55 PLUS - Pre-planning can smooth way for relaxing trip

And travel agents can be useful allies for well-thought-out journeys.

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Winter and the holidays mean many things. Sometimes the cold is the reason to head south toward the sunshine. Sometimes folks just need to take a break from the routine and everyday stress.

Seniors may be exploring travel options, but should do some investigating to keep the travel itself as smooth and stress-free as possible.

Taking a vacation and getting away from it all is fun and might be healthy, too. But give some thought to safety while on a trip.

Decide where to travel, then prepare. When going abroad, be aware of any travel warnings issued and avoid dangerous areas.

"Europe is very popular, land tours and river cruises," said Kathleen Buford, service center manager at AAA Travel in Walla Walla. Closer to home, Alaska is still on the top of the "to do" list, she said.

According to Buford, AAA has access to vendors who have cruise tour packages such as going to Denali National Park and Preserve and other popular spots.

Be sure to specify accommodations needed, such as a wheelchair or scooter. Specifying that right away helps avoid problems later.

"Make sure you have adequate travel insurance," Buford said. If an emergency health situation arises while travelers are away from home, or even have to suddenly cancel those travel plans, the right insurance can help.

Buford suggested this for family caregivers as well, "if you have to quickly exit stage left," she said. As the population ages, ripple effects will be felt everywhere, including the travel industry. "We're going to see more of that," she said.

The key to relaxing travel is to preplan, but be flexible and get someone to run interference by getting a qualified travel agent, Buford said.

"Our agents are experienced. We have a lot of talent and good information here," she said.

A common potential problem for a traveler is having an outdated list of dream destinations.

Say a decision was made on some dream vacations 30 years ago. In the meantime, those countries may have changed quite a bit. For example Buford said 30 years ago Kenya was a popular destination, now it's not safe. Buford also said that 30 years ago no one would have dreamed of vacationing in Vietnam, now it's a very popular travel destination.

Choosing a vacation depends on time, distance and budget. Really look at what you want. How's the weather right now in your chosen location? Warmth matters to most mature travelers, according to Paul Schneidmiller, owner of World Wide Travel Service.

"Now that the weather's turned, we have a significant group of snowbirders in this area, most go to Arizona or California. A lot of them drive," he said.

There are plenty of areas to choose when following the sun. Recently, a travel group working through a local bank toured several national parks. According to Schneidmiller it was primarily a tour of the Southwest's canyons, such as Bryce Canyon, Zion and the Grand Canyon.

"It was pretty popular. You fly into Vegas or Phoenix, then onto a motor moach they go. Sedona is in that area, too, and Lake Powell is a popular destination this year."

Another trip that gets plenty of attention is an excursion to Branson, Mo., to see lavish entertainment.

For those wanting to escape winter's chill and escape to the tropics, destinations such as Hawaii, Tahiti and Fiji and cruises on the Mexican Riviera are great in the winter.

"Then when spring hits, seniors like to do Alaska cruises," he said. Those cruises are pretty simple, drive or fly to Seattle and take a ship from there.

For those who want to travel farther afield, be aware of political concerns in the area. "If there's any unrest in a country, the cruise lines are the first ones to alter their itinerary," Schneidmiller said. "Even the perception of a lack of safety will prompt a change. This happens a lot on a Caribbean cruise having to change the itinerary because of hurricanes."

Another popular destination is Niagara Falls, he said. That could be combined with a fall foliage tour of New England.

Prequalify what would be best, Schneidmiller said. "How many days do they want to be gone? Some don't care for air travel. Decide what type of getaway you want. Just the sound of the word ‘Hawaii' makes you feel relaxed as opposed to ‘Disneyland' which sounds like go, go, go."

Travelers should think about what they really want from a vacation: serene relaxation or activity, close to home or farther away.

Plan ahead. Schneidmiller suggested putting medications in your carry-on bag. For mobility issues, make adequate arrangements ahead of time.

He emphasized being well organized. Allow plenty of time to make connections to get where you're going with the least amount of stress. Check in well in advance at airports to get through security in enough time. Canada and Mexico now require passports and many countries require visas. All of these things take time to get completed so start early.

For more information call AAA Travel, 509-525-9213 and World Wide Travel Service, 509-525-8040.

Karlene Ponti can be reached by calling 509-526-8324 or by e-mail at karleneponti@wwub.com.

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