It’s time to hit the road
They’re empty nesters. The kids are long grown and gone while many are single through tragedy or choice. They’ve done life’s hard yards and now want something easier.
And they’re cruising.
Just ask Elizabeth Clarke. Her company Savenio specialises in the cruise business and a large percentage of her clients are seniors, many of whom are repeat buyers, a source of great pride for Ms Clarke.
And they’re not looking for little old lady cruises either.
“People are starting to look for new experiences,” she said.
“Cruises to Iceland and Cuba are becoming popular while European river cruises are still a favourite.”
But to the standard Amsterdam to Budapest cruise adventurers are now adding Russia, Portugal and the less-travelled rivers of Germany.
And domestic cruising, voyages from Australian ports, is booming with the world’s cruise lines adding more ships and ports of departure to their Aussie fleets.
But whether they’re going by land, sea or air, there does appear to be an emerging trend of senior women travelling alone – that’s to say, without partners.
Some are widowed, some divorced and some just determinedly single. But they’re all travelling.
Cheryl Ryan of 123 Travel has noticed a definite increase in women travellers.
“Many tours are being put together for ladies solo travel,” said Ms Ryan. “Ladies-only tours have become very popular.”
Favourite destinations include Norfolk Island while New Zealand coach tours remain a staple, as is cruising.
“We also have a high demand for seniors taking river cruises. The most popular would be European rivers, Canada and Alaska and the Northern Lights,” she said.
And the ladies-only market is a focus for Judith Polkinghorne of Girls on Tour, who leads groups domestically and overseas. She has covered something like 40 countries.
“They’re not all seniors,” she says. “There are also younger ladies looking at women-only tours.” Seniors do represent a large chunk of her clientele though.
She regularly takes groups to the Kimberley on camping tours – not often considered a trip for seniors. But they’re loving it.
“I think our oldest so far on the Kimberley trip was 80,” Ms Polkinghorne says.
They’re not expected to be athletes “but we do expect that they’ll be basically fit and able to get around”.
But even out in the Kimberley, seniors expect a degree of creature comfort and so tours are restricted by the number who can reasonably fit into the custom-built all-terrain vehicle that’s used for the purpose.
At the same time she’s finding tours to central Africa and Croatia to be increasingly “hot” items as senior travellers seek ever new experiences.
Domestic travel is still big in the seniors market.
“Uluru is still popular while North Queensland is always a draw in the winter months,” says Cheryl Ryan.
Bruce Drysdale of Trade Travel who also counts seniors as a large part of his clientele, agrees that the ladies are travelling more and more.
“We’re seeing increasingly that of a party of 40, as many as 38 will be women,” he said.
His senior clients are increasingly turning to new destinations also – with Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Cambodia high on the bucket lists, while what might be seen as the more traditional markets in the UK are slightly less popular than a decade ago.
“The newer hotels in Sri Lanka, for example, offer the comfort our clients want at a price they’re willing to pay, he said. “There are another two six-star properties on the way so our seniors are able to find the comfort, value and safety that are so important to them.”
They’re not necessarily looking for luxury but value is vital, says Cheryl Ryan.
“And price still plays a big part in getting the balance right.”
A large percentage of her clients are opting for premium economy or business class when it comes to air travel.
Elizabeth Clarke agrees that seniors don’t choose to rough it.
“Our clients go across the scale in terms of cost,” she said. “But they are looking for value. They realise that you do tend to get what you pay for and are looking for more local experiences at their cruise stops.”
And the single traveller market is becoming important for the cruisers also.
As the Australian-homed cruise fleet expands, smaller ships are seeking to offer more intimate experiences – and they’re making space for people travelling alone.
It’s not so simple for the cruise industry.
“They’ve invested heavily in that space (cabin),” Ms Clarke says, “and they need to get a return so two people sharing the cost of that space makes sense. However, they’re increasingly realising that there is a demand for single spaces and are starting to look at that.”
Book early if you want privacy is the way to go, she urges.
Value still key even without a backpack
Our backpacker days are long gone. Some travelling seniors are looking for that seven-star experience while others, perhaps the majority, just want to enjoy their trip. Yet others want a little bit (but not too much) of adventure thrown in.
All are looking for value. And safety.
The ladies, for example, who join Judith Polkinghorne’s Girls on Tour demand a degree of comfort and convenience while recognising that these come at a certain cost.
“The ladies we cater for do want a degree of comfort,” she said. “They want at least four-star hotels, comfortable coaches and intimate group sizes where a good camaraderie can quickly develop.
“These are ladies who know who they are and are comfortable in their own skins. They know very well what they want.”
Elizabeth Clarke is also finding the senior traveller to be looking for a degree of comfort. Her cruise clients are spending anything from $100 to $1000 a day – but they all demand value.
“They’re well aware that you get what you pay for,” she said. “But smaller ships where you can get off and on again without queuing are becoming popular.”
As is river cruising in Asia.
“In Cambodia, for example, there isn’t always the comfortable hotel option, so the boats have to offer that comfort that our travellers want,” she says.
Cheryl Ryan’s clients tend to prefer premium economy or business class for air travel while cruise travel – a growing market for her – is comfort-oriented.
“They’re not necessarily looking for luxury,” she said. “But they like comfort. And price still plays an important role in finding the right balance.”
Her clients are increasingly cruising for pleasure with family or friends – but the comfort and safety elements are still vitally important.
Bruce Drysdale, who manages up to 400 tours a year, agrees safety and comfort are crucial. He has at least one client who refuses point blank to travel into the USA through Los Angeles (anybody who has endured the ordeal of LAX will understand why) while younger folk take it in their stride.
“Interest in overseas travel is definitely impacted by the goings-on there,” he said. “So people have been taking their Ghans, Indian Pacifics and Murray Rivers and so on at home.
“But overseas travel will always be a big part of seniors travel.”
He too has noticed that seniors are looking for value. It’s too often forgotten that seniors have lived through the birth and development of the computer age. They are computer and internet savvy.
“And we baby boomers aren’t always in a hurry to take part in organised events so people are using the internet to buy direct online,” he said.
It may save a few bucks but there can be problems. There have been instances of people arriving at their destination to discover hotel bookings haven’t been confirmed or that the car company hasn’t heard of them – and worse.
“They have nothing to fall back on,” said Bruce Drysdale. “But if they have booked with a reputable agent, they at least have access to someone who can assist.”
All of our industry sources agreed that good agents do much more than package holidays and take commissions.
“We add value,” said one. “Most of us have been to the places we’re selling. We know the local customs, the pitfalls and the pluses. It’s our job, after all.”