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What do millennial travelers want in a vacation?

George Frey/Bloomberg

Cruising is becoming a popular choice among millennials for vacation.

By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright Globe correspondent 

How much vacation time do millennials take each year? What stresses them most about traveling, and what motivates them to travel? How do they want to spend their vacation time?

These are some of the topics addressed in a first-of-its-kind study recently conducted by the American Society of Travel Agents. The “How America Travels” study, which is being unveiled in conjunction with National Travel and Tourism Week, May 7-13, includes a survey of more than 1,500 US travelers, designed to reveal how millennial travelers (between the ages of 25 and 39) differ from past generations.

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“We wanted to get a real, third-party, outside look at what consumers are thinking and feeling,” said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents. “I think Wayne Gretsky said it best: You have to chase where the puck is going to be, not where the puck is now.”

So, where’s the puck going to be? Here are four top findings.

Millennials travel more than other generations

A whopping 80 percent of millennials surveyed took at least one leisure trip in 2016, usually more. Results showed that millennials took an average of 2.38 vacations in 2016, whereas Gen Xers (ages 40-51) averaged 1.80 and baby boomers (ages 52-70) averaged 1.65. In other words, the average millennial took 32 percent more vacations than the average Gen Xer, and 44 percent more than the average baby Boomer.

“In general, millennials see vacation as an entitlement and a necessity. It is a way of life and part of life,” explains Jack S. Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations, and member of the Travel & Leisure Official Travel Advisory Board. “Gen Xers and baby boomers generally see it as a treat, and in fact, many are embarrassed to take all of their vacation days lest they be looked down upon by their superiors and colleagues.”

Millennials, especially men, also travel more for work; 57 percent of male millennials took at least one work trip in 2016, compared to 27 percent of female millennials.

Millennials travel to relax and connect with others

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Work, family, friends, and hobbies keep millenials busy! It’s no wonder the desire to “relax” (64 percent) and “spend quality time with family” (59 percent) were cited as reasons to travel by a far higher percentage of travelers than any other reason. Coming in third was the desire to “see natural sights” (38 percent).

“It matters who you go with, even more than where you’re going,” says Kerby. “That kind of surprised me, but the study shows that one of the primary reasons for people to travel is to spend time with loved ones and to create memories, not the destination itself.”

But that doesn’t mean millennials are content to spend their vacation days lounging with friends on a crowded, well-known beach with the rest of the hordes. Says Steve Jermanok, co-owner of ActiveTravels, “They might want to relax in Puerto Rico but prefer Vieques to San Juan. If they choose to dance in the clubs in Mykonos this summer, they also want to visit more low-key Greek islands like Paros and Antiparos.”

The desire for more meaningful, off-the-radar travel experiences is a common thread heard throughout the industry.

“I find that millennials are curious travelers and seek experiences beyond traditional tours and activities,” says Jacob Marek, an ASTA member and founder of IntroverTravels, specializing in customized private itineraries. “There has been a shift in recent years from seeing millennials as low-spending backpackers and spring breakers into more serious international travelers.”

Ezon agrees, “We see them looking to travel to disconnect to connect. They want to connect with themselves, but also with the people they are traveling with, and the people and culture in the destination they are going to.”

Millennials also want to stay connected . . . to the Internet. More than half of millennials (52 percent) say the availability of free Wi-Fi in a hotel “plays a big role” in their decision whether to stay at that property.

Millennials are warming up to cruising

If you thought cruises were mostly for retired seniors, you’re wrong. Millennials are the new face of cruising: 27 percent of millennials say they take at least one cruise in an average year, compared with 12 percent of Gen Xers and 14 percent of baby boomers. On average, millennials cruise 2.5 times more often than Gen Xers and baby boomers. Interestingly, millennial men cruise twice as frequently as millennial women (0.61 cruises per year on average for millennial men compared to 0.3 cruises average for millennial women).

“We are seeing a growing interest in cruising in millennial travelers,” says Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of CruiseCritic.com. “Cruise lines have certainly invested in reaching that market. From techy new ships and updated fleets to unique destination programming and lower-cost Wi-Fi, companies are creating products that get at the heart of what younger travelers expect.”

And, it looks like it’s working, because satisfaction is high; 90 percent of millennials who have cruised said they liked cruising, and 61 percent said they “strongly like it.” By comparison, a still-high 86 percent of Gen Xers and 77 percent of baby boomers who have gone cruising say they like it. Those who have cruised are most likely to cite “the crowds” (33 percent) as one of their “least favorite” aspects of cruising.

Millennials use travel agents — in their own way

The use of travel agents among millennials — the young, tech-savvy, DIY generation — is up. They realize the drawbacks of booking their own travel, and are beginning to seek out advisors for their expertise.

“It’s clear that millennials use technology differently, but I think they realize the limits of the Internet,” says Marek. “Instead of sifting through countless Google pages of search results, they’d rather go straight to a travel expert who can best fit their needs.”

The survey shows that millennials work with travel agents to improve the quality of their travel experiences, not to only handle the logistics. For example, only 38 percent of millennials have used an agent to book plane tickets (versus 49 percent of Gen Xers and 55 percent of baby boomers). Instead, the survey showed that millennials are more apt than older generations to use agents to organize tours, recommend activities, and to create custom experiences with exclusive perks.

“Millennials like DIY until they don’t,” Ezon says.“They want an adviser to specialize in them, to bottom line it for them and interpret all the research they are doing. We have become information navigators. We also get them access to things they cannot get on their own, whether it is a room at a top hotel that is sold out, inside hot parties at Art Basel, or a private cooking class with a Michelin starred chef.”

Apparently, it’s working. Of those who have used an agent within the past 10 years, 81 percent said they were very or somewhat satisfied.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.