Embrace the Travel Age

Defying aging stereotypes and challenges, many older adults find value and inspiration in adventure

Chicagoan Annika Jaspers realized a lifelong dream in 2017: She crossed the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary 2. She’d been hoping for that exact trip since she was a teenager and finally was able to add it to her completion list, along with dozens of other trips she’s taken as a solo traveler. 

Over the past 15 years, Jaspers, 78, has checked off Swedish Lapland (staying in an ice hotel at 19 degrees F, no less), Japan, New Zealand, Patagonia, Egypt, and Jordan; she has been to Europe 45 times. And she’s far from done. Soon she’ll visit Ireland, Canada, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Jaspers set a goal to get to Europe 50 times before age 80, and despite the pandemic’s setbacks, at the end of 2023, she’ll be just two trips short.

An insatiable curiosity motivates Jaspers, she says. “I consider myself a lifelong learner and love learning about the culture, customs, and traditions of the countries I visit.” When she’s not traveling, she takes courses through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Northwestern University and attends lectures sponsored by arts, humanities, and political organizations.

Indeed, curiosity and a love of learning motivate many older adults to strike out on adventures, says Renee Meaux, owner and travel advisor at Sunset Travel & Cruise. Through travel, they stay current, learn about other cultures, and experience destinations about which they’ve only imagined. 

Novelty has benefits, too. “Getting out of their comfort zone and experiencing and seeing something new [is] great for mental stimulation,” Meaux says.

Planning can keep a trip on track

Keep in mind, though, that traveling at an older age presents its own set of challenges. Mobility issues can cause stress if any part of the trip is not accessible. And getting out of their comfort zone makes some travelers anxious. Plus, changing time zones, moving from place to place, and packing can be downright exhausting.

“I do find that travel is becoming more stressful as I age, particularly when it comes to flying and navigating multiple airports,” Jaspers says.

Jaspers generally travels with a nonprofit organization called Road Scholar, so she can go solo but still be with a group. She has learned to plan in advance to ensure her travels go off without a hitch.

“My solution is to be fully prepared so I know what terminal I’m traveling out of, what time the next departing flight is if I miss my connection, and so on,” she says. “And if something goes wrong, as it occasionally does, I take a deep breath and seek out the nearest customer service rep.”

Lists help things go smoothly, too. Before every journey, Jaspers checks in with a travel tips list she compiled, makes a new packing list, and reviews another list of reminders before she embarks: turn off the computer, water the plants, close the windows, and check that she has her passport.

“Do as much traveling as you can while you’re still in good health and have the energy to travel.”

Meaux suggests that older adults simplify travel by joining organized trips, such as river cruises and other small groups, where the itinerary and all the excursions are planned. Group trips enable you to see a lot without having to worry about moving your luggage to a new hotel, and you can choose outings or groups customized to your physical capabilities. The most popular destinations for older adults right now, she adds, are Europe, Alaska, Hawaii, and Japan, as well as river and transatlantic cruises.

Upsides outweigh the troubles

For many, the benefits of traveling at an older age far outweigh the challenges.

“The travel companions I’ve met with Road Scholar are generally well-educated and well-traveled and, like me, are lifelong learners,” Jaspers says. “We have fascinating dinner table conversations.”

Older adults can take advantage of a few perks to make transitions easier. Teri Dreher, founder and CEO of NShore Patient Advocates, says that seniors over age 75 get expedited TSA screening. They can also arrange in advance for a courtesy wheelchair service and board the plane with the first boarding group.

The experiences and relationships you make on your trips will last. Jaspers says she has friends all over the country thanks to her travels, and she’s taken several trips with two couples she met while traveling. Plus, she loves having her own hotel room to relax at the end of the day.

“My Aunt Gladys in Minnesota, who lived to be 101, gave me this advice,” Jaspers says. “‘Do as much traveling as you can while you’re still in good health and have the energy to travel.’ At one point I had told myself I’d probably stop traveling when I’m 80, but now that I’m less than two years away from turning that age, I see no reason to stop.”

If you feel the travel bug, start packing those bags. It’ll be worth it.

Travel funds sidebar of resources

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2023 print issue.