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Now, the good news about getting older

When I went to the movies not long ago, I paid twice as much for my ticket as my companion did. It didn't seem particularly fair _ my friend makes much more money than I and has a fabulous home in Beverly Hills _ but fairness had nothing to do with it. Rather, my friend got his discount because he'd reached the exalted age of 60 and thus qualified for a senior citizen ticket.

"Sure, it's silly to say I need a price break," says this eminently practical man, "but it'd be sillier for me not to take the discount."

The travel industry is riddled with similar goodies for older people. All you have to do is ask. Here are some examples of what's available and tips on how to separate the true deals from the mere come-ons.

Plane fares

Most airlines sell coupons that passengers age 62 and older can use for travel anywhere in the United States and to Caribbean destinations such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These coupons are sold in books of four or eight, with each coupon good for a one-way trip. (USAir coupons can also be used for grandchildren age 2 to 11.)

The books are great values if you take long trips. For example, a book of eight coupons on American costs $984, or $246 for each of four round-trips. That's considerably less than you'd ordinarily pay for a coast-to-coast flight, or even for a round-trip flight between such locations as Los Angeles and Chicago, or Boston and St. Louis.

But if you take short trips _ say, between Chicago and St. Louis _ the coupon book isn't much of a deal compared with typical fares between those cities.

All the airlines restrict the number of seats available through the coupon programs, so it makes sense to convert coupons into actual tickets as far in advance as possible. Many airlines also black out holiday periods.

Coupons are good for only one year after date of purchase, so you should consider the books of four if you're planning only a few flights. Another option for the infrequent traveler: Many airlines will knock 10 percent off all fares for anyone 62 or older. American also allows seniors to purchase a ticket for a traveling companion of any age at a 10 percent discount.

On the other hand, if you're really a frequent flier, Continental's Freedom Passport may be for you. With it, you can take as many as 24 round-trips a year, although there are some blackout dates, and a Saturday night stay is required. The cost: $1,999 for a domestic coach pass or $3,499 for first class; $4,499 for a worldwide coach pass or $6,999 for first class. If you take more than eight round-trip flights a year, the domestic coach pass will be cheaper than a coupon book. And if you make 24 domestic round-trips in one year, each flight in coach class will cost only $83.

Yet another option is Continental's $999 Freedom Passport, which entitles seniors to four months of unlimited travel in the contiguous United States or to the U.S. Virgin Islands or Vancouver, B.C. (except on restricted dates). Seniors may also purchase a second passport for a companion of any age for the same price.

Hotel clubs

Many hotel chains sponsor senior discount clubs that enable members to reserve rooms at lower rates. Discounts and membership fees vary by chain. The Days Inn's program ($12 annually), for example, cuts 15 to 40 percent off prices at most locations, although not many of the hotels offer a discount of more than 15 percent. But even 15 percent off translates to a savings of about $16 on a two-night stay at a Days Inn such as the one in Boulder, Colo., which charges $54 a night for a double.

Hilton's senior program knocks 25 to 50 percent off room rates within the United States, but you have to pay an annual fee of $50. Not all Hiltons participate in this program, however.

Red Roof Inn charges a one-time, $10 fee in exchange for a 10 percent discount on any room in its chain.

Many hotels routinely offer discounts of 5 to 15 percent to any senior citizen, whether or not you belong to a club. Some chains, such as Marriott, don't have a senior club, but they do reduce room rates for members of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which anyone can join upon reaching age 50.

AARP

Many organizations sponsor senior citizen clubs, but the 500-pound gorilla of the senior clubs, and the one everyone should consider joining, is run by AARP. Its members receive discounts from Avis, Hertz, National, Thrifty, Days Inn, Holiday Inn, Marriott and more than 20 other companies.

In some cases, the discounts extend beyond hotel rooms to include hotel restaurants and gift shops; Marriott, for example, knocks 20 percent off its restaurant food prices, even if you're not staying at the hotel. AARP also offers members a variety of tours, as well as discounts of up to 50 percent on cruises.

Discounts through AARP vary widely _ anywhere from 5 percent to more than 50 percent, depending on the company, time of year, cost and other considerations _ but with an $8 annual fee, it's likely that you'll get your money's worth out of AARP membership. For more information, contact AARP, 601 E St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007; (800) 441-2277 (membership) or (800) 927-0111 (tour and cruise information).

Train fares

For travelers 62 and older, Amtrak trims 15 percent off the lowest available coach fare for travel on Mondays through Thursdays. The discount doesn't apply to the Autotrain, Metroliner, sleeper cars, club service or custom class, however.

If you're booked on a long-distance trip that begins on a Thursday, you can get the discount even if the train doesn't reach its final destination until the weekend.

BritRail, the U.K.'s national rail pass, offers a discount to people 60 and older _ eight days of unlimited first-class travel for $279 instead of the usual $299.

National parks

Once you hit 62, you won't ever have to pay to get into a U. S. national park again, if you're a citizen or permanent resident. Just show your driver's license at any federal recreation area charging an entrance fee, and you'll receive a Golden Age Pass, good for free entry to any federal recreation area. The pass also gives you 50 percent off user's fees _ campsites, boat ramps and so on _ at all federal parks.

The Hostel option

Elderhostel provides people 60 and older with opportunities to learn something new while enjoying an affordable vacation. Almost 300,000 vacationers this year will spend one to two weeks (two to four weeks on overseas trips) at a college or other educational institution, eating in dining halls, sleeping in dormitory-type lodgings and taking classes in everything from geology to cross-country skiing.

The fee, which averages $300 per week in the United States and Canada, includes room, board and instruction.

"In a sense you're roughing it," notes Paul Bach of Elderhostel. "You're going to share quarters and eat meals when meals are available, rather than at any time of the day, but you're also getting a learning experience for less than most people spend for just a few nights at a hotel."

For more information, contact Elderhostel, Dept. EM, 75 Federal St., Boston, MA 02110.

While Elderhostel is limited to a certain age group, the name American Youth Hostels (AYH) is a happy misnomer: about 10 percent of the people taking advantage of these low-cost rooms are 54 or older. By paying a $15 membership fee, these seniors gain access to more than 6,000 hostels in 70 countries, including about 200 in the United States.

Hostel accommodations are typically dormitory-style, with two to eight people per room, although private rooms are sometimes available for couples. AYH also sponsors hiking and cycling tours geared to travelers 50 and older. For more information, contact American Youth Hostels, Dept. 860, P.O. Box 37613, Washington, D.C. 20013; (202) 783-6161.

The fine print

With any seniors program, it pays to read the fine print and understand exactly what you are _ or are not _ getting for your money. United Airlines' Silver Wings Plus typifies the problem of separating hype from reality.

The program gives members a 50 percent discount on rooms at most Westin hotels, along with 10 percent off fares on United. When you sign up for the three-year membership ($75), you receive three $25 "complimentary" travel certificates. But to get your money back with these certificates, you have to buy three tickets on United within a year, and only one certificate can be used per trip.

United's literature also states that members "receive substantial discounts on car rentals from participating Alamo Rent A Car, Dollar Rent A Car and Hertz," but it doesn't specify the size of the discounts. When I called United's Silver Wings department, I was told the discounts range from 5 to 50 percent. The agent, however, couldn't tell me which rental company offered a discount of 50 percent, and only when pressed did she disclose that the discount depends on the size of the car, where and when it's rented, and that most discounts would actually be only 5 or 10 percent. She added that not every franchise in the rental car chains participates in the program.

Shop, shop, shop

Even if you belong to a senior discount program, you should still shop around for the best values. For example, the AARP program, while comprehensive, doesn't always give you the best deal. When I called Marriott to book a room in Chicago this spring, I was quoted a price of $125 per night with the AARP discount, which was $84 off the standard $209 rate. But when I asked if a better rate was available, I was offered the same room for $109 _ including breakfast for two.

Joseph Anthony writes on travel and social trends from Portland, Ore.

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