August 5, 2011

Retirement Traveling & Health: What is The Best Balance?

Traveling is one of the joys of the satisfying retirement phase of your life. With few or no commitments to an employer and probably an empty nest, you have much greater freedom to pack up and go. No longer must you travel when everyone else does. Midweek departures or hitting the road while families with kids are tied to home by the school calendar now possible.

Of course, your own preferences, interests, retirement lifestyle and finances have a bearing on what your travel itinerary might look like. My wife and I like a combination of big trips every few years mixed with a healthy dose of long weekends or several-day excursions. Next summer I am hoping to spend at least one month out of the Phoenix heat in Flagstaff. I'll still be only a few hours away from my dad, daughters & families, but quite a bit more comfortable.

We are healthy enough as I write this to not have many travel restrictions. Would I scuba dive like I used to? Probably not. That is pretty strenuous. Would I agree to walk across Ireland? Maybe, depending on the accommodations at the end of each day (no tents!). I prefer to avoid air travel simply because airlines have made that form of transport as legally close to punishment as possible. But, to get to Hawaii in a few months I will put up with 6 hours in a metal tube. Actually, my first choice would be train travel but Amtrak pulled out of Phoenix 15 years ago (how dumb was that?) so that isn't a viable option. That means we usually drive.

For Betty and me the only real restriction at the moment is budgetary. And that really gets me to the core issue of this post. At some point our health will begin to limit our travel options. That is as given. It could be something dramatic that changes our lifestyle completely. More likely it will be a gradual decline in physical strength and abilities. There may come a time when one of us is afraid to have the other in a foreign country where medical care is more of an issue. We may decide to spend as much time as possible with family and friends by staying close to home. My dad's health is declining and I may need to spend substantially more time with him.

But, for now, none of these scenarios is in play. So, should we ignore our carefully planned budget for travel and "go for it" while we can? Should we do all we want even if we have to tap into savings and investments that weren't supposed to be for traveling? Should we live with the worn out carpeting for another few years and put the money into trips? Will we look back at some point and kick ourselves for not having the experiences while we could? Or, will we second guess our decisions to put ourselves in a financial hole that may have serious consequences?

In our household, this is a debate without a firm answer. Overall, we are homebodies. We enjoy where we live and the people who fill our lives with happiness. We have a very active schedule of church, volunteer, and social events most of the year. We buy season tickets to Broadway shows that visit town. I enjoy finding things to do in the area that are different and low cost.

Still, the call of the road is always there. Our wish list includes an Alaskan cruise, a trip back to England and Ireland, a visit to Paris, and a trip on a canal boat in the south of France. New Zealand beckons. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland call to us.

Closer to home we want to spend several weeks exploring the eastern shore of Maryland, driving through the Great Smoky Mountains, taking a train trip across Canada, visiting Montreal and Quebec, re-visiting San Antonio and the River Walk, and driving through Wisconsin and Minnesota. Before it is too late I really want to try living in an RV for at least a month while driving the back roads of America. The reality is all of those goals are not likely to be met because the financial resources just aren't there. So, what do we do?

I guess the most important step is to prioritize this list. In that way, if a health issue arises we will have had the experiences most important to us. Then, we must decide how deeply to dig into our retirement fund to pay for this. At present, we would have to save for one of the expensive trips by taking nothing but small weekend vacations in Arizona or Southern California for 3 years. That means it would take almost 30 years to visit all the places we want to see...obviously not a very workable plan.

Me, contemplating my choices
So, where does that leave us? I don't know. I think this post will trigger some serious discussions in the Lowry household. What would be helpful would be your feedback. If you were in my situation would you take the trips and worry about the expenses later? Would you answer that some trips just aren't doable and we should live within our budget? Would you suggest we accept our homebody tendencies and be happy with our life the way it is?

I hope we have at least another 15-20 years to travel. Now, we just have to decide where.

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  1. You certainly have ambitious travel dreams! My vote these days is limiting my air travel since air travel has a major impact on the environment. I would limit my international travel to every few years, enjoy the sites on my continent, and also continue to enjoy home. That will keep you out of significant financial risk too.

    On the other hand, if it's such a big dream to go to Europe could you house swap for a couple of months and explore Europe from a "home" base there. Rather than having to make repeated trips.

    Just some thoughts. Good luck. I know it's not an easy decision.

  2. Sandra,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Since we are conservative by nature, I am likely to agree with the limiting of overseas travel to occasional status. I do have enough frequent flyer miles left from my heavy business travel days to get us both the the east coast a time or two.

    O course, if I lived where you do (Hawaii) I would be looking westward and add Tahiti, Fiji, and Japan to our list!

  3. House swapping is a definite thing to look into because you are in Phoenix. Lots of foreign people want to come to Phoenix.
    Did you know that Amtrac pulls out of Flagstaff twice a day? There is a shuttle from the airport to the train station. Amtrac goes from LA to Chicago. From Chicago you can go anywhere on the train. Be careful and pay the price for a sleeper OR bring lots of food. The dining car serves first class and sleepers first and then everyone else. My husband ended up eating little on his two day journey to Flagstaff from Topeka. I took it years ago and it is a WONDERFUL .
    We took the train exclusively for two months in Europe when we were very young. I sure would like a repeat trip of that. Talk about unaffordable though.

    We are considering an RV. Your post may lead me to pushing a bit harder. The problem is that our state charges an exorbitant amount of tax on license fees for RV's. Maybe I will register it at my mother's house:>)

    If I could only get past this idea that health care is going to bankrupt us---travel is the key to my adventurous self. Come to think of it we are going to Seattle in three weeks and then I drive out to Phoenix again in September. Is traveling for family the same thing?

  4. Hi JBO,

    Amtrak also runs through Maricopa, about 50 minutes south of Phoenix, but only 3 days a week and at 4:30 AM. I doubt they get much business. With Flagstaff only 2 hours away and with much better service that really is our only choice.

    We took local trains in England and the Eurostar from Rome to Venice. They are convenient, but in both cases the trains were very hot and the attendants were surly or non-existent. They left a bad taste in our mouth, even for train lovers.

    RV rental is so expensive but it is something I'd really like to try. And, yes, traveling for family counts!

  5. Bob,
    Much the same conversation going on at the Carlson dinner table. Now, it's my wife doing the pushing. Money is the big limiting factor for us but there is the issue of doing it while we can. Second problem is picking one thing out of many to do. Looks like we are homing in on a week in Venice to start and more local trips. The wake up call is how many more years will we be healthy enough to travel. We've been putting things off all our lives and can't seem to grasp that the road ends.

  6. Good Morning, Ralph,

    Venice was fabulous. Two hints: wear good walking shoes and stay on the mainland and take the train back and forth. The hotels are substantially cheaper than those actually in Venice and the train runs about every 20 minutes. It is only a 10 minute trip to and from the island.

    The Carlsons are facing the same questions that the Lowrys are. We haven't put things off as much as been overwhelmed by all the possibilities.

  7. Life is all about choices. I think that you and your wife should pick your top five dream trips and do the one that is the most physically demanding first. Your travel budget should be more now while you are younger-you may not want to travel as much later. Is there any change you can make in your budget to free up more money for travel? Would you be willing to take fewer short trips? Maybe you can make extra money from your writing-you have a lot of good ideas and always make me think. There's money to be made in this somewhere. However,I am concerned because I don't think you have good health insurance and these costs may go up. It's a tough call,but you don't want to have are more likely to regret what you don't do.

  8. Donna,

    "You are more likely to regret what you don't do" is our mindset also. We don't want to look back at some point and kick ourselves for not taking those few trips that we had our heart set on.

    Yes, our health insurance is terrible. I qualify for Medicare in a little under 3 years which will help. Regardless of what Washington does to mess it up, it will be substantially cheaper than what we are paying now (roughly 1/3 of our yearly expenses are medical).

    Prioritizing by physical demands is an excellent idea. Floating through France on a canal boat only takes being awake!

    I have started running ads on this blog. If you, and other loyal readers, would click on them occasionally (I get paid for don't have to buy or sign up for anything...just click!) I could put that money into a vacation fund. I lost my job as a tour guide which was what had been paying for our vacations.

    I also have plans to put out a second edition of the Satisfying Retirement book this fall and sell it as an e-book on Amazon. I hope there is a world-wide audience for that information.

    My wife read this post this morning and wants us to sit down and prioritize and discuss. Hopefully after that talk and more comments like yours we will have a good idea on how we should go.

    I'll let you know what we decide. And, thanks in advance for any clicks!

  9. I will be happy to click! My friends who are 80 and above tell me that they have done with their treking type trips and enjoy cruises now. Also,I wanted to mention that there is a type of annuity that you buy now and receive when you are older-say 85. If you don't live that long you loss the money. However,if you know you will have more income later it does free you to spend more money now. I have no connection to the insurance industry-but I do find this an interesting idea since sometimes one spouse outlives the other by a lot.

  10. Hi Donna,

    I am aware of the annuity you describe and it is something we have discussed.

    I should mention one other factor that really should change my thinking: the estate my mom and dad have will provide a very nice payout to me and my two brothers at some point in the future. I manage the account for my dad since at 87 he gets confused easily and has asked me to take over. So, I'm careful to protect that substantial nest egg for him now and his sons in the future.

    Knowing that money is there should give me more freedom to be a bit more aggressive in the travel area. But, so far I have been reluctant to make that inheritance part of my thinking. Maybe that is being too cautious.

  11. Re:the estate-is this money protected from possible nursing home costs for your father in the future? I don't know what it cost there, but it is over $100,000 a year here in NYC-until you become eligible for medicaid. Unless it is totally protected,I would make my plans without counting on this money.

  12. Donna,

    Thanks for bringing that important point up. Luckily, he lives in a Continuing Care Community where virtually all costs (including nursing center charges & care) are covered. He also has tremendous secondary insurance that covers 100% of what medicare doesn't.

  13. Well bob, Obviously im probably to the left on this issue, but look where its gotten me (I dont mean just since my husbands death, but that we made a conscious decision to spend all extra monies on travel in the seven years we were there, which were the highest earning years.

    Even so, I am a big, "what if person". My suggestion to you with regards to the travel is make two (and maybe three) piles or lists. the big, overseas barge in france type trips, the midsized us sized trips (often not less than going overseas) and the small weekend and family trips. Rate the first two by desire AND by energy and physical ability required.

    and look at the cost of driving a short ways, getting on a train and going from there. Im from the easy coast where you can train from Boston to Miami (as recently seen at the end of the movie the Town)

  14. Good Saturday afternoon, Barb,

    The idea of lists based on expense and projected physical health makes all sorts of sense. The smaller trips may be best saved for a time when more extensive travel is too difficult.

    Based on this post and the comments, we will probably not do the month in Flagstaff next summer. That is they type of trip/vacation better suited for when we are not able to get around as well.

    Except for flying, we don't have many viable options for trips that involve the east coast or Canada. Train trips would take 2 or 3 days and cost literally thousands more than flying. Or, we could drive for 5 days just to get to Baltimore! I love the southwest, but we are somewhat isolated when it comes time to plan trips.

  15. First of all, I agree with you about air travel. I can't think of any place I want to see that is worth the trouble. I recognize that that is easy for me to say because I spent so many years traveling and living overseas, so I have been very fortunate to see most every place I want to see. Besides, I like where I live so much that not many places would seem better. Where was that photo taken of you contemplating your choices?? That looks like a great place to hang out!!

  16. Well there you go, if your family is in Phoenix you probably don't want to make too many extended trips. Though from what I hear (my sister lives in Phoenix) it's not a bad idea to get out of the summer heat.

    Since B is still working, we opt for the short vacations: this year it's 5 days at a lake in Ontario, 4 days in Block Island, and 3 days in Pennsy. But we do hope for a longer visit to the Southwest next winter when (hopefully) the weather is warm and dry.

  17. @Galen,

    Burned out on air travel and liking where I live sum up my situation, too. Either I'm quite content where I am or becoming lazy. How do I tell the difference?

    The picture is from Lake Coeur d'Alene in northern Idaho.


    Summer heat is an unrelenting blanket for 4-5 straight months. The humidity is low so it is not as oppressive as Houston or New Orleans, but don't let anyone kid you, a dry heat is still hot!

    After living here for 26 years we have taken every short trip there is many times. Too bad we don't like Las Vegas. It is only a 5 hour drive.

    From late October through mid April this is a great place to be. The winter rainy season is normally January-March. But, rainy season for us means only 2-3 inches.

  18. My husband and I are getting an RV in a year or so and hitting the road when he retires. If we were doing it right now, like you, I'd go somewhere cool to avoid this heat! Day 37 of over 100 degree temps in Texas.

    You should definitely go to the Smokey Mountains and Maryland's eastern shore. I used to live in Balitmore and traveled in that area all the time. It's really beautiful.

    I also agree about air travel. Right now, I visit my 80+ year old parents in Oregon twice a year and I'm stuck flying but I hope once my husband retires, we can just go in the RV and skip flying.

    Health issues could come up any time. We figure we should travel while we can and then we'll be glad to settle in and stay home.

  19. Hi Joan,

    Your last sentence summarizes the advice from most readers: do it while you can. We have no idea what tomorrow holds.

    My wife and I will sit down and prioritize our options and come to some plan...that will probably change 20 times! But, this post has helped us crystallize our thinking on this important subject.

    RVing? I wish I could get Betty excited about all the possibilities that opens up. I'll have to start small..a week or two.

  20. Timing of our travel plans seems to be the tough decision these days. Unexpected medical expenses and time required taking care of parents seem to cause difficulties. Having said that, I still feel we should try to get in our European trips sooner than later. Frankly, the world economic situation is not going to get better anytime soon, so we keep working on our thoughts for the next trip. Thanks for your article.

  21. Hi Don,

    We are coming to the same conclusion. The economic mess is going to continue for quite awhile. Unfortunately, my body and health aren't going to wait. So, if there is something on the more strenuous side, we'll have to do it regardless.

    The scheduling dilemma is a hassle, isn't it. We have had two major trips and several smaller ventures cancelled due to illness, injury, or other issues involving family members. But, we were happy we could be here to help out.

  22. Similar conversations at our house. We do timeshares and home exchanges, which help. But I'd say do the top priority ones that require your best effort physically. I hurt my back in the Black Hills last May, compressed the nerves and my feet are still tingling. So I haven't wanted to do any hikes.

    I don't mind flying to get to a great place. We leave for Tucson and Sedona next week (both timeshares). In February we'll be in Ecuador for three weeks (home exchange).

    We do most of our travel in the winter as that is when the weather is worst in the Pacific Northwest.

    On the other hand, last year was our first in retirement and we went substantially beyond our travel budget with 14 trips in 14 months, including one to Italy, one to Mexico and three to Alaska. I felt uneasy enough to slow down a bit this year.

    The top items on our wish list we've done already, so we take it as it comes.

  23. Linda,

    14 trips in 14! That would have done me in 20 years ago.

    We will be discussing our vacation plans New Year's Eve. That's when we finalize the budget and decide what we'd like to do in the new year.

    Temps this week and next in southern Arizona are in the 70's so you've picked a good time to come for the sunshine!


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