Rachel Salia was traveling in Bosnia when she met an American who worked for the United Nations and had a car. They decided to put it to use by going on a road trip.
“I randomly drove down to Croatia and found a place to stay just by walking around in a neighborhood and asking if any rooms were available,” she said. “I ended up staying with a great woman, who made her own wine and was great to have historical conversations with.”
Salia, 26, is from Seattle and became interested in travel in high school when she started planning a trip around Europe with a friend.
“It really whetted my appetite for international travel,” she said. “I spent five weeks traveling Europe, staying at hostels and eating delicious food. It was a great introduction, and I think that I just really crave new experiences so I keep traveling to more foreign places, if you will.”
“I prefer to go to out of the way places and stay with real people.”
Foreign places like Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Egypt, Montenegro, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta. She’s now been to more than 30 countries and has spent time living and working in Morocco and Turkey.
Salia speaks five languages and prefers to travel alone. She says she’s over the traditional “backpack through Europe” rite of passage that people her parents’ age would undertake after college.
“I sort of decided that I was done with western Europe a few years ago, and decided to explore places where it was less likely that English-speaking tourists go,” she said.
Other things she’s over: Hostels and partying with other Americans abroad.
“I prefer to go to out of the way places and stay with real people,” she said. “I crave a bit of a nervous feeling in my stomach when I start to travel and look at it as a constant adventure.”
Most millennials — the often maligned group born roughly from 1980 to 2000 — don’t speak five languages, but they have something else in common with Salia: They’re looking for different travel experiences than what their parents did when they were in their twenties.
While they still may visit Europe, many named other destinations as their “if you could go anywhere, where would it be” travel dream. Millennials interviewed for this story said they next wanted to go to countries in South America, Africa and Asia.
Topdeck Travel, which organizes group travel for 18 to 30 somethings, recently surveyed 31,000 people under 40 from 134 different countries. They found more of those people had been to Australia and New Zealand, Asia and South America than Europe, and more wanted to go to countries outside of Europe.
Another recent study done by the AARP found 13% of millennials are planning vacations outside the U.S. in 2016, compared with just 5% of baby boomers.
And the differences don’t end with destinations. Like older generations, people in their 20s are traveling to experience new things and learn about themselves, but they are looking to have more unusual and challenging experiences than simply buying a Europass and staying in hostels.
What many parents did after college in the 1970s set a precedent for their children’s travel desires, says Art Webb, the president of travel marketing company BFC Agency.
But millennials have taken it much farther, he says, and want first-hand experiences of lives in different places.
“We see millennial travelers much more interested in the neatest little dive restaurant as opposed to a touristy place,” he said. “They want things that are locally produced, to taste the fruits of that destination, not to go to a large branded chain restaurant.”
When picking their destinations, they have “a clear interest in the obscure.”
That means travelers want experiences that connect them to the outdoors — “less comfort between their back and the ground,” Webb said. “They want to be out experiencing the local environment closely and observantly.”
And when picking their destinations, they have “a clear interest in the obscure,” he said.
“It’s not enough to vacation to Europe and check off that you’ve been to Paris and Rome and Milan,” he said. “Instead we’re seeing people in their 20s and 30s being hugely interested in going to remote places, going and exploring far and distant corners of the earth that are difficult to get to, but that’s part of the experience.”
That’s because millennials want to feel like they’re having the real experience of living in another country, he said, even though it’s hard to avoid being a tourist when you travel. They also want to feel like they’ve discovered something new, not something that lots of other people have done before. That could partially be for bragging rights, and partially because they were raised to value being unique and special, so it makes sense they’d seek the same in travel destinations.
“They’re seeking that which is less discovered by others,” he said.
In the Topdeck study, 86% of the people surveyed said they travel to experience new cultures, compared with 44% who want to party and 25% who want to shop. And 46% said they prefer to stay in hostels, more than double the percent who said they want a hotel room.
Traveling alone in another country is “the ultimate opportunity to get to know yourself and have truly lived experiences that are based on whatever opportunities or gut reactions present themselves,” said Ashley Rodriguez, a 27-year-old from San Diego.
Rodriguez backpacked by herself through Southern Spain, Ibiza, Italy and Amsterdam a few years ago, then traveled solo to Morocco, Portugal and northern Spain.
“Each time, I wanted some sort of escape,” she said. “Every trip ends up being an experience and adventure in which I’m able to mingle with new people and sample different cultures. There’s a sense of being whoever you want to be and that’s my favorite part of travelling. I can be an observer or a risk-taker — go to a party or relax in a cafe.”
She went to alley street parties in Portugal, met people while hostel-hopping and had her palm read on an overnight flight to Morocco. She went to the running of the bulls in Barcelona and road-tripped to Pamplona with a college friend who had been living in Switzerland.
“We slept in a car both nights, in awful heat,” Rodrigues remembered (fondly).
Rodriguez said she thinks part of the difference in travel trends between younger and older generations has to do with changing lifestyles.
“People are getting married and having kids later,” she said. “I think the reasons for travel rest in leisure versus business and then whether you have a significant other or family.”
She next wants to go to South America, East Africa and Southeast Asia, and recognizes travel is a luxury.
“Traveling is an opportunity that many people do not get to experience, often because of financial hardship,” she said. “It’s incredibly expensive and really detracts from your daily living of work, school and family responsibilities. It’s a shame because your 20s is the prime decade to get out, explore and get to know yourself.”
Traveling for work
Some millennials travel for work and then extend those business trips to visit other destinations. Salia was teaching in Turkey when she took her expeditions.
And Carly Nairn, a 29-year-old from San Francisco, calls herself a “travel opportunist,” because she chooses her destinations based on where she can get a free trip.
She’s been to Tanzania, Vietnam, South Africa and all across Europe, and most of the trips were for work or school.
“When I am older I hopefully will be able to afford some of the luxuries that I can’t afford while traveling now,” she said. “In Africa, we camped in the bush a lot, because that is free, or a minimal fee in a place like Etosha National Park in Namibia.”
Others shape their careers around traveling.
Brandon Harvey, a 23-year-old from Nashville, is trying to make a career of traveling to unusual places and capturing scenes from them on social media. He says 90 of his trips are paid for by brands or nonprofits he promotes.
“I’ve built a huge audience on Instagram and Snapchat by traveling the world and sharing stories,” he said. “Specifically stories of good winning in the world, the hopeful things happening, even in the places we don’t see as hopeful.”
He’s been to Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Dubai, Hong Kong and the Philippines and is planning trips this year to Israel, Palestine, Iraq “and maybe even North Korea.”
“My goal for traveling to these unconventional places is always to challenge my preconceived notions of what’s happening in these communities and share what I learn with my audience in an authentic and hopeful way,” he said. “I’ll spend lots of time having conversations with locals about the things that bring us together, rather than what drives us apart.”
Mario Scian, a 29-year-old from Argentina, works full time but also has a side gig of traveling to as many places as he possibly can. He’s been to 97 countries, which he documents on his website, and is considering an online poll for what should be his 100th destination.
“You can have a good corporate career and travel extensively at the same time,” he said. “I travel for fun, for the love of history and culture, but also to show other young people that you can push for your dreams, whatever they are.”
Traveling in a pack
Group trips might call to mind cruises or elderhostels for the over 60 set, but lots of younger people are also doing group travel, either through volunteering expeditions or organized excursions.
Julia Gibson, 28, from Redcliffe, Australia went on a month-long Topdeck tour through Europe a few years ago. She’d recently moved to the United Kingdom and figured the trip, which typically has 35 to 50 other people, “would give me a snapshot of Europe, so I could figure out what places I wanted to go back to in depth.”
“It was a really great decision,” she said. “I had one of the best months of my life.”
She’s since done four other group tours, where she’s met friends and her boyfriend. While she’d heard horror stories about group travel, she had no problems. Her guides “were knowledgable, hilarious, kind and so passionate about the places we went” and she didn’t have any issues with other travelers.
“I had an absolute ball with the people I met on tour and made friendships that lasted in the world beyond,” she said.
Gibson said her grandmother and her mother didn’t have to opportunities to travel on her own the way she has, but sees people her age traveling regularly.
“People expect travel to do more than just take them to new places.”
“I think whereas traveling used to be something few did, now it almost feels like a rite of passage,” she said. “Expectations about the benefits of travel have changed, too. People expect travel to do more than just take them to new places. You expect, in a way, that the act of traveling can make you a better person, which is reflected in literature and movies on travel perpetuating the thought further.”
‘Spanish is the new frontier’
Emma Epstein, a 28-year-old from Seattle, has been to Costa Rica four times, as well as Chile, Argentina, México, Guatemala and El Salvador. She’s also traveled across Europe and in Asia.
She said she’s found people in her generation are more interested in going to South America — that in some ways the continent fills the European pilgrimage people her parents age made after college. The number of Americans traveling to Central and South America has increased by almost 40 percent over the last 20 years, according to the United States Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.
“Spanish is the new frontier,” she said. “My closer friends are more interested in Southeast Asia tours, or South America. I still have some friends who go to Europe to travel around, but I think Europe is too expensive now for casual travel. People are choosing to travel to places where they can go for an extended amount of time and not spend too much money.”
Epstein said her parents “didn’t even conceptualize about international travel when they were younger.”
“Now my parents, at least my mother, are jealous of all the opportunities I have had to travel,” she said. “They feel that it wasn’t so easy to travel 30 or 40 years ago.”
Jamila Humphrie, a 27-year-old who lives in New York City, said her mother studied abroad in college, but didn’t travel much in her 20s.
“She did travel back and forth across the United States with my dad in a beat up car — that counts,” she said.
Humphrie said more of her friends are traveling to South America, but she’s “not sure if it’s interest or means.”
“In South America, many countries at least, have experienced major stability and economic growth in the last several decades,” she said. “That’s part of what makes many cities more accessible for tourists.”
And her friends aren’t as interested in Europe.
“Other places might be more appealing because it’s a ‘road less traveled.’” she said. “I agree with that to some extent. But hey, if someone invites me to Paris, I’m there!”
“It’s about acknowledging that there are so many amazing countries, cultures, peoples around the world, not just Europe,” she added. “That’s an attitude that has definitely changed from the last generation to this one.”
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