Solo trips or ‘gramping?’ How older adults travel is changing

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No travel buddy, no problem. Older adults are traveling solo, and if the grandkids are lucky enough, they can tag along too.

Many tour companies are creating experiences for the solo traveler. (Courtesy Road Scholar/Alyssa Bichunsky)

This summer, WTOP took you on a tour and explored how adults 50 and older are spending their travels.

This fall, Sally Matts is going to Spain. Since her retirement as a human resources professional, the Waldorf, Maryland, woman has become an avid traveler, going on several trips in the U.S. and abroad.

“Don’t wait,” said Matts, 71, who is an ambassador with Road Scholar, an organization that specializes in travel for those 50 and older. “Don’t think you can keep putting things off, because you never know.”

One thing she said she wished she did more of was travel with her husband, who passed away in his early 60s.

“I was still working, and I feel bad that I can’t be traveling with him. I kind of wish we had traveled more,” Matts said. “It would have been nicer if we’re still able to do stuff together. Do some of these trips together.”

While Matts wishes she had a travel companion, she’s among a growing number of older women traveling by themselves.

In fact, Road Scholar said that more than a quarter of the people who travel with them are solo travelers, and almost 85% of those are women. While many of these women solo travelers are single or widowed, in 2022, at least 56% of them were married.



Solo travel: ‘The freedom of being on your own’

In her travels, Matts said she’s met women whose husbands just did not want to travel and they either went by themselves or with a girlfriend.

“Sometimes it’s just good to do it your own way,” said Kelly Espy, 78, of Manassas, another travel ambassador with Road Scholar. And while she has many friends with different interests, she said, “I guess I like my own company.”

Traveling with others often involves reaching a compromise on activities so everyone gets a chance to do what they want.

“Some people travel and they just want to eat … the food is very important to them. Well, it is, but I’d rather do other things than spend hours eating,” Espy said. And even when traveling with family or friends, she said there’s pressure to try to meet their needs or go where they want to go.

“Sometimes it’s just fun to get up and have breakfast, don’t have breakfast, have a big lunch and don’t eat dinner or whatever. It’s just the freedom of being on your own,” Espy said.

Road Scholar attracts travelers 50 and older and two-thirds of these are from the Baby Boomer generation who are between 58 to 76 years old.

“Baby boomer women are so much more independent than their mothers,” said Road Scholar relations director Kelsey Knoedler Perri. “With more freedom, trust, and independence in partnerships than their parents had.” She said most of the women traveling solo said that their partners were just not interested in traveling.

A majority of solo travelers with Road Scholar are women. (Courtesy Road Scholar)

While Matts and Espy are intrepid solo travelers, they liked not having to worry about arrangements when they arrive at their destination — what they both described as feeling “taken care of.” This includes having guides they can ask about the nearest ATM, whether an area is safe for tourists or what to do in case of an emergency.

Going on a trip with other solo travelers or being one in a group may feel like being the new kid in a school, but Espy said she was surprised by how friendly and open people were on the trip and she saw it as a great opportunity to make a new friend.

“Just a new experience just to share with other people. And they don’t know your past; they don’t know your issues. And most people, you don’t hear about their issues, or their illnesses or their doctor’s appointments,” Espy said.

The benefits of ‘gramping’

One of the benefits of traveling with grandchildren is spending quality time and getting to know each other. (Courtesy Road Scholar)

Espy said she was glad to have the confidence to travel solo, but on a trip she took with her granddaughter to Italy, the two learned to trust each other.

Vacationing with grandchildren, also described as “skip-gen” travel or “gramping,” is on the rise, according to a 2019 AARP survey, which found that one-third of more than 2,500 grandparents who participated in the survey said they have traveled with their grandchildren alone.

Distance is the biggest barrier to seeing grandchildren, with the second being busy schedules, the AARP survey said. Traveling together is a way to bridge that gap to spend time with their grandchildren.

While most grandparents, who are able to, are more than willing to foot the bill for a trip with their grandkids, the choice of the trip should “take into account the ages and interests of the children involved, as well as the grandparents’ energy, mobility and budget,” according to The Points Guy.

Espy said having the time with her granddaughter during their trip together was special.

“When we left the group in the evening, we just went back to the room and talked about the day and talked about what she liked, what she didn’t like. It was good quality time that we had together,” Espy said. “I think she learned to trust her grandmother. If I say, ‘It’s going to be OK,’ it’s going to be OK. It was a good experience.”

As for the trips she took by herself, Espy said she hopes seeing solo travelers will inspire others.

“You maybe (are) not always going to have a companion,” Espy said. “We might have to also step out if you want to travel … Sometimes you just have to do it on your own.”

Grandparents and their grandchildren pose in Iceland during a Road Scholar trip. (Courtesy Road Scholar/Andy Davis)

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