Sandy Ehlers has always loved to travel. During her long marriage, she and her husband owned department stores and often traveled for work and leisure, by ship, trains and planes. As a buyer for the stores, she thought nothing of heading from her home in the Midwest to New York City for a week or two, or jetting off to Paris.

But as she aged, taking trips became more taxing. Ehlers, now 83 and a widow, has an inherited lung condition that means she runs out of breath easily.

"I need to sit down and rest a lot," she said. "To get on and off planes, grab cars and all that takes a little more energy than I have." She uses a wheelchair to get through the airport.

Outsource your worries

She still loves to go places, and several years ago she found a person to help: a "senior travel companion" named Carol Giuliani, who has since escorted Ehlers on several trips. Giuliani has accompanied Ehlers from her daughter's home in Vermont back to her current home in Florida, taken her to join her companion John in his home state of Michigan, and whisked the couple off on a road trip around Minnesota.

"I think traveling is taxing in the best situations, so you don't want to travel with someone that you don't enjoy," Ehlers said. "I enjoy Carol, I've got confidence in her. I'm much more relaxed on the trip because she's doing all the worrying."

For those who wonder why adult children can't help their parents travel from A to B, Ehlers speaks for many when she says her three children live in different parts of the country, and all have busy careers.

"I don't want to be leaning on them all the time to care for me," she said. "I want to allow them freedom in their own lives as long as I possibly can."

An expensive service

Giuliani says her most common job is help with moving: escorting an older adult from one part of the U.S. to another by plane. She also takes people to weddings and graduations, and she's accompanied plenty of clients on vacations abroad.

When she embarked on this work almost a decade ago, she was happy to work for tips, while the client paid all her expenses. Nine years later, she charges a day rate of anywhere between $600 and $800 to accompany someone on vacation, and starts at $1,000 a day for relocations.

She says her fee is not set in stone. She may charge less to travel to a country she's interested in and has never visited, and more for a client she perceives as being difficult to work with. "The most important question" when deciding on a job, she said, "is 'are they pleasant?' It makes a big difference if someone is cooperative."

Companions need patience and a sense of humor, according to Giuliani. The work often involves uncertainty, last minute changes of plan and nervous clients.

"You have to be tenacious, to be able to pivot and be very calm when stuff hits the fan," she said. This is what clients are paying for.

To be clear, the rate a travel companion charges is in addition to the cost of the companion's plane or cruise ticket, meals, ground transportation and hotel fees, all of which are paid for by the client. A week-long trip with a companion could add up to several thousand dollars for the companion alone, in addition to the travel costs of the client or clients.

Ehlers describes her trips with Giuliani as "expensive but worth every penny. With her help I have been able to go places I would otherwise have had to pass."

Airports can be scary

Shelly-Ann Cawley spent years as a flight attendant before she founded her company, Travelers Care, in 2019 because she was concerned about what she observed in airports. Airline and airport staff and members of the public often treated older travelers "just how they wanted to," she said, rather than with dignity and respect.

"Airports can be a scary place" for anyone, Cawley added, but especially for older travelers. On one occasion Cawley, who is Jamaican, was called over by a gate agent to see if she could help an older Jamaican man who was on his own, sitting in a wheelchair. The ground staff could not understand him.

"I noticed he was having early onset of Alzheimer's, but he wanted to get home and there was no one there at the airport with him. The wheelchair company had just left him there," said Cawley.

That incident prompted her to start Travelers Care. Roughly 70% of her business involves escorting older adults, but she and her staff also take charge of children and pets. Most of the 15 companions who work for her also have experience in the airline industry. They are based in different parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean to enable quicker responses.

Travelers Care charges $350 for every eight hours a travel companion is on the job, in addition to a fee of $85 to cover booking and administrative costs. As well as accompanying clients traveling within the U.S., Cawley says the company has taken people to or from Canada, Cuba, Germany, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, the Philippines, the U.K. and Zimbabwe.

Cawley says her industry experience reassures the family members who often hire her. "It's nerve-wracking to hand over your loved one to a total stranger, so I've had to build trust with the public," she said.

A working vacation

While women have dominated the business thus far, there is growing interest from men. Christopher Weyandt is a longtime English professor from Minnesota who's now in his 60s. He recently added travel companionship to his mix of jobs, in addition to teaching and leading wilderness trips.

Earlier this year, he spent almost two weeks traveling around Spain with a male client and said the trip "worked out splendidly." Weyandt charged a rate of $400 a day.

The client, Randy Hester, agrees that the trip was a success. He is in his early 60s but already retired and says most of his friends still work and cannot join him on his adventures. Due to the effects of a stroke, he no longer feels comfortable traveling solo.

In an email from Greece, where he's on another trip, Hester said traveling with a professional companion "provides a sense of comfort and companionship" that he values while he's on the road.

Courses for companions

Far-flung places may sound enticing, but Giuliani says companions need to remember that it's the client's vacation, not theirs.

"You've got liability, responsibility, you're planning everything," she said, so the trip is not relaxing. "Sometimes you want to put your feet up and they want to do something else."

Since 2022, Giuliani and a registered nurse, Jan Dougherty, have offered trainings together — some online, some in person — for people who want to become travel companions. Dougherty, who earned a master's degree in gerontological care from the University of Arizona, is a keen traveler herself.

The pair have trained more than 40 companions to date: nurses, physical therapists, a retired judge and a retired cop, among others.

Final exam: a trip

Their training courses involve two days of classwork and case studies. Finally, they have to make a trip with someone.

"Then we want the person they companioned to write an assessment," Dougherty said. "What did the companion do, what does the client think?"

The requirements are rigorous enough that only 30% of their participants have been certified, Dougherty said.

For the right person, companioning is a way to challenge oneself and give back: to help an older adult achieve something they otherwise would not have been able to do.

For that, Sandy Ehlers is grateful. "It's not like you get to 70 and sit down in front of the TV," she said. "You still want to do things, but oftentimes you need help."

There's a great need for these services, she said, adding, "that's true of so many things for retirees."