The Global Coalition on Aging (GCOA) and Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS) recently released a report titled "Journey to Healthy Aging: Planning for Travel in Retirement." Their research demonstrates the disconnect between the number of Americans dreaming of travel during retirement and the number saving adequately to make their dreams a reality. According to the report, fewer than one in five Americans (18%) have specifically factored travel into their retirement financial strategies, despite the more than two-thirds (69%) who say that travel is an important goal worth saving for. "Retirees were asked how they would have prepared differently for travel during in their retirement," said Catherine Collinson, TCRS president. "Of those with regrets, more than half wish they would have saved more. People of all ages need to plan and save to make their retirement dreams of traveling a reality."

Benefits of Travel

Travel during retirement can be much more than just an enjoyable activity. Travel and its associated activities have been linked to healthy aging – boosting physical, cognitive and social benefits. Those who travel tend to be more active, and research shows that older adults who are physically active have lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and cancers, and a reduced risk of falling.

Travelers can't avoid being introduced to different experiences and environments. Meeting new people and learning about their cultures, navigating new places, and trying new things stimulates and challenges the brain, which promotes cognitive function. In fact, research shows that maintaining or starting social participation later in life has positive benefits on the mental health of older adults. "Americans are only just beginning to understand the value of travel for physical and mental well-being and social connections," said Collinson.

The report found that the strong majorities of those surveyed indicated that travel improves their overall health and well-being, including benefits to:

  • Mood and outlook (86%)
  • Stress level (78%)
  • Physical well-being (77%)
  • Friendships (75%)
  • Mental stimulation (75%)
  • Health (70%)

Travel as an Investment

There is a tendency to view the travel-health connection in one direction: I'll travel during retirement if I'm healthy enough. It's important, however, to acknowledge the role that travel plays in healthy aging. "It is intuitive that if we stay healthy we will be able to travel in old age," said Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., executive director of GCOA. "But it is now becoming apparent the reverse might also be true: Travel and the numerous physical and mental benefits associated with it are drivers of health across all stages of life. Investing in travel could also be a worthwhile investment in healthy aging."

Instead of viewing travel as something that can only be accomplished if health allows it, it is worth looking at travel as an investment that can improve your health and well-being, which can ultimately lead to a more enjoyable and fulfilling retirement.

Budgeting for Retirement Travel

While the majority of Americans dream about traveling during retirement, most are financially unprepared – an unfortunate reality considering the many physical, cognitive and social benefits of travel. When calculating retirement needs, it's important to factor in saving and budgeting for travel to ensure your dreams become a reality. "We are beginning to see this powerful relationship between travel and healthy aging, which should motivate us all to begin saving for it now," said Hodin.

It can be helpful to make a list of all the places you've wanted to see and create a budget for each trip, including costs for transportation, lodging, food and activities. Of course, it's difficult to predict the exact cost of future trips, so it's OK to estimate based on current figures. For a very general budget, add up all the trips and divide by the number of years you expect to be actively traveling, and that's about how much you'll need each year. Even if you have no idea where you'd like to travel, you can still budget X amount of dollars per year to cover travel costs, then make sure your plans fit into the budget.

While the media often make it seem like retirement travel is something only the extremely wealthy can enjoy, travel doesn't have to be a luxury outing. You can realize the benefits of travel whether you are roasting marshmallows at a campsite in Yosemite or sipping tropical drinks at a Tahitian over-water villa. If high-end vacations don't fit your budget, find trips that do. Some ways to save on travel and vacation costs include:

  • Off-season travel. Many retirees have the flexibility to travel during the off season, which can lead to significant savings on airfare, accommodations and attractions.
  • Group trips. Travel companies buy tickets in bulk and can pass on the savings to you. Other perks of group travel include expert guides (who know the best places to go) and meeting new people.
  • Road Scholar. Road Scholar is a not-for-profit organization that offers 5,500 educational tours in all 50 states and 150 countries, including "Budget-Friendly Programs." It also awards $250,000 in scholarships towards programs in North America each year for those who do not have the financial means to participate.
  • Senior discounts. Many retailers and organizations offer discounts for older people. AARP, for example, negotiates member discounts with tour providers, hotels and car rental agencies. Also, the National Park Service sells $10 lifetime passes to parks, and certain airlines (including Southwest and United) offer a limited number of senior fares – though these fares may not always represent the best deal, so check around.
  • Volunteer vacations. Several organizations host volunteer vacations in which participants work toward a common goal, such as trail maintenance in the U.S. Virgin Islands or habitat restoration in Chile. Although the trips aren’t free, they can be very rewarding and offer a more affordable way to visit a particular area.

The Bottom Line

Retirement planning involves much more than finances, including decisions about when you'll retire and what you'll do (not that these factors aren't also driven by finances). Travel offers many physical, cognitive and social benefits, which can lead to a better experience during retirement. "Armed with this new knowledge [the value of travel for physical and mental well-being], Americans must now take action and begin saving for travel as a means to live longer, healthier and more fulfilled lives," Collinson said.

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