Q: Peter, I recall a web site I visited several years ago that gave difficulty ratings for traveling seniors; i.e., major walking tours versus minimal walking, etc. Do you know of any such site? Thank you.
–Sheila Sideroff, The Villages, Fla.
A: Though there is no universal, industry-wide rating system, many tour operators rank their own tours using home-grown rating scales to help you determine the level of exertion required.
Road Scholar, formerly known as "Exploritas," offers a seven-level rating system on its Web site to help you determine the physical difficulty of each of its trips. The scale starts at one, which means basically no exertion required (except occasional walking), and ends at seven, which indicates that strenuous physical challenges would be involved, so only the ultra-fit should apply.
At Eldertreks Tour Company, which specializes in group-adventure travel for the over-50 set, each trip is categorized with a specific activity level, from "easy" all the way up to "challenging." Easy adventures include tours that transport you by bus and train around Tunisia, while the toughest trips involve trekking on foot in the mountains of Patagonia or walking safari in Tanzania.
Intrepid Travel, which specializes in escorted but off-the-beaten-path, small-group tours, has not one but three different types of rating systems for its trips. The first tells you the style of the trip (whether it is basic, family, active, or another style). The second tells you the difficulty level, which has six tiers starting at "relaxing" and topping out at "extremely challenging." The last rates the culture-shock factor, which can be mild for European trips, but high for treks through the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya.
As a general rule, when you're looking for a tour, first make sure to ask yourself what your needs and limitations are. If you're adventurous, fit, and looking for a challenge, try to find a tour that suits a high energy level. On the other hand, if you're disabled or just want a slow, minimal-exertion experience, you probably want to find a vacation that offers a gentler pace.
If the company you like doesn't have a ranking system, you can always call customer service and ask. Be sure to get explicit information about how many hours per day you would spend standing, walking, biking, and the like, and find out whether the terrain is hilly, how many stairs you would have to climb, and how many rest stops you would have throughout the day. If the person can't answer, or if he or she tries to tell you that all the company's tours are appropriate for all levels, that may be a red flag that someone is trying to sell you a bridge in Arizona.