Empty nesters: life begins at 50

Inspired by their children's gap years, young-at-heart empty nesters are increasingly looking to travel. What's more, they're heading further afield and for longer, preferring exotica and adventure over slippers and comfort zones

By David Whitley
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:17 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:50 BST
Tibet landscape

Tibet landscape

Photograph by Getty Images

For Carla ter Maat, her children leaving home was something of a jolt. "It's a slap in the face when, after 20 years, they don't need you anymore," says the 59-year-old from Brighton. As with so many people in their 50s and 60s, suddenly finding themselves with an empty nest prompted a period of introspective re-evaluation. "I'd lost confidence in me," she says. "I had confidence as a mother and businesswoman, but you lose your self-identity."

So, six months after the last child left, Carla decided to do something rather different. For two decades, holidays had largely involved visiting family in Canada and trips to Lanzarote. But with just herself to think about, she decided to head off to Southeast Asia for three months.

"I flew into Bangkok and did an organised tour, but after that I was on my own. I decided to wing it and flew up to Chiang Mai. Within a couple of weeks, I felt I could spend a year there," says Carla. "I set myself a challenge every day at first — use the public transport system, ride in a motorbike tuk-tuk, have a Thai massage, that sort of thing. It was about not always going for the safe option I'd normally default to."

Carla's journey took her to Laos and Vietnam. "I thought I was out of practice with booking and organising and researching, but it was easy once I started. I ended up going to a lot of places I hadn't planned to visit. And even though I did a lot of research before I left, I loved the spontaneity."

The trip seems to have unlocked a lot of Carla's unfulfilled ambitions that had been stored away. "I'm back [home] now but I haven't really settled. That's the biggest impact," she says. "I'm now looking for something else, and I've got a big birthday coming up next year. It's a toss up between South America or Sri Lanka at the moment."

The striking thing about Carla's story is that it's far from unusual. The two most obvious symptoms of 'empty nest syndrome' are a sudden glut of free time and the feeling of having a hole to fill. Taking a more adventurous approach to travel seems to be one way of addressing this.

Every month, over-50s specialist Saga polls around 1,000 of its members on various issues, including holidays and travel. And some of the results from 2015's polls are rather illuminating. For example, 52% of over-50s said they've changed the way they approach holidays over the last 10 years, while 28% say they expect their habits to change in the next 10. When drilled down to the 50 to 59-year-old age group, which broadly tallies with their children leaving home, this rises to 33%.

Of those who have already changed their travel habits, 67% say they travel more frequently, while 34% travel to more exotic destinations (39% of 50 to 59 year olds). And of those who expect their habits to change, 38% of the 50 to 59-year-old respondents expect to be heading to more exotic destinations in the future.

Mind the gap

Perhaps the most striking figure of all, though, is that 53% of 50 to 59 year olds deliberately avoid travelling during the school holidays. With the kids no longer around, school holiday periods are no longer a restriction. But that's not to say that the children aren't an influence.

Stuart Lodge, managing director of gap-year specialist Roundtheworldflights.com, says gap years have a major bearing on empty-nester travel. "A lot our customers have been inspired by their kids who've recommended us," he says. "Often their parents had [previously] helped in the planning stages, or were the ones paying for the flights."

For Helen Sewell, who lives in Oxfordshire and works for a market research firm, her daughter's experiences gave her a strong nudge. "Family holidays were generally camping, caravans and gites in France," says Helen. "But Lottie took a gap year and went travelling. She went to Kenya by herself, too." This provided the inspiration — and confidence — for Helen to spread her wings as well.

The next step was to travel with her daughter, heading to the south of India. And after that, Helen took the plunge, booking a three week trip to India on her own. "I joined a tour group in the Golden Triangle for two weeks, but added on an extra week, going out early and coming back late," she says. "I found I enjoyed going off and doing my own thing."

This newfound independent approach led her to a series of memorable impromptu encounters. "For example, I'm a very keen seamstress and at one point I saw a chap at the side of the road sewing. I went over to chat and it was fascinating," says Helen. "Later on, there was another woman sifting grain. I went to talk to her and got dragged into the house for tea. I ended up helping her kids with their English homework."

A strong preference for experiences is another common theme among empty-nesters. Vanessa Lenssen, founder and CEO of activity holiday specialist Vidados, says, "You might expect those in their 50s and 60s to slide into retirement, but that's not the case. Their kids are going on a gap year and having some fun. They're thinking, 'I want some of that, too.'"

Lenssen believes this older generation is arguably more adventurous than their children. "Many customers enquire about one thing and end up booking something completely different. They're a lot more willing to consider new things and veer off the beaten path."

This uptake of new travel activities is perhaps unsurprising, given that empty nesters are also seeking out new hobbies at home. But while there's often a correlation between their hobbies and travel preferences, this demographic is just as likely to want to do something completely new.

"Cooking and wine have always been big," says Lenssen. "Hiking and photography are popular too, as are yoga, fitness, detox and general wellbeing. But traditional activities, such as painting, have been overtaken by things like surfing."

Freed from the shackles of compromise and tailoring holidays to the needs of their offspring, many empty nesters are prepared to go it alone. "We get loads of people travelling solo, who aren't necessarily single," says Lenssen. "They often want to do something their partner isn't particularly interested in, and it becomes a social thing."

Money matters

It's not just about having the time to explore new horizons, though — another crucial factor is having the money. Mick Heitzinger, product manager for Round the World Experts and Flight Centre UK, points out that travellers in the empty-nester demographic are often financially secure.

"Most own property that has increased in value over time," he says. "Their approach to travel is different. They tend to prefer premium products and take their time to explore the destination they're visiting." Heitzinger points to places
such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and North America as good examples.

"They also wish to experience the country in full, not just the major cities, usually spread out over a three to four week itinerary. It's more about enjoying the journey and the different experiences rather than just ticking destinations
off a bucket list."

But Stuart Lodge notes that even though those in their 50s and 60s have the money, they're careful with it. "They're still flying economy, but may do a particular leg in premium," he says. "They're also happy doing Airbnb in most places, but will mix guest houses in Thailand with five-star hotels in Dubai." Lodge has also noticed a growing trend — particularly in London — of people renting out their house for a year and using that rental income to fund the bulk of a long trip.

Denise Popat, a 59-year-old teacher from Stockport, agrees that having the disposable income to afford more adventurous travel is a key factor. "When we got married in 1978, we had no money whatsoever," she says. "We were able to make money, but we didn't have it to start with."

For Denise and her dentist husband, Ashok, bringing up children was just one limitation among many. "I went straight from school into teaching, and because my husband was building up the business, we couldn't afford to take off more than a week at a time."

So they usually plumped for beach holidays, which is what the children preferred, and often ended up in Menorca. But since the youngest child left home two years ago, they've branched out — often taking cruises — but first they headed to Argentina, Bolivia and Peru when Ashok turned 60.

"We're still relatively fit and able to enjoy life," says Denise. "South America was very physical. But for us, it's a case of 'hey, we can do this now'. Without being morbid, we want to see as much as we can before we die. We didn't have the opportunity when we were younger — so we're essentially taking our gap year now."

For travellers in their 50s and 60s, there's a new desire to take advantage of those things — gap-year culture, cheap international flights, internet research and booking — that their children regard as standard. A lot has changed within a generation, and the empty nesters don't see why they should miss out on what didn't exist when they were younger.

Where to go

United States

An easy starter destination for those wanting to branch out, it's the perfect place for a road trip through historic cities and wild national parks. The lack of a language barrier, plentiful motels and open roads make it ideal for throwing caution to the wind, improvising a route and going on an adventure.

Australia & New Zealand
Handy for those visiting friends and relatives on the other side of the globe, this antipodean duo is similarly well set up for driving trips. Throw in some adventurous activities — from surfing to skydiving — and they can offer repeated doses of
things never tried before.

Southeast Asia
Its popularity with gap-year travellers has seen the expansion of infrastructure, making getting around much easier than many might imagine. Affordability makes it ideal for longer explorations.

South America
Rapidly growing in popularity and developing similar backpacker trails to Southeast Asia. It's also highly popular with those wishing to learn a language — there are plenty of Spanish schools.

It's the place of a million find-yourself clichés, but the full-on sensory assault means there are few better places for stepping right out of your comfort zone.

More info





Silver Travel Advisor has plenty of advice and reviews for mature travellers, though the website isn't specifically aimed at the empty nest market.

Books addressing empty nest syndrome include The Second Half of Your Life by Jill Shaw-Ruddock (Vermilion) and Empty Nest: What's Next by Michele Howe (Hendrickson Publishers). For lengthier trips try Create Your Escape: A Practical Guide for Planning Long-Term Travel by Mike and Tara Shubbuck.

Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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