Traveling While Old

In my 20s, a friend and I took a road trip from Colorado to the West Coast in my VW Bug. We made no plans and only had a vague route—check out some national parks like Mount Rainier and Glacier. With our tent, sleeping bags and Coleman stove, we planned to camp along the way.

In those days before campgrounds fill up quickly and reservations are necessary, I didn’t make elaborate preparations. I didn’t yet know all the things that could go wrong: failing brakes (and mechanics who thought they could pull a fast one), my dog rolling in a dead fish at Lake Teton, a night on the beach so cold we wrapped ourselves in newspapers, and eating cold canned beans because we had no fuel for our Coleman stove.

Now, 50 years later, I’ve experienced many more misfortunes while traveling. After the last two trips to Great Britain resulted in flat tires from driving on the country’s narrow roads, I decided to drive as little as possible on a trip to Scotland two years ago, instead relying on trains, buses and ferries. Because my memory is not so great and because I wanted to control the trip as much as possible—I’m too old to be hitchhiking or looking for a place to stay at night—I planned every detail: reserved B&Bs along the way, bought tickets for the train and ferry before we left home, and even figured out the routes from the train station to our B&Bs. What could possibly go wrong?

First, flooding on the Scottish train tracks caused us to be stranded in a strange town wandering rainy streets looking for a hotel. Then, returning home, a delayed plane in Glasgow caused an unexpected layover in Iceland. So there I was, at the Iceland Air counter in Reykjavik, trying to remember everything the customer service rep was telling us: here’s a voucher for the bus ride and the hotel; catch the bus outside by Terminal A; here’s the voucher for your free meal; your flight tomorrow is at 15:20 but be at the airport by 12:50.  I somehow remembered most of it, and we made it home, but only by running on aging knees and hips through the New Jersey airport the next day to get to our connecting plane on time.

I learned a valuable lesson: no matter how hard I try to plan for every contingency, something will always go wrong. Now I know why cruises (or other trip excursions) are so attractive for older people: Someone else, like the cruise director, figures out all the details.  

But even when everything is planned out, and all you need to do is sit on the cruise deck with your glass of red wine watching the world go by, traveling is still burdensome as you get older. First, you have more stuff to pack: warmer clothes because you get cold easily; all your medications (labeled for morning, noon and night); the CPAP machine for sleep apnea;  stockings to wear on the plane to prevent blood clots; extra pairs of reading glasses; and eye drops for dry eyes. Every year the list gets longer.

Gone are the days when we could arrive at the airport a half hour before the flight left and easily get onboard. Now there’s the security line, and I have to remember to bring my credit card and driver’s license (which I once forgot); empty my water bottle before the TSA people pull me over for endangering national security; and bring food because they no longer serve food on the airlines (except for those little bags of salted snacks).

And if you miss your connection and need to make another one, or need to contact the hotel to tell them you’ll have to reschedule, there’s no friendly person to straighten it all out for you.  Everything is online now, so you need to be somewhat skilled at using a cell phone to text or call; just finding the customer service phone number on the web site (where it’s usually buried at the bottom of the page) can be challenging. On a recent trip to Alaska, knowing I only had one hour to change plans in Seattle, I asked the ticket agent if I could order a meal for the flight. But I could only do that online, she told me, and I never found the exact spot where to do that. The skies are not friendly anymore.

The wonderful thing about flying is that we can go very far in a short amount of time. But I think our aging brains don’t adapt to the fast turnover of our landscapes. There’s an adjustment from being in sunny Hawaii in the morning and frigid Chicago in the afternoon; or being in hot and dry Colorado in the afternoon and rainy and cool Juneau at night.

I can see all the challenges that dissuade people from leaving their homes as they get older. But traveling is what keeps us young, keeps us alert and on our toes. I’m not ready yet to give that up.

16 thoughts on “Traveling While Old

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  1. You and Lynn amaze me with your willingness to travel–not only to US destinations but to other countries. And not only by plane but also by car in places where they drive on the “wrong” side of the road. I’m happy for you that you still give yourselves this joy, in spite of the challenges. And being a true armchair traveler, I love the resulting stories and photos. Good for you, Kath!

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    1. Thanks, Verna. I think I actually like all the challenges of traveling (maybe not walking through a strange Scottish town in the rain looking for a hotel). I hope to keep doing it as long as I can, so I can keep providing you with some armchair traveling.

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  2. Travel away from home is way over rated. My wife and I have done some and had some fun and adventure but as for me, I like being at home or near by.

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  3. Love this post! I’m heartened by how traveling is still worth it to you. Whenever I see people with young families, senior citizens, or elderly people on adventures, I’m always that much more glad that the things I most enjoy and live for will still be intriguing and motivating to me at any age, and also accessible. While my fiancé and I were backpacking in Olympic National Park, we saw two men probably in their 80s doing the 2 mile hike to the beach- each was carrying a folding chair and a canteen. We kept passing each other along the trail as our respective pairs took breaks. I wanted to tell them how much optimism and hope they gave me (without embarrassing them).

    Even as a person in my early 30s, traveling can be an inconvenient hassle, even with every hike and meal planned in advance. We remembered how challenging it can be to find public restrooms. We learned a lot from trying to take our camping packs on the plane, and had to be scrappy to find a solution. Also- beginning in Oct., passengers’ drivers licenses must be current to fly- I can’t understand this; it’s not as though passengers will be /flying/ the plane…!

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    1. Alexis, I’m glad to hear that you too find traveling difficult, although rewarding. I love that you saw the two elderly men hiking to the beach, carrying their chairs! I think we all get inspiration from seeing others handle the challenges of traveling. And we all do what we can, even if it’s just a long car trip.
      I like your image of the passengers flying the plane–if our driver’s licenses are current. Strange times. Hope you and your fiance enjoyed Olympic!

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  4. So true. Even though dealing with unforeseen changes is challenging, it does keep one sharp and flexible. Another worry with travel when older is fear of getting sick. It takes courage and resilience to travel as a senior.

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  5. Ah—this post really resonated, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one who feels that way. For those of us caught in the throes of international travel at the moment the world locked down around the pandemic, traveling while old had even more dramatic implications. I don’t know that I’m with you on not being ready to give all that up, Kathy—at least when it comes to air travel. My body has some serious complaints about being confined to a cattle-class seat for hours on end, and my budget doesn’t allow for first or business class. Road trips in my 99 Cadillac, however, are definitely still on my agenda.

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    1. Jennifer, I agree that airports (and long flights) are difficult, even when everything goes smoothly. I love road trips, but having just come back from Crestone, Hwy. 285 was a nightmare. Too many people with the same idea of escaping to the mountains from the hot cities.

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  6. I loved this article! When I was younger (I am 75) I travelled as far as I could afford because I knew soon I would not be able to withstand many hours in the «catlle-class seat».
    I’ve been all over the world, from Australia to Alaska, to China and Japan, Indonesia and many of it’s neighbours, Africa, the Americas north and south, Iceland and most of Europe, Russia, etc. Now I travel closer to home to feel safer and get to know my beautiful country better. But…I’ll be in Dubai next November, I love the UAE.
    My main problem: it is very difficult to pee on planes! and I have to do it often! You must disturb other people, you wait at long queues under the scrutiny of fellow passengers. Very annoying:-)
    As long as my health and finences allow, I intend to travel

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    1. It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to travel so much and that you are still able and willing to do it. I agree that peeing is a problem, especially in countries where public bathrooms are scarce. Here’s a toast to traveling as long as we can.

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