Susan Snelson Spiegel loved her 1975-76 junior year spent at Gonzaga-in-Florence, Italy.
But the business major, weighed down with required classes that year, regretted she never took a class from Mercedes Carrara, an Italian professor famous for her knowledge of art history.
So eight years ago, Spiegel, now 58, took a sabbatical from her busy life as spouse, mother of four, active volunteer, and she spent a summer term back at GU in Florence, taking Carrara’s art history class that included walking tours of Florence’s museums.
She was the oldest person in class, but Spiegel didn’t care.
“I have a huge desire to learn,” Spiegel said. “Carrara takes a beautiful work of art and makes it come alive.”
Seattle resident Spiegel is an uber-traveler, with more time, energy and resources for travel than most, but Spiegel’s adventures provide a glimpse into how boomers might do travel in the coming years.
Older boomers – transitioning soon into retirement and part-time work in greater numbers – will find more time, resources and renewed energy for travel, and they’ll do it in some innovative ways.
AARP has approximately 38 million members. The organization polls its members on many matters – including Social Security and Medicare.
However, in poll after poll, said Clay Buckley, lifestyle vice president for AARP Services: “Travel is consistently the No. 1 interest.”
In do-again travel, boomers will return to places they traveled when younger. Or they’ll travel to places they missed out on in childhood.
Some Inland Northwest camps offer weekends for adults hoping to recapture camp life, except wine and beer are often wink-winked into the weekends.
For instance, Camp Sweyolakan’s women’s retreat, scheduled for Sept. 6 to 8, is so popular it fills up by July.
Disneyland opened July 17, 1955, in Southern California, and boomers and their families began to make pilgrimages there.
Disney, no stranger to nostalgia, has been adding boomer-attractive features to its theme parks over the past decade to lure boomers back to reminisce about their Disney childhood and engage in adult stuff, too, such as golf, fine-dining and Cirque du Soleil “La Nouba.”
Like Spiegel, some boomers will return to cities where they studied, but they’ll spring for luxuries.
In her Florence junior year, Spiegel lived in a “pensione” with other GU students. Hot showers were a rare indulgence.
When she returned to Florence in 2005, she rented an apartment with a big kitchen and a courtyard, just a few blocks from the Arno River.
“It was just a charming place to live,” Spiegel said. “It was a half hour walk for me to go to school each day, and I loved walking through Florence as things were waking up.”
Spiegel scored a time-share condo in Park City, Utah, in January 2012 during the Sundance Film Festival. She wanted to see movies, but ticket prices were outrageous.
So she applied to be a volunteer. She worked 40-plus hours a week in a ballroom turned theater, taking tickets and answering questions. Her official title: crowd liaison.
She volunteered again this January.
“When I wasn’t working, I’d watch films,” she said. “I had free admission because I was a full-time volunteer. This year, I saw 27 films.”
Spiegel had learned “voluntravel” in 2010 at the Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.
She applied three years in advance, stayed with family members, and though she requested a job where she wouldn’t get cold, she was assigned the task of loading people in and out of shuttle buses.
“I thought, well, I’ll just buy extra long underwear,” she said.
When her husband, then a corporate executive with an office supply chain, was sent to oversee a project in China in 2010, Spiegel joined him. In November 2010, she and her sister volunteered together at a panda reserve.
Spiegel remembered: “It was cold, damp, and we ate rice three times a day for two weeks, but how often do you get the chance to do that?”
Many boomers got the “wasting away again in Margaritaville” vacations out of their systems in their younger years.
They want to infuse travel now with meaning by volunteering, or they choose vacations that include some education.
Jim Owens, regional manager for travel services for AAA Washington, said: “You can do piano lessons on cruises now. If you’re going over to Italy, you can do Italian cooking. Longer stays are coming into play with boomers, too. They want to get more immersed in the local culture.”
Owens, 61, recently took a Caribbean cruise with his folks, who are in their 80s, and with his two grown children, who are in their 20s.
All around them on the ship, from many different countries, they saw “grandma, grandpa, grown kids and the grandkids.”
Multigenerational travel will grow even more popular in coming years, Owens and other travel experts predict, because family members, scattered throughout the country, will welcome gatherings where they have family time but “everyone can have some freedom, too,” as Owens put it.
All-inclusive family resorts or on cruise ships allow together – and alone – time. Multigenerational travel is popular in less expensive ways, too.
“We’re seeing a reasonably sharp increase in what we call everyday travel,” said AARP’s Buckley. “It’s not get on a plane and fly to a destination. It’s drive to visit family members and for weekend getaways. With the economy being a bit down, it’s a great way to save money by combining vacations across your family.”
Multigenerational travel is growing, too, Buckley said, because people are staying alive longer, increasing the chances that even great-grandparents can get in on some family vacation plans.
Many 20-and-30-something children of boomers didn’t spend their junior years abroad in Europe and Great Britain like their parents did.
It was India, Africa, China, and some returned to those places after college to work, marry and settle down.
Boomers will travel more and more to visit far-flung grown children and grandchildren, travel experts predict, challenging themselves in new ways in new lands.
In 2011, Spiegel met up with her daughter who had spent a semester in London. Before they traveled together in Croatia, Spiegel traveled by herself in Latvia in the Baltic region of Europe.
“I couldn’t read the signs and communication was an issue,” she said. “But I did it, and I felt really great at the end.”
European river cruises
This is niche travel, for sure, but included here because European river cruises were mentioned by many travel experts as the next big thing for boomers.
“We are booking more river cruises today than we’ve ever done,” said AAA’s Owens.
If you were a “Downton Abbey” fan, you likely saw those sponsorship ads by Viking River Cruises. The men and women enjoying wine on the decks of the small ships looked aging-boomer chic – silver hair, tanned and toned bodies.
River cruises through Europe’s great rivers are popular among boomers for many reasons and not just because of recent mishaps aboard giant cruise ships.
Owens recently returned from an Amsterdam-to-Vienna river cruise.
“Most of the people on board were 55 to 70 and from all over the world,” he said.
He booked the trip through Uniworld, a company that advertises its trips as “boutique river cruises.”
Boomers embraced boutique hotels in the 1990s because they were smaller and more intimate. River cruises are popular for the same reasons, Owens said.
“You are cruising down a river, and you end up in the heart of the city,” he said.
Owens said a pent-up desire among boomers to get to Europe – for the first time or for a return visit – is also contributing to the river cruise trend.
During the recession, when retirement plans blew up alongside 401(k) plans, many boomers canceled or postponed big-ticket travel.
“People are tired of staying home,” Owens said.
Senior center tours
Not every aging boomer can afford a European river cruise or return to the city where they spent their junior year abroad. Many never had a junior year abroad.
Senior centers offer European trips, too, but they mostly offer affordable and interesting shorter-stay trips.
Spokane’s Corbin Senior Center, for example, is offering summer excursions to the Chewelah Casino, the Canadian Rockies and a cruise on Lake Chelan.
Boomers haven’t tapped into senior center tours in big numbers yet, said Corbin’s director Christa Richardson, but she expects they will within the next decade.
“Especially as they lose their spouses,” Richardson said. “Some people call up and say ‘I lost my spouse, what can I do?’ Maybe they always wanted to travel with their spouse and now the spouse isn’t there, so they find somebody here.”
Corbin Senior Center’s “homegrown tours” allow boomers and seniors – some who traveled throughout the world in their younger years – to focus on their community.
“I (do) a tour called ‘Northwest Treasures.’ We go to three or four places and have lunch to show people what is available in the community,” Richardson said.
They tour landmark buildings as well as nonprofit organizations, such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, where they learn about the missions of the organizations.
Boomers will embrace the physical and mental health benefits of travel, too, Richardson predicted.
“If you have something to look forward to, you will prepare for it,” she said. “If you have an operation, you can say six months from now I’ll be traveling, I’ll get into shape.”
Boomer grandparents complain among their peers about all the “stuff” their grandchildren possess, even if the grandparents are responsible for much of the bounty.
Experiences, however, don’t pile up in a toy box. They pile up in the memory.
Boomers reminisce about childhood trips they took in old station wagons – no seatbelts, no air-conditioning – and the funky resorts they stayed in filled with weird bugs and strange humans. Great memories.
The travel industry is banking on boomers creating a legacy of memories for their grandchildren – from European river cruises to day trips to Silverwood Theme Park.
Spiegel doesn’t yet have grandkids, but she and her husband feel confident they’ve passed on the uber-travel instinct to their kids.
“We took our kids a lot of places,” Spiegel said. “We had a time share, and my kids asked why are we always going these places in the off-season? I said that’s when we can get it.
“I felt it was important to (show) my kids that not everything was like where they lived. It was better than giving them tons of material things.”