Many millennials are now traveling with young kids in tow. // © 2017 iStock
Feature image (above): Experiencing local activities and typical daily life abroad is something that could appeal to many millennials with children. // © 2017 iStock
Life can be crazy and complicated, perhaps especially so when you’re a parent. To help make sense of it all, humans are prone to labeling or categorizing things to anticipate and prepare for what’s to come.
While labels can prove valuable, they can also be detrimental, causing us to ignore important nuances in the quest for “understanding.” In the travel industry, the top offender today might just be the “millennial” label.
Read almost any article about this generation (which is composed of people between the ages of 18 and 34, roughly), and our desire to put them in a box is evident. The thinking behind this, of course, is that if we as travel industry experts can firmly determine what millennials most love, despise and fear, we can better assist them as they experience the world through travel.
Our hearts may be in the right place, but the philosophy is flawed. So says Sally Black, a home-based travel agent since 2001, founder of website Vacationkids and a member of the Family Travel Association (FTA).
“I really believe that there are different types of people looking for different types of travel within one generation,” Black said. “How a family travels may evolve as the kids age, or change depending on the parameters of a certain trip. As an agent, you’re constantly shifting gears on how to address the needs of clients. I think it’s wrong for our industry to lump millennials together.”
How can we better understand them, then?
Following are data-driven findings on millennial travelers, plus analysis from experts on how to use the information.
The millennial generation is the largest in history — the last census counted more than 83 million — and it’s notably diverse; nearly 45 percent are non-white, compared to 38 percent of Generation X and 25 percent of boomers.
As an agent who works with clients of all ages, Black sees another layer of diversity among millennials, too. There are those who continue to travel with their parents (often on mom and dad’s dime); those exploring solo or with friends; and those now toting young children of their own as they travel. Because of this, Black has learned to treat each client as a blank slate. When you make an assumption based on a client’s age, she says, you set the stage for trouble.
How does Black tackle trip planning? Usually it’s with a good, old-fashioned phone call. And if there are children going on the trip, you can bet they’re taking part in the discussion, too.
“My work is about sitting down and listening to people,” Black said. “I’ll say, ‘Tell me what a day in your life is like,’ or, ‘Paint me a picture of your ideal vacation.’ Sometimes I think it’s to my advantage that I work virtually. Because I can’t see them, I make fewer judgments. I really have to take them on their word.”
On Bringing the Kids
Last March, Expedia partnered with Future Foundation, a global trends and consumer forecasting consultancy, to poll millennials around the world for the “Millennial Traveler Report,” a survey that delves into how and why participants travel and what they value most when they are on the road. One key finding: 56 percent of U.S. millennial respondents say that having children negatively impacts the quality of a vacation.
The study points out that some of this angst may be due to the fact that today’s millennial parents generally have young children. This means that boundary testing, nap breaks and diaper changes are likely parts of any trip.
“We have traveled with our kids from the time they were 2 months old and on,” said Matt Villano — a Gen X father of three, a founding board member of the FTA and a contributor to Expedia ViewFinder Travel Blog. “The experience might be a little different — you’re probably not ziplining with your 6-month-old — but you’re still seeing museums and parks and so on. You’ll just spend some time at the changing tables in those places. I don’t see that as hindering my experience much.”
But is this negative perception of parenthood a defining trait of millennials?
If millennials — often referred to as the “Me Generation” — can’t get past the sacrifices inherent in exploring with kids, it’s little wonder that travel feels less enticing. But travel agent Black doesn’t blame millennials entirely. She looks at the travel industry itself and how it perpetuates a rather narrow idea of what family travel should look like. Too often, advertisements show the “white bikini family,” she says — two Caucasian parents with two Caucasian kids in white bathing suits skipping down an idyllic beach. These ads miss the mark in multiple ways. They don’t reflect the racial diversity of the generation, let alone families helmed by same-sex couples or blended families. Then there’s the fact that these ads tend to push products clients already know about — all-inclusive brands, theme parks and cruise lines especially. The end result is a huge discrepancy in product availability and client knowledge.
“Young families just don’t know what destinations and products are available,” Black said. “This is where I believe the travel agent community falls short: communicating the value we bring to clients. We are aware of the products out there, and we know that families can go anywhere they want with children. It’s just a matter of making wise decisions, and we can help.”
Another key finding highlighted in “The Millennial Traveler Report” centers on authenticity when traveling. Of U.S. respondents, 62 percent say that experiencing the authentic culture of a destination is their foremost priority. Living like a local, finding hidden gems and getting off the beaten path are cited as components of an authentic trip.
Of course, most travelers — no matter their age — visit a destination in order to experience local culture. Some millennials might do so in different ways, such as staying in peer-to-peer accommodations (such as through Airbnb or HomeAway) or participating in Instagram meet-ups. Millennials traveling with young children might even do simpler things to get a glimpse of local life. For example, mother and travel agent Julia Slatcher of Inspire World Travel in Michigan recommends grabbing a soccer ball and heading to the neighborhood park.
“These are the memories that will remain meaningful to the kids for a long time,” Slatcher said. “My son, who was 5 years old at the time, played a pickup soccer game with local kids in Guatemala, and they were all smiles. It meant absolutely nothing that they didn’t speak each other’s language.”
For writer and FTA member Villano, this kind of activity is as authentic as it gets — as is bringing a baby to a new city, renting an apartment and getting out in the neighborhood each day like any local family would.
“One would think that if authenticity is truly important to a millennial, then, when he or she travels with a baby, the rigors inherent with this would be part of what makes that experience authentic,” Villano said. “But the data is indicating that millennials don’t really want to be bothered. Therein lies the paradox.”
If millennials do, in fact, have a heightened sense of anxiety around travel, the best person to ease those concerns is a travel agent. A willingness to get out there, fall down and get back up again helps, too.
“Travel is a life skill,” Black said. “You have to learn how to do it properly. And you have to teach kids how to do it, just like brushing their teeth. The younger you get them out there, the better.”
Tip From a Travel Agent
Travel agent Sally Black is a big fan of family itineraries by G Adventures. Her only sticking point? The age minimum is 5 on many tours.
“This is an example of a larger problem in family travel,” she said. “Obviously, for the comfort of everybody, it’s helpful to have similar age groups. But since a lot of millennials have young children, there are simply fewer products for them. So I recommend that families with little ones of similar ages get together when booking a trip. Often, they will have their own group, and age minimums won’t apply.”