Best Vacation Ideas and Destinations for Seniors
Travel tops the to-do lists of most people of retirement age and older, according to the AARP—a group that ought to know. “Research after research has shown that it’s the number-one aspiration for those 50 and older,” says Maria Gillen, director of the AARP’s travel website. “We’re big believers in the idea of travel and its benefits to relationships and health.”
Medical studies have found that those benefits include healthier hearts and brains as well as a reduced risk of depression. Not to mention what a good vacation can do for your Facebook feed.
But where to go? While the circumstances of those 65 and older vary widely with regard to budget, interests, and physical abilities, we think you’ll find a few enticing options among the 10 senior-friendly spots that follow. And we’ve thrown in some expert tips along the way.
GOOD FOR: adventure, discounts, road trips, multigenerational fun
No matter where you land on the outdoorsy spectrum—from those who peer into the Grand Canyon from the rim (pictured above) to those who paddle through it on a canoe—the wonders of the U.S. national parks system are accessible to visitors with a range of inclinations and physical abilities. Not every traveler over 65 will want to haul herself up the sheer rock face of El Capitan at Yosemite. But how about a ranger-led nature walk amid the geysers of Yellowstone? Or a scenic drive past forests, wildflowers, and maybe a black bear or two in the Great Smoky Mountains? For a onetime fee of $80, Americans aged 62 or older can get the National Park Service's lifetime senior pass to experience all the natural splendor they could ever want to see.
GOOD FOR: relaxation, low physical activity
“Our research for travel trends,” says Gillen of the AARP, “shows that a top motivator is relaxing and rejuvenating—this idea of wanting to get away from normal everyday obligations.” If taking it easy is what you’re after, the Caribbean supplies an ideal setting, with its velvety sands, sky-blue waters, and flip-flop-friendly weather. Those who have trouble getting around might want to see the region via ocean cruise. All the major lines have worked to make their ships and excursions more accessible for all passengers (if you have specific needs, call ahead to let the cruise company know). A cruise is one of the easiest ways to make that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Cuba (pictured above) happen, too. To rent wheelchairs and other mobility equipment for a cruise, visit Scootaround or Special Needs at Sea.
GOOD FOR: easy pace, low to high activity level
A cruise is also a great way for seniors to journey through scenic swathes of Germany, Austria, and Hungary, courtesy of iconic European waterways such as the Danube and the Rhine. “River cruises allow you to have a more intimate experience and see more places,” the AARP’s Gillen points out, referring to itineraries that string together up-close views of bankside castles, vineyards, storybook villages, and showstopping cities including Vienna and Budapest. Yet despite the multitude of sights, the pace on deck is nice and easy, with picturesque landscapes scrolling by like the world’s most impressive stage backdrop. Of course, travelers craving more action can opt for excursions involving wine tastings, opera performances, and bike tours—many with electric-assist bikes for those who need a little added pedal power on hills and steep medieval streets.
Pictured: the German village of Cochem along the Rhine river
GOOD FOR: healthy climate, outdoor adventure, arts and culture
Santa Fe’s Spanish Colonial adobe buildings and magical setting in the foothills of the rose-tinted Sangre de Cristo Mountains have made New Mexico’s capital city a magnet for artists and other scenery hounds for generations. Additional lures for the 65-and-over set: a warm, dry climate and a compact and walkable historic downtown centered on a leafy plaza that dates to the early 1600s. You don’t have to stroll far to find scores of art galleries, museums paying tribute to the region’s rich Native American traditions, and restaurants serving Southwestern cuisine (devotees of chocolate and chili peppers take note). Depending on the time of year, rugged types can go hiking or skiing in the surrounding mountains.
GOOD FOR: bucket lists, adventure, group tours
The epic way to approach Peru’s mysterious citadel in the Andes is a hike along the Inca Trail. But if an arduous trek in high altitudes doesn’t sound like it's for you, that doesn’t mean you have to scratch Machu Picchu off your bucket list. A train from Cusco will get you there, too, and you’ll be treated to spectacular views of lush valleys and snow-capped peaks along the way. A guided group tour can help not only with planning and accommodating specific needs but also with meeting new people. “One thing we do see [about] the value of package tours,” says Gillen of the AARP, “is being able to socialize with others”—especially during solo trips, “a topic that we’ve seen pop in our online community.” You can browse hundreds of available Machu Picchu tours at a clearinghouse site such as Stride Travel, which even has a filter for tours marketed to travelers 50 and up.
GOOD FOR: train trips, outdoor activities, photography
Another stunning natural landscape that can easily be appreciated from the comfort of a train car is the Canadian Rockies. The top-of-the-line option would be to book a seat aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, which offers luxury rail journeys featuring gourmet meals, plush berths, and glass-domed carriages for unobstructed views of western Canada’s imposing peaks and glacier-fed lakes so perfectly turquoise you’d swear they’d been Photoshopped. Prices for the ride are sometimes as steep as the Rockies, but you can piece together a more affordable alternative by booking your own tickets on Via Rail, Canada’s answer to Amtrak. Routes from Alberta to British Columbia link national parks, wildlife preserves, ski runs, and hiking trails in Jasper, Kamloops, and other mountain beauties.
Pictured: Moraine Lake at Banff National Park in Alberta
GOOD FOR: budget, relaxation, food, new experiences
“Cost is a top barrier to travel for those 60 and over,” the AARP’s Gillen told us—and come to think of it, cost is a big barrier for those under 60 as well. She recommends weekend road trips for budget travelers looking for domestic destinations. To find bargains overseas, it pays to go where you can benefit from a favorable exchange rate. The U.S. dollar stretches a long way in Southeast Asia right now, making upscale restaurants, spas, and four-star hotels sometimes remarkably affordable. With its beaches, Buddhist temples, floating markets, and the nonstop excitement of Bangkok, Thailand is an enticing choice for seniors who crave variety, culture, and a little relaxation, but would like to avoid completely scrambling that nest egg. The locals' deep respect for elders is just an added bonus.
GOOD FOR: warm climate, history, getting around
America’s oldest continuously occupied European settlement is a must for history buffs, who can explore what remains of more than two centuries of Spanish rule, starting in 1565. A compact, magnolia-lined historic district—four blocks of St. George Street, from King Street to the Old City Gate, constitute the heart of it—make the sights easy to see for those who can’t walk far. And convenient hop-on, hop-off sightseeing trolleys (often with buy-one, get-one discounts for those over 55) make it even easier. Good places to hop off include the well-preserved 17th-century Castillo de San Marcos masonry fortification, the Victorian curio-stuffed Lightner Museum (pictured), and the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. (Hey, it can’t hurt.)
GOOD FOR: bucket lists, budget, photography, group tours
We’d wager that “African safari” appears on more bucket lists than any other type of vacation—and with good reason. Who doesn’t want to lay eyes on lions, elephants, giraffes, and zebras on their home turf? The good news for older travelers with reduced physical abilities is that wildlife-viewing tours are undertaken in all-terrain vehicles rather than on foot (that’s also good news for travelers who’d rather not become brunch fare for tigers). The ride can get bumpy, though, so for the sake of your joints you might want to pick a game preserve that has a well-oiled tourism infrastructure to accommodate a wide range of visitors. That makes South Africa’s Kruger National Park an obvious choice. And after you’ve spotted the Big 5 (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffaloes), you can use the dollar-friendly exchange rate toward adventures in other parts of South Africa. Take your pick among vineyard tours, beach getaways, and the tram ride up Table Mountain in Cape Town. Your once-in-a-lifetime trip could turn into the first in a string of repeat visits.