One of my favorite things to see on the road is an older person in a hostel. For some reason, it fills me with awe and envy. I always think to myself: “That’s so cool. I hope when I am older, I’ll still be doing exactly this!” I also hope when I’m older I can still stomach dorm rooms! Older travelers in hostels also have the coolest stories. I once met this one guy in a hostel in Warsaw who, besides drinking everyone under the table, had some interesting stories from the hippie trail days of the ’60s!
Because of that, I’m excited that our featured reader this month is Sherill, a 72-year-old woman who has been traveling for the last ten years. In our interview, she discusses how she packed up her house, sold her stuff, and went out to finally realize her travel dreams. Stories like this remind me that I’ll never be too old to travel. Her interview is filled with wisdom and practical tips for others looking to do the same! So, without further ado, here she is:
Nomadic Matt: Tell everyone about yourself.
Sherill: Since my dad was military, I was traveling before I knew what traveling was. At age 5, I flew from Boston to Buffalo on a prop jet and decided that I wanted to be a stewardess, wear a nice suit and hat, and fly on a plane.
Years later, I married a military man and traveled in the United States, [and also spent] three years in France and in the Bavarian Alps. That really put the [travel] bug in my ear. But during the years of raising children and working, traveling was at the bottom of the priority list — until retirement age.
At 62, with the kids out of the house and the husband gone, I cleaned out my life and packed up what was left in a Plymouth Voyager van with my cats and two tents (I could not decide which one I wanted), and I headed south from Tacoma, WA, to Sayulita, Mexico. The plan was to camp on the beaches for the winter and figure out the rest on the way. Ten years, later I am still traveling.
What inspired your current trip?
I read 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, checked off the ones I had already seen, and marked the ones I wanted to see. I wasn’t getting any younger, so I just went!
My road trip to Mexico was my shakedown cruise. It was only meant to be for the winter but lasted three years. After my Mexican adventure, I returned north to volunteer for BLM in Oregon at a remote, 10-site camping area. This month was followed immediately by the remainder of the summer as a camp host at Mt. St. Helens, where I met some interesting travelers from Europe, including one woman in particular from Holland, who, as it turned out, worked in the train museum in Utrecht that I had visited several years before! It’s such a small world!
Now I’ve been on the road for 10 years, and I have no regrets. I work and travel and get to experience life how I want!
What obstacles did you encounter when you were planning your trip?
The biggest obstacle was fitting everything I needed (clothing, personal products, shoes, books, electronics, and everything else) into one bag. It was difficult. After all, the airlines do limit your weight. I asked a couple of my friends to help me make choices as well, and they benefited from what I could not take. You certainly accumulate a lot of stuff over the years!
The primary concern of older travelers seems to be more about the level of medical care than anything else. You can check out the US State Department list of doctors in foreign countries who speak English and some who will make house calls to your hotel or hostel. I’ve been lucky to have minimal problems while traveling; however, I have seen people who have gotten injured, fallen down on uneven pavement, etc.
I had a personal brush with this in Italy and was very glad I had the list. The person I was traveling with would not have known how to handle this, and the concierge, a young Italian student, was not of any help. The more information you can have at your fingertips, the less stress you will have traveling.
I have travel health insurance as well as insurance for emergency evacuation for medical or disaster assistance. I would not travel without either, although I have never had to use them. The cost is worth the peace of mind.
It is also a good idea to use Google Translate ahead of time and print out some medical terms you think you might need on your trip.
Pharmacists in most European countries can dispense many medications without a doctor’s script. I’ve used this in England, Spain, and Italy. Pointing and pantomime will sometimes work when words fail.
Now that I am in Albania, I am finding how important it is to look for places that have prices listed on products. Even though I am a fan of farmer’s markets, when you do not know the language you can be pretty sure you will be paying more than the locals.
Did people think you were crazy for going off to travel the world alone when you’re 72?
Yes and no. People who knew me well were not surprised. People who knew me casually were either horrified (“You’re doing what? Alone? At your age?”) or awed (“You’re doing what? Alone? At your age? Good for you!”). I was either a crazy lady or a beacon of hope. I like to think of myself as the beacon.
I have a travel blog for my friends and love to hear them say what an inspiration it is to them and how great [it is] to have an adventurous friend, or from my friends who physically cannot travel, how they enjoy seeing and learning about new places in the world. A couple of my friends even use my travels to awe their friends.
How are you traveling the world? Hostels? WWOOFing? What are you doing to travel on a budget?
HelpX has been my primary source for volunteering, lodging, food, and new friends. Like everything, nothing is perfect, but this resource has been 95% great. It has allowed me to meet new people in small villages, stay in places longer, and save money. It’s given me insight into so many places in the world! I feel like a walking encyclopedia of little-known facts!
My second resource is Trusted Housesitters. It is not as lucrative in terms of opportunities, but it is useful for short-term stays. And, yes, I’ve also used hostels, but usually only when I am traveling from place to place. I do prefer to stay where I can volunteer in exchange for room and board; it certainly has saved me a lot of money.
I volunteered for five weeks at a “luxury” hostel on the Ring of Kerry, Ireland. Hostels used to be large dorm rooms, but today you can be in a hostel in an en suite room, or you can be in a 16-bed mixed dorm! They’re really for everyone now, though, I must say that the only thing I do not like about hostels is that everyone uses all of the kitchen items, and there are almost always no great sanitation guidelines. They can get pretty disgusting so I tend not to use the kitchens.
When I am in a place where I can cook, I do cook — and bake, because baked good are usually safe to store unrefrigerated. When cooking is not available, it’s the farmer’s market for fruits and veggies that can be washed and stored. (I try to always have a baggie with vinegar water to wipe down produce that I cannot wash in a sink).
I’ve found that, unlike the US, many countries do not typically box up the uneaten portion of your dinner. If you ask, you may get it in a plastic bag or just in waxed paper. You might want to bring along one plastic container just in case.
What advice would you give other seniors who are worried about doing this?
DO YOUR RESEARCH! Online resources are out there, and once you find one, others will show up. Make a list or matrix of what you want and stick to it until you have a good picture of where and how to travel. Then if you want to look at other options, do it. Lots of people get stuck in the planning and never get their suitcases packed and tickets purchased. If you are really nervous, have a return ticket in your pocket and taxi fare to the airport.
If you like farming and general labor, go to WWOOF; if you want to volunteer in hostels, B&Bs’ restaurants, or spas — [or are interested in] labor/farm jobs — go to HelpX or Stay/Work, or just put “volunteering in __(name of country)__” in your search engine.
Want to teach English? Not a certified teacher? Enter “English immersion programs” and the country you want [to visit] in your search engine.
I just finished being hosted in a small town in northern Italy, where I taught English to elementary-age students. It was a lovely experience, eager minds ready to learn, and [there were] three host families who took great pleasure in showing me Italian art, history, and food in Verona, Bologna, Parma, and Montova, two of which were UNESCO sites. The school’s English-language coordinator found me through HelpX.
I have done this in Madrid, Spain, and will be in three cities in Poland doing this in April. The idea is for them to get comfortable speaking real English, not book English. You do not need to speak anything except English.
You can also find short-term free lodging through SERVAS and Hospitality Club, through which your membership allows you to contact hosts who want to meet travelers and who will host you for a few nights in their homes. I am traveling on my Social Security, and by the time I return home, I will actually have a little nest egg in the bank because my biggest cost — lodging — is usually free.
How did you fund your trip?
100% Social Security. It is my travel bank.
What reaction do you get from younger travelers when you’re on the road? I always think it was cool to see older travelers backpacking the world.
This is one of the BEST parts. Younger people are surprised at first, especially when I tell them I am 72. Then the questions start. Why now? Have you always traveled? Where have you been? What about…? Then the zinger always finds the target. It’s when they say “I wish my mom, dad, sister, cousin, uncle…could meet you” or “My fill-in-the-blank is only ____ and acts like life is done.” It’s both fabulous and sad to be the role model.
How are you staying on budget while you travel?
I only budget 75% of what I have monthly, and often spend less than that. I plan each move and look for cheap travel, short distances, and discounts. Many countries also offer discount rail cards for seniors. Spain has the Tarjeta Dorada, which offers 40% off travel Monday through Thursday and 25% off the other days for six euros. Italy has a 30-euro discount card. There’s always a senior discount available somewhere!
Traveling on off days, early morning, or late at night usually comes with a discount. My friend and I just purchased a Spain Pass for 175 euros, allowing us four trips anywhere in Spain. We went from Madrid to Algeciras (near Gibraltar) to Granada, and [also] Alicante to Valencia, then Valencia back to Madrid. We each saved more than 100 euros on this pass.
What’s been your favorite moment so far?
A friend of mine just took her first trip out of the United States. She decided, on a whim, to meet me in Madrid (she searched and found a round-trip for under $800 USD). She unabashedly admitted that she was nervous about everything: the long flight, changing planes at Heathrow in London, going through customs, not understanding the language, using foreign money, not knowing where she was going… everything. She said she would not have done it by herself. But now that she has done it, she said she would do it again and again.
She was a trooper, diving right in by learning basic Spanish words. How proud she was when she could order breakfast by herself! She learned directions, she could easily say thank you and please, how to order food – we added about 3-5 words a day!
We took the local bus from Algeciras to Gibraltar; she saw the coast of Africa from “the rock,” and had a monkey sit on her shoulder; in Granada we visited the UNESCO world heritage site the Alhambra and watched an impromptu display of flamenco dancing in the square — and Granada is where I celebrated my 72nd birthday. In Alicante she celebrated her 60th birthday by standing with both feet firmly planted in the Mediterranean Sea and hands in the air, yelling out “I’m in Spain!” After which we sat on the beach and drank Spanish wine. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” she said.
What words of wisdom do you people on the fence about traveling? As someone who didn’t start until they were 62, what would you tell someone younger than you?
I’ve met people of all ages, from many countries, who all have stories of why and how they travel. Everyone has said the same thing: the only reason I go home is to find a job, save money, and get back on the road again. Those of us who are travelers, we want nothing more than to experience the world and its people — even if we have some problems along the way. The benefits of examining and sharing the way others live, think, eat, work, and…believe broadens our understanding of the world, brings us closer together, and makes us more human.
For me, personally, Willie Nelson said it best: “I want to be on the road again, to see things I’ve never seen before, and may never see again.”
Sherill’s story is really inspiring. While more and more people are learning you can travel at any age (the amount of “older” travelers that email me has exploded in the last year), there’s still too many that think you can’t but I hope interviews like this change some minds (so consider sharing it!). Sherill also has a blog set up and you can follow her adventures by clicking here!
Become the Next Success Story
One of my favorite parts about this job is hearing people’s travel stories. They inspire me, but more importantly, they also inspire you. I travel a certain way but there are many ways to fund your trips and travel the world. I hope these stories show you that there is more than one way to travel, and that it is within your grasp to reach your travel goals. Here’s another example of people who made traveling the world a priority a little later in life:
- Why a 50-year-old couple sold it all to travel the world
- How this 70 year old couple bucked convention to travel the world
We all come from different places, but we all have one thing in common: we all want to travel more.
Make today the day you take one step closer to traveling — whether it is buying a guidebook, booking a hostel, creating an itinerary, or going all the way and buying a plane ticket.
Remember, tomorrow may never come, so don’t wait.