Road Scholar Trips

For seniors, Road Scholar offers learning adventures around the world.

Alyssa Bichunsky

As a child, Bill Baker remembers learning about the world beyond his Massachusetts home from his uncle. “He was an avid reader who would go on trips, then gather the family for a slideshow.” 

Today Bill, 79, and his wife, Susan, 77, of Blacksburg, are the ones sharing travel stories. The couple have taken 36 trips with Road Scholar. The world’s leader in educational travel for the 50-plus set, Road Scholar offers cycling tours of Cambodia, wine tours through Portugal, and far-flung adventures in Mongolia, Patagonia, and Polynesia.

This year, the Bakers left their home at Blacksburg’s Warm Hearth Village: to cruise Alaska’s iceberg-laden waters and, again, for five nights of opera in Santa Fe. Next year, they’ll spend 17 days exploring the Australian outback and the Great Barrier Reef. 

While these itineraries may sound luxurious, Boston-based Road Scholar makes jet-setting affordable for seniors. “Because we’re a not-for-profit, we can keep costs low, value high, and we can offer financial aid, including caregiver grants,” says company spokesperson Kelsey Perri. 

All-inclusive trips range from $750-$4,000, some including airfare. A 14-day trip to Antarctica can run $11,000, but 54 Road Scholar “adventures” are less than $750, including many online opportunities that start at $25. And while a 103-day Queen Mary II cruise—with stops in 18 countries on four continents—comes with a $40,000 price tag, it’s still less than $400 per day. 

Learning from Experts

The company was founded in 1975 by Marty Knowlton and David Bianco, colleagues at the University of New Hampshire who adapted the Scandinavian tradition of residential folk schools to launch Elderhostel, a program designed to introduce U.S. seniors to lifelong learning through travel. 

Back then, Elderhostel destinations were limited to college campuses. Participants stayed in dorm rooms to attend professor-led lectures during the summer months. Today, the organization offers over 4,000 learning adventures per year, “from Albania to Zimbabwe,” says Perri, “in all 50 states and 100 countries.” 

Accommodations now include four-star hotels and offer “immersive field learning,” Perri notes, “with experts ranging from archaeologists and docents to local winemakers and shrimp boat captains.” 

Road Scholar attracts nearly 100,000 travelers each year, from ages 50-90. Some trips even include the grandchildren.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Each trip is graded by activity level and comes with a reading list. Clients can choose how much challenge they’re up for, knowing that Road Scholar is prepared to support those with mobility or health challenges. For one 90-year-old traveler, the organization even arranged dialysis treatment at local stops along the itinerary.   

For a bike trip through Cambodia, Bill Baker says a boat followed their group along the Mekong River—ready to pick up anyone needing a break. “We were on dirt roads, going through all these little villages. The children hadn’t seen many visitors before, so they would come out and wave and give us high fives,” Susan recalls.

The trips, Baker says, “widen your perspective. I think people can become so insular that they lose perspective. We’re all human beings, we share the same desires.” 

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Connie Marchese Baum, 73, of Warrenton, was a widow when she first traveled with Road Scholar in 2008. Now, after more than 60 Road Scholar trips, she’s a program ambassador and says about 30 percent of the group’s travelers are single. “People reach out,” she notes. “And the guides make sure everybody feels included.’’ 

Baum applauds the trips’ educational focus and the camaraderie of fellow travelers. “The people who sign up really want to learn. It’s not a shopping tour,” she says. “The accommodations are always comfortable, and the food is very good. Once you sign up, basically everything is paid for. You don’t have extra tips or transport fees.” 

Closest to her heart is the trip she took to Kentucky in 2009, billed as “Mystery and Beauty of Appalachia.” There, she met Bill Baum, 70, a retired New Jersey music teacher who, like her, had also been widowed. Both had booked the trip at the last minute, never imagining they’d find love on the program.

But they hit it off. Once home, their correspondence led to trip planning—then romance. And in 2013, on a Road Scholar choral trip to Abingdon, Bill and Connie made their feelings official, surprising their fellow travelers during the talent show finale. After Bill invited Connie onstage, he sang Jim Croce’s, “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” then introduced a justice of the peace—who married them on the spot. 

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Connie recalls.  

Since then, the couple has explored rainforests in Costa Rica, volcanoes in Hawaii, and kayaked in the Florida Keys. In September, they traveled from Quebec to the Maritimes by train. A month later, they saw Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks. 

Although he’s taken 70 Road Scholar trips since he retired in 2006, Bill still gets excited when a new catalog arrives in the mail. Storm watching on the Oregon coast still ranks among his favorites. “The wildness of the Pacific coast was just amazing,” he says.

Adds Connie, “the one trip that I probably would want to do in the next year is Alaska—because I’ve been to the other 49 states.”

Travel for Caregivers

Adventure is just one benefit of travel. It can also be therapeutic. When Kim Wright learned about Road Scholar’s caregiver grants, through a support group at the University of Virginia’s Memory and Aging Care Clinic, she nominated her mother, Peggy, 78. 

Her parents, Peggy and Gary Wright had founded Tiffanys Bridal shop in Richmond. Together, they’d traveled to Chicago on frequent buying trips for the store. When Gary was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body dementia, Kim convinced her mother that he’d need 24-hour care. Even after he entered residential nursing, “I still went every day to feed him lunch,” Peggy says, of Gary’s final months. 

After years of devoted caregiving, Peggy wept with joy at the news of her $2,000 Road Scholar grant. She could pick any trip in the U.S. or Canada. To top it off, Road Scholar offered a matching grant, so Kim could join her. 

The two chose Chicago. “It was our bust-out-of-Covid trip,” says Kim. “But it ended up being a celebration of dad—it felt like he was with us.” This time, instead of bridal buying, Peggy took in a mural tour, an architectural cruise, and visited Wrigley Field, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Shedd Aquarium. 

At 54, Kim was the youngest person on the trip. “But there was another mother and daughter traveling together,” she notes. Would Peggy choose Road Scholar again? “It’s a wonderful way to travel,” she says. “Everything is taken care of. They’re very accommodating and very careful. They take everything into consideration.” 

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue.

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