In one of his many foreign travels with tour companies, Frank Burd makes a new friend and pen pal in Thailand.

by Frank Burd

Many years ago, while walking around Independence Mall, I saw a tour guide waving her little flag as a dozen tourists followed her through historic Philadelphia. I vowed never to travel in that fashion. I was an independent traveler who not only trained through Europe, but I even hitchhiked across much of the continent.

But times have changed, and this Baby Boomer is now 70 and is not done traveling. In the past six years, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit South Africa, China, Thailand and Peru. And I didn’t hitchhike. I went with tour companies, often led by younger men and women, waving flags, so we didn’t get lost or separated from the group in these foreign lands.

In my earlier travels, I’d slept in hostels, tents and on the floors and sofas of the places of the people I’d met. Now I sleep in hotels — not fancy ones, mind you, but hotels nonetheless. I go with tour groups, which take me on buses, trains, planes and even boats, to many destinations I never would have experienced.

“Oh, I can’t travel that way,” many of my friends would say. “When I go somewhere, I want to stay a while and get to know the people, the culture.”

Other friends would add, “You’re always on the move. You must feel very rushed.”

I’ve never felt rushed. I get to learn so much. I see so many things that I never would have seen. And I always know that I can return to these countries on my own to see more if I want to. I’m young. I’m only 70.

I want to see as much of the world as I can, but I’m a bit lazier than I was in my 20s and 30s. I don’t have quite as much energy, and I want to spend that energy exploring new worlds, not trying to figure out bus schedules in Bangkok or cruise options on the Yangtze River.

There’s one more thing that I love about these excursions. For the most part, they attract many people like me. On some of these trips, I’ve traveled as a solo. In a short time I was adopted by couples, singles and groups to join them on days or evenings off. That’s how I wound up at a kick-boxing match in Chang Mai and in a cathedral in Cuzco, Peru. That’s how I learned to play Mah Jongg in China.

My first escorted trip was six years ago. On that one, I was traveling with a friend. We went to South Africa and visited many wildlife reserves and safari parks. Rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and zebras crossed the roads in front and behind us. But I was just as fascinated as I watched dung beetles pushing a large elephant dropping down the road.

Yes, we were tourists. But we didn’t go to fancy restaurants or luxury hotels. The accommodations were lovely — clean. safe and finer than any I’d experienced in my youth. And they were near places where we could explore on our own. The travel company I went with, SmarTours, also took us into some of the very depressed areas to see life up close. We even visited schools. It made a powerful impression on me.

On top of that, what made this trip so extraordinary was our guide. I can’t say enough about him. Ron was so full of information, not just about the landscape but about a history I would never had read about. The bus rides themselves became a listening library.

And Ron did one more thing for me. One afternoon, my credit card was declined. It had been compromised, even though I had told the company I would be traveling abroad. I was a bit panicked. Ron took my card, called the 800 number on the back and spent 15 minutes clearing up the situation for me. What a relief it was!

The travel guides provide an amazing service. Traveling in China with Gate 1 (this time with my son), I got a picture of what was going on in the country, and I don’t just mean the party line. Our guide, Joan, shared so much information about her country but also about herself, about how the one-child policy affected her life, about how the incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989, led to the country’s clamping down on study abroad, keeping Joan from visiting the U.S. The guides in Peru and Thailand were equally helpful.

Having traveled with SmarTours and Gate1, I can recommend both. I also love the fact that although all the companies do their booking online, Gate1 is located in nearby Fort Washington, and you can sit down there with a travel advisor/agent. I’ve also heard good things about Overseas Adventure Travels (OAT).

Another company that caters to seniors is Road Scholar. They used to be known as Elderhostel until 2010. Road Scholar boasts that they provide the best learning experiences for adults. The less expensive hostels, though, have been replaced by what they call more comfortable accommodations. But their prices are higher as well. They do run many trips to Cuba, but they are not cheap.

The bottom line for me is a simple one. I want to see and do as much as I can, while I can. I want to do it with the minimum amount of work and at an affordable price. There are guided travel companies out there to help. I will continue to use them.

Frank Burd is a Chestnut Hill area resident and former public school teacher who now writes for several area newspapers. This article is reprinted, with permission, from Milestones, the monthly publication of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.