11 Tips for Traveling with Senior Citizens

Oct 10, 2014

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One of my favorite award trips of all time was accompanying my grandmother to California three years ago to visit family. At (then) 89 years old, it wouldn’t have been possible by herself, but together we were able to make the trip, and I was so thankful for being able to travel with her. Today, TPG Contributor Jason Steele shares insights from his own grandmother about how to travel smoothly in your golden years.

There are no age limits to travel. My 93-year-old grandmother Anne Steele travels somewhere almost every month, usually to take a cruise or to visit her four children, nine grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. However, many older travelers have to take into account factors that those of us in our prime never consider. To find out how seniors and their loved ones can navigate the world of modern travel safely and enjoyably, I reached out to my grandmother and other members of my family who have traveled with her recently for their perspectives on how it’s done.

My grandma Anne taking a cruise earlier this year with my aunt and my  cousins.
My grandma Anne taking a cruise earlier this year with my aunt and cousins.

Planning is key

As much as my grandmother loves to travel, she admits that it can be hard sometimes. The key to making it work is in planning the trip properly with the following steps:

1. Designate a family member to help with reservations. It’s best if one family member steps up to make travel reservations and coordinate getting the right frequent flyer credit. Thankfully, popular award tracking programs allow users to include the accounts of family members (see my post from last month about travel organization for suggestions of how to track award accounts).

2. Book a non-stop flight if possible and avoid regional jets. When booking a trip, non-stop flights are strongly preferred over connecting flights in order to minimize the chance of a missed connection and to reduce the total travel time. Book a non-stop flight even if it means a higher fare or a longer trip to the airport.

Also, try to avoid the smaller regional jets such as the Embraer ERJ and Canadair CRJ series, especially at airports that don’t offer a jet-bridge. Passengers on these jets must climb a flight of stairs, or be offered special accommodations.

3. Look for senior discounts, but don’t look too hard. Many airlines claim to offer some sort of senior discount, but those fares can be elusive. For example, here’s a reservation I found on United for both a senior and an adult under 65:

No senior discount here!
No senior discount here!

Last year Fare Compare looked at the so-called senior discounts of various airlines, and found most of them to be phony.

4. Choose the right disability options. Another important step in the booking process is selecting any necessary disability options. Some airlines, like Southwest, allow passengers to select disability options at the time of booking, while others, such as Delta, require customers to contact the airline by phone to request these options separately.

Southwest is one of the few airlines that allows travelers to select disability options online at the time of booking.
Southwest is one of the few airlines that allows travelers to select disability options online at booking.

Those who had traveled with seniors recommended the option that only requests assistance to and from the gate, if possible. Requesting assistance to and from the aircraft seat forces seniors to remain on board until all other passengers have deplaned, which can be a lengthy delay.

5. Travel during the right time of the day. Another piece of advice I heard was that seniors may no longer have the energy they once had, and travel early in the morning or at night can be exhausting. Mid-morning or early afternoon departures seemed to work better.

6. Travel with family. One of the most heart wrenching things I ever encountered were seniors who had just arrived in Toronto un-escorted from an overseas flight. They were having language difficulties and were clearly confused by the customs and immigration forms they were expected to complete. While I did my best to help them, I have never forgotten the experience. With the exception of short, non-stop flights, it’s always best when seniors have a loved one or a companion who can assist them during their journey.

On the occasions when we have had seniors in our family who needed to travel internationally, we have even gone so far as to pay for an additional ticket for a college student to accompany them on the flights. Stories like this one are a reminder that it’s best not to rely on the airlines to ensure the safety of our loved ones, at least when they’re no longer in the air.

7. Consider a cruise. My grandmother loves cruises, because it feels like the attractions come to her, and there’s less effort required on her part. Cruises are one of the few activities that can be enjoyed by children, parents, and seniors at the same time, and many cruise lines offer shore excursions designed for those with limited mobility. Nevertheless, my grandmother prefers to use an electric scooter on cruises due to all the walking required, even though she normally doesn’t need one.

Baggage Claim Bag
Don’t put medication in checked bag in case it’s needed. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Tips for the day of travel

8. Carry on any medications. This tip applies to all travelers, not just seniors. Never place important medications in checked baggage. My grandmother puts her medications and valuables in a small piece of luggage or large handbag, and places it underneath the seat in front of her. Everything else is placed in a checked bag. This way, she’s not reliant on anyone to help her place a bag in the overhead bin, and she can easily replace anything in her checked bag if it’s lost or delayed. It’s also a good idea to include a list of medications and dosages, just in case a doctor’s visit is needed during the trip.

9. Request a wheelchair from the airport. Seniors who have mobility issues, but do not have their own wheelchair, can usually be provided a wheelchair by the airport that will get them to their gate. My grandmother says that traveling is very enjoyable for her now that she knows about this amenity. According to her, “They just wheel you in and wheel you out; it’s so easy!” It almost makes me jealous.

10. Choose the right line at security. Passengers in wheelchairs (and their companions) can receive priority service from the TSA, much like those with elite status in airline programs. Seniors are sometimes offered the TSA Pre-check line even without being part of the program, although that practice has diminished in recent months. Either way, adults over 75 do not have to take off their light jackets or shoes. Here is some additional information from the TSA about passengers 75 and older.

11. Plan activities sparingly. When traveling with a senior citizen, you’ll have to take it slower than you normally would, and account for their need to lie down and relax more frequently. Everyone is different, but in many cases planning just one activity before lunch is enough, and some down time between lunch and dinner is preferred. Fortunately, the same advice goes for families with young children, so inter-generational travel can work out surprisingly well.

With only 85 years between them, my grandmother loves to travel with her great grand-daughter.

Airline resources for senior travel

These links will give you more information about policies and services available for elderly, disabled, or special needs passengers from various domestic airlines:

What are your tips for helping our elders travel safely and comfortably? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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