The Mature Traveler

Working Harder to Find All the Best Bargains

April 13, 1986|BILL HUGHES | Hughes is a 25-year veteran travel writer living in Sherman Oaks.

Until recently, this summer was shaping up to be a super-year in domestic travel for the mature traveler. Now I'm not sure. It could--and should--be. But we'll have to work harder to find bargains and make better plans, that's all.

The problem is in sheer numbers. European travel will be down because of the threat of terrorism hanging over that continent like the black plague. And combined with a 30% reduction in the buying power of the dollar, a great many tourists, regardless of age, are staying home this year.

Japan, with the same 30% hike in the value of the yen versus the buck, is also less attractive. And, with the 30% difference in valuation, the United States will also be a better buy for foreign visitors.

Then take in the low cost of oil. The resulting low cost of gasoline has the travel industry looking for the biggest auto touring year since 1981.

Lower Jet-Fuel Prices

The low oil prices have meant billions of dollars saved in jet fuel for the nation's airlines. It's an airline axiom that every 1 cent-per-gallon decrease in the price of jet fuel means a $110-million saving for the carriers. The low fuel prices will enable the airlines to further finance fare wars, and fare wars mean more and more people looking for the cheapest seats.

So how does all this affect the mature traveler this summer?

Look at the fine print in all those airline, hotel and motel discounts directed at mature travelers and note the phrases "seats may be limited" and "subject to availability" and "good at participating hotels" and other innocuous one-line loopholes.

The sheer numbers of all travelers on the road and in the air are going to make it far more difficult, but not impossible, to get the seats on the best scheduled flights and rooms at the most popular accommodations. Reservations for both are going to be mandatory and the farther ahead they're made, the better.

A Marketing Tool

Discounts for seniors are great. Hooray for the airlines and hotel chains that offer them. But never forget that they are a marketing tool used by the travel industry--just like a sale item--to get rid of inventory. Sometimes there's plenty for sale, sometimes it's all gone before we get there.

All the major carriers, American, United, TWA, Eastern and others, generally offer the standard 10% across-the-board discount for travelers 65 and older. And other carriers offer a variety of discount programs from time to time.

But the real number of seats for senior discount is never revealed. It can vary; plentiful on off-hour, midweek flights or good flights to offbeat destinations, or a much smaller number for those flights and destinations that attract full-fare business and other full-fare passengers.

It's going to pay to shop around, make early reservations, try for the best schedules, but be ready to settle for what's available. Leave time in your schedule to allow waiting a day, maybe more, for the best rate.

Finding the best deals is getting to be more and more a do-it-yourself job because of another growing problem. Travel agents are beginning to grouse--understandably--that all the work involved in getting a discount fare for a senior traveler costs them more in time and overhead than what they earn in commission for selling the ticket. That's a problem that will be drawing more attention this year.

Getting discount reservations at hotels and motels has been mostly a do-it-yourself operation. This year it's going to be tougher than ever. There will be more and more younger tourists and visitors from overseas seeking the same accommodations.

And like airline seats, the number of hotel or motel rooms available, even from those chain properties that participate in nationally advertised mature- and senior-discount programs, can vary considerably, from property to property, with season or even day of the week.

Feeling the Pinch

It's going to be that way not just in major cities and resort areas, but along the highways as well. Mature travelers will feel the pinch the most.

Statistics show that mature travelers not only travel farther per trip, but they spend more nights on the road. Those under age 50 spend 4.8 nights per trip; ages 50 to 65, 6.5 nights per trip, and over 65, 8.2 nights per trip.

Reservations, planning well ahead, a good guidebook that lists senior discount accommodations for on-the-road decisions, and early stops for the night all will help.

For those flying and then renting a car at their destinations, be ready with senior discounts to help offset recent price hikes by the car rental industry.

Major rental companies such as Hertz, Avis, National, Budget and others recently announced a $3 to $8 daily surcharge on cars rented at many airport and major city locations.

Most also have placed a cap of 100 to 150 miles a day on rentals, almost eliminating unlimited mileage rentals except for those tied in with package plans or tours.

Getting All the Discounts

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