Most of us have seen the cliche of the older person bumbling their way through a website, or posting embarrassing comments on social media, or sending incoherent or clueless texts — but of course the reality is much more complicated.
In truth, almost two-thirds of Americans over 50 are on Facebook, as are more than half of Americans over 65. Granted, Facebook isn’t hard to navigate, but most of those people know how to upload a photo, reply to a post, set up a friend list, post links, and hit Like and Share. Sure, they post stuff that is embarrassing to their kids, but they’re not clueless about the tech.
Similar assumptions are sometimes made about aging travelers — that they’re taking huge suitcases on cushy cruises, or eating only at buffets, etc. — the stuff of cartoons and satire.
In recent years, though, these cliches have gotten increasingly outdated. On a recent trip to the French Alps, I found older travelers to be ubiquitous, and not just in the cafes — these folks were hiking straight up mountains, going paragliding, crawling into tents as the sun disappeared and temperatures dropped, and in general putting a lot of younger travelers on notice.
The fact is that many older travelers are exceptionally sophisticated travelers, to the extent that more than 4 percent of Baby Boomers are considering retiring abroad. You don’t just go flying around scouting potential retirement towns without doing some hardcore online research, and being pretty darn good at it.
Aging Travelers and Technology
So what percentage of older travelers are particularly tech-savvy, and how many of them are struggling to keep up? Professor Juho Pesonen and his colleagues at the Centre for Tourism Studies at the University of Eastern Finland wanted to figure out where along this spectrum most “senior” travelers might land, so they did a study of the online travel research habits of a number of travelers ages 61 to 78.
“Among retired people who have the time, health and financial opportunities to travel, the statistics show that the use of information and communication technologies is growing, especially among people aged 55+,” Pesonen said. “But we actually [didn’t] have the faintest idea how they use these technologies before, during and after the trip.”
As Pesonen and his colleagues analyzed the data, they found very diverse behaviors and approaches to technology among the sample group.
“It was really interesting to notice the large variations among the interviewees in the use of tourism information technology,” he said. “Senior tourists really are an extremely heterogeneous group of people with different travel behaviors.”
The Three Types of Travel Researchers…
So much for the stereotypes. But the study did find some similarities among subsets of the group, noting three distinct types of online travel users among older travelers. The first Pesonen termed Adventurous Experimenters.
“The Adventurous Experimenters are confident both in choosing their destination and using information technology,” he said.
The second group he terms Meticulous Researchers. These travelers, he said, “use technology mainly to search for information, and they appreciate safety and user-friendliness.”
Finally, there are the Fumbling Observers, who “are less keen to use technology and … often require assistance in using it,” said Pesonen.
…and the Three Types of Travelers
Further, it turned out that the online habits tended to predict the style of travel each type preferred.
The Adventurous Experimenters are “independent travelers who like to try out new destinations and avoid ready-made travel packages,” Pesonen said, while the Meticulous Researchers “appreciate safety and user-friendliness both when it comes to technology and their destination.”
The Fumbling Observers “prefer ready-made travel packages and familiar destinations.”
Pesonen was surprised by how close the correlation was between tech-savviness and travel independence. “Senior tourists that were most confident with the technology were also most probable to be independent tourists, whereas those who have only very limited skills in technology use tend to favor familiar destinations and package holidays,” he noted.
Do older travelers want something different from their travel than younger travelers, or perhaps simply different than people might assume, I wondered?
“This study actually supports the notion that age plays a more and more minor role in travel behavior and experiences,” Pesonen said. “One thing is for sure, though; senior travelers are a lot more active, use the technology more, and are more adventurous and experimental than people and businesses generally tend to think.”
Tips for Older Travelers (and the People Who Cater to Them)
After seeing all the data, Pesonen had some thoughts for aging travelers, as well as the travel providers and websites who serve their, well, booming numbers.
For older travelers, Pesonen recommends enduring some pain to become familiar with emerging technology, as it can help them make better choices, save money and find new establishments that will suit their taste.
“For some senior tourists, studying the use of the Internet and mobile devices may be cumbersome, but it will be worth it,” he said. “It will allow them to make better decisions about their holidays. Peer-review sites make it easier to pick a good restaurant, online travel agencies can save money in booking accommodation and flights, and they can find inspiration for new destinations. Also, as more and more tourism services use some kind of technology, there is a chance that people who do not use information technologies [will be] forgotten by service providers.”
For travel tech providers, Pesonen recommends that they try to make things easy for older travelers, but not to overdo it.
“Well, one thing that came up quite strong is that senior is a very lousy marketing term,” he said. “The seniors we interviewed didn’t like senior marketing at all. They just want to be treated as normal people.
“Another thing is that seniors do not need websites that are designed just for them, but the online travel services have to be as simple and easy to use as possible. When seniors find a website or an online service that they really like, they tend to be quite loyal customers who even can tolerate some errors. But in any case travel providers would do well if they do not have any errors or room for misunderstanding in their websites when they are providing services for senior tourists.”
So to avoid the term “senior traveler,” let’s ask instead all those of you who are racking up the years as “veteran” travelers: Where do you fall along the range from Adventurous Experimenter to Fumbling Observer? If the latter, do you plan to catch up to your more adventurous peers? Let us know in the comments.