This Spring Break, 65 Is the New 20

Brandon Withrow
·9 min read

Not since the Golden Girls went off the air have people over 60 been considered so cool.

Last year, while the world was shutting down with COVID-19 version 1.0, college students embodying the mantra “you only live once” packed pools, beaches, and bars. Public shaming soon filled social media, followed by regrets as reports showed partiers to have been responsible for helping to spread the virus.

This year’s spring breakers might be different—notably, they’ll be a lot older and they’ll be be vaccinated. Many colleges and universities, like Boston College and the Ohio State University, are canceling spring break to deter superspreading events. But spring break abhors a vacuum, and newly vaccinated senior citizens are expected to fill the gap.

While students are sidelined this year, dreaming of a glorious spring break passed out on the beach, their grandparents are living it up, booking flights and gassing up their apartment-sized RVs.

Clues to where they are going are showing up. The boost in travel interests seem to be guided by warmth above all. Last month, AAA reported increased searches on their site for destinations like Disney, Aruba, and Hawaii.

“My wife, Beth, and I have been vaccinated,” said Jim Kurtt, who lives just outside of Minneapolis. They’re now very ready to get away. “We are both in our seventies,” he said, “and feel it is time to go somewhere—somewhere warm given the temps here the last week or so.” They are going to Oahu, Hawaii, this month after having delayed the trip in January.

Years early, a move to Germany for work introduced Kurtt to a wider world of travel.

“Before that,” he said, “I was like the average American, [saying]‘Now why do I want to leave this country? It’s got so many places to see.’”

Trips to Scotland and Ireland last year had to be canceled, and a trip to see family out east as well. They didn't feel trapped, however. “We never felt landlocked,” said Kurtt, noting that their kids live in town. At the start of the pandemic, they didn’t see them for a while. They’ve worn masks and are socially distanced, but they still managed to get around a little. They stayed with some of the family—who also follow those rules—at a cabin last summer.

TSA checkpoint numbers have been surging in 2021, particularly over weekends where they are breaking the 1 million mark. In anticipation of more surges over the next few months, the agency has begun to hire upwards of 6,000 security positions.

Data on hotel demand is also pointing to increased travel as vaccines roll out.

“We are tracking the data at a global level and we are seeing a strong correlation between the percentage of the population vaccinated and the increase in hotel demand,” Deep Kohli told The Daily Beast by email. Kohli is the senior director of client services at Koddi, which tracks its clients’ data and provides insights.

According to Kohli, those countries with highest vaccine rates—like Israel, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, and Chile—are “showing a much stronger increase in hotel demand” during the first three weeks of February “compared to the previous three weeks.” Other countries with stronger lockdown measures—like Australia and New Zealand—are also showing “a strong increase in hotel demand despite the lack of vaccination efforts.”

Within the U.S., and among those outdoor destinations with “high vaccination rates per capita,” says Kohli, there are “the largest demand increases.” But among those states that have “fewer vaccines per person and less travel driven by outdoor destinations” there is less demand.

“It’s the first time I’ve been a first adopter. I’m usually a foot-dragger,” said 69-year old Kay Ambre of Chicago.

When asked about the experience of getting a vaccine and her travel plans, she choked up. “I haven’t seen my grandkids in a year and a half,” she said. “That’s the first trip I’m going to do, you know, is to reconnect with them.”

She booked a flight to Iceland for September 2021 before she was vaccinated, though in anticipation of that possibility.

“I saw this trip to Iceland. It was very affordable,” Ambre said, “and it was someplace that I’d always wanted to go.” That four-day trip is her way of getting back to travel. There was very little risk, because it came with the guarantee that she could cancel and get her money back, as long as she did so two weeks before the trip. Last year, she had to cancel a trip to Brussels due to the pandemic.

“I used to travel for work,” said Ambre, “and they sent me to five continents and 13 countries in the years that I was traveling for my job.” It meant staying in one place mostly, but she found it to be an intimate way to learn about a city and meet people.

She decided to take that experience further.

“I was telling everybody, when I retire I’m going to move to Italy for a couple of months,” she said. “People laughed at me and they thought it was crazy—and then I did it. I went and lived in Florence for three months.”

She now has friends in countries all over the world and it’s those personal connections that are driving her travel choices this year.

When she was in Florence, having dinner along the Via Faenza, she struck up a conversation with a young man traveling alone. They bumped into each other frequently before he returned to Reykjavík. During the pandemic they talked regularly online.

“So there’s this 25 year-old kid who lives in Reykjavik, and it’s like, I’m going to tap this guy on the shoulder and see if he can take me someplace in Reykjavik that the ordinary tourists wouldn’t necessarily run into on a four-day trip.”

Among roadtripping RVers, there appears to also be a connection to the vaccine.

Harvest Hosts, a membership program that allows self-contained RVers to access unique overnight stays at places like wineries and farms, recently surveyed its 130,000 members.

“We got 10,000 responses, 3000 of those responses from people 65 and up,” Joel Holland, CEO of Harvest Hosts, told The Daily Beast, Over three-quarters said they were planning on traveling more than 2020, Holland said, “but the bigger surprise was that 57.6 percent said they’re going to travel more this year than pre-COVID.”

Harvest Hosts asked their members about their reasons for increased travel.

“The seniors are saying they’re getting vaccinated,” said Holland, “which is wonderful, and by March, they should have their second shot, and have had enough time to let it sink in, that they feel comfortable hitting the road. So it seems like we’re gonna see a lot more travel this year, especially from the older audience, probably pretty directly connected to the ability to get the vaccine.”

Anecdotal conversation bears out that vaccination motivator.

“After flying 100k-plus miles for the last 20 years, I’m really focused on making the most of things,” said 68-year old Steve Hanson, president and CEO of Hanson, Inc, an integrated marketing agency in Toledo, Ohio. Hanson is finishing up his final vaccine shot soon and is relieved.

“It was a very emotional experience,” Hanson said, “it was like my next step towards, you know, almost like an implied freedom.” He took a selfie with the nurse who gave him the shot to mark the occasion.

Approaching his one-year anniversary of not flying, Hanson already has several destinations in the works, like Petoskey, Michigan; Cortona, Italy; Iceland; Nepal; Sandefjord, Norway; and Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland. Next year is a big bucket-lister for him and his wife: Avid RVers, they plan to travel out west and visit the national parks.

Hanson is also actively involved in getting people vaccinated.

He’s a founder of—and marketing and communications chair for—the V Project, an initiative “to educate, motivate, and vaccinate the entire Northwest Ohio corridor” against COVID-19. Started in the last quarter of 2020, the project has gained significant traction. Ohio is still in its 1B phase, which focuses on those most at risk from the virus.

The project has managed to see significant support from government officials, CEOs, medical experts, schools, and religious leaders, all of whom are offering financial and resource support. Volunteers are offering to pick up people who can’t drive to get them to the vaccination station. They want to reach the 70-80 percent that is required for herd immunity, Hanson told The Daily Beast.

He then chuckled and said, “Because I want to get back to restaurants.”

For some, travel is very much a way of life and 2021 means getting back to it in full force.

“We both have been vaccinated,” Ed Dennison, 79, from Washington, D.C. told The Daily Beast. “We got our second shots last week, so in another six days we’ll be past the waiting period for full protection from the vaccine.”

In the 46 years they’ve been together, Ed, and his husband Tom, 68, have traveled extensively, both professionally and together for leisure. Prior to the pandemic shutdowns, they had managed to fit in trips to Qatar and Thailand in January, Arizona and Nevada in February, and Northern California in March. It was then that they had to move some of their plans to 2021. They still managed to hike in North Carolina during the summer, take trips to Oregon and Southern California, and end the year with a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, in December.

“So we still travel more than most people do, despite the pandemic,” Ed acknowledged with a laugh. He said they follow the rules wherever they go, always wearing masks, and social distancing. The vaccine, he said, is “obviously a great relief.”

“The very next trip is going to be a road trip that we’re doing to Savannah and Charleston and taking our dog with us,” Dennison said. “And then we have a trip that was planned for Turkey and Belarus last year that we postponed until April of this year.” Their entire year is packed with escapes to places like Oregon, Alaska, and northern England.

This largely boomer boost in travel appears to be partly driven by what Joel Holland calls “pent-up demand,” and perhaps a refreshed perspective—that is, that the privilege to travel is not something to take for granted.

On that fresh perspective, Kay Ambre recounted a time when one of her sons asked her if she had to choose between traveling or having a dog, which would it be?

“I said ‘Oh, a dog. I’ve been everywhere I want to go. I’ve planned all these trips. I’ve done this stuff. There’s a couple places I want to go left... but no, I definitely would take a dog.’ I’m not so sure now.”

Brandon Withrow is a travel writer. His byline also appears in Sierra Magazine and Business Insider. His travel-based Substack newsletter is The Wanderscape.

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