Saga is the biggest UK tour operator devoted to the needs of older customers, specialising in holidays exclusively for the over 50s and it was with some hesitation that I paid up for a trip to Thailand and Malaysia, not too sure that I wanted to join a group of hard-up geriatrics.
I need not have worried. They were elderly all right, with an average age of 65 or 70, but they were far from decrepit. Our group may not have been completely fit (one man had a pacemaker, another had had a stroke which left him with a stiff leg, one woman was in a wheelchair, another of over 80 had had a double hip-replacement operation and could hardly walk, two men had had heart surgery) but they clearly did not think of themselves as invalids.
They weren't hard-up either. In fact, most of them were paying well over the basic price of a two-week holiday in Chiang Mai, which was around pounds l,000 per person, half board. Most took advantage of options such as an extra three days in Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore, or a week in Penang, and several had extra weeks in Chiang Mai itself.
And all the talk was of the other places they had visited. One couple told me they had visited 41 countries in seven years on Saga holidays; the hip-replacement lady told me she had been to Australia a few years ago; a single man had visited Australia three times and had already booked his next six holidays. I heard talk of holidays in China ("you had to learn how to use chop-sticks or you got no food") Egypt; and South Africa. I met a couple who lived in Spain and travelled in the winter; another who spent three months touring Europe with a caravan every spring; a woman who had been to India on her own because her husband hated travelling.
They were an adventurous lot. One much travelled lady, when asked where she thought of going next, told me she rather fancied Albania. A solitary man was determined to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
There seemed no upper age limits for Saga holidaymakers. Saga also operates in America and a couple of American ladies from Boston told me they had had a very successful Saga holiday in Majorca last spring with their mothers, aged 85 and 93.
Saga arrangements were generally excellent, and they catered for their elderly clientele without patronising them. Wheelchairs appeared when necessary, help was discreetly given to those who needed it clambering on and off the coaches (or the backs of elephants). Someone with vertigo was reassured about a trip to the hills; a few hard of hearing people were carefully placed at meetings and lectures.
I thought that a large party of oldies might have more than their fair share of accidents and illness, and give trouble to reps with late night demands for doctors or emergency visits to hospitals. In fact the reps thought that companies catering for younger people had much more trouble with holidaymakers making themselves ill with over-drinking or getting sunburn. Saga's clientele knew how to look after themselves.
All agreed that Saga holidays were excellent value for money, and the party seemed determined to get their money's worth. Several excursions were included in the price, and some of these were all-day affairs, starting at 8am or earlier. All were well subscribed, and again age seemed no obstacle. Eighty- year-olds coped with elephant rides and bamboo rafts. After tottering off the coach at the end of one of these exhausting excursions I appreciated why Saga excluded the under 50s. I had thought it was meant to keep out the raucous all-night revellers to ensure peace and quiet for the oldies. Now I realised that it was because the under 50s simply couldn't stand the pace.
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