April 13, 2024

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The Golden Rules of Retirement Travel

9 min read

This is part of a collection of stories celebrating the many shapes retirement travel can take. Read more here.

Bonni and Bob Gumport travel regularly in their retirement. Not beholden to one short vacation a year (they average seven big ones), their compounding experience has allowed them to develop a code of rules by which they abide—tips and tricks to use wherever they go. After one too many of the small rooms common in boutique hotels, for example, they’ve cut them out entirely. Also out of the question are walking tours within two days of arrival in a new destination, as they prefer to settle in. Their daughter Lauren describes them as “pros on retiree travel,” but they are not the only ones with advice to give.

There are former museum curators who have learned not to overbook themselves; solo travelers who always learn a little of the local language. Adherence to anyone’s rules will never ensure a vacation free of hiccups, where no flight is ever delayed, every tour is worth the hours put in, and every meal sublime. But learning from others may improve your chances of a good time—even when things inevitably go sideways. We’ve spoken to over 20 retired travelers to hear how their Golden Years have informed the way that they travel. Below, find some of their savviest secrets for better trips.

1. Take a ride on the hop-on, hop-off bus tour

If she’s traveling in a city that offers one of those double-decker hop-on, hop-off sightseeing tours, Denver-based Heidi Burtoni, 65, who goes on multiple trips per year, is definitely stepping aboard. Burtoni says it’s a great way to figure out the rest of her itinerary, get tips from other travelers and the tour guide, and get a feel for the new city. “It’s the first thing I do to get the lay of the land,” says Burtoni. Her previous career in sales means the frequent solo traveler will “talk to anybody,” so these tours also open the door for socializing and making connections.

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Know what to skip—“whether that means avoiding tourist traps, the most sweltering hours at fairs, or not putting yourself in danger by flagging a taxi when it’s unsafe,” says Lynn Zelevansky.

2. Figure out what to avoid

For Paul and Lynn Zelevansky (77 and 76, respectively), travel is less about hitting all the top spots and more about learning where not to go, “whether that means avoiding tourist traps, the most sweltering hours at fairs, or not putting yourself in danger by flagging a taxi when it’s unsafe.” They visit the Venice Biennale in fall, now, rather than at the opening, to avoid the worst of the crushes—it also helps them more effectively skirt the city’s infamous pickpockets (Lynn’s wallet was stolen on a crowded vaporetto ferry in 2022).

3. BYOTP (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper)

“Toilet paper in Europe is very scratchy … not good for sensitive parts,” says Florida native Karen Butera, an avid pickleball player who often travels with the sport in mind. Whenever overseas, she always travels with her own toilet paper. Butera, 66, is taking her granddaughter to see Taylor Swift in Paris this summer, and, yes, she will be packing TP—creature comforts are even more crucial on the road than they are at home.

4. Don’t overschedule

Packed-to-the-brim itineraries used to be J. Patrice Marandel’s MO, but these days, the former chief curator at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is more keen on scheduling “plenty of time for the unexpected.” Gone are the nonstop days with planned breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; instead, Marandel, 79, leaves room for the possibility of something unexpected and “exciting.” It often pays off.

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“Before, my travel was based on what I was going to achieve and bring home,” says J. Patrice Marandel, 79, a former curator at LACMA. “Now, it’s about my pleasure.”

5. Pack light

Buffalo, New York-based Lisa LaLonde, 74, and her travel companion Antoinette Judelsohn, 70, whom she’s been traveling with for over a decade, are pros at packing light. The pals can manage for a month on very little, relying on the versatility of black leggings and black tops, says LaLonde. The trick? Develop a travel uniform, bring just a few versions, and wash undergarments as necessary, says Judelsohn. Big suitcases stuffed to the brim with a ton of different outfits are more of a hassle than a luxury. “They’re a pain in the neck if you’re getting on a train or off a train … or moving from one city to another,” says LaLonde.

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“Anybody and their brother with an RV travels on Sunday,” warns Jenelle Jones.

6. Don’t get (too) excited

Judelsohn, a former teacher who met LaLonde when they worked together at the same school in Buffalo, has another travel rule that’s served her well: Letting go of expectations. “I never get excited about a trip,” says Judelsohn. Instead, the savvy traveler lets the excitement emerge based on what’s in front of her in the moment.

7. Avoid traveling on Sundays

RVer Jenelle Jones, 64, is against traveling on Sundays. As she puts it, “anybody and their brother with an RV travels on Sunday.” Long weekend RVers who have to get back for work on Monday use Sundays to head home, so retired Jones, 64, simply avoids the day altogether. It’s also, according to her, the “biggest day to get in an RV wreck”— yet another reason to sit back and relax. You have nowhere you need to be, after all. Take advantage.

8. Learn a few words of the local language

Charlotte Simpson, whose blog Traveling Black Widow documents her travels (100 countries and counting so far), says her number one travel rule is to learn a few key phrases—hello, goodbye, please, thank you—in the dominant language of the places she visits. Simpson says her efforts are always well received. “I just find, inevitably, it sort of stuns people when I even just say good morning.” Simpson, who prefers not to reveal her age, says she gets a lot out of bridging the language gap with just a few words: “It just makes people so friendly and so happy that you took this moment to learn [their language].”

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“I realized I liked traveling, but I want my stuff with me,” says Jenell Jones, 64. “I’m retired, I have no commitments. Where do I go?”

9. Travel slower

When you cram too much into a single trip, “the whole experience just kind of becomes a blur,” say Gillian Batt, 43, and Stephanie Myers, 51, whose blog Our Freedom Years documents their early retirement and subsequent travels. The couple, who hail from Ontario, Canada, say staying in one place for an extended period of time helps them avoid travel burnout, keep costs low, and enjoy the whole experience more. All that rushing around on limited PTO? Well behind them.

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For RVers like Norm, keeping things flexible is key.

10. Go your own way

The pandemic crystallized things for Kim Kelly Stamp, 65, and her wife Liz Schick, 62, who left it all behind and decided to travel around the country in a red 21-foot teardrop trailer. They’ve since gotten really good at going with the flow. “We know where we’re going to stay along the way, but we hold that really loosely and give ourselves the opportunity to make something else happen,” explains Stamp. This approach led them to Laurel, Mississippi, where the HGTV show Hometown—of which Stamp and Schick are big fans of, is based. Instead of following a regimented schedule, they followed their passion when the road forked, literally.

11. Keep an open heart and mind

In spite of being seasoned travelers, John and Bev Martin, 60, who started the RetirementTravelers site to share their journey with others, admit they still need to remind themselves that they can’t control everything. “We have to be patient and receptive to the lessons the world is trying to teach,” says the couple. One that keeps coming up? “Retirement is not the time to stop dreaming about new and different routes in life.”

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“I used to travel all over the world, but now I’m traveling with a purpose,” says Maria Romano, 65. “I have a race to go to.”

12. Do your research

The Gumports appreciate getting a taste of the local culture wherever they are traveling, and they’re not opposed to tours or experiences that deliver on this front. But Bonni has a few words of advice: “If you’re looking at purchasing something that uses words such as ‘bespoke, artisanal, farm-to-table’ and more fluffy adjectives, make sure these experiences are as authentic as they sound.” Read reviews thoroughly and take the time to research before you buy, advises Bonni. It’s fun to be spontaneous, but it’s easy to be misled by clever marketing and buzzwords.

13. It’s a marathon—not a sprint

It wasn’t long before Brenda Huyhn adopted—and adapted— a popular van-lifer rule: Don’t travel more than 3 hours, get in by 3 p.m., and stay at least 3 nights. Huyhn, who at 47 retired earlier than many, is adamant about not trying to do too much in one day to avoid burnout. She and her husband take their time, prioritizing “quality over quantity” with their stops and stays. It makes the entire experience all the richer.

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“I make sure to ski at least 50 days a season, as long as I’m injury-free,” says Henri Rivers, 62.

14. You can always head home

Diana Petterson is on track to hit the 100-country mark just in time for her 70th birthday in 2026. But as much as the Black solo traveler loves seeing the world, she’s not afraid to ditch a trip if something isn’t working out. “Wherever I am in the world, if for whatever reason I am uncomfortable, or I don’t feel well … I’m going to plop down that credit card, and get home.”

15. Start the day early to avoid the crowds

Artist Simma Liebman, 76, enjoys going to museums while visiting new cities and places. But since the retiree is immunocompromised, she plans these outings a little differently. Now Liebman hits the museums “as early in the day as possible” and masks up while taking in the art “unless there are very few people inside.” Whatever your motivation, rising early is something you can be sure the hordes of 20-something backpackers won’t be doing. Beat them to all the best spots.

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“I like a very good hotel, but not necessarily the best,” says Betty. Focus on getting the right location.

16. Base yourself strategically

Betty, 80, an art collector who declined to share her last name, has found that mid-sized hotels (meaning about 200 rooms) in central locations, with just enough of the services she wants and needs, do the job. “I like a very good hotel, but not necessarily the best,” says Betty. As long as you have the basics covered, it’s really about location, location, location.

17. Don’t wait for tomorrow

Instead of putting off travel for a later date, Chicago-based Ruthie Maldonado-Delwiche advises those interested in exploring the world to get out there and “do it now.” Because “tomorrow isn’t promised,” Maldonado-Delwiche, who’s been traveling since she retired in 2017, says. Don’t wait if there’s something you want to do or a place you want to visit.

Former psychiatrist Ann Heaslett, 60, who aims to run the six major world marathons in her retirement, feels exactly the same way. “There’s no time like the present.”

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