We're living longer, healthier lives as a nation. And older Americans are using their leisure time and hefty disposable incomes to see the world. People over 60 now spend more time traveling for pleasure than ever before, according to a study by the CDC in Atlanta.
"We drive so much that it seems like we're always on the road going somewhere or going back home," says Linda Smith, 59, a retired teacher who lives in Cincinnati. "Sometimes I think we try to travel too much, in fact.
Smith and her husband, Chris, 62, spend about a week per month traveling from their home in Ohio to their vacation home in northern Michigan. They also travel frequently by air all over the U.S. -- from New York to Florida to Los Angeles -- to visit their children and their friends.
"More and more older persons are healthier at later ages now," says Robert Butler, MD, president of the International Longevity Center in New York City. "Much of the traveling they do reflects their stage in life. They have the resources and time to pursue interests they've never had time to partake of."
Whether driving, flying, or kicking back on a cruise ship, people over 60 need to take special precautions to make sure the stresses of travel -- both physical and financial -- don't damage their health.
Doctor, Insurance Agent, Travel Agent
Though most travel experts agree that the same travel safety advice that applies to anyone also applies to older Americans, they stress that many seniors have special concerns -- medications, diets, insurance needs, mobility issues -- that can require special planning.
"Older people really need to do three things before they embark on long trips: see a doctor to discuss health concerns and update vaccinations; talk to an insurance agent to get travelers' insurance; and discuss any mobility issues with a travel agent to make sure they will be able to physically reach the specific sites in mind," says Hal Norvell, an expert in travel for people over 50. He works for the AARP in Washington.
"Realistic expectations are important when planning a trip," says Norvell. "You don't want to get to the Mayan ruins at Calakmul in Mexico to find that people with mobility issues can't get to it. That's why consulting with a reputable travel agent is so important. Planning around health issues can make a trip so much more successful."
It's also a good idea to make copies of your passport, visa, and airline ticket.
"These should be kept in your luggage," says Norvell. "Increased airline security means you also need a letter from your doctor detailing any need you have to bring syringes onto a plane. People with diabetes who inject insulin may have to do even more preparation than others, especially if crossing multiple time zones, which can change the times you take your insulin."
'To Do' List for Traveling Seniors
Here's what the CDC says seniors should do before traveling:
On long plane trips, walk around periodically and drink lots of water. A rare but potentially dangerous condition called deep vein thrombosis can develop in those who have spent long periods of time in the cramped spaces of airliners. Simple movement will prevent it in those susceptible, mainly smokers, people who are overweight, or those who have had recent surgery.
Ask for help at any U.S. embassy or consulate. The staff will give you a list of local medical professionals. A consul can also inform your family or friends if you become ill.
Bring enough of your medications for the entire journey. Pack each type of medication in its original container. Also take a copy of your prescription. It is also a good idea to take note of the generic names of your medications, in case you have to buy more while traveling.
Pack medicines and extra eyeglasses in your hand luggage. Especially if your medication is crucial, have a backup supply in your checked luggage.
If you have a unique medical condition or suffer from allergies, wear a bracelet marked with the appropriate information. Some travelers advise having your doctor write down instruction for your treatment if you become incapacitated.
Air pollution in other countries can sometimes be severe. The combination of air pollution and high altitude is a particular health risk for seniors.
Avoid drinking tap water outside North America. Drink bottled water; or if you must drink tap water, boil it for 20 minutes first. Avoid eating vegetables and fruit that don't need to be peeled before eating.
In case you get traveler's diarrhea, bring an antimicrobial treatment. Many people plan ahead and pack some, just in case. If the diarrhea is severe or lasts for more than a couple of days, visit a doctor.