Have you noticed the growing number of senior citizens flying in or out of the country? Many are balikbayan (returning overseas Filipinos), but many are locals like myself.
I actually dread travel because age has brought more responsibilities that require me to be close to home, but travel I must, often alone on official trips and in difficult circumstances. But I still look forward, maybe after retirement, to being more free to travel, at my own pace.
I expect our numbers will grow as the Philippine population grays, slowly but surely. Also, more of today’s senior citizens have both the physical capability and the money to spend for travel. Yet I sense that airlines, and we senior travelers, are not quite prepared for the specific needs and challenges of this age group in airports and planes. We need to be better prepared, and to lobby with the travel
industry to take our needs into consideration. I’ll concentrate today on flying, but much of the advice here applies as well to land and sea travel.
Let’s start with using the senior-citizen discount, which can be substantial but can get complicated because it applies only to regular fares. Budget fares often end up being cheaper.
The next challenge is dealing with flight delays. These changes in schedule aren’t a matter of Filipino time; we just haven’t been able to cope with the infrastructure needs for travel. The three airline terminals in Manila are besieged with congestion problems every step of the way: check-in, immigration, predeparture, runways for takeoff and landing. On the other hand, terminals in other countries have expanded quickly, but also pose problems for senior citizens because of the long distances from one gate, or terminal, to another.
Travelers need to be prepared for long waits, and it would help tremendously if airlines designate seats in the waiting areas for the elderly and other passengers with special needs. When boarding time comes, it helps again to have ground staff assisting the passengers and protecting them from the stampede. If you find yourself often hassled by rude passengers, bring one of those foldable walking canes as a way of signaling other passengers you’re a senior citizen.
Speak up, too, if people push too much.
All airlines now provide wheelchairs on demand, but mobility involves much more consideration. In the plane, airlines should allocate seats for senior citizens closer to entrances and exits, and to restrooms. But if, as I am, you’re one of those with what I politely call “plumbing problems”—you know, leaks and loose threads and all—then don’t be ashamed to use disposable underwear or diapers when you’re on a trip where you’re not sure about access to toilets. Look at it this way: No one will know you’re using disposables, but everyone will know if you leak, and aren’t using them.
One scene that really upsets me involves flight crew who just stand and stare as senior-citizen passengers try to load their hand-carry into overhead bins, or even worse, try to get heavy luggage out of the bins. Older people have a weaker grip, so even opening the bins can be a major task.
Especially with children and senior travelers, be prepared with your own special dietary needs, not just while waiting in the predeparture lounge but in the flight itself. Airlines just can’t tailor meals for your low-sugar, low-salt, low-fat and other low- or no-whatever meals. Also, given the quality of airline food, it’s always better to bring your own meals.
Don’t forget beverages, including good old water, because those high-sugar commercial beverages can cause problems. I always pack my own tea leaves, freshly ground coffee, or even pulverized chocolate tablea, and a good thermos. When flights are delayed, these home-prepared warm beverages can be comforting. The better airports of the world now provide dispensers with cold, warm and hot water, and I was elated to see them in Naia 2.
Bring meds, etc.
Make sure you have your medicines for maintenance as well as for emergencies. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s only a short flight and you won’t be needing them. Now if it’s a long flight, it’s even more important to have someone remind you to pack them into your hand-carry.
Old or young, if you have a cold or cough, as a courtesy to other passengers, use a face mask (covering the nose and mouth only, not the whole face as in a ski mask, or you’ll get into trouble) on the flight. If you’re older and with a weak immune system, always use one to protect yourself from the more than a hundred other passengers on the plane. Even multidrug-resistant TB, the worst possible strain, has been documented to have been transmitted on flights.
Bring an effective sanitizer or disinfectant to apply before and after using the toilet. The highest risks for picking up diarrheal infections are not in the toilet itself but in the door handles and knobs.
Coming from a warm country like the Philippines, we tend to forget to bring a sweater or jacket, which you will need for the flight, where the cabin temperature can go quite low. I’m good with cold temperatures but find it such a hassle when the cold makes me need to go the toilet more often. In my latest trip, even with a jacket, the cabin temperature was so low I realized I needed a blanket, which domestic flights usually don’t provide. So, bring your own light blanket as well.
Another important consideration for senior travel: Do try to travel in groups, or with a companion. I have to say here that if your spouse or partner is a bad travel companion, don’t cut your life short by insisting on traveling together. Go with your barkada or sign up with a travel agency that has tours of seniors that are slower paced and more in line with older people’s interests. But do be careful because unscrupulous travel agencies see seniors as easy prey for tourist traps.
If you have to travel alone, use the cell phone to let people back home know where you’re going. My work colleagues require me to do that because I’m notorious, as an anthropologist, for ducking into places off the beaten track.
For people still approaching silver and golden years, keep fit and be a good traveling companion so when you’re really old, you won’t find it hard to get your kids or grandchildren and
other people to travel with you.
Organize trips to a hometown, or to places that have become special to you. You’ll find that with companions around to help with the luggage and senior moments, you’ll have much more energy and fun. It also feels good when the young ones become dependent on you, not just on your wallet but also for translations and all the stuff tour guides can’t do, like providing inside information on the history of the place, the best places to eat in, and all those secret places you explored in younger days.