Senior travel: Americans over 65 are vaccinated and ready to plan

“We started planning the day we got our first shot,” said Liz Wright, 68. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, we can go.’”

All over the country, those 65 and older — those at highest risk of illness and death from covid-19, and early in line for the vaccine — are starting to browse trips, actively plan and even hit the road. As of Monday, nearly 76 percent of Americans 65 and up had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and more than 56 percent were fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The vaccine for them is a freedom pass — not to go crazy, but to do things,” said Rabia Shahenshah, a travel adviser with Tzell Travel Group. “It was definitely a game-changer.”

The Wrights have two trips planned: a road trip to Massachusetts this month and a flight to California in May, both to see their children and their grandchildren. While Liz Wright hopes to get back to Europe and Turks and Caicos in the future, she has already told her friends those trips will have to wait.

“I was like, ‘Listen, we are completely off until at least 2022,’” she said. “Every trip I take is going to be to see my kids.”

Loretta Carson, a luxury-travel adviser at Protravel International, said most of her clients are going to see their children or grandchildren. When she talks to them, the conversations inevitably turn to vaccines.

“It’s constant,” she said. “It’s the first thing we talk about.”

Carson is fully vaccinated, too, but she hasn’t done any travel of her own because she has had so much work.

“I’m just happy to see the rebound and see the people dreaming and planning,” she said. “It’s like starting a new era almost.”

‘Ringing off the hook’

Travel companies say they see that hope reflected in their bookings.

In a February call with investors, Royal Caribbean Group said it had seen a strong relationship to booking volumes and vaccines, including a proportional increase in the number of customers who were 65 and older.

“Our belief is that as 65-plus are getting vaccinated, then they’re obviously becoming more comfortable with booking, and we’re seeing that very much in our bookings from about January forward,” Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain said on the call.

Educational travel organization Road Scholar, which caters to “lifelong learners,” was seeing a huge jump in enrollments by mid-March. At that point, according to surveys of the company’s participants, 67 percent had been vaccinated, and 99 percent planned to get the vaccine.

“It’s no understatement to say the phone is ringing off the hook,” Road Scholar spokesman Chris Heppner said in an email. “We are seeing a huge shift in people’s eagerness to get something planned.”

Some customers, he said, were celebrating their vaccinations by enrolling in a trip. The company planned to resume some programs in July.

Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison site, said it was seeing a “slow rebound” in older travelers booking trips, based on travel insurance sales through the site. Marketing manager Steven Benna said in an email that as the vaccines have rolled out, the percentage of travelers in every age group over 60 has risen.

Rick Steves, 65, is in that group himself. Steves, whose professional life is built around European travel — he is a guidebook author, public television and radio personality, and tour company founder — said he felt a “joyfulness, not selfishly, but as part of a society,” when he got his first shot in March.

“As it went in, I was just thankful for modern medicine and science,” he said. “I just really said a prayer that people will recognize that this is a societal ticket to freedom and we’ll all have to get on board.”

Steves took a selfie of the occasion wearing his “Keep on Travelin’” T-shirt and clutching his passport. The post on his Facebook page has more than 11,000 comments — many from people who were also vaccinated and finally dreaming of travel again. They shared their plans for both the near term (grandkid visits, flights to Hawaii) and the long (European bus tours with Steves’s company), and, in many cases, they shared photos with their own “Keep on Travelin’” shirts and passports.

“It’s remarkable that this is something that we are all in together,” Steves said.

He’s not ready to announce his return to Europe yet — most of the continent is still off-limits to Americans anyway — but said he has some 20,000 people on a wait list for tours. He said he has more confidence now that it’s possible to plan for the future and “we are on a glide path to normalcy.”

“These vaccines are a wonder, and I’m glad I got one in my arm,” Steves said. “I can hardly wait to travel.”

Caution and optimism

Joe Corcoran, 84, and his wife, Loretta, 72, were recently in the process of planning their next big trip — a river cruise through Amsterdam and Budapest in June 2022.

Joe, a retired chemical engineer who lives in Pennsylvania, said the couple thought about what they would do when they could travel again, but they couldn’t start making concrete plans until the vaccines were a certainty. They bounced ideas off Carson, their travel adviser, and settled on the cruise.

“Part of the joy of travel is the anticipation of the travel itself,” Joe Corcoran said. “This is the start of our enjoyment of our trip in 2022, because now we have a place to go and plans to make, and this is part of the fun as well.”

In early January, Ruth Berkowitz, 92, and other residents of her retirement community in Bridgeport, Conn., received their first vaccine dose, then the next one three weeks later. “You felt you could do anything,” Berkowitz said. “Not anything, but you could move a little.”

She flew with her daughter to Florida, where she has a home in Boca Raton, in late February for two weeks of sunshine, boat watching and visiting. It was a big change from the past year, when she kept “very, very close to home.”

“I got down there and enjoyed it very much,” Berkowitz said. She said she doesn’t have more plans, but she would make the same trip again.

“I feel safe,” she said. “I would go anywhere. I would be happy to go.”

Angie Licea, president of Global Travel Collection, said her group is seeing faster growth with travelers 65 and older than other segments. In that age group, advisers are finding their clients interested in high-end resorts, private islands, future cruises and local, quick getaways.

“Once people got vaccinated, they were like, ‘Wait a minute, it’s safe,’” she said. “‘I can go see my grandchildren. I can go to Florida and hang out. I can go to resorts.’”

But, unlike younger travelers, older clients are serious about how their destination is dealing with the threat of covid-19, Licea said.

“They’re traveling, but they want to ensure that the protocol is very solid and it’s safe and it’s regimented,” she said.

Mickey Belosi, 73, and her husband, Jim Brady, 74, of Auburn, N.Y., epitomize that mind-set. Though they are preparing to get back out in the world again, they remain slightly wary.

“We’ve been so used to being careful and staying away from people,” said Belosi, a retired nutrition educator. “Even if we’re safe, we may not emotionally be ready to get around a lot of people.”

They missed out on three trips they had planned for spring 2020 and are planning to take one of them, a rescheduled European river cruise, in September.

“Hopefully by September of this year it’ll be safe,” she said. Both were getting their second shot at the end of March.

In the meantime, they have booked a boat to take along the Erie Canal, starting on Memorial Day, with their son, who will also be fully vaccinated by then.

Brady, a retired social worker, said the couple would like to take their trip to Europe in the fall, travel for Thanksgiving and see family in San Francisco for Christmas.

“I think we’re still hesitant about flying because so many people are not vaccinated and so many people are just careless, and there are some people who are nonbelievers and just won’t,” he said. “I think we’re still pretty cautious.”

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