Receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations not only gave Sue and Jim Schlicht a feeling of safety. It also let them feed their neglected wanderlust.
Within a week of getting their second Pfizer shots in February, the St. Cloud couple were Florida-bound, renting a house on the Gulf of Mexico for a week.
"Being vaccinated felt like a heavy blanket had been lifted off us and we could move again. The cloud of dread was gone," said Sue, 66, a retired community college professor. "As a bonus, it was 26 below when we left home and sunny and 76 at the beach."
Older Americans were hit hardest by COVID-19, with the largest percentage of deaths from the virus belonging to the over-65 cohort. Many people in that age group locked down and isolated to protect their health.
But there was something of a consolation prize for the sacrifices made by those who got through the past year with their health intact. People over 65 went to the head of the line as the first vaccine doses were distributed, and that has allowed them to be the first to return to traveling as restrictions have eased.
According to Bonnie Boisner, president of Borton Overseas, there's been a senior surge.
"People are feeling confident. When the calls come in, the first thing out of their mouth is, 'I'm vaccinated, where can I go?' " she said.
A significant number of the requests coming in to Boisner and her fellow travel agents and tour operators are from people who are eager to rebook the 2020 trips they had planned but had to scratch.
Many of those international trips are still on hold. Every day Boisner pores over maps and country updates from professional travel groups to track the COVID-19 numbers across the globe and watch which countries might resume welcoming visitors. Vaccinated Americans are expected to be able to visit the European Union this summer, but details remain unclear.
"Scandinavia is our No. 1 destination, and only Iceland is open now," said Boisner. "Travelers are waiting in the wings for borders to open, later this summer, we hope."
"But even when we can book more places, the experience will be different. We expect people will want to travel in smaller groups and visit more places that are off the beaten path. They will want this to feel safe."
Commit to plans now
Domestic travel options and destinations are shifting, too.
"Train travel through the West is huge now. There's great demand for RVs to rent; I doubt you could find one. Hawaii is big, too," said Cheryl Leitschuh, owner of Burnsville-based Cruise Planners: Let Travel Adventures Begin.
Some of Leitschuh's vaccinated customers want to get to an exotic destination right away — but there are obstacles.
"You could be at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or on some of the islands tomorrow. But you have to have a negative COVID test to come back [to the United States]," she said. "There are cruises that are opening up but they're not sailing out of U.S. ports; you have to go to the Caribbean to board. They have new protocols now, sailing at half-capacity."
Leitschuh encourages her clients to commit to their plans, anticipating that pent-up demand will grow to the bursting point as more people get vaccinated and destinations return.
"It's smart to get back in the game sooner rather than later. Prices will go up," she warned. "The appetite is huge. We are all bears coming out of hibernation."
Most of those who travel through the University of Minnesota Alumni Association, which sponsors 50 trips a year, are retirees. The majority of the alumni tours originally planned for this year have been pushed out to 2022, but there's been a significant number of inquiries about the trips that are still on the books, including a Mississippi River steamboat cruise in June. A sponsored trip to Egypt in October is almost full.
"We're also seeing a lot of bookings for the holiday markets cruise down the Rhine River," said Audra Gerlach Ferrall, director of international alumni and travel. "We do it every year, but we've seen more interest in that trip than I can remember. We have our fingers crossed that by December we will be able to freely travel in Europe."
Bucket-list travel is a priority for many older Minnesotans who have the time and the budget to explore the country or see the world.
But reconnecting with faraway family often takes first priority.
It was grandchildren who put the newly vaccinated Barbara Rawley and Dan Nordby on a plane.
The longtime Minneapolis couple retired to California before the pandemic, with plans to spend plenty of time in their native state.
Instead, they Zoomed with their Minnesota grandsons, ages 25 and 17, and their granddaughter, a first-grader. That prolonged physical absence made a March reunion for the girl's seventh birthday all the sweeter.
"The last time we saw her, she had a nursery full of baby dolls," said Rawley, 80. "Now she's interested in animals. She wants to be a vet and set up a zoo clinic with her stuffed animals; she has a little white coat and a stethoscope. Dan spent a lot of time being a sick gorilla."
And the Schlichts are awaiting an upcoming trip to Oregon to visit their youngest son, who married — after twice delaying his wedding — during the pandemic, preventing them from seeing him and his new bride for more than a year.
"It's been so long. I can't wait to finally wrap my arms around him," Sue Schlicht said. "I will cry; that's what I do when I'm happy."