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Thrifty Strategies for Senior Travelers

For many older Americans, travel is a priority coming out of the pandemic. A late 2021 survey by AARP, the nonprofit organization representing Americans 50 and older, found members planned to take four trips on average in 2022, just below prepandemic figures, and spend more, with the typical budget for travel at nearly $8,400, up from roughly $6,500 in 2019.

To stretch those budgets, travelers age 50 and up can join AARP and gain access to many discounts on travel, including reductions on car rentals, hotels and trips.

Still, elder status in travel isn’t the universal entrée to discounts that are standard in purchases like museum admission or movie tickets. But there are age-related perks to exploit and pitfalls to avoid, as follows.

Maximize your flexibility

If you have the time and resources to travel, lean into your strength — flexibility — to get the best deals. Most retirees or quasi-retirees can make their own schedules and therefore avoid high-season pitfalls generated by things like school-dictated winter holidays and spring breaks (unless you’re trying to travel with children or grandchildren).

Traveling in low and shoulder seasons can generate huge savings. Flights this summer, for example, averaged $380 for a domestic round-trip ticket, according to the booking app Hopper. In fall, the equivalent average is $238.

Determined by occupancy, hotels often charge very different rates between busy and quiet times. The availability calendar at the Dorr hotel in Sister Bay in Door County, Wis., recently had rooms at about $117 a night in November compared with some peak fall-foliage nights in October at more than $600. Between November and the end of March, rooms at the Wickaninnish Inn on Vancouver Island start at 540 Canadian dollars (about $410) compared with 860 Canadian dollars ($653) in the summer.

Skiing almost any week other than Presidents’ Day week, when families on break flood the slopes and prices for everything from airfare to hotels jump, will be cheaper.

If you can stay longer, you may do better financially. For example, you’ll be able to bring down your per-night expense for an Airbnb by amortizing, say, a $200 cleaning fee on a $100-a-night booking at a few extra dollars a day on a seven- or 14-day stay, compared with a weekend when the fee adds proportionally more to the final bill.

Longer stays also offer an opportunity to negotiate a rate. Suzan Haskins, a senior editor at International Living, a publication devoted to moving or retiring abroad, uses her lengthy stays — often several weeks — as leverage to approach vacation homeowners for a discount.

“I always message the owner, especially if I’m coming at a time that’s not high season,” Ms. Haskins said. “I’ll look at the Airbnb calendar and say, gosh, they have a lot of available dates.” Usually, she added, she gets about 10 percent off using the strategy.

Look for senior discounts

While age-related discounts are not universal, they exist in some pursuits, like skiing, where senior status can lop a few dollars off your access to the slopes. In some cases, relatively few: Steamboat Ski & Resort in Steamboat Springs, Colo., has daily advance-purchased adult lift tickets at $177 in January and $167 for seniors 70+. Deer Valley in Park City, Utah, is more generous, listing tickets from $149 a day in January 2023 for those 65 and older, compared with younger adults at $199.

Among season pass deals, Arapahoe Basin in Dillon, Colo., is selling its adult season pass at $619, which falls to $379 for skiers and riders who are 70 and up. The website SeniorsSkiing.com is a good source for finding more discounts.

If your travels include a national park, consider the National Park Service Senior Pass, offering lifetime admission to national parks and federal recreational sites for $80 to United States citizens age 62 and over. By comparison, a regular annual pass costs $80.

Transportation is a good place to look for discounts. More commonly associated with students, Eurail passes offer train travel in 33 European countries. Travel with the pass starts at $189 for four travel days in a month for those between the ages of 12 and 27. At $225, the senior pass offers a 10 percent discount off the full price for travelers 60 and over.

Stateside, Amtrak offers passengers 65 and up a 10 percent discount on most Amtrak trains. On trains that cross the U.S. and Canadian border and operate jointly with VIA Rail Canada, the senior discount starts at age 60.

Airlines are much less transparent. United allows travelers to search for senior fares at 65 and over — use the advanced search feature — but the application of discounts seems to be rare. Several searches for both domestic and international flights in November turned up no difference between adult and senior fares.

Southwest and American do not offer senior fares. Delta Air Lines makes senior discounts “available in certain markets” according to its website. But you won’t find them at delta.com; you’ll have to call (fortunately, there is no fee to call for a reservation).

Avoid offline fees

Delta’s fee omission is an exception. As the travel world has automated, and travel providers have discovered the reliable revenue streams provided by fees, booking fees for offline purchases have proliferated, particularly among airlines.

If you want to book a flight with agents at Hawaiian Airlines or United Airlines, for example, that will cost an extra $25. Alaska charges $15 to talk to a booking agent. Reservations by phone will set you back $35 at Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

Online purchases don’t trigger ticketing fees and most airlines also offer free help on their apps or through chat platforms. But if you’re not comfortable with reserving and paying for an airline reservation online, you’re likely to pay more to fly. Airlines are effectively forcing you to adapt to e-commerce, which also offers the benefit of seeing carriers that compete on given routes and finding the lowest fares by using a search engine like Kayak.

Evaluate travel insurance

Before the pandemic, older travelers were the biggest purchasers of travel insurance. Since then, with airline delays, trip cancellations and shifting Covid-19 protocols, travel insurance has attracted a broader interest.

Older travelers may still want to protect against the vagaries of travel with travel insurance. But when it comes to using their medical insurance away from home, travelers should review their existing policies.

Medicare covers health care while you’re traveling within the United States, which includes the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but not outside of the country. Medicare Supplement Insurance, known as Medigap, was designed to cover such a gap in service and does include health care abroad.

Ari Parker, the head Medicare adviser and co-founder of Chapter, a free service that offers advice on Medicare plans, described a client who was traveling in Paris when he suffered a heart attack. Medigap covered 80 percent of his more than $30,000 hospital bill after a $250 deductible, and he was able to fly commercially back to the United States after he was released.

However, Medicare plans do not cover a return home by ambulance or evacuation by air.

“Here, someone should consider travel insurance to provide protection in the event they need to be repatriated and they know they want to come back to the U.S. for treatment if something happens,” Mr. Parker said.

Travel insurance is priced by the traveler’s age, destination, trip cost and length of trip. Prices vary significantly based on these variables and the coverage offered by the plans, but tend to average about four to 10 percent of trip costs, according to TravelInsurance.com, an online marketplace for travel insurance.

Pay in foreign currencies

To get the best exchange rate when using a credit card to pay for something abroad, always select the “pay in local currency” option when it is offered. That guarantees that you’ll get an exchange rate from a bank, which is as close to the official currency exchange rate as possible, as opposed to a merchant who may not be using the best rate.

In Costa Rica recently, where United States dollars and Costa Rica colones are widely accepted, Ms. Haskins of International Living got a bill in a restaurant that showed both currencies. “Doing the conversion from colones, I saw that it should have been $23, but it was $29,” she said. “Six dollars at every meal would add up.”

Though the death of cash has been much discussed, in many foreign destinations cash is still king and allows merchants to forgo the fee they must pay credit card companies on each transaction. If you plan to use cash, take measured withdrawals from local A.T.M.s to avoid racking up numerous transaction fees.

Become a digital nomad

There is no age limit on being a digital nomad and those 50-plus travelers still working may consider getting a digital nomad visa to a foreign country for an extended stay. A recent AARP survey found nearly half of older adults are already working in retirement or plan to work.

Usually, digital nomad visas require applicants to show bank statements and a steady income, but they can be cheaper than retirement visas, according to International Living.

In Costa Rica, the digital nomad visa extends the 90-day tourist visa to a year, with the option to renew for another year and requires applicants show income of at least $3,000 a month ($100 application fee). Greece requires that applicants prove they have a monthly salary of at least 3,500 euros (about $3,500) from employers outside of Greece (fees cost about $225).

Tourist visas, which are usually free and run up to 90 days, are often enough for most travelers. But for those eyeing life abroad, the nomad option provides a trial.

“If you’re not sure you want to live there, becoming a digital nomad might be the way to go,” Ms. Haskins said.

Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places list for 2022.

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