Make good your escape from winter: Travel

Now is a good time to travel, and many seniors are doing it, industry officials report.

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Ah yes, the cold and gloom of winter ... cope with it or escape! This may be the perfect opportunity for travel. Local travel officials suggest that in the off-peak season, such as after the holidays, they might get you to the sunshine at a less-expensive rate. There are countless warm-weather destinations, in this country or abroad.

Paul Schneidmiller, owner of Worldwide Travel, said travel is now much more global and seniors are in the thick of it. "We’re seeing people continually branch out, seniors are going all over the place. Traditional favorites are Hawaii and all kinds of cruises."

Cruising has increased in popularity in the last decade, for travelers of all ages, he said, adding that "a lot of the seniors like the cruise idea." With that popularity, cruises have had to increase routes to accommodate repeat customers looking for new destinations.

Another change, noted by Schneidmiller, is shorter notice for bookings. "They don’t seem to be booking as far in advance as they used to." Escaping winter weather is still a popular reason to travel, even if you decide suddenly. Seniors fleeing the winter often head to Hawaii, the Caribbean or farther south. "When we get bad weather, we get calls for warm-weather destinations," he said.

According to Schneidmiller, searching for the sun may not entirely depend on the economy. People are still traveling, although maybe not as far as in previous years. "The recession has not just hit the travel industry, it’s hit everywhere. Even though there’s a downturn in travel, our agency has weathered it fairly well," he said. "We’re starting to see an upswing in leisure travel, we have a good mix of leisure and business travel, after businesses cut back, it seems to be rebounding."

A hidden benefit of the recession may be some good deals on airline tickets, hotels and rental cars. Many airlines have cut back the number of planes flying, but the company wants those planes full. He also said you can save some money by traveling in an off-peak time.

Hawaii is a popular destination and seniors aren’t going alone. Schneidmiller said there are plenty of family groups traveling. Seniors are flying off to Hawaii or Disneyland with children, grandchildren and everybody gets a vacation. That means time spent together for families that are scattered geographically.

Some reminders for travelers: get to the airport well in advance and pay attention to what he calls "common sense types of things." Keep yourself up-to-date with regulations about what you can and cannot take on a plane. Pick your destination carefully. You can find the sun in some very safe locations.

Kathleen Buford, service center manager at AAA Washington Walla Walla, agreed with Schneidmiller that seniors often want to escape the cold weather. She added that last year was "weird for the travel industry." Huge portfolio losses for seniors prompted some people to pull back and cancel travel, while others decided "let’s just do it anyway."

She echoed Schneidmiller’s sentiments that trips may have been scaled down, with do-your-own-driving getting more popular and added, "As far as senior citizens, we see older people coming in getting maps and tourbooks. They’re going to drive to Southern California or Arizona. Another destination that’s popular is Mariners Spring Training in Arizona; many do that each year. People are getting interested in travel again." You can get away and not have to go too far. River cruising is also getting more popular. "Vegas is dead, the casinos are hurting. Preferable places in Nevada are Reno and Tahoe when there’s no snow," she said.

Buford said Caribbean cruises, destinations such as Central and South America and Australia, are also popular. "Bearing in mind that it’s summer there now."

Be aware of your health, fitness level and take those issues into account if you want to travel. Buford said travel insurance pays for medical expenses if you have a health problem while you’re away from home, in the states or overseas. Ask questions and find out the details before you go.

Letting someone else do the driving is popular, too. Joe and Lisa Petrello, owners of Dream Ride Charters & Tours, have two large, luxury buses to accommodate groups, often seniors, who want to go to a special event. The company also has a regular schedule to Wildhorse Resort & Casino. "We do a lot of trips," said Joe Petrello. "We take seniors, wine tours, do work for Whitman College. We have a trip planned somewhere every month, for a day or over night."

"We work with the Senior Center, we do trips for them. People like to do family reunions, class reunions. The Vienna Boys Choir is coming up and we do shows, a lot of people like to go to the theater in Yakima. We can get more people around town or get a group out of town, if they don’t want to drive."

Seniors have plenty of opportunities for travel, by air, on a cruise, a chartered bus or driving themselves. You can escape from winter and find the sunshine in any number of ways.

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

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