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The Senior Travel Outlook for 2014

Like nostalgia, senior status in travel isn't what it used to be. Gone are those golden days of airline senior coupons and senior clubs, of 30 percent hotel discounts and such. As the bookend to my earlier column on how seniors fared in 2013, my view of 2014 shows me comparatively few improved opportunities for seniors to take advantage of their senior status. 

Airfares: As far as I can tell, the only domestic airline with a meaningful senior deal is Southwest, and even that isn't as good as the many options the line offers to travelers of any age. Basically, Southwest's senior deal is a reduction from the any-age fare for an unrestricted ticket. And if you need an unrestricted ticket—typically refundable, and within seven days of travel—it's welcome. But if you plan your trips ahead, like most folks, you can do better with a ticket anyone can use. Here's an example of one-way fares in mid-February from Chicago to Las Vegas: $523 unrestricted for anyone, $285 unrestricted senior, and $190 restricted for anyone. But for travel later this week, your only choices are the $523 unrestricted or $285 senior; there are no restricted options.

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As to the other airlines, last year British Airways offered modest discounts to AARP members for a short period. Beyond that, as far as I can tell, seniors get nothing.

Rail Travel: Amtrak continues to offer seniors age 62 or over 15 percent off the lowest available fare, excluding the AutoTrain, weekday high-speed Acela trains, business or first class, and sleeping accommodations. Members of AARP below 62 years can get 10 percent discounts, with the same exceptions.

ViaRail Canada offers varying discounts for seniors age 60 or over that apply to "economy plus" fares, as well as sleeper and touring fares. But ViaRail frequently offers much bigger "express" discounts to travelers of any age.

RailEurope offers senior rail passes to travelers age 60 or over in France, Ireland, Romania and the U.K. The French senior deal is very good: a first-class senior pass for just a bit more than the any-age second-class pass, and all passes in Ireland and Romania are in the same class. In the U.K., however, even with the discount, the senior pass, in first class only, is more expensive than the standard-class any-age pass. Seniors who expect to travel extensively in France or the U.K. can buy yearly discount cards: The French Carte Senior, 60 euros (about $80) gives 25 percent to 50 percent discounts on all trains, with 40 percent on first class; the British Senior Railcard, 30 pounds (about $50), gives 33 percent discounts on all tickets.

Public transit in many U.S. cities offers half-price fares to seniors 65 or over (often with just a Medicare card), and transit is free to seniors in Pennsylvania.

Hotels: Several major multi-brand chains offer senior deals. Choice gives "up to 10 percent" to seniors 60 or over or AARP members, with some extras; Hilton gives "up to 5 percent" off to AARP members; Hyatt gives "up to 10 percent" off to AARP members; Starwood offers some senior and AARP rates, but local promotional rates are often better; Wyndham gives 10 percent to seniors 60 or over and "up to 20 percent" for AARP members; Best Western, Motel 6, and many other chains, resorts, and individual hotels offer similar discounts. As usual, short-term hotel promotions and opaque buying (Hotwire or Priceline) frequently beat modest senior discounts.

Car Rentals: AARP has narrowed its rental-car deals to just two corporations. The Avis/Budget discounts are typical, at 10 percent to 25 percent, but the AARP deal includes a $5,000 cap on damage claims and 25/50/10 liability insurance, much better than state minimums, as well as a waiver of the additional driver fee. The Payless deal, 5 percent discounts and a waiver of the additional driver fee, is less attractive.

Other: Lots of other suppliers offer modest senior discounts, ranging from tour operators to restaurants. As always, look for a great any-age deal before you accept a modest senior discount.

Ed Perkins on Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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