I was recently asked about senior hotel discounts, and that call prompted me to take a broader look at a basic question: Where can seniors find good deals these days? More and more, the general answer is, "The same places travelers of any age look." Rather than offer across-the-board senior discounts, most travel sellers now focus their promotions on narrower market niches. Here's my take on where to look for senior discounts this fall:
Senior discounts are still your best bet for many rail trips. And although some of the discounts are not spectacular, they're either as good as or better than discounts available any other way:
*Amtrak's senior discount, for travelers age 62 and older, is 15 percent off the best available coach-class fare for most trains, excluding weekday trips on the high-speed Acela or on the AutoTrain.
*VIA Rail Canada's senior program currently features discounts up to 25 percent on most fares, as well as around 10 percent on the several Canrailpass versions. As far as I can tell, VIA does not currently offer its former "twofer" senior ticket promotion.
*Eurostar offers senior discounts on Chunnel trains. The discount for travelers 60 or over can be as trivial as 1 euro (for the cheapest advance-sale tickets) to substantially more on last-minute buys.
*Seniors age 60 or over can enjoy rail discounts of up to 25 percent to 50 percent in France (depending on the train) and 33 percent on almost all trains in the UK -- in any class of service -- but you must first buy special yearly senior ID cards for about $75 in France or $35 in the UK. Discounted senior rail passes that are still available in France, the Balkans, Ireland and Romania are good deals, but because UK senior rail passes are available only in first class, most seniors will opt for the lower-priced second-class passes for travelers of any age.
Public transit systems in many major U.S. cities offer deals to seniors -- generally starting at age 65 -- that range from 50 percent off to free off-peak in Pennsylvania. However, some cities require that you first obtain an ID card, and Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis and Washington now issue senior ID only to local residents. Check the system in any city you plan to visit. I haven't seen many similar senior deals outside the United States.
As far as I can tell, AARP deals with Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, and National are not better than you can get through a lot of other programs, but AARP deals do offer enhanced primary liability insurance coverage and caps on personal liability for collision/loss that are valuable and unique to AARP.
As I've often noted, you should view the modest AARP/senior discounts of, at best, 10 percent to 15 percent at many hotels as a fallback position only when you can't do better than the many various deals for travelers of any age. In general, my recommendation is that you concentrate your hotel searches on the big discount programs -- and particularly Hotwire and Priceline -- and use senior status only when nothing else is available.
>Cruises and Tours.
Although cruise lines and tour operators often target senior travelers, I've generally found that the prices are about the same as those also available to broader segments. By all means, check out any "senior" promotions you see, but don't assume they're the best prices you can find.
Sadly, the best deals I remember from the past -- especially United's senior coupons and Delta's senior program -- are gone and not likely to return. Currently, Southwest is the only airline that even routinely publishes senior fares, and they're much higher than the lowest available fares for travelers of any age and useful only for last-minute trips. Sure, you can enter "65 or over" on some airline Web sites, but don't expect anything special.