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Start planning your spring or summer Elderhostel trip soon. The 2005 catalog of international trips is out, and some slots are already filled. Elderhostel remains one of the top travel choices for seniors age 55 or over -- both in terms of what you get and what you pay -- and this year's 30th anniversary program is especially full of rewarding options.

Also, Elderhostel's brand of tourism not only improves the lives of participants but also respects the destinations they visit.

Unless you're new to Planet Earth, you've probably heard about Elderhostel -- the leading tourism-plus-education program for seniors age 55 or over and spouses of any age. Tours within the United States and in foreign countries all emphasize the combination of observation and learning that have proved so very popular for so many seniors over the last 30 years.

Accommodations are mainly a mix of college dormitories and hotels, depending on the particular tour, but some put you up in trek tents and others in cruise ships. Most programs include full or partial meals. Some provide a general historical/cultural background of a destination area, others are sharply focused on specific interests such as theater, fine arts, festivals and holidays, more than a dozen individual outdoor activities, service and intergenerational experience (travel with your children or grandchildren).

Local transport, admissions, supplies and such, are included in the base price. One other attractive pricing feature: You can cancel at any time and receive a full refund, with no penalty except a small processing fee.

Most programs in North America last for just a week although some go for longer periods and some for just weekends. Programs involving university accommodations are usually very inexpensive by tour-package standards, with many priced at $100 to $125 per person, per night, including meals, and programs that accommodate you in modest hotels are only marginally more expensive.

International programs and cruise-based programs are considerably more expensive, per night; they approach the costs of commercial tours and cruises. Most European programs, for example, cost at least $200 per person per day (excluding airfare) and many cost $250 or more. A few overseas projects do not include lunch so you can "sample local restaurants." Airfare to/from your home is not included.

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