Travel When You Can Actually Take Your Time
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Travel When You Can Actually Take Your Time

Jewish Cuba, kosher in the Galapagos, hands in the soil in Israel: A new world of options for the 50+ set.

Canadian American Active Retirees in Israel participants working the land, in connection with JNF, in the Horshim Forest in central Israel.
Courtesy of CAARI
Canadian American Active Retirees in Israel participants working the land, in connection with JNF, in the Horshim Forest in central Israel. Courtesy of CAARI

One day, you wake up and realize you can plan a trip … in October! Because the kids are grown and your schedule doesn’t revolve around school vacations anymore.

Maybe it’s the day you realize you can take three weeks instead of one, so you tack on that private Jewish heritage tour of Budapest after the Danube cruise. Because you don’t have a 9-to-5 job anymore, with two weeks’ measly vacation time, half of which has to be set aside for a destination bat mitzvah or your college reunion.

That day, for many, is retirement, or something close to retirement, however it’s defined. And that freedom is why American seniors travel better than any Americans of any other age group —seriously. Baby boomers (and their “silent generation” elders) are the wealthiest American cohort, and with child car seats firmly in the rear-view mirror, they’re ready to roll.

By all accounts, retirees are traveling to more places than ever before. Destinations that used to be difficult or impossible to reach, such as Cuba or Antarctica, are now among the very hottest tickets, according to industry experts.

A tour operator says that “the three hottest destinations” for the 50+ set are “Cuba, Cuba, Cuba.” Courtesy of Ayelet Tours

So, with a literal world of options, how do you choose? Consider the following: Do I want a specifically senior tour? A Jewish tour? A tour of any kind?

Organized trips offer less flexibility than independent travel; they also entice with far less responsibility and risk. That, coupled with the reasons mentioned above, explains why people over 50 predominate on American tours, whether labeled as “senior” or not.

The trend toward eliminating the much-despised single supplement — or pairing “singles” for both economy and companionship, also on the rise — is a boon for older travelers, who are more likely to be widowed or leaving a partner at home.

Many tours that aren’t specifically Jewish tend to attract a high proportion of Jews. One example is the Boston-based outfit Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), whose approach combining travel and learning draws over-50 Jewish participants for adventures of varying lengths, itineraries and activity levels.

Designated senior trips typically feature a gentler pace, with shorter daily itineraries; some compensate with longer overall trip lengths. And it’s fun to travel with new friends who can swap stories of babysitting a toddler grandchild, or mingle over Shabbat dinner in a foreign synagogue.

With the proliferation of options, there’s a niche for everyone. Want to tour Israel, but in mixed religious (and non-religious) company? That’s a prime motivation for the ecumenically-minded Jews who sign up in droves for Road Scholar’s Israel itineraries.

How about leaving the men behind? Among the trips organized by the Jewish National Fund is a ladies-only “Queen of Sheba” Israel trip, featuring a visit with Israel Defense Forces women and meals at women-owned restaurants.

Consider Morocco! Or Cuba. Or somewhere else you haven’t been.

Jewish tour operators say Italy, Spain and Portugal continue to top the list for retirees, along with Israel.

But less-traveled, edgier (read: non-European) countries are trending among seniors. At New York-based Ayelet Tours, which specializes in Jewish itineraries and has a large over-50 demographic, “the three hottest destinations are Cuba, Cuba and Cuba,” said CEO Jeff Rubtchinsky. I heard the same thing from many of his peers, and it can’t be a coincidence that half my parents’ retired friends have been on Cuba Jewish trips lately.

Cuba has a lot going for it. Flights are short; multiple active Jewish communities warmly welcome American visitors; the beaches are nice; and thanks to a six-decade U.S. embargo, there’s the time-warp appeal of finned Cadillacs and crumbling colonial architecture, untouched by postwar sprawl. Throw in a hotel shortage and safety concerns (the State Department has issued a series of travel warnings), and a guided tour often seems the best option.

Morocco has become a favorite for senior travelers, including clients of Marilyn Ziemke’s New Jersey-based IAT Heritage Tours, which organizes Jewish travel to Europe and the Mediterranean.  Ziemke’s approach is to connect travelers with living Jewish communities, “not just cemeteries and synagogues.” Relaxing amid historic Jewish sites in the resort towns of Agadir and Essaouira, cooking with Jewish community members in Casablanca and Marrakesh, “my travelers feel the love — that Jews are not only tolerated, but respected,” Ziemke said.

Kosher on the road? No problem!

Outfits like Kesher Kosher Tours have vastly expanded the options for observant older Jews who’d like to see the world … and enjoy a hot meal, too. Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands have seen a surge of interest from older kosher travelers who’ve been to all the usual places, said Kesher spokesperson Tzipor Gabbay. “It’s ideal for those who want tropical, and something they wouldn’t do by themselves,” she explained.

Two years ago, Kesher brought kosher cruising to Antarctica — another destination whose appeal is soaring, especially for retirees with the time and money to explore the remote South Pole. “It was sold out,” Gabbay said of that initial cruise.

Gabbay attributes Morocco’s popularity as a destination  to increases in both Sephardic travelers and interest in Sephardic cultures. “The Jewish history of Morocco is very interesting, and the camels and deserts are reminiscent of Israel,” she said. Gabbay added that Moroccan cuisine is a highlight — and a kosher tour means travelers get to taste it all.

You have the time … why not see and do more?

Most organized tours are somewhere between one and two weeks long. For a more immersive experience, consider a volunteer program, such as Canadian American Active Retirees in Israel, the two-to-six-week Israel itineraries offered through JNF.

Participants (aged 50 and up) get involved in Israeli schools, hospitals, forests and botanical gardens; longer sojourns allow time for activities left out of typical itineraries, such as visits to the Soda Stream seltzer factory, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, and the i24 news station.

“Seniors want to feel important and productive — that they’re making a difference,” said Marina Brodetsky, a spokeswoman for JNF. “This gives them the opportunity to go on vacation and actually put their hands in the soil.” Land-only prices start at $3,800 for two weeks — considerably less than the cost of JNF’s 10-day senior travel tours — with discounts for longer stays.

Hadassah and UJA-Federation of New York are among the many other organizations whose missions combine touristic highlights with purposeful, behind-the-scenes experiences. Upcoming Federation itineraries include a trip to Cuba for those in the real estate industry, and an Israel mission for lawyers; many participants are past 50 and interested in using their professional skills to strengthen Jewish communities abroad.

River cruises: Low impact, high Jewish interest

All-inclusive and hassle-free, river cruises are the hot ticket for adventurers well past their backpacking and hosteling days. They’re also a novel way to experience Europe’s Jewish heritage, since major rivers coincide with places of Jewish interest like Budapest and Prague, as well as Sephardic Iberia.

As with other cruises, the appeal is never having to unpack; boats are also ideal for seniors who may be less mobile. But on inland waterways that larger ships can’t navigate, everything’s on a smaller scale. You sail by farmhouses, villages and terraced vineyards — along with dozens of people, rather than thousands.

Avalon, Tauck and Uniworld are among the operators with ample Jewish-oriented offerings. As demand grows, itineraries are sprouting to entice Jewish travelers, from kosher departures to Jewish heritage tour add-ons.

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