DALLAS -- Most seniors have more free time for leisure activities including travel, but money is tighter when the paychecks stop at retirement.
Retirees who want to travel can make those trips more affordable by taking advantage of senior discounts and through less obvious strategies.
Many of the tips offered by travel experts work just as well for anyone, regardless of age, but could be especially valuable for seniors. Among them:
— When traveling by air, be flexible about dates and even destinations.
— Be impulsive; grab bargains when you see them.
— If you're paying a lot upfront, insure your trip.
Few airlines provide senior discounts anymore. American Airlines and United Airlines said they don't offer senior discounts. Delta did not respond to inquiries. Southwest Airlines does, for travelers 65 and older. It is not a set amount, a spokesman said.
Southwest's website lets customers indicate that they are a senior, and their searches will include four fare levels instead of three. An Associated Press sample of popular routes on a Saturday in March and a Monday in April indicated that the senior fare was often much lower than the middle "Anytime" fare, which comes with the same benefits.
However, the senior price was always higher than the cheapest — but nonrefundable — "Wanna Get Away" fare. Sometimes the difference was just a few dollars, but often the gap was more than $100 each way.
"The only time you would ever consider buying a senior fare on Southwest is if for some reason the Wanna Get Away fares are all sold out," said Ed Perkins, an editor at Smarter Travel. That happened a few times, but not often, on the flights sampled by the AP.
British Airways offers a $65 discount on economy tickets and $200 on business-class seats when purchased through a program with AARP.
Amtrak has a 10 percent discount for those 65 and up on most trains, and also on U.S.-Canada service operated jointly with VIA Rail Canada. Eurail does the same. Some national rail lines in Europe, including those in England and France, give more generous breaks for seniors but only after buying a yearly card, likely to be a deal-breaker for most American visitors.
Many big hotel chains in the U.S. offer discounts of 5 percent to 15 percent, generally through AARP or the AAA travel club, but smaller hotels in Europe typically don't. Public transportation in many U.S. cities is sometimes heavily discounted for seniors, although there can be catches, like requiring a special card in addition to a license or other identification.
Research before a trip pays off.
"You can't anticipate everything, but planning ahead definitely helps save money," said Maria Gillen, who specializes in overseas travel for AARP.
Gillen noted that airfare and hotel prices often rise the closer you get to your travel date. For popular summer destinations like Italy, this is the time to be shopping for flights and accommodations, she said.
Travel to tourist destinations will almost always be cheaper in the off- or shoulder seasons — think spring and fall in Europe, summer for mountain resorts. You'll also encounter smaller crowds.
Expensive or exotic vacations are often planned months in advance. If you have one or a few destinations in mind, it will be worthwhile to sign up for alerts at websites that track fares and hotel deals, such as airfarewatchdog.com . The alerts come in handy when airlines and other travel-related companies offer online "flash" sales that can be gone in a few hours.
"If you see a good flash sale, jump on it," Perkins said. "I'm a senior, and I've done that a couple of times over the last three years," including a round trip in business class between Seattle and China for $1,500, which he figured was half the normal price.
Deals that bundle some combination of airfare, hotel or cruise, tours, and car rental can be cheaper than buying each separately. Some seniors, like travelers in other age groups, are using miles or points to help pay for their travel.
"We find that seniors are more prone to buy packages. It's more economical, whether it be a cruise where you're getting your lodging and meals taken care of, or a tour package," said Beth Godlin, president of the travel practice at Aon Affinity, a wholesaler of travel insurance. "A high percentage of folks are booking air separately because there aren't as many (airline) discounts as there used to be and there are so many ways to collect loyalty points."
Besides advice for saving money, experts have tips for traveling safely.
Julie Hall, a spokeswoman for travel club AAA, said U.S. citizens going abroad should sign up for the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which makes it easier for embassies and consulates to contact them in an emergency. She suggested carrying identification besides a passport, such as an international driving permit, which translates U.S. license information into 10 languages.
Hall said seniors should call ahead if they will need wheelchair assistance at the airport, arrive early if they don't know the airport, and carry extra medicines in case the flight home is delayed.
David Koenig can be reached at http://twitter.com/airlinewriter