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From Spontaneous to Safe: Does Travel Change as You Age?

In a close circle of my friends, a tradition has arisen to take a hardcore surf trip to celebrate important occasions — weddings, major birthdays, that kind of thing. The group has surfed in France the day before running with the bulls in Pamplona (and slept in the car overnight, with one guy in the trunk). We’ve also gone out on sailboats for a week, trekked through jungles in Central America, hacked new trails with machetes on the Olympic Peninsula to get to secret breaks and plucked sea urchin spines out of our feet in Mexico.

So when one of the group hit a milestone birthday recently, the youngest among us asked immediately, “Where are we going?!” He had to ask again and again, and eventually someone came up with this as a tentative plan: a week on the water in Maine, in a large house that allows kids and dogs.

Running with the bulls it ain’t, and we won’t come close to needing machetes. Is this what happens to adventurous travelers as they get older — the most uncertain part of the trip is finding a vacation rental in Maine that allows dogs?

It’s not just our group; a friend who spent a few years fishing in Alaska and then working in Asia now has frequent guest credentials on Disney cruises. A family member that left on an around-the-world trip and then vowed never to leave New Zealand now lives in the house where he grew up in small-town New Jersey. The list goes on.

A horse doesn’t change its stripes — or something like that — so what is it that made these former intrepid souls slow down, some almost to a stop? And what is travel like for them many miles along? Let’s have a look.

Sore Bones and Comfortable Beds

In her mid-20s, Kristen O’Brien of Minnesota bobbed around Europe like many college graduates still getting their bearings. During her travels, however, she was turned from the rugged life forever.

“[On] a trip to visit a friend in England, I swore, like Scarlett O’Hara, to never sleep on the floor again,” she recalls. “I was about 25.”

But that is not to say that she has lost all sense of adventure — she is happy to rough it in a tent, but really means it when she says she needs something comfortable to sleep on. “All camping must include a fat air-filled pad. My back won’t take too much abuse anymore.”

Celia Cole, a classmate of O’Brien’s back in college, also points to the ascendance of a comfortable bed as time marches on.

“On a tight budget, I used to eat in good restaurants and stay in dumps,” she says. “Now I stay in nice hotels and order room service. As you get older you get wealthier and lazier?”

Gillian Williams, president of the Rensselaerville Institute – School Turnaround, is thankful for the upgrades that come with the years … and the miles: “At this age I travel so much that I’m always upgraded. Except once or twice a year — and then I’m spitting indignance. The torn rotator cuff, the wrecked hip flexors, the degenerated discs all have a sense of entitlement.”

Time vs. Comfort: Comfort Wins

Buying yourself extra hours at your destination by booking tight connections and red-eye flights may become less attractive as you get older — or, I would contest, as you accumulate airport experiences.

After years of sprinting through airports I would argue that getting burned a few times trying these tricks is the real reason many travelers start choosing less demanding itineraries. If you travel regularly over several years, it is inevitable that you will fail to make a tight connection, or end up in a broken seat on a red-eye that makes it impossible to sleep — and after a few of these you’ll likely decide that it’s just not worth the extra half-day at your destination to risk an overnight on an airport floor.

Williams concurs: “I used to love red-eyes because they compressed time for me. Now I avoid them like the plague.”

Winging It Doesn’t Work Forever

Frequent traveler Mike Sullivan has done his share of hard, unpredictable miles — on an Ireland bike trip years ago, he recounts,”I closed my eyes and picked a direction out of Galway into [County] Connemara,” and off he went. Now, his daughter has picked up some of the same traits, but Mike is planning out his hours. As Mike tells it:

“My daughter is 24. She flew into Lisbon last fall with her bicycle, a tent and a swim fin for bodysurfing. Took bus into Lisbon from the airport, found a hostel and assembled her gear. Cruised around Lisbon for a day then headed south. No clear idea where she’d stop, camp, eat, surf, anything. Just headed south along coast, and went around Iberian peninsula like that to Italy. …

“Same thing in [New Zealand] a year ago, biked both islands by herself, other than a stay with a couple of family friends, just nosed her bike out and went. Had a map. Yes, Mom and Dad were very worried.

“I did this in Europe/Ireland as a younger guy. At that age, the last resort of sleeping under a bridge after pubbing it up with locals was a good thing. I couldn’t do that now; when I went to Portugal this winter I knew every night where I was going to sleep, and didn’t have any time for a bike trip, only had five days. One of the consequences of having a job, I think.”

Japan-based teacher and U.S. expat Dan McLaughlin lays the blame more on increased responsibilities than on advancing years.

“Younger people tend to have more time,” he says. “Twenty years ago I flew to Tucson, AZ, hopped the Greyhound to Nogales and walked over the border into Mexico. I spent the next two months riding buses here and there with nothing more than [a] guidebook and a Spanish-English dictionary. I learned heaps of Spanish and had many adventures. But I was able to go without any sort of plan because I had two months. Usually, my first day in town would involve several hours of looking at various hotel rooms in order to find a place to stay. And while this was fun, it was also bit of a time-consuming chore. But time is what I had.

“Flash forward 20 years and now I’m off to Spain, but this time for just two weeks. I won’t have the luxury to burn off a whole day thinking of where to go, how to get there and where to stay.”

Deepening Pockets, Shrinking Vistas

One important consideration as you seek out more comfort is that your prospects for the chance encounters at the heart of travel can shrink dramatically. As Mike Sullivan notes, the biggest difference now is that his approach to travel “now focuses more on ‘avoidance of disaster’ rather than ‘seeking adventure.’ I still try to travel on the cheap, and am pretty good at it. But interestingly, as my means have grown, my choices have shrunk. Example: In my younger days, while in Venezuela I got invited to a guy’s home I’d met over some Polar beers. I stayed almost two weeks, got to know his family really well, and my espanol improved immensely. I doubt that I’d do that now even if offered.”

It’s All About the Kids

Adventurousness aside, within our surfing group the determining factor is limited vacation time weighed against time with our children. Like a lot of Americans, many of us had kids a bit later in life, so now as our traveling ambitions cool down, our parenting obligations fire up. If you only get a couple of weeks off each year, you’re not going to bail on your kids in order to surf with your buddies.

That doesn’t mean you have to go find yourself a big Maine rental — just take a slightly less rugged road. Washington D.C.-based policy analyst Linda Miller says that “it’s all about how kid-friendly the destination is,” but she is not talking about a theme park with gift shops at the exit of every ride. She has to put her kids first, but her family is just going to take a slightly less insane rafting trip than they might otherwise.

“This summer we are going on a five-day white-water rafting trip on the Green River in Utah with several other families with kids,” she explains. “My husband did an 18-day trip with these people 20 years ago down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Now it’s a calmer, more kid-friendly section as we all have little ones in tow. The times, they are a changin’.”

Well, they’re not changing that much, Linda; a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon with kids sounds like a heroic enough effort. And in defense of our group, we’re not giving up totally ourselves — it was a high priority that to make sure there would be a surf break out front of the house in Maine, and we’ll bring some kids’ boards to teach the youngsters.

Live the Luxe Life

Sometimes veteran travelers eventually fall for a bit of luxury on the road. Filmmaker Mary Mazzio simply had this to say about traveling as she gets older: “It’s all about the thread count, baby.” Add to this Cole’s previous comment about getting wealthier and lazier as you age, and you have a trend that you might trace to years of doing your own laundry and scrubbing your own bathtub; travel becomes no less an adventure for being an escape from years of routine.

Live the Anti-Luxe Life

Of course, there is one thing that tends to become even more fixed as you age: your value system. Frequent traveler Michael Steuermann has never cared for what he considers the false luxury of many hotel chains, where he feels like he is paying for decor and brand names rather than actual added value.

“I still prefer cheap motels and cheap restaurants,” he says. “I hate to pay up just to walk 400 yards through a maze to a brunch I don’t like, while my car doors get dented in some huge parking garage. As for the service, if you have to pay money for people to kiss your behind, it doesn’t really count.”

Registered investment advisor Kathryn Schwartz concurs, noting that the hotel room ranks very low on her priority list. “I have stayed at some of the nicest hotels around, and I have also stayed at some of the dumpiest,” she says. “At this point, as long as it is clean I would rather not spend the extra money (at least until the next milestone!). Less time in the hotel room = more time exploring.”

New Jersey-based father of two Steve Marchel takes a different approach to similar ends — he decided to rent local houses to save money, and found his personal paradise.

“I started renting houses in the Caribbean mostly due to value,” he says. “That evolved into renting without the kids, seeking more privacy and avoidance of obnoxious and entitled travelers, nothing I want when traveling. I still like the occasional boutique hotel; as a thread-count fan, I do sacrifice some comforts for the autonomy offered in a villa rental, but room service, concierge — not important. Peace, autonomy, kitchen, privacy, noise control, space, etc. — important.”

How to Keep the Spring in Your Slowing Step

1. Get comfortable lodgings, but make them as convenient as possible. So if you are traveling to a city, put some of your travel budget toward getting a hotel room right in the thick of it — whether that means overlooking Central Park in New York, or in Bloomsbury in London, or at the foot of a ski slope. Do more with less energy and time by eliminating travel time to and from the sweet spots.

2. Do the same stuff, but tone it down. By now, you’ve likely accumulated so many intense travel experiences that you don’t need constant thrills and novelty. Take inspiration from Linda Miller, and do the kiddie section of the Grand Canyon. For myself, I have surfed so many places that I don’t need to hack trails with a machete to have a good time. On a recent trip I was content to surf a lesser break that just happened to be right out front of our lodging. In the end I caught more waves with less hassle than I have in a long time, all while watching my kid play on the beach. It was a good trade.

3. Book sensible itineraries. Every bit of energy and enthusiasm you burn running through an airport or suffering through a red-eye is energy you won’t be able to call up when you really need it. If you make sure the to-and-from part of your travels is easier, the being-there part will get better.

4. Know what you care about. Mary Mazzio wants nice sheets; Mike O’Gorman couldn’t care less. If there is nothing else the years have to offer, it is knowing thyself.

5. If you haven’t done it yet, do it now. Many travelers I know put off their dream trip when they were younger and now can’t see any way of actually making it happen — at least until they retire. But listening to all the folks above, it becomes clear that as the years pass, it doesn’t get easier, you don’t find the time, your family obligations don’t evaporate and your other responsibilities only increase. If you don’t make it happen, no one else will. See How to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality for advice.

Has your travel style changed over the years?

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