Adventurous women start a new trend in tourism

Senior ladies are striking out on their own in a new Alaska trend – solo travel.

Increasing numbers of older women are booking solo trips with travel agents and tour groups for adventure in Alaska and out. Many are widows, some divorced or married to men who don’t like to leave home.

They’re headed for Dawson City and Quebec City, Branson and Iceland. Mexico and Hawaii. Holland and maybe Costa Rica.

“We’re going all over the world,” said Barbara Gay, who organizes group tours for the Anchorage Senior Activity Center. “We’ve been to literally every continent.”

Gay, a veteran travel agent affiliated with Travel Services Inc. in Palmer, says that 95 percent of the women she sees traveling on non-family visits are widows. Gay’s groups range from six to 43 people. They are mostly women, though occasionally a few men travel along. Her average traveler is over 75.

This summer, the Anchorage seniors are going to Iceland for six days. They’ll drop their bags at the hotel and head straight for a geothermal spring spa. Later this year, they’re going to Branson as well as Nashville and Memphis, plus Amish country in Illinois. A fall cruise will take participants from Quebec City to Fort Lauderdale. In April, it’s Australia.

They’ve been to Africa, Europe, Asia, South America. A planned Egypt trip last year got canceled by political unrest.

Gay’s clientele likes the safety of a group setting. You can bring a girlfriend or come solo but still be surrounded by people you know in a strange place.

“If a problem comes up, they can help. You’re not stranded in left field,” Gay said. “Most ladies travel with another widowed lady friend or a sister. Some do prefer to travel alone though.”

Seasoned solo traveler Dee Brown coordinates trips out of Palmer’s senior center through “Dee Tours” and also says most of her clients are widows. Brown loves to travel and loves to share the bug.

“Some seniors say they can’t afford to travel,” she said. “I say, ‘Go for it!’ The older you get, the harder it is.”

The Palmer group tops out at 14 people. They make regular runs to Dawson, Whittier, Talkeetna and Tok. One trip took a dozen ladies by ferry to Kodiak and then Dutch Harbor. Every year, they go to Mexico or Hawaii. This year, they’re talking about Costa Rica if the trip pencils out.

Brown, who is 79, just got back from a trip to Europe in November. She saw Venice. She stood at the base of the Eiffel Tower. In early December, Brown took herself to Seattle for a week scheduled around a dental appointment. She rented a car without GPS. Some of those computer printouts that give driving directions led her astray, she said. She ended up in Gig Harbor without really meaning to get there.

“I don’t consider that being lost,” she said. “It’s an adventure. There’s no such thing as an impossible situation.”

National trend

Women accounted for nearly three quarters of the baby boomers who enrolled in Road Scholar programs so far this year, according to the group, which offers excursions and programs for travelers who seek out organized groups.

“Solo female travel is one of the emerging trends in our industry,” JoAnn Bell, Road Scholar’s vice president for programming, wrote in an e-mail. Bell provided two reasons: Women in their 50s and 60s are “quite adventurous” and able to travel solo; and women feel safer in a group than traveling alone.

Baby-boomer women traveling solo tend to prefer high-activity programs offered by Road Scholar, including hiking, photography, walking, water sports and other outdoor activities.

Traveling solo to the Last Frontier

Solo seniors from the Lower 48 also seek out adventure in Alaska, travel agents say.

“They seem to be very adventuresome,” said Melinda Jones, senior sales representative for All Alaska Tours in Anchorage. “A lot of people are getting out and enjoying their senior years now that they have time. Alaska’s just a place a lot of people have always wanted to go.”

Group tours are definitely popular with single senior ladies, Jones said. Her company offers two popular group tours for up to 40 people. Both start in Anchorage and end up at Denali National Park and Preserve. One also splits off to Kenai Fjords National Park for glacier cruising and spends time at the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. The other goes to Fairbanks and Valdez.

Most of her clients come from the southern states such as California, Florida, Texas or Arizona. Many come in the summer, but some venture up in winter for night-sky aurora borealis shows or in spring for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

“When I started about seven years ago, we mostly worked with couples,” Jones said. “There’s been a lot more variety since then. Last summer I had four retired teachers come up. Those are becoming more common. I think people just want to seize the day.”