Unpacked: Taking Your Senior Parent to Europe This Summer? Here’s What You Need To Know

With summer travel to Europe set to break records, there are a few things to keep in mind for smooth sailing with senior companions.

Anthony Grant/The New York Sun
A wheelchair assist passenger chats with an official airport helper at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5. Anthony Grant/The New York Sun

The wearing of high heels is not advised near the intersection of sunny Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon and Geula streets — at least, it wasn’t a few years ago when I was entrusted with guiding a matronly family friend who despite my warnings about the unevenness of Middle Eastern sidewalks insisted on dressing to the nines and fell flat on her posterior. Luckily, no hip was broken, but the incident showed how traveling overseas with a senior citizen can pose unique challenges.

It also calls for adopting a slightly different mindset. A two-week whirl around Italy on a motorcycle with your girlfriend is going to look a little different from the itinerary one might work up for a trip with one’s 81-year-old father. As it happens, I recently jumped on the trending “multigen” travel bandwagon by shepherding my mother around Greece for three weeks. 

As Americans dust off their passports in record numbers this summer, there are a few things to bear in mind before heading to the airport. 

When traveling with a senior parent, prioritize quality time and unique experiences over trying to shuttle to as many Greek islands as possible to impress your friends on Instagram. Because if you think boarding crowded ferries and waiting in line to check into and out of hotels (however nice they are) is exhausting at age 20, figure that it is about four times as frazzling at 80. So think of putting your older companion’s needs above your own, possibly more ambitious ones. Travel is meant to be a journey, not a contest.

In terms of mapping out a suitable itinerary, it pays to plan accordion-style. That means allowing space for multiple activities over the course of a day, or as little as one — sometimes even none. As long as you define the arrival and departure dates and have most of your hotel reservations squared away in advance, that is possible. By way of example, when my brother visited me at Athens with his wife and teenage nephew, they tried to cram as much sightseeing into three days as humanly possible. They succeeded, but practically collapsed when they were through. A collapsing parent in a foreign country is something one generally wishes to avoid. 

Even though my mother flew over to Athens from Washington on United Polaris (which I heard is great, but until they add nonstop flights from the Coast I am not sold), there was no getting around the jetlag. So I did my best to ease the initial wallop by checking her into my second-favorite hotel, the Hotel Grande Bretagne (my first favorite is somewhere in Tel Aviv). One look at the iconic rooftop pool and it’s easy to see why there is no other hotel like it in Greece. 

The rooftop pool at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens. A restful stop on any itinerary, even for a night or two, is always a good way to slow down and refresh. Anthony Grant/The New York Sun

What followed were two days of easy walks around the Plaka, dinner at the Acropolis Museum, and checking out some hot spots in the nearby neighborhood of Pagrati. Among them, the fantastic Goulandris Museum. This fairly new  museum comes with a wonderful open-air cafe. Anytime you can combine a cultural outing with a nice culinary experience in Europe, do it: Time and energy are saved. 

Like Italy, Greece is packed with ruins. Bear in mind, though, that poking about the Roman Forum or ancient Agora under a hot sun can be mightily strenuous even if you are not sporting stilettos. For the mobility-challenged, it can even be dangerous. Admiring the Hephaisteion from up close is manageable, but climbing up the Areopagus Hill possibly less so. We settled for a fine view of both with a frosty lemonade atop the The Dolli hotel

Traveling at a slower pace can take some getting used to, but it also has its advantages. Accompanying my mother though the tangled streets of Athens meant walking at less than half my normal pace, but what was the hurry? I noticed architectural details that had previously eluded me, and people with little dogs. The idea of moving about a fast-paced city at a deliberately reduced speed is in itself quite appealing and, after all, not every city is New York.

If one or more of your parents has mobility issues and needs assistance getting around the airport, do not be shy about requesting it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that having a disability is a prerequisite for wheelchair assistance — it isn’t. Not being able to walk fast or being unable to walk up stairs or use escalators is generally considered a valid reason to seek assistance, and most airports are well-prepared to provide it. 

Airlines, though, have different methods of processing assistance requests. Travelers with British Airways, say, have only to make a request online at least 48 hours before their flights depart. For our flights on Aegean, I had to call the reservations center ahead of time to secure wheelchair assistance at the Athens airport. 

Regardless of airline, when you put in a wheelchair request, it works like this: At the check-in counter, mention to the agent that you have a special assistance passenger. Someone will come with a wheelchair. Sometimes they can escort the passenger in need to the gate and sometimes all the way across the jetway to the plane.

The airline at your point of origin is also responsible for processing the wheelchair assist at your arrival airport. In other words, if you are flying to London from Athens with a wheelchair assist for one passenger, you need not notify anyone at Heathrow: There will be a wheelchair waiting as you exit the aircraft. The helper who pushes it will accompany the passenger and his or her companion through customs and immigration as well as baggage collection. 

According to my on-the-ground research, the assistance can also be provided if you need to change terminals for a flight connection — which can be a godsend at a mammoth airport like Heathrow, where walking distances are infamously long.

Oh, one of the unadvertised perks of the wheelchair assist? Both you and your parent (who you are presumably accompanying) will probably get to skip the security line  — that applies to airports stateside as well as overseas. 

Needless to say, with big swaths of Europe girding for one of the hottest summers on record, staying hydrated at all times is crucially important — on the plane and off.  It is easy to buy bottled water almost anywhere in an airport or in a city, but if you are taking a long car trip remember that fast food culture does not exist in Europe and you can drive for dozens of miles without spotting a single golden arch — or even a billboard, for that matter. Plus, you can get lost.

 The bottom line is that if your parents leave their hotel room without some bottled water or set off on a road trip without several bottles of water in the car, they are not ready to roam. Seeing some of the world in one’s golden years is good. Avoiding dehydration and heat exhaustion 5,000 miles from home is even better. 

Unpacked is a periodic travel column from Mr. Grant in which he highlights a destination  or experience of interest to today’s curious traveler.

The New York Sun

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