Globe-trotting Golden Girls

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Senior world travelers — especially women — are reshaping the tourism business


  • Irma Cohen, 90, shows off a jacket covered in the patches she’s collected while crisscrossing the globe. Photo: Megan Conn

“The senior travel market is absolutely booming. Seniors have this amazing window of 10 or 20 years where they can really do what they want to do ... There’s a tremendous amount of freedom because people are more active and living longer.”

Jeremy Palmer, Senior Vice President at Tauck Land Journeys, a tour company serving older travelers

Siberia was not what 90-year-old Irma Cohen had expected. “It was quite settled,” she recalled. “It wasn’t a cold, barren wasteland.” During her journey of more than 5,500 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Upper East Side resident even spotted a familiar-looking sign.

“I can read Cyrillic letters, and I thought ‘that says I-K-E-A’” she said. “The next sign was in English, and it said IKEA! In Siberia! I was hysterical.”

For Cohen, who’s spent her golden years touring destinations like Japan, Italy, Crete and Israel, the little similarities between places are often just as exciting as the differences. Cohen has plenty of notes to compare — she’s spent three decades traveling on group tours with companies like Road Scholar, which she relied on to organize her Siberia trip and a whopping 49 others.

Fellow New Yorker Gloria Aponte, 76, hasn’t had quite as many years on the road, but she’s still managed to fit in nearly 100 international and domestic trips with the company.

“I do a lot of back-to-backs, like I did Vietnam, added an extension to North Vietnam and combined it with Tokyo,” said Aponte. “That’s how it becomes this crazy number. I could be away for a month — It’s more efficient that way.”

Clearly, neither woman is afraid of the road less traveled by — in fact, like many modern seniors, they prefer it.

“I don’t want to go halfway around the world to a city mimicking New York,” Gloria said. “In Mongolia, you felt that you were back 100 years, like it was caught in a time warp. There were huge expanses with just a few yurts and no people. It felt like you were walking on the moon.”

Women Decision-Makers

Tour companies specializing in guided trips for seniors say the demand has never been stronger.

“The senior travel market is absolutely booming,” said Jeremy Palmer, Senior Vice President at Tauck Land Journeys, another tour company serving older travelers. “Seniors have this amazing window of 10 or 20 years where they can really do what they want to do — it’s such a wonderful match for traveling. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom because people are more active and living longer.”

Palmer notes that women are often the driving force in making travel decisions. Martin Charlton, a trip leader and destination specialist with Canada-based Adventures Abroad, agrees.

“It’s definitely more female, probably 60% to 40%,” he said. “I don’t think it’s always a case of women outliving men — often it’s a case of a husband being left at home because he didn’t have an interest in that destination.”

More and more, women are following Cohen and Aponte’s example by setting out as solo travelers. Cohen says her pals in the city think her ambitious itineraries are “totally nuts,” but she finds just the right kind of camaraderie on group tours for older travelers,

“There’s always a single woman or two, and everyone is extremely friendly. On Road Scholar, the women are concerned about my welfare — unlike some younger seniors, who think you want to steal their husband!” she said. “On the islands of Scotland, it was so windy, women kept saying to their husbands ‘Hold on to Irma, she’s gonna blow away!’ As soon as you know each other’s names, it’s like one family traveling together.”

Aponte agrees that joining a guided tour makes her feel comfortable stepping off the beaten path — a prospect that’s often daunting to the travelers she meets on shorter trips to destinations like Chicago, New Orleans, and San Diego.

“I hear them say ‘I can’t wait to go home’ on a seven-day trip and I think, I go away for like six weeks!” she said. “They think I’m Wonder Woman, but what’s there to be brave? The guides are there to take care of you, they almost take you into bed.”

The secret to being a successful traveler is all about mindset, agrees Cohen.

“I’m adaptable. I can make myself comfortable wherever I am,” she said. “If you want it to be like at home, stay home. You’re traveling, it’s gonna be different!”

Looking for Authentic Experiences

Today, more seniors than ever are embracing the unfamiliar. In fact, many travel professionals note that older travelers are the least likely to be deterred by newsworthy events abroad.

“Seniors tend to be the hardiest travelers — if there’s a terrorist event, or Mother Nature strikes, they’re the likeliest to stick to their plans and the quickest to come back,” said Palmer of Tauck. “They’re very determined to travel and it takes an awful lot to put them off.”

They also note that seniors today are looking for more authentic experiences than the bus tours and shopping trips of decades past.

“People really want to meet local people and know what’s going on in a destination,” said JoAnne Bell, Senior Vice President at Road Scholar. “There’s less interest in seeing a thousand churches. We visit local restaurants, do home-hosted meals, sometimes we visit schools. We want to bring the fabric of that country to life with our participants.”

Some of Cohen’s favorite memories are the conversations she’s had with locals. While lunching with a Russian family in Yekaterinburg, one of the stops on the train tour, she noticed they all sported American sneakers. She found out that the teenage daughter was an exchange student at a high school in Virginia who had developed an ingenious way to find the just right fit for each.

“They all send her an outline of their foot with their name on it so she can take it to the store,” Irma said. “They’re all living together in this dacha the size of my living room but everyone had American sneakers. These are things you don’t find out unless you’re out there somewhere!”

Aponte says the joy of travel lasts long after she unpacks her bags. Walking down a familiar city block after a recent trip to the “stans” of Central Asia, a small sign caught her eye.

“I was walking on Ninth Avenue by Port Authority, like I must’ve done hundreds of times, and I saw a small restaurant serving Uzbek food right in my own neighborhood,” she said. “Traveling has made me more aware of things. I would’ve never noticed that, and now I plan to visit.”

It won’t be long before she hits the road again; for her next trip, Aponte is headed to South Africa. Meanwhile, Cohen is looking forward to following the footsteps of her favorite classical composers through the concert halls of Europe. Her biggest problem these days is finding places she’s never been before, but that hasn’t stopped her from looking.

“My granddaughter works at NASA,” she said. “So I asked her if she could get me a trip to the moon!”

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