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Unlimited passes in hand, retirees make ‘off peaking’ an art form


Bill Bernstein, 70 and soon to be fully retired, at his home workshop in Armonk, N.Y., Oct. 5, 2017. Retirees are well-positioned to make use of unlimited passes, as they can use them at off-peak times; Bernstein takes advantage of ski passes for seniors to save at mountains around the country. (Joshua Bright/The New York Times)

It takes Craig Miller just 30 minutes to get out the door on a powder day.

“I keep a lot of my gear in one of my vehicles,” said Miller, an avid skier and a retired oral surgeon in Colorado who owns a cabin near Breckenridge. “And I always have my pass in my wallet.”

His pass. That’s the key.

Miller, 63, buys one of Vail Resorts’ unlimited Epic Passes, priced this year at $859 for adults who purchased it before Labor Day. It entitles him to ski any day, on any of the resort company’s mountains, from Colorado to Australia. And ski he does — 25 days last season.

There is no senior discount. It doesn’t matter. The math means he pays about $34 a day, compared with regular single-day ticket prices that can reach $164.

Retirees are in a particularly sweet spot when it comes to unlimited passes, whether for yoga sessions, national park visits or nearly anything else. Not only can the retired use passes more than those with jobs and other responsibilities, but they can use them better — hitting gyms, golf courses and the slopes at off-peak times when there is space to breathe — and plenty of steep trails begging for sexagenarians to lay fresh tracks.

“If there is no snow on a Saturday and there is a foot of pofwder on a Tuesday,” Miller said by phone from Colorado Springs, “I go skiing on a Tuesday. It’s perfect.”

There may not yet be a term for this practice — “off-peaking” perhaps? — but a lot of older adults have figured it out. It is less about getting a senior citizen discount, though those are always welcome, and more about creating one’s own discount by having the time to wear grooves into an unlimited pass.

When Jane Modoono retired from her job as a high school principal in 2015 and moved full-time to East Hampton, New York, one of the first things she did was buy a monthly pass to Mandala Yoga in nearby Amagansett Square. These days she is on her mat three to four times a week and can hold difficult poses, including backbends, at age 67 that she could not a decade ago. “Wheel, crow,” Modoono said. “I thought I would never be strong enough.”

As landscapers started their rumbling engines outside the sunny windows near the start of one recent class, one of the studio’s most popular teachers, Sheryl Hastalis, urged the class to “Let the lawn mowers become part of the ‘ohmmm!’”

Modoono, her blond hair in a ponytail, her posture true in seated hero, ohmed as instructed.

Another holder of Mandala’s unlimited $160 monthly pass, Susan Retzky, retired from Bank of America a few years ago as a vice president of community development. Now over 70, she is a regular student of Mandala’s surf yoga classes.

After the summer crowds leave the Hamptons, the grass grows more slowly, the yoga classes have extra elbow room, and traffic on Retzky’s thrice-weekly drive to a pottery studio in Sag Harbor is light. There, she uses a wheel to sculpt bell butter crocks that are sold at a local boutique. “I used to have back problems,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Amagansett, “and they went away.”

Unlimited passes
can be good for you

A 2011 study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, offers evidence. The study, of skiers aged 60 to 76 who averaged about 28 days of skiing in a 12-week period, concluded, “It appears that, in older individuals, 12 weeks of skiing leads to a significant increase in aerobic capacity, leg muscle power and strength.”

One need not strap on ski boots or stand on one’s head to stay fit in old age. A 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that group exercise classes focused on flexibility and relaxation in retirement villages can prevent debilitating falls “and maintain physical functioning in frail older people.”

When Joanna Mezzatesta, a retired newspaper copy editor living on Staten Island in New York, was choosing Medicare plans, a top priority was one that included unlimited exercise classes for no extra charge. Now, three times a week, Mezzatesta, 67, drives seven minutes from her home in Stapleton Heights to the Broadway YMCA in a workout shirt. A favorite one bears the image of Rosie the Riveter. “Never underestimate a nasty woman who was born in November,” it reads, along with the familiar image of a bandanna-wearing woman flexing her biceps.

Mezzatesta starts with one of the Silver Sneakers series of classes for seniors. After that, she takes a pool workout class.

“There’s one teacher who keeps you going hard on the calisthenics,” Mezzatesta said of one of her favorites. “Not a lot of people show up for her class.”

Perhaps the ideal bargain is when a senior discount is paired with an unlimited pass.

In July, at Cuyahoga National Park in Ohio, an impressively long line of older people snaked its way through the visitor center. The reason, it turned out, is that the Parks Service had announced that the price of lifetime passes for seniors was rising to $80 from $10 at the end of August. As a result, sales of the passes — good at 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, wildlife refuges and other lands — tripled.

Sales rose to more than 2.6 million in fiscal year 2017 from about 870,000 in fiscal year 2016. This August alone, there were 593,121 online orders for the last of the $10 senior passes, compared with 33,373 online and mail orders for all of fiscal year 2016.

Sometimes, the idea of what one might do with an unlimited pass can make retirement irresistible.

Bill Bernstein, 70, a home building contractor who works in Bergen County, New Jersey, says he hasn’t given up work just yet, but the various ski passes offered in Vermont make him yearn to spend more time at the house he just bought from a descendant of the famous von Trapp family in Waitsfield.

“Last week,” he said by phone from a job site, “I bought a Mad River Glen season pass, $200 unlimited because I’m over 70.”

He has long been a member of the Miramar Ski Club, an all-ages group that sends buses from Manhattan and New Jersey to a lodge near Sugarbush most snowy weekends in winter. “Before retirement,” Bernstein said, “I’m limited to weekends and maybe a Friday. After retirement, if the snow is good, I’ll go for a couple weeks.”