Older travelers know how to get discounts in the United States: flash that AARP card, register for a reduced-fare transit card, look for posted signs. And if you don't see them, ask.
But when they leave the country, things can get trickier. AARP doesn't mean much overseas. Americans (and other foreigners) sometimes aren't eligible for local discounts. What counts as "senior" in one country might not in another. The signs advertising discounts might be in foreign languages. Even in other English-speaking countries, those signs can be confusing: from Australia to England, what we call discounts are called "concessions."
Normally, I like to test things out firsthand, but in this case I'm still years from doing so. So I turned to others for help. First, I sent a survey to the tourism organizations of 25 countries that Americans visited the most; 17 responded. Then I consulted with two experts in the field: Ed Perkins, who writes the "Seniors on the Go" column for Tribune Media Services (also published on smartertravel.com.); and Nancy Parode, who writes the Senior Travel pages for About.com.
First, with so much variation across borders, advance research is key. Most guidebooks have a section for senior travelers, but for greater detail, you should search online. I realize that not all older travelers are as comfortable with the Internet as their grandchildren -- then again, you are reading this article. (Don't tell me someone printed it out for you.) A simple Google search with the words "senior," "traveler" and "discounts" will usually yield some information; add "Frommers" to the search and you'll find the page the Frommers people have written up for that country. But remember that just like guidebooks, Web sites often become outdated.
Once you are in situ, options will vary, so -- it's worth repeating -- ask, ask, ask. Most of the countries that responded to my survey claimed that discounts are frequently given at theaters, cinemas and tourist attractions to those aged 60 or 65 and over. But Mr. Perkins, who focuses on Europe, has not been impressed. "I've been surprised at how few discounts there are, given how the European countries seem to be more attuned to giving special deals to special classes of people," he said. "Europe does less for seniors than the U.S., but more for students." (Note to my mom, who just started a master's program at 75: don't forget to pack your student ID.)
But the countries vary far more widely when it comes to transportation. The most impressive response I got was from the Korean National Tourism Organization, which told me that anyone over 65 rides subways free and gets 30 percent off rail tickets. (That office supplied this information, as did the respective tourist offices for all that follows.)
Things get more complicated in Europe. Many countries allow you to purchase passes that get you discount rail tickets, but whether those make financial sense to short-term travelers varies greatly. Belgium's system is especially visitor-friendly: off-peak train tickets are 6 euros round trip for anyone over 65. On the other extreme are the Swiss. Sure, they sell a pass that gets you free transportation on essentially every bus and train in the country, and it's about 25 percent off for seniors. But it's still 2,680 Swiss francs, over $3,000. That's a lot of Zurich-to-Geneva train rides. I didn't find any other senior discounts, though there is a "half fare card," available to all travelers, for 120 francs.
In the middle are deals like the British Senior Railcard, for £30 (about $50), that gets you one-third off all purchases for a year on just about all tickets; and the French Senior+ card, which is 65 euros for a year, but provides discounts that start at 25 percent off. (Though, of course, they like to say it's "up to 50 percent off.") Austria and Italy have similarly structured deals; you can find information on a few more countries on Ms. Parode's page.
The key to finding discounts, she advises, is to ask; travelers heading to countries where English is not the first language should either memorize how to request a senior discount in the local tongue or carry a printed-out card-size version of it for workers to read.
Mr. Perkins added that unlike low- to mid-end hotels in the United States, European hotels rarely, if ever, give discounts. If you are planning to stay in an American-based chain that provides an AARP discount in the United States, you should check if their discount applies abroad.
But with so many other ways to find good prices these days, Mr. Perkins said the best deal for older travelers is often a deal that is available to everyone: from the basic technique of searching booking.com or hotels.com listings by price, or the more advanced and a bit nerve-racking "opaque" sites like Priceline.com, where you make an offer without knowing precisely what hotel you'll be staying at. "I think what's happened is that the suppliers found that age was a pretty blunt instrument to attack this," Mr. Perkins said, "and they can now fine-tune their pricing by doing other things."
That applies equally to all other discounts, like museums. "It's really all about doing your frugal traveler homework and doing your math," Ms. Parode said. "If there's a senior discount, is there a free day that's better than the discount?"
Ms. Parode also said that city passes -- the kind that get you admission to a wide array of attractions -- often offer senior discounts, although again, you need to be sure you'll use it enough to justify purchasing it in the first place.
Remember that discounts are not necessarily the only advantage to being older on the road. In my survey, I asked the tourism organizations what else made their country appealing to older travelers. The most frequent answer was the respect their culture shows for the elderly. That may be true, but it doesn't really impress Mr. Perkins. "That and a few euros will get you a cup of coffee," he said.
Here are some other highlights -- and a few lowlights -- from the national tourism organizations that responded to me.
-- In Austria, the train ride from Vienna to Salzburg on WESTbahn, normally 25 euros, is 15.99 for seniors, if purchased at selected tobacco stores.
-- Canadian ski resorts often have discounts for older travelers (15 percent off at Whistler, for example) ...
-- ... And so do Swiss ski resorts, from Davos to Zermatt.
-- In Brazil, half-price admission for those over 60 is standard at tourist attractions, cinemas and museums. Also look out for priority lines in places like the post office, banks and supermarkets.
-- The older you are, the more significant the discount at Gion Hatanaka, a ryokan (inn) in Kyoto, Japan. For its one-night/two-meal program, discounts start at 10 percent off for those 65 to 69 and go up to 100 percent off for those over 100.
-- In Hong Kong, those 65 and over are eligible for an "elderly Octopus card," which allows them to take public transport -- rail and buses -- for 2 Hong Kong dollars (about 25 cents), a sharp discount from most fares.
-- The Opéra National de Paris at the Palais Garnier sells last-minute seats to those over 65 (and under 28).
-- The St. James Theatre in London offers discounts (known as concessions), typically £10 off, to older people at its performances.
-- Entrance to the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston is reduced from 400 Jamaican dollars (about $4) to 200 dollars.
-- In Brandenburg, Germany, outside Berlin, travelers over 65 are eligible to get 5 euros off a day ticket to Tropical Islands, an "exotic" indoor tropical landscape. (They may, however, want to consider a trip to the actual tropics instead.)
-- In Ireland, many institutions offer discounts, including 3.50 euros off to both the Dublin Zoo and the Guinness Storehouse, and Railtours Ireland gives free hop-on hop-off tickets for its Dublin City Tour buses to those over 55.
-- In Italy, state-run museums are free for those 65 and older... if you're a citizen of the European Union. (Boooooo.)
-- The Amsterdam Royal Zoo takes 1 measly euro off admission if you're over 65.
-- Tourism offices in Taiwan, China and the Dominican Republic couldn't come up with any specific discounts at all.travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.