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Many people dream about taking the trip of a lifetime, about crossing a big item off their bucket list. But simply wishing and hoping won’t make it so. Think your dream is too expensive? Not feasible for one reason or another? With the proper research, guidance, and plenty of planning, the trip you dream about today can happen tomorrow—or at least in the near future.
“Be realistic when choosing your destination,” says Paula Twidale, senior vice president of travel for AAA, Inc. “Talk honestly about your desires and your abilities—financial and physical.”
Twidale also recommends starting a year ahead for your big trip to choose the prime season (i.e., avoid monsoon season in Thailand; double check when the tulips bloom if you’re going to Holland), book air travel early, and choose the route that works best for you. “The more research is done ahead of time, whether online, at the library, or talking to family, friends or travel agents … the more informed you are, the better choices you will make,” she says.
Know before you go isn’t just a catchy rhyme. Check with Wikitravel.com to find alerts and advisories about the weather, political problems in a country, or other potentially dangerous situations.
Sandy Chesler of Boca Raton, Florida, always wanted to travel to the American West and see its beauty for herself. She lived in Germany when her husband, Eddie, was stationed there with the U.S. Air Force, and they traveled around the world once their four kids were grown. But she always wanted to see “my own country.” Around age 65, she and her partner, Jimmy (she and her high school sweetheart reconnected a couple of years after the death of her husband), bought a 21-foot RV and began to put her dream into place.
Fifteen years later, they have visited all 50 states (They parked the RV in California and took a 15-day cruise to the Hawaiian islands, which she counts.) and upgraded their RV four times to a 40-foot Winnebago Adventurer, and she couldn’t be happier. Her bucket list has been written on scraps of paper and tucked into books and drawers. Now, they’ve crossed off destinations such as Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, and “lots of Civil War sites.”
“We learned a lot—we couldn’t drive as far as we thought we could; campgrounds in the popular areas sometimes need to be booked months in advance; we began to tow our Jeep and use it to go to events and activities, using the RV as our home base; we joined travel clubs to get discounts on gas, campgrounds and more,” she says. “We have met many fascinating people and are still friends with one couple we met when we first started 15 years ago.”
“We plan our next trip down to the last detail as soon as we return from the last one,” she says, adding that “Jimmy does all the planning,” using Trip Advisor to start their research. They find campgrounds, consider the time of year and weather forecasts, and how far they want to drive in a day. “Know what you want and plan, plan, and plan some more.”
Setting a budget for any trip can be stressful, especially for the big dream trip, when you want everything to go perfectly. Maybe you can’t afford a luxury, four-star hotel but don’t want to sleep in a hostel. This is when Twidale advises seniors to consider booking a tour. “Tours offer cost-saver options, between budget and luxury,” she says. “You can opt to have fewer meals included or for more free time with fewer activities, which add costs. You can scale down the amount of territory you will cover or the amount of time you will be on vacation.”
When traveling overseas, be sure to know the exchange rate and where to trade U.S. dollars for the local currency. Remember to plan for—and know what to expect—food costs, incidentals, and tips, where appropriate. Create an emergency fund for unexpected expenses, and don’t forget the souvenirs!
It’s important to be realistic and clear about what the “trip of a lifetime” means for you. “You don’t want to blow your life savings, but you can still travel and experience your dream,” she adds.
For retired teachers, Rick and Barb Ziegler of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the dream of taking a two-week African safari came true at the end of 2022 after a year of planning. Although the couple has traveled extensively, they say this was the biggest trip they’ve ever taken, and South Africa was the furthest from home. Because of the intricacies, they used a travel agency and joined a tour. “We also will use a tour or agent if we’re going somewhere where we don’t speak the language,” says Rick. “We planned the Canadian Rockies, Nova Scotia, and Iceland on our own, for example.”
Everything on the safari was handled, including all transportation, tours, and guides. “If people aren’t frequent travelers, I recommend group tours, so they don’t need to do a lot of thinking about budgeting once they decide which group to join,” says Barb. Additional excursions can be added, often arranged by the hotel. The couple visited a cheetah reserve, an add-on they arranged later.
The Zieglers say they want to be comfortable but not extravagant. They knew traveling to South Africa would be more expensive, but it truly was their trip of a lifetime, and as Barb says, “If that’s your big trip, maybe your only trip, spend! Do what you need to make it a reality.”
Safety must always come first, especially if you have physical and medical concerns to consider. If you are traveling abroad, Twidale recommends visiting the U.S. State Department’s site and registering for STEP, the Safe Travel Enrollment Program. That way, you are on the U.S. State Department’s radar should there be a reason why U.S. citizens need to be alerted or accounted for in that region.
Registering is simple, enter your passport number and other information, and you’ll receive email alerts if something is happening that you should be aware of. You can also research a country’s overall safety rating at that site.
“Travel insurance is a must,” she says. Medicare doesn’t always cover care outside the United States, so medical insurance and unexpected trip interruption (think pandemic) coverage is valuable. Shop around. “This may feel expensive, but it pales in comparison to what you’re spending on a trip of a lifetime. Travel insurance is underrated. You do not want to be in a situation where you are stuck somewhere during an emergency with no contingency plan.”
Twidale lists some simple safety precautions to take before your trip:
For Ken Kissinger, a 71-year-old retired building/construction inspector from Audubon, Pennsylvania, foregoing travel insurance and or any possible safety precaution wasn’t an option. Hiking the Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) in Spain is arduous mentally and physically. After seeing the movie “The Way” in 2010, he began dreaming about making the 500-mile hike. He began training in earnest when he retired in July 2021. The trek spanned about six weeks in the fall of 2022.
He wanted nothing to mar what he calls “an epic journey, a pilgrimage of the body, mind, and soul.” His policy covered travel mix-ups, medical care, and emergency medical evacuation. A lifetime of backpacking gave him confidence that he could handle the physical exertion, and he read extensively about the Camino. “The Brierly Guide” was his main information source. Other online sources of information like YouTube videos and online Camino forums helped him know what to expect and how to prepare, including ways to keep money and other valuables safe.
He wore a money belt, a fanny pack with his wallet and phone and kept his passport and other papers separated and secure. When he showered in one of the many albergues (hostels), he stayed in; these precious belongings came with him in a hanging mesh bag.
Kissinger was a true minimalist when it came to packing—one change of clothes, two changes of socks and underwear, raingear, and a few toiletries (He washed out clothes most nights.) “Pack less, but pack quality. Check the weather and temperatures for the time of year and location you are going,” he says.
Twidale advises adopting a minimalistic mindset to packing
Take a camera. Kissinger found his Pixel 4A 5G cell phone did the trick nicely, “Add storage to your cloud account, as you may be surprised to find you’re running out of space for all the wonderful photos you will take,” he recommends.
What all the travelers featured in this article have in common is that they did the legwork to make sure their trips were bucket list worthy. Dream big, but don’t skimp on the research and planning needed to ensure your trip of a lifetime lives up to your dreams. Most importantly, choose a trip that is important to you. Remember, it’s YOUR dream—no one else’s.
This article is intended for general informational and educational purposes only, and should not be construed as financial or tax advice. For more information about whether a reverse mortgage may be right for you, you should consult an independent financial advisor. For tax advice, please consult a tax professional.