Today’s millennials are not just travelling more than anyone else, but also changing how we do it.

There was a time when travel either involved a lengthy excursion to a far-off place or an inclusive package holiday closer to home. It was a time to get away from the office, recharge the batteries and, if you were lucky, to leave the kids at home.

But travel isn’t so simple now, largely thanks to a new type of traveller: the millennial. Born between the early eighties and the late nineties, millennials now comprise the biggest generational group of travellers in the world. According to an estimate by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), in 2012 the youth travel market amounted to $182bn – larger than the GDP of New Zealand – and it’s set to rise.

The UNWTO expects youth tourism trips to increase from around 200m per year at present to 300m by 2020. Within five to 10 years, according to the Boston Consulting Group, millennials will dominate the travel market as they reach their peak years for spending, earning and travelling. In 2013, millennials took 35% of all business flights, and by 2025 the figure will rise to 54%. They will account for the largest segment of the market for years after that. These millennials are not just globetrotting in hoards, but are doing it differently – their nomadic agenda makes travel a normal way of life and they are redefining what it means to be away from home. As Marti Grimminck, founder of the travel consultancy International Connector, says: “The millennial generation is not like any youth generation before. They are unique, and they are disrupting travel.”

Travel Now, Not Later

Their new approach to travel can be put down to differences in life priorities. As a result of challenging economic circumstances, millennials have become less tied down to careers and major purchases than previous generations. “Millennials are not so well off, and they’ve put off responsibilities until later in life,” says Peter Jordan, travel industry consultant and author of the blog, Gen C Traveller.

With less tying them to a particular place, millennials find it easier to pack their bags and go on an adventure. Travel for this generation can be a form of escapism from poor career prospects, but is also a useful chance to step back and reassess larger goals, or to gain an educational experience. “For people who get laid off, travel is a better and often cheaper option than going back to school,” says Drew Meyers, founder of travel start-ups Oh Hey World and Horizon.

Millennials who are employed tend to change jobs frequently and have little expectation that employers will take care of them over the long term. This is a logical response to a less paternalistic workplace: while 90% of Fortune 1000 companies offered traditional pension plans to newly salaried workers in 1985, only 11% still did so in 2011.

Instead of expecting the same benefits that employers offered their parents and grandparents, millennials are demanding more flexibility and time away from the office. Although paid holidays have long been seen as a norm in many countries in Europe, Americans continue to use only 51% of the paid vacation days  allotted by their employers, according to an August 2014 study by Harris Interactive. However, it seems that millennials are finding other ways to get out of the office: a 2014 travel survey from SpringHill Suites found that 60% of Americans aged 18 to 34 have made an excuse to take an unplanned vacation day, a percentage that fell steadily in older generations.

More Than Leisure

While previous generations have associated travel with being in a state of leisure, millennials also see travel as an opportunity to be productive, often to develop their education and work experience. “Beyond the fun they can have on a trip they consider travel as a formational experience that helps them develop into what they want to become,” says Diego Saez-Gil, co-founder of WeHostels.

A study of travellers under the age of 35 in 137 countries commissioned by the WYSE Travel Confederation bears out these observations. Globally, nearly as many young people travel for educational purposes such as study and language learning (38%) as travel for holidays (45%). About 15% travel for work experience, while 5% travel to engage in volunteer work. WYSE speculates that travel for work among the young and unemployed may be behind the drop in holiday travel. The same WYSE study found that from 2007 to 2012 the average time that young travellers spent on a trip rose by almost a week, to 58 days, a figure that is surely skewed upwards by the increase in long-term gap-year travel.

While gaps years have been accepted in parts of Europe and in many English-speaking cultures, in the US they are seen as an abdication of responsibility rather than as a rite of passage. However, these attitudes are beginning to shift as US millennials seek out travel with a purpose. “Americans think it’s very daring to take a month off, so their focus is very much in finding opportunities to build their CVs while they’re away, as well as ways to make an impact in the community,” says Grimminck.

Nomadic by Nature

Getting away has become easier than ever, and millennials are embracing this change. Low-cost airlines such as easyJet make flying more accessible, while price-comparison apps such as Skyscanner aid them in finding great deals. Air fares have fallen in real terms by 50% since the late 1970s.

Perhaps the most important development in making travel more affordable for millennials – especially for those who travel to expensive North American cities with a lack of affordable hostel options – has been the rise of the sharing economy. The Couchsurfing website, founded in 2003, led the way by connecting travellers with free places to stay everywhere from Bolivia to Uzbekistan. Airbnb has been crucial to this shift, facilitating the mobile, asset-free millennial lifestyle, often at a price point far below that of most hotels. Similar sites even cater to specific communities, such as Misterbnb for gay male travellers; BnbHero, popular in South Korea, and PandaBed, which focuses on Asian accommodation.

Lasting Impressions

Millennials are questioning the value of material goods and this too is having an effect on their travel habits. According to a November 2012 study by cultural research firm JWT Intelligence, 72% of millennials would rather spend money on an experience than on a material item, versus 59% of baby boomers. The propensity to enrich their lives in this way is seeing them move around the globe in search of memorable moments.

“From a branding standpoint, it’s less about promoting Thailand and more about kitesurfing,” Grimminck explains. “Millennials are thinking about things like volunteering, partaking in a local craft or learning about the sport that they play in that part of the world.”

The ability to make such experiences conspicuous, by sharing them on social media, is helping to form a new kind of cultural capital. Just over half (51%) of millennials now regularly share travel experiences on Instagram, according to Forward Push Media. Why go somewhere if you can’t brag about it?

Saez-Gil explains that this is as a consequence of a generation adept at understanding the mechanics of social media. “Millennials are digital natives who grew up with the internet at their fingertips. Sharing their trips online is a natural extension of their digital identity,” he says. “What’s more, millennials consider travelling as an opportunity for personal discovery, and sharing their trips with their peers online is a way to express these unique identities.”

Ultimately, this causes more travellers to view their vacations through the lens of their social media audience, going to extra lengths to capture the places they visit in visual terms. With its focus on images, Instagram is a particularly conducive medium for travellers who wish to leverage their experiences into a form of cultural capital. “Ultimately, they’re trying to make their friends jealous, rather than simply experiencing wherever they might be,” says Meyers.

Inspired by

Identity upkeep is not the only way their online habits have inspired greater globetrotting. Their ability to scour the web for information has also helped them to develop a sophisticated set of references about destinations, whether it be arranging visual data on Tumblr or consuming a new set of authenticitydriven travel media.

“Millennials have been deeply shaped by the openness and interactivity of the web that gave them access to the world’s information and ownership over the content that they consume,” says Saez-Gil. “While their parents grew up with mass media and broadcast television, they grew up with YouTube, Google and Facebook. They have developed an opinionated view of the world and a desire for authenticity.”

There has also been a whole raft of new travel media with an agenda to reveal unexplored places and celebrate the emotional value of getting away. Online guide This Place, produced by creative agency Instrument, uses photographers, writers, video and sound artists to create a multimedia storytelling platform that presents a visually-rich portrait of a particular place. New print publications are similarly using this kind of evocative storytelling. Cereal, Another Escape, Endless and the recently revived Holiday are titles that capture the experience of travel through modern, creative design.

Other guides meanwhile, such as TripAdvisor, which previously relied on anonymous user reviews, are combining with social media to let visitors see their friends’ experiences of a trip. “Seeing your friends’ experience makes it feel much more attainable, so what may have been mysterious previously is now an easy thing to go and do,” Grimminck explains. Even those without contacts can find relevant peer recommendations. Online travel guide Scouted, for instance, features the destination suggestions of local insiders, but first visitors to the site can assess these locals through a profile to see if they share the same interests.

With media that directly plays into their inherent desire to seek experiences, as well as their motives of personal development, it is no wonder that as a group, the millennial generation has set a new precedent in how we roam the world.

Originally published in Protein Journal. Illustration by Damien Florébert Cuypers