It’s no secret that Canadian seniors like to travel.
Considering the annual migration to southern climates, the term ‘snowbird’ has long been synonymous with Canadian retirees looking to escape winter’s icy grip for months on end.
But the seasonal southbound exodus is just one aspect of this market; the preferences and habits of senior travellers are as varied as any other segment and with extra time and money available, many boomers are spending their retirement travelling the world, either returning to favourite holiday spots or exploring new destinations.
And boomers are a lucrative market for travel advisors, and one that will only continue to grow in the coming years.
According to Statistics Canada, the first baby boomers turned 65 in 2011, leading to the largest increase – 20 per cent – in the number of seniors in Canada in 70 years. While the 2016 Census found there were 5.9 million seniors in Canada – representing 16.9 per cent of the total population – StatsCan estimates that by 2031, this number could grow to as many as 9.6 million seniors or 23 per cent of Canada’s total population.
Where are the snowbirds flocking to?
Peter Wong, president and co-owner of Cruise Holidays & Luxury Travel Boutique in Mississauga, Ontario, has numerous senior travellers among his client base. He has contributed travel tips for seniors to organizations such as CARP (the Canadian Association of Retired Persons).
Considering the wide range of travel that Wong’s senior clients are booking, there’s no singular definition of what a senior traveller looks like in 2019; while mainstays such as ocean and river cruises remain popular choices, more seniors are branching out in their travel choices.
“River cruises are very popular these days,” Wong tells PAX, touting benefits such as security, accessibility and value. “It’s a great way to visit Europe. Compared to the traditional bus tour, your valuable vacation time is not wasted checking in and out of hotels or sitting on buses to travel from one destination to another.
“Trips to the most remote parts of the world are now available to most seniors,” he continues. “Some of the more popular trips and destinations include river cruises in Europe or Asia, cruises to Asia, the Mediterranean, the Baltic and South America, land tours of Australia and New Zealand, safaris in Africa and expeditions to Antarctica. These trips are now available to seniors of all ages.”
Look for the patterns
With increased free time and a flexible schedule, the length of trip and level of travel experience can also vary from traveller to traveller, Wong explains. While some of his clients will take up to six shorter trips per year, others prefer to make one or two annual journeys lasting several weeks, enjoying freedom from the time constraints of building a career and raising a family.
“Recently-retired seniors tend to travel the most,” Wong says. “They have been waiting for retirement and once they do retire, they have a list of trips that they want to take. Even if you are an experienced traveller, you may not have travelled on a particular cruise line or to a specific destination.”
“We get a range of experience in our senior clients,” he continues. “Many are experienced travellers that use us to plan their trips. Others are new and want us to help them learn to travel.”
This flexibility also allows senior travellers to take advantage of shoulder season pricing and availability, Wong explains, or to book travel around important dates such as holidays or family milestones. And while last-minute travel is a possibility for seniors, Wong adds that the best prices tend to be for early bookings, adding that he advises senior clients to book trips to popular destinations or itineraries well in advance to ensure availability.
What they like, and what they're buying
When it comes to group sizes, less is more for senior travellers, Wong says, explaining that seniors are happy to pay extra for exclusive experiences.
“We find seniors, especially those that like luxury travel, tend to avoid the large group travel where you move around en masse following a guide with an umbrella. Our clients prefer a more intimate trip with smaller groups and more flexibility in tours, meals and travelling companions.”
He explains that senior clients generally fall into one of four preference categories based on spend, which in turn determines what kind of experience they’re willing to pay for: those looking for authentic experiences who opt for local restaurants and accommodations, accounting for approximately 20 per cent of the seniors’ market; “contemporary travellers” seeking comfort and convenience on their journeys (40 per cent); luxury travellers (10 – 15 per cent) seeking four- and five-star experiences; and ultra-luxury travellers (five to 10 per cent), only wanting the best of the best.
Start planning early
Among the biggest considerations for senior travellers planning a trip is the limitations of personal health and accessibility. While modern cruise ships and many destinations are relatively barrier-free, Wong says that travel agents and their senior clients need to be realistic about their travel expectations and plan ahead for any special requirements such as wheelchair accessibility
With health in mind, travel insurance is a must for senior clients, he says.
“Health and accessibility eventually are the main limiting factors affecting senior travel. Accessibility for people with mobility challenges has improved significantly, especially in the cruise industry.
“But eventually health catches up with everyone and there will be a day when we are not able to travel any more. We suggest travelling farther afield while you are a younger senior and save the destinations closer to home as you age. We also encourage our newly-retired seniors to travel as much and as far as they can while they are still active.”
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