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ELDERHOSTEL CHANGES WITH THE TIMES
TIME TO TRAVEL/MARCIA SCHNEDLER

Elderhostel, the largest nonprofit organization providing learning and travel experiences for people 55 and older, is diversifying with a new style of itineraries designed to draw active, independent-minded travelers regardless of age.

These programs, open to anyone over 21, are called Road Scholar trips. Their beauty is that they take a different twist on United States and overseas destinations than most for-profit tour operators offer. The group size is small and stays are in three- and four-star lodgings. In addition, schedules are flexible enough to accommodate what participants feel like doing on a particular day.

The array of regular Elderhostel itineraries will continue to be limited to travelers 55 and older. That's in keeping with practice since Elderhostel's founding in 1975, when its programs typically took place during the summer at colleges and universities with empty dorm rooms. The programs lasted one week and usually covered three subjects either related to the region or to a teacher's area of expertise or favorite fun topic.

Amenities often were at a minimum, which still remains the case in many programs. That is just fine with many participants, because it has helped keep costs of participation low. There are no academic or other requirements to attend, nor tests or grades.

Over the years, Elderhostel's venues extended from universities to museums, cultural centers, parks and dozens of other kinds of institutions. Athletics and sports, arts and crafts and additional approaches were added to those taught in classrooms.

Programs widened to include specialties, such as those for travelers with recreational vehicles or for Elderhostelers and their grandchildren or other young companions. Overseas programs opened up. So did trips afloat on everything from ships to barges. The organization added opportunities for volunteer service. At present, Elderhostel counts 10,000 offerings in 90 countries.

But after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Elderhostel's enrollments declined, as did sign-ups for tours and other travel offered by for-profit companies. Meanwhile, the average age of Elderhostelers had risen from 67 to 72. That meant fewer people in their 50s and 60s were signing up.

"One reason is because there are more opportunities now for older people who are physically active and independent-minded," says Elderhostel spokesman Cady Goldfield. "My folks are in their 80s, for example, and are mentally sharp. But the Elderhostel scheduling is easygoing, so they can enjoy the educational aspects without as much exertion.

"We still want to serve older adults like them and will always remain strong in that respect," Goldfield says. "But we also realized we needed to rethink and retool what we offered to appeal to those in their 40s, 50s and 60s."

Elderhostel began by talking to people who called requesting information but did not sign up for a program.

"We found that they wanted something that allowed them more independence, such as lunch or dinner on their own without sacrificing something like a meal or activity they'd already paid for," Goldfield says.

As with Elderhostel programs past and present, travel and learning remain the major priorities of Road Scholar itineraries, too. It's just that the structure differs to allow more personal freedom and flexibility.

The minimum age of Road Scholar participants is 21, rather than 55 for regular Elderhostel programs.

The smaller group size -- 16 to 23 at most -- allows access to historical sites, a research facility or behind the scenes in places that could not accommodate a busload of 45 or 50 people.

In Alaska, for example, a Road Scholar trip stays deep in Denali National Park, where large motor coach tours are not allowed to travel. Road Scholars also are able to visit a marine science research and wildlife rehabilitation facility.

The new programs were developed with a fresh eye. The most popular trip is a three-night stay in Pittsburgh to learn about criminal forensics.

Another reaches architect Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpieces in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison. A visit to Italy's Amalfi Coast touches upon everything from ancient civilizations to daily life today, from family farms to palatial estates.

For information, contact Road Scholar, Elderhostel, 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, Mass. 02111-1746; (800) 466-7762 or www.roadscholar.org. To find out about traditional Elderhostel programs, call (800) 877-8056 or visit www.elderhostel.org.

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