9 things I learned traveling with my 81-year-old uncle
When my 81-year-old uncle told me he wanted to go on a safari in South Africa but that my aunt wasn’t interested, I did what any niece would do: I told him I would obviously be his travel buddy.
To ease his lengthy travel burden -- South Africa is very far from the U.S. Midwest -- I used my airline miles to get him from Chicago (ORD) to Madrid (MAD), where I live. Then we flew together to South Africa and back as comfortably as possible.
I used Iberia Avios for his round-trip, nonstop flights between Chicago and Madrid (round-trip in business for 68,000 points is certainly one of the best sweet spots on the Iberia award chart), giving my uncle a few days to recover from jet lag and hang out with my husband and me in Madrid.
Then I flew us down to Johannesburg (JNB) via British Airways on the A380 with a change in London Heathrow (LHR) also using Iberia Avios. I paid in cash for short hops to Kruger National Park (SZK) and then to Cape Town (CPT) on South African Airways (operated by Airlink).
I dipped into my stash of United miles to fly on Ethiopian Airlines back to Madrid with a stop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD). After the trip of a lifetime and a few days of rest in Madrid, my uncle was on his way home to Chicago. We were in South Africa for almost two weeks, and my uncle traveled for almost three, including his time in Spain.
This was the first time I’d ever traveled with someone in their eighties. I’ve been on holiday with my parents, but they're in their late 60s and early 70s, and we never went anywhere for more than a week or so. My uncle is in great shape physically and mentally for his age, but I definitely had to modify my travel style to ensure he had a restful and enjoyable holiday.
Here are some of the things I learned, and some things to make sure to do if your travel companion is on the older side.
1. Plan ahead for the big stuff
My uncle, though adventurous at heart, was understandably nervous about such a long trip. Although he travels between Europe and the U.S. a few times each year, it’s always with his wife. At 11 hours, the flight between London and Johannesburg was the longest he’d ever taken.
Being able to have everything organized perfectly ahead of time put him at ease. So we made sure to plan in advance and book hotels early. Not only did we get a better rate on hotels and our safari, it gave my uncle peace of mind knowing that everything was set and nothing important was left until the last minute.
I would suggest this tip be applied mainly to flights, accommodation and big excursions (such as a safari). For day-to-day activities, like a trip to the botanical gardens, walking tours and so on, I found it was best to leave those until much later, as things like weather, energy levels or timing could affect tourism plans. I didn’t want my uncle to feel pressured to traipse around when he was tired or hot or if it was pouring rain.
2. Ask for and accept help
Sometimes assistance can be essential when traveling with someone older -- whether it be at the airport or in the middle of the veldt (the open country of SA).
If your older travel companion needs a little extra help at the airport, make sure to request it during booking. If that's not possible, call the airline and have them add this service to the reservation. Even if your companion can walk easily, if you have a very tight connection, it may be a good idea to request assistance -- not everyone is physically able to race through the airport.
We also made a habit of accepting help whenever possible, from the hotel staff carrying our suitcases to Uber drivers opening car doors to safari staff hoisting my uncle into the 4x4 -- all things I'd normally do by myself. When it comes to anything that can make your older travel companion more comfortable, don't be afraid to request outside assistance or accept it graciously when offered.
3. Use paper travel documents if it puts their mind at rest
Several years ago, I downloaded the TripIt app and never looked back. I despise paper and use mobile boarding passes whenever possible. I can’t remember the last time I printed out a trip confirmation or a hotel reservation, knowing that all the necessary information is always just a phone tap away.
But I knew my uncle felt more comfortable having every flight confirmation printed, our rental car information and hotel reservations on paper and physical copies of our safari information safely in his pocket. Did we need to show check-in agents or hotel staff these papers? No. But it made my uncle feel happier and more prepared knowing he had them, and he did indeed refer to them while I was pulling up trip information on my phone.
4. Go slow
Modifying my normal pace was vital for a successful trip. Taking a few days for my uncle to rest in Madrid was essential so he could rid himself of the jet lag, and making sure to stay at least three nights in each spot so he felt comfortable and not rushed was important, too.
We made sure to arrive at the airport well in advance, knowing that running to the gate would be stressful and hard on my uncle. We did the same thing for any guided tours and reservations -- rushing was simply not an option, so I allowed extra time for everything. I even had to walk more slowly (living in a large city, I’m used to walking at a fast pace) in order to make sure I didn’t leave him behind. I also thought it best to stay for all six nights we had in Cape Town at one place, so we didn’t have to lug our suitcases to another spot.
We did one big activity per day and rested in the evening to refuel for the next day. We made sure not to overdo things.
Had I been on my own or with my husband, we probably would have spent a night in Stellenbosch and a night in Camps Bay, or squeezed in another destination outside Cape Town. But I knew having a safe, relaxing place to come home to and not having to move luggage every day made my uncle feel better. So we did day trips and kept our base in Cape Town.
This also taught me, someone constantly on the go, a valuable lesson: slowing down can be amazing, and maybe I should do it more frequently.
5. Address the comforts
Most adults have routines they like to stick to or specific amenities they’re used to. The older one gets, the more static these routines and comforts become.
My uncle is pretty flexible but always gets quite hot. Air conditioning is an amenity that is really important to him. But he couldn't care less about things like speedy room service or having a balcony. So I made sure that all the accommodation we booked, even in Cape Town, where temperatures were only around 20 degrees Celsius, had air conditioning. Considering Kruger National Park region was dealing with a heat wave during our time there, it turned out to be a good thing I did.
If you aren’t sure what’s important to your older travel companion, just ask. And then organize accordingly.
6. Manage fears ahead of time
I made sure before traveling to ask my uncle if he was worried or nervous about anything specifically. He had concerns about two things: safety and being hot during the safari.
To address safety, I walked him through each of our chosen hotels to explain the security measures (24-hour front-desk staff, key card for the lift and so on) and made a plan to divide our South African rands between the two of us, just in case. I suggested making sure all his belongings were safely secured when leaving the airport, since we were tired and it's easy to forget things when you're fending off aggressive taxi drivers and tour operators. We made a plan to leave our passports in the safe at our hotels when touring around, only taking out cash and a credit card or two. Once we talked about his fears and concerns and made a game plan, they seemed less scary, and his nerves disappeared.
I also knew he was worried about being hot, so besides ensuring all our accommodation had air conditioning, we brought plenty of water on the safari, as well as a handheld fan, sunglasses, sunblock and hats. We even booked a private safari so if he took ill (temperatures were 41 degrees Celsius on the day of our safari), we could head back to the hotel in a hurry. Luckily, he handled the heat like a champ and despite the sweltering heat, a grand safari experience was had by all.
Addressing my uncle's fears ahead of time ensured we were on the same page and circumvented any issues before they arose.
7. Be patient and prepared
Patience is key, and having items "just in case" is always a good idea. I made a habit of carrying a backpack with water, snacks, a backup charger, insect spray and sunblock, just in case my uncle forgot and needed something.
8. Get travel insurance and vaccines
Make sure that you purchase your flight with a card that includes trip insurance and travel health insurance. If you don't have a card that includes this, purchase insurance separately for your older travel companion. My uncle is in excellent health, but it was calming for both of us to know that he had the right insurance and would have been attended to if there'd been an emergency.
Likewise, get necessary vaccines taken care of before you travel. Malaria and many other tropical diseases may not do permanent harm to a healthy adult, but they are often much more dangerous for the elderly.
9. Double-check the important stuff before travel
I made sure during booking that my uncle’s passport was valid for more than six months past our trip and that he had two blank pages next to each other (a requirement for entering South Africa), that we didn’t need visas and that he knew exactly what to pack for a destination very different from the one he calls home.
For example, bug spray with DEET isn't a necessity for a London, Madrid or Chicago summer, but it sure is during the rainy season in Africa. Double checking that all the important items are packed, prepared and ready is never a bad idea -- even if you're not elderly.
Traveling with an older person can mean changing the way you normally do things: slowing down, doing extra planning and having lots of patience. But it can be incredibly rewarding. My uncle and I both had the trip of a lifetime, spent quality time together and parted with unforgettable memories. He's already asking me where we're heading next.