (having discovered that Petra was on both our life lists). After that, our thinking went, we’d be thrilled to relax in solitude and enjoy croissants in our pajamas.
But I got sick, and we had to cancel the Jordan tour. And thus three tips came into play. First, we’d used a travel agent, who canceled the tour and quickly found us reasonable flights to Paris a week later, so we could start the apartment week as planned. Second, we’d bought travel insurance, so the tour money will be refunded after some paperwork. Third, the new flights stopped in Dublin — so on the spur of the moment we decided to spend a few days in Ireland on the way home. November being way out of season, the travel agent quickly found good hotels. With breakfast.
Open your mind to group tours. Maybe it’s possible to plan that Tanzania safari on your own, but why would you? You’d risk missing so much. I refused to take tours for the first two decades of my traveling life. Then we lived in Japan for a year, and every day (long before Google Translate) I walked around wishing I had a tiny Japanese person in my pocket to explain what the heck I was looking at. So by the time the nonprofit where Dave worked sponsored a trip to Siberia, I was ready to relax and be educated. Group travel does not have to involve giant buses disgorging sheeplike tourist herds. Search online for “small group” and “over 50,″ and you’ll find a world of adventures you’d never know how to design yourself. Then use your new flexibility to book discounted last-minute openings.
Slow the heck down. If you’re still in great hiking shape then, sure, climb to Macchu Picchu. If you’re not, admit it. Take the shorter hike from halfway up, or take a van to the top. The goal is to drink in the sights, not die of dehydration. Whenever I’m tempted to overstate my abilities, I remember a woman on a long-ago Galapagos tour who repeatedly delayed the group. Like the rest of us, she’d sworn she could climb into and out of a rubber dinghy. She couldn’t. So multiple times a day, everyone waited.
Seriously, slow down. You’re sure to find something new. Dave’s halting post-surgery progress around London meant that we “had to” stop in lots of pubs, conversing each time with the locals who hung out there. Years earlier, our favorite day on a tour of China involved riding bikes into the countryside near Guilin and simply sitting under a tree, watching. Farmers plowed with oxen; women walked by balancing grain and babies in shoulder-yoke baskets; a few brave souls invited us into their homes. Learning how other people live is not just travel’s chief pleasure but a sure buttress against age narrowing our minds.
Leave room for serendipity. In Porto, Jeff and I got lost trying to find a walking route to the (huge, obvious) bridge that crosses the Douro River to the port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia. The resulting undirected meander up narrow steep stairways between old stone buildings, through flowered plazas with peeks of river views, and back around to who knew where, became our favorite day of the trip. Porto lesson learned, half a year later we set aside a day in Paris to do nothing but wander.
Once you start making your own attitude tweaks, you’ll find yourself in good company — the company of all the other boomers out exploring the world. (Or maybe you’ll turn out to be, as we were in Portugal, the oldest people by 30-plus years in a tour van headed for a walk over the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge. That’s another kind of satisfaction.) Often you and your peers will simply exchange knowing nods, but sometimes the solidarity is more solid.
One morning when Arches National Park had filled and closed its gates by 9 a.m., we hiked instead in an area of arches outside the park boundary. After walking for an hour, we halted at the bottom of a short hill so steep that climbing it required grabbing a clanking chain mounted on poles haphazardly fastened to the sandy rock. Twenty-somethings, some carrying babies in backpacks, scampered up or picked their way down.
Jeff could have done it easily, but I was torn. On the one hand, I’ve climbed most of the 4,000-footers in New Hampshire (decades ago, but still). On the other, at this point my head was still recovering from the day I’d stumbled into a pothole simply walking down a city street.
As I pondered, a small crowd piled up around us. Grayheads all. “Is it worth it?,” we asked one another. “Will our knees hold on the way down? Does worrying mean we’re wise or mean we’re wimps?” We readjusted our sensible hats and commiserated over growing older. Then most of us turned around. We could see another spectacular arch on the horizon, and the path that led there looked beautiful.
Jane Harrigan, former journalism director at the University of New Hampshire, explores and writes from Lowell. E-mail her at AOATravel@gmail.com.