Once you start looking, opportunities for group travel or customized tours pop up everywhere—on TV, in newspapers and magazines, in your mailbox. Older adults are joining in these adventures with spouses, family and friends, and even solo. In a recent study of more than 10,000 travelers, Visa found that 40 percent opted to use an outside organization for making tour arrangements.
Viking River Cruises, Post-Gazette theater jaunts, PICT visits to Ireland, the Smithsonian, Carnegie Museum, The New York Times, the National Trust, university alumni trips, even the church or synagogue bulletin could be touting an excursion. The Visa study found that people chose travel destinations almost equally for good scenery, good attractions and the richness of the culture or heritage. Helping to appreciate the latter are the expert-led tours that offer in-depth understanding of people and places. One of the most popular travel organizations that goes almost everywhere and has a strong educational component is Road Scholar.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Road Scholar has shed its college campus Elderhostel beginnings and now books quality hotels, in the heart of Pittsburgh or the heart of Beijing; some 6,500 “learning adventures” in all 50 states and 150 countries. Cruises, photo shoots, art tours, national park visits, train trips, city life, music and dance—there is something for every taste led by experts, usually with suggested advance reading. Their method has proved a hit with many Mt. Lebanon residents.
Bob and Carol Miller raised their family in three successive homes in Mt. Lebanon before retiring to Providence Point. Bob was stage manager for the Syria Mosque and Carol taught in the Fox Chapel school district. They have been exploring the world together for more than half a century, from vacationing in campers to a high-end tour of Kenya and Tanzania with the 90-year-old family-owned Tauck tour company, and everywhere in between. Their first trip with Road Scholar, back when it was still “Elderhostel,” was a cruise through the Panama Canal. Says Carol, “You are going with a group of people who are well traveled, very flexible and interested in learning. And you have very good leaders.” The Millers recently returned from a trip to Cuba with Road Scholar and were preparing a presentation to share with their fellow residents. They have also taken tours sponsored by the Post-Gazette, Heinz History Center and others.
Smithsonian Journeys is about 45 years old and operates on much the same principles as Road Scholar, with a commitment to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” General manager Karen Ledwin says their most popular destinations include Italy, Cuba and Peru. Ledwin is especially excited about 2016’s Panama Canal Passage and Costa Rica Cruise, which will include an excursion to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where environmental and ecological studies are conducted. “I have become so impressed with our research facilities,” she says.
Retired librarian Judy Sutton, Avon Drive, a widow, compares a “wild” 1980 family trip to England and Scotland, that she worked with a travel agent to plan, to last year’s visit to Scotland with Smithsonian Journeys: “It was a hell of a lot easier! The most fabulous young woman was our tour guide, with us the entire time.” Sutton loves the small groups of around 20, the history imparted by the guides, and the free time and options built into the tours.
National Trust Tours, also offered now for 45 years, are popular with travelers in the area. Associate Director Meg Annacone-Poretz says, “Cruises tend to be the most popular with our constituency—the ability to unpack once.” The organization’s most popular cruises are through the Hudson River Valley, Panama Canal and the Caribbean, and its trip to the U.K. is a big hit as well.
“We provide access to expert leaders who bring the destination alive. Our staff has traveled to most of the destinations we offer so we can talk at length with people about the experience they can expect.”
National Trust, Smithsonian Journeys and Road Scholar are all also considering how to offer more customizable tours. “People want to really get inside a destination and live like a local, while still having the support of the group,” says Lindsay Senior of Smithsonian Journeys. “We also want to give flexibility in how scheduled they want to be. We want to provide rich, immersive experiences.” Among other offerings for 2016 from Smithsonian Journeys will be 12-day stays in Paris and London, and three-week regional “live-ins” in Provence, Ubud, in Bali, and Tuscany.
Even the most seasoned travelers enjoy the tour experience now and again. Bob Winston, 88, did a lot of travelling as a lawyer for Westinghouse and has not stopped in retirement. Although the twice-widowed Providence Point resident prefers making his own plans, he concedes that group travel with a limited number of people is not inexpensive but can be an elegant way to go. He has used Vantage Deluxe World Travel for river tours and particularly remembers a cruise on the Danube with an Italian-speaking Dutch tour guide as excellent and reasonably priced for the services provided.
Recently Winston has discovered Times Journeys, with the motto, “Travel Smarter. Gain Understanding. Return Inspired.” Working with a handful of top-notch tour operators, the New York Times offers its journalists and experts as guides on what Winston terms “off-beat” trips for subscribers to the paper. He and his companion returned recently from a 22-person trip through Venice, Florence and Milan, “In the Steps of Verdi and Puccini.” Led by the Times’ Italian-speaking opera expert Fred Plotkin, the trip offered operatic and gastronomic pleasures that an individual would be hard-pressed to create on his own.
Organizations offering group travel recognize a demand for activities such as hiking, biking and the like from many participants and have stepped up to offer them.
Ann Winkelstein, Firwood Drive, has never let widowhood keep her from roaming. She particularly enjoys group sailing trips—the kind where the travelers are the sailors. She has gone on a half dozen excursions, most with King Yacht Charters, organizer of flotilla trips for Cruising World magazine. “You are the crew,” on a four- to six-person sloop or catamaran.
Single travelers must already know how to sail, while only one in a couple needs to know how. Four or five boats travel together, with the organizers in a lead vessel. Winkelstein has seen America’s Cups in Spain and New Zealand in this way, sailed the Croatian coastline and done blue water sailing (“sometimes the other boats are not in sight, just radio contact”) in French Polynesia. Since her first time, Winkelstein has run into people from previous trips, not a typical happening on other kinds of tours.
For her journeys on land, Winkelstein sometimes relies on Overseas Adventure Travel for small group tours of 10 to 12 people that emphasize local culture. “We stay at nice hotels, but local hotels,” eat at local restaurants, visit in the homes of residents. She has seen China and Tibet in this way. She loved the colorful painted patterns on the beams in her Tibetan hotel room, and will never forget seeing natives on pilgrimage to the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace, “three steps, then down on their knees and bow to the ground,” only to endlessly repeat, all the way from their homes throughout the country. Overseas Adventure builds free time into their trips, which Winkelstein appreciates as well.
Winkelstein recently spent a week making pasta and gnocchi at Al Ciocco (“the stump”) a hotel/restaurant in Farneta, Italy, offering cooking classes and side excursions to visit cheese and vinegar makers.
Another local couple suggested even more travel organizations to choose from. Old Farm Road residents Rick and Donna Erisman have been traveling together since 1988, and as they have gotten older, letting others do the driving has gained appeal—especially when it’s on the opposite side of the road! They also appreciated a guide to crack the language barrier on their trip to China. “As long as we get to see a lot,” says Donna, who along with Rick prizes the educational aspect of travel.
Rick, a retired National Park Service ranger and Navy vet, was especially pleased for Donna, a retired librarian with the Chartiers Valley school district, to experience going through the Panama Canal, which they did on a Norwegian Cruise line tour from Miami to Los Angeles.
The Erismans have also cruised with Viking and Oceania, and traveled with Brendan Vacations, Proxima Travel and even a trip to Poland with St. Winifred’s Church. They lucked out in Mexico, when their tour “group” consisted of just them and a guide, and had a similar experience in Peru.
Among their other memorable experiences was a 16-person balloon ride over the Serengeti in Tanzania. Coming up in the fall is a 25-day tour of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji with Globus Tours. “I have learned to pack lighter,” says Donna.
This writer, with a single Road Scholar adventure under her belt that was only an hour from home, has been fired up with wanderlust just interviewing this adventurous bunch. My trip? A terrific in-depth look at Frank Lloyd Wright held at a Mt. Pleasant conference center with trips to Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob and Duncan House, as well as visits to a local restaurant and a winery, topical films and lectures, hands-on team construction of a paper cantilevered deck and a talk by 100-year-old Elsie Henderson, former Fallingwater cook.
Led by staff from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which maintains Fallingwater, the four-day program drew 24 participants from all over. The experience convinced me that this type of travel is a wonderful way to move about the world. Consider one of these group experiences when you are planning that next trip. Me—I have my eye on France….