Why the 'golden generation' of over-50s are taking gap years

5 minutes

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A gap year was once the domain of the school leaver, but long-haul destinations are increasingly popular among over-50s.  Journalist Tony Watts talks to a few adventurers about their globetrotting travels. 

  • The couple island-hopping around the Mediterranean
  • Two people who took a long Asian sabbatical
  • The former journalist walking in the footsteps of her father

Silver gap years are on the rise.

Travel companies have recognised the new wave of over-50 travellers has a wide range of tastes and budgets and have responded to this demand with a variety of bespoke holidays. But even though some travellers prefer to sign up to organised packages, others take a more adventurous approach. 

Debbie Marshall is MD of Silver Travel Advisor (@SilverTravelAd), a travel reviews and advice site for the over-50s. In forums and features, visitors and travel writers add their reviews, experiences and advice, making it an excellent starting point for anyone planning their own ‘silver gap year’.

Debbie’s top tip: ‘The right travel insurance is essential. Costs and conditions can vary considerably, so make sure you read the small print to get what’s right for you and your trip.’

‘Everybody wants something different,’ says Debbie. ‘Some look for physically demanding adventures – volcano walking in Sicily, for example – while others want somewhere they can get about in a wheelchair. 

‘We’re seeing growing numbers retiring on generous pensions and taking longer holidays. This is a ‘golden generation’ – which we may not see again.

‘Australia and New Zealand are still seen as safe destinations in terms of accessibility, but the current hot spots are Japan and India. Travel programmes with celebrities like Joanna Lumley have inspired that trend.’

But how are they funding these trips? It could be the recent pension freedom laws, allowing those aged 55 and over who have a defined contribution fund to access their pension funds. According to the FCA, three quarters of pension pots are now accessed by those under the age of 65.

Chris and Kay.

Smooth sailing on the Mediterranean

Chris and Kay Coomber, both 71, have made ever longer odysseys in their 38-foot, ocean-going catamaran over the past few years, and are now at sea for up to three months at a time.

‘Kay and I had our first flotilla holiday 35 years ago,’ says Chris. ‘We’d no idea what we were doing, but we were well looked after and that started us off. We’ve had a succession of boats since, and we’re both qualified to take the boat further afield. Five years ago, we sailed across the Bay of Biscay, through the Mediterranean and onto the Ionian. 

‘The boat’s moored there now, and every year we drive down to Italy and take the ferry to Greece, where we can start to island hop.

‘Kay’s a real Hellenophile, having worked in Athens as a teenager. I’ve grown to really love it too. Sometimes bad weather keeps you in port longer than planned – but it’s no hardship as the food and wine are delicious and cheap!’

Chris’s top tip: ‘If you've ever wondered, ‘is that for me?’, just do it!’

Pete and Ava.

Getting off life’s ‘merry-go-round’

Ava Hunt and partner Pete Ecob are both 58, with no plans to retire. In 2017 they took a career break to make a five-month trip to some of the furthest flung parts of the globe.

‘I was recovering from shingles and felt exhausted,’ Ava says. ‘Both of us thought that our health was important, so we decided to get off ‘the merry-go-round’ and see some of the places we’d always dreamed about.’

Ava took six month’s unpaid leave from lecturing in theatre studies, while Pete, who runs a nutritional supplements company, passed on some extra duties to his business partner. 

Also an actress, Ava regularly appears in TV dramas and puts on her own productions. She made use of the first few weeks travel by volunteering in the Calais refugee camp.

‘I’ve taken a one-woman show about refugees around the country,’ she says. ‘I met some incredible people and heard their amazing stories of survival.’

Their next five weeks were spent travelling New Zealand in a motorhome, then onto Australia, Vietnam and Cambodia before the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.

‘We travelled light – backpacking, not planning too far ahead. Our smartphones were essential: they kept us in touch with home and allowed us to book accommodation and travel as we went.

‘We’re still digesting what we’ve seen – poverty, yes, but also some wonderful people and extraordinary places.’ 

Ava’s top tip: ‘Book ahead – if you fail to plan everything in advance, you may find yourself sleeping in some uncomfortable places.’

Jane and Nigel.

Living the times of their lives

Former BBC radio journalist Jane McIntyre acquired her passion for travel from stories told by her father.

‘He was a royal bodyguard, and I clearly recall these amazing photographs from Tonga. My partner Nigel is a seasoned traveller, always looking to visit new countries – he’s up to 50 now! One day we just decided ‘let’s go’.

‘We managed nine countries in 57 days through meticulous planning – and of course, that included Tonga. My father’s no longer with us, so I shed a tear when we left,’ she says. 

They also visited the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. When it came to dining out, Jane and Nigel trusted to local knowledge.

‘We always looked for places that were packed with local people, on the basis that they would know the best places to go. 

‘Our favourite place? Japan. The people were so courteous, and the landscapes were stunning. We travelled light, getting our clothes laundered en route. I only took two pairs of shoes!’

The trip also sparked a blog, (@2emptynesters), which channels Jane’s journalistic leanings. They’ve continued to add blogs of their many ventures since: their next one will cover a 15-day trip to Sri Lanka.

‘Both of us still want to keep travelling as much as we can – there are so many more countries to visit.’

Jane’s top tip? ‘Have contingency funds available – however well you plan, there will always be unexpected costs.’

You can follow Tony on Twitter @tonywattswriter for more.

Information correct as of April 2018.

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