By Jimmy Magahern
Traveling with strangers can be dicey in divisive times. Nevertheless, tour groups for Boomers and beyond are thriving.
In these fractious times, it often doesn’t take much to ignite a fight between strangers – particularly when opposing political views come into play. Social media provides a daily diet of heated altercations captured on smartphones (which, psychologists say, further feeds the behavior). Lately, there’s been a particular rise in dust-ups aboard planes, where crowded cabins can increase simmering hostilities, and where fist fights over everything from overhead bin space to armrests have generated a growing wave of “air rage” incidents.
Last February, public brawling even made its way aboard a Carnival cruise ship in the South Pacific, when a large group associated with a wealthy Australian family repeatedly taunted other passengers, eventually erupting into a bloody melee on the pool deck when one member of the family overreacted to someone stepping on the heel of his flip-flops. Ultimately, the ship had to dock 100 miles short of its destination to have the disruptive family ejected by police – amid cheers from the other passengers.
Given the divisive state of the public sphere, it may be a bit surprising to learn that travel clubs for the over-50 set are actually on the rise – and so far, without incident. With social schisms seemingly at a pitch, isn’t the very idea of cooping up dozens of assorted older adults onboard a cramped tour bus for hours on end a recipe for disaster?
“I’ve never had any problems,” says Maxine Boyce, a retired teacher in Apache Junction who estimates she’s been on about 150 trips arranged through Kindred Tours, a Gilbert-based company specializing in Southwest tours for the Baby Boomer generation. Boyce credits the lack of confrontations to the gentle peacekeeping skills of owner Jeff Reed.
“We sometimes see a little skirmish starting up, but Jeff tends to take them aside and give them the ‘Jeff talk,’” Boyce says, with a laugh. “That basically amounts to him saying, ‘Look here, we’re all a group, and we’re going to do what’s best for everybody.’”
Boyce believes another reason Reed’s passengers get along so well is because of the organic way the travel group has grown over the years.
“We always say, ‘Don’t invite anyone to come along that you’re not willing to room with.’ And that seems to work.”
But JoAnn Bell, senior vice president of program development for Road Scholar, one of the largest travel tour providers for older adults (with over 100,000 participants each year), thinks there may be something deeper at work behind the harmony her tour groups experience, too.
“Part of our mission is to create a better understanding of the world through educational experiences,” she says, “so our participants tend to be open-minded and curious about other cultures to begin with. Because of that, I think, we don’t usually have the problem of people not getting along. There’s a lot of like-mindedness in our groups.”
Safety in numbers
Formerly known as TJ’s Travel Club, Kindred Tours got its start pretty much by chance 34 years ago, when gerontologist Jeff Reed chartered a motor coach to take his terminally ill patients and their spouses on a true bucket list trip to the Grand Canyon.
“He was mainly doing it just to cheer these guys up,” says Reed’s wife, Sandra Sutherland, who now runs the company alongside the retired doctor. “But the experiences they shared with others after the trip were so positive that we started hearing from newspapers who wanted to tell the story, and seemingly overnight, we were getting calls from other people who wanted to tour with us, too. Before long, it really took over Jeff’s life, so he stepped away from his practice to devote himself to the travel club.”
Reed and Sutherland stumbled on a now well-documented fact about the aging population: nearly half of all people ages 54 to 72 (the Baby Boomer demographic) already have a bucket list, according to a 2017 AARP survey, and more than 75 percent of them have travel destinations at the top of their lists.
Still, few of those older adults want to travel alone. “When people get a little bit older, they can become fearful – they don’t just jump in the car and take off like they used to,” says Sutherland, 61, who notes that at least three-quarters of the people who book tours with Kindred are women, many of whom are widowed or divorced. She says traveling with a group is “just a really great way for single ladies of any age to travel and feel safe.”
Nevertheless, she stresses that Kindred doesn’t coddle its passengers. “We’re not there to be their caregiver. We’re not holding their hand. If anything, we’re asking them to maybe push themselves a little bit farther than they would on their own.”
Bell says Road Scholar’s tours also challenge its participants, but never to an uncomfortable degree. “The biggest fear for older adults is, can they keep up the pace of the program with their peers?” she says. “That’s why all of our programs are very clear on how much activity there is every day. Our biggest problem is if we have an issue with someone whose mobility is slowing the group down. What we tend to do in those cases is assign someone to help them so we don’t have to compromise the speed of activity for the rest of the group.”
Even then, Bell admits that sometimes a tour member may not be able to keep up with the rest of the group. “It’s never anything we like to do, but occasionally we’ll have to send those people home.”
For those who can keep up physically, there actually is a little hand-holding. “We don’t ever want anybody to feel they’re alone,” Bell says. “A very common time for people to join our mailing list is after they’ve recently lost a spouse. Because they may have always felt comfortable traveling with a spouse, and it can be hard traveling on your own after you’ve always traveled with someone. So we are a good option for people who still want to continue traveling but feel insecure about being there themselves.
“A lot of travel companies will promise you a full day of sightseeing, but then at the end of the day, they drop you off at your hotel and you’re alone,” Bell adds. “We always make sure that people are attended by someone.”
Boyce checks her Kindred Tours newsletter to see where she’s heading next with the group.
“I’m going to be going to San Diego next week,” she says. “We have a four day, three night trip. Then I’ll be going with them on two trips next month: a one-day picnic-type trip to ride the scenic skyride at the Snowbowl near Flagstaff, and then I’ll be going to a baseball game at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix.”
Sutherland says her company offers a mix of multi-day trips around the Southwest (September’s calendar includes a four-day trip to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico) along with numerous day trips to Arizona destinations. “Those are very relaxing, because it’s like taking a little mini-vacation,” she says. “You don’t have to board your dog, you don’t have to pack a bag and you’re usually getting home in time for dinner.”
You also don’t have to become a member of Kindred Tours to go on a trip (the optional $36 annual membership fee basically pays for their monthly newsletter), but Boyce says becoming a regular traveler with the group is a great way to make friends.
“You meet a lot of wonderful people along the way, and it’s a great way to accumulate more acquaintances who sometimes become friends that you call on even when you’re not involved in the travel club,” she says.
Both Kindred and Road Scholar (as well as most other travel clubs for older adults, like Collette and AARP’s travel wing) offer solo travelers the option of staying in their own hotel room by paying a “single supplement” amounting to an additional 50 percent of the hotel room expense to compensate for the lack of a second guest. But Boyce says it’s more fun to have the company pair you with a roommate.
Somehow, even in these divisive times, sharing a mutual love of travel and adventure can move people beyond the differences that might otherwise separate them.
“I’ve never had to travel with anyone yet where I had to run out of a room screaming, ‘I can’t stand it anymore!’” says Boyce, with a laugh. “After 150 trips, I guess that’s pretty good.”
Kindred Tours takes guests on trips throughout the Southwest, including this trip to the San Juan River in Utah. (Photo courtesy Kindred Tours)