5 tips to affordable retirement travel

If your retirement dream is to get out and see the world, a tight budget doesn’t have to keep you tethered to the house. Airlines, hotels, attractions and other travel vendors offer a variety of incentives to court senior travelers, but you may need to do a little extra sleuthing to find these bargains.

“Discounts are getting harder to find, so travelers have to be savvier about the process,” says Terrance Zepke, author of “The Encyclopedia of Cheap Travel.”

Before you map out your itinerary, you need to make out a budget. That was the strategy of author and retired businessman Lew Weinstein of Key West, Fla., and his wife Pat, a retired attorney and avid marathon runner.

“We don’t have unlimited funds. I don’t know who does,” says Weinstein, who uses a spreadsheet to track everything they spend on trips. “What we were trying to do is make both a long-term retirement plan that is consistent with the amount of money that we have and will have, and to do as much travel as we can while we’re still healthy.”

If that’s your goal, too, here are five ideas to help you reach it.

5 cheap ways to travel

Don’t give up your travel plans. Prepare for a trip and cut costs by using these strategies.

  1. Go ahead — divulge your true age
  2. Look beyond the big travel sites
  3. Check out room rates from the source
  4. Hop on the tour bandwagon
  5. Swap your house

1. Divulge your true age

Forget the vanity of knocking a few years off your birth date. When you travel, broadcast your real age every chance you get and claim those senior discounts.

The Thomases of Marysville, Mich., have taken many road trips in the U.S. and Canada, cutting costs every time they whip out their AAA and AARP membership cards.

“We think that we save money by driving,” says Marjorie Thomas, a former stay-at-home mom and current Mary Kay beauty consultant whose husband, Harold, is a retired electrician.

Both AAA and AARP offer discounts on car rentals, lodging, cruises, vacation packages and attractions.

Zepke notes that most U.S. airlines offer senior discounts of 10 percent or more. Foreign airlines sometimes have them, but other products, such as air passes, may offer greater savings.

Air passes allow you to fly to multiple destinations within a country or region for one set price. This arrangement is often cheaper than booking each flight separately. Some airlines offer air passes directly to passengers; others require that you purchase them through travel agents. “Always ask when you call the airline, because programs are often revised,” Zepke says.

Some airlines have restricted or eliminated their senior specials. Delta Air Lines phased out its senior discount programs. US Airways offers special fares “in select markets,” but the Senior Save Pack offered by America West before it merged with US Airways is no more. United Airlines’ senior fares are available only when you book on the Internet.

Hotel chains have senior discount programs, too. Among the most generous are the 50 percent cut at Starwood Hotels (including Sheraton, Four Points, W Hotels and Westin Hotels and Resorts) and the 40 percent discount available through the Hilton Senior Travel Honors Program, which requires a $55 per year membership fee.

2. Look beyond travel Web sites

Major online travel sources, such as Travelocity, Expedia, Hotwire and Orbitz, all boast about letting you in on the cheapest fares. The truth is they only show the lowest fares among the vendors that opt to be included on their Web sites.

“Some hotels and airlines have never paid to be on these sites,” Zepke says. Furthermore, some that used to pay to be listed on these sites are no longer doing so, because they are using that money elsewhere — like to advertise their own Web sites.”

Go to the Web sites of airlines and hotels you don’t see on the list — or call them — and see how the prices you find compare. If you’re just not up for that much homework, consider enlisting the help of a travel agent, who will have access to constantly updated information. The more complex the journey — an international trip, for example, or one involving lots of activities — the more useful it is to tap into a travel agent’s expertise.

3. Check out room rates from the source

If you have a list of hotels you’re interested in, first check out their Web sites to find the rate for the dates you need a room. Then call each hotel and ask what kinds of specials and discounts it offers. Besides the perks that specifically target seniors, you may find even better deals from teacher, government or military discount programs, frequent traveler reward programs and other offerings.

You can also try simply asking hotel managers what kind of break they can work out for you. “Their cooperation will depend on how booked they are,” Zepke says. “For instance, if they are at 95 percent capacity, they are less likely to negotiate than if they’re at 45 percent capacity.”

Timing is a big factor when shopping for hotel bargains. “Something to remember is that hotel rooms are perishable commodities, meaning that the rates drop in the low or off season and as the day goes on,” Zepke says. “Rates are much lower after 8 p.m., assuming that the property has vacancies.”

4. Hop on the tour bandwagon

Another way to save is through group travel organized by tour companies, alumni associations, church and retirement community travel groups and other programs.

“Group tours are much cheaper than independent travel because you are getting a group discount on everything from entrance fees to hotel rooms,” Zepke says.

Elderhostel offers nearly 8,000 travel programs worldwide and appeals to the adventurous sort among the 55-and-older crowd. Elderhostel is a nonprofit organization founded in 1975 on the campuses of five colleges and universities in New Hampshire. Its hallmark is the inclusion of a learning component in each of its travel programs, which are created in collaboration with educational institutions, museums, performing arts centers, national parks and other facilities.

Prices are all-inclusive, except that transportation to your destination is included only on trips outside the United States and Canada.

Elderhostel has several U.S. and Canadian programs for less than $600. It offers a limited number of need-based scholarships for credits of up to $800 for U.S. and Canadian travel. The online application form asks for information about household income and special financial or medical circumstances. These are partial scholarships: Recipients have to pay least $100 toward the cost of their chosen program.

Pete Clark, part-time aging and retirement life coach and coordinator of the Northern Illinois Chapter of Elderhostel Alumni in Lake County, Ill., has participated in 26 Elderhostel programs, including a trip to New Zealand and Australia, where he snorkeled over the Great Barrier Reef. Next stop: China. Clark says Elderhostel is a good bargain because it provides enriching educational experiences for which you would otherwise pay extra.

Bill Dunn, of Atlanta, is another seasoned Elderhosteler who says he hopes to retire at the end of 2008 from his job as CFO and technology officer for Planned Parenthood “but may hold on a little bit longer.” His first Elderhostel experience was a weeklong hike in the Grand Canyon. One notable Elderhostel advantage, Dunn says, is that trip insurance, which goes up with age, is included in the price.

5. Swap your house

You’ve got a condo with a fantastic city skyline view. They’ve got a place overlooking a Caribbean beach. You want to go there. They want to come here. Several programs let you exchange your home with other vacationers, thereby eliminating the cost of lodging and enjoying a comfortable upgrade over a cramped hotel room.

Marian and Andrew Anderson, of San Francisco, did 11 home exchanges before health concerns began to limit Andrew’s ability to travel. After their retirement, Marian, a former business owner and freelance advertising copywriter, and Andrew, who was a public relations officer with Southern Pacific Railroad, joined Intervac International Home Exchange. The service charges a $65 annual membership for U.S. listings and $95 for international listings. The Andersons have been to Germany, England, Sweden, Canada and several other destinations, staying an average of three to four weeks.

The Weinsteins in Key West are members of HomeExchange.com, and have logged seven trips since their retirement nearly three years ago. They figure they’ve saved an average of $2,000 a week in hotel costs per trip through the program, which charges a $99.95 fee for unlimited membership for one year.