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Millennials and Gen Zers want human connection, so they're choosing travel tours with strangers to cure their loneliness

Lauren Edmonds   

Millennials and Gen Zers want human connection, so they're choosing travel tours with strangers to cure their loneliness
  • Intrepid Travel said young people are seeking immersive, non-traditional vacation experiences.
  • Millennials share more travel similarities with Gen Z travelers than previous generations.

Young people are seeking more human connection in the post-lockdown era, so they're embracing small-group travel.

Modern technology and social media apps have created a hyper-connected world, but many millennials and Gen Zers say the focus on screens has caused an epidemic of loneliness.

While New apps and local community groups are trying to address this "social distance" problem, some young people are choosing to book their vacations with strangers to find more face-to-face camaraderie.

Intrepid Travel, which organizes small-group experiences in over 100 countries, including Morocco and Sri Lanka, says it's seen a growing interest from young people in these kinds of group tours.

"They're prioritizing travel over buying houses, mortgages, and other expenses," Matt Berna, Intrepid Travel's president of the Americas, told Business Insider.

Group travel can be hit-or-miss with people. They can conjure an image of 40-plus tourists being led off a bus to an overcrowded attraction by their shouting tour guide.

But Berna said Intrepid Travel's focus on small group experiences is the opposite. The average Intrepid Travel group has 10 people.

"It allows us to travel like locals," Berna said. "We eat in small local restaurants. We stay in family-owned hotels. We typically avoid mass market tourism, hotels, or experiences."

It also allows people to form new bonds in a tight-knit setting, which young travelers crave, after the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Camaraderie in a group is so special because you make great friendships and share laughs and stories," Berna said.

Berna said these unique experiences are popular with 18 to 29-year-olds — Intrepid Travel's core audience. Experiences are designed with young travelers in mind, offering more free time to explore on their own and more active outings.

Berna said Intrepid Travel began receiving requests from people in their 30s looking for adventures off the beaten path. Millennials traditionally valued experience-driven opportunities, and that desire hasn't waned with time.

"It became clear that millennials are aging, but the style they want to travel is immersive," Berna said. "If anything, they resonated more with Gen Z than the generations above them."

American Express Travel's 2023 Global Travel Trends Report found nearly 80% of millennials and Gen Zers respondents said they want to "partake in a day in the life of locals in the destination they are visiting," pointing toward activities like visiting local cultural sites and "hole-in-the-wall" attractions.

Airbnb, owned by millennial billionaire Brian Chesky, reported in 2020 that it also found that "immersive encounters" were becoming more popular with this generation, with interest up 102% year-to-year.

Older generations, Berna said, book vacations based on destination. Older travelers tend to plan vacations around conventional tourist spots — think the Eiffel Tower in Paris — because it's popular.

However, younger travelers don't have the same sense of FOMO — or "the fear of missing out" — that their parents do. Instead, they book vacations by interest.

At Intrepid Travel, that includes cycling enthusiasts traveling to Vietnam to peddle through the local sites. Experiences based on camping, festivals, and food are also options travelers can explore.

"They want to be a trendsetter going to the next cool place," Berna said. "It will be something new you can share with your friends, so you get the bragging rights. It's a bit more adventurous instead of following the crowd."

After conducting consumer research among its more than 300,000 travelers, Intrepid Travel formally expanded the young trip age range to 35 in February.

"Intrepid identified an opportunity to better cater for an expanded age range after experiencing a rise in inquiries from travelers in their early 30s wanting to join Intrepid's young adult trips," a press release said. "The company conducted extensive consumer research which showed that most travelers aged 18 to 35 prefer to travel with those of a similar age."

As for where travelers are going, Berna said South America has emerged as a top contender, with Peru gaining traction. The country closed its tourist attractions amid political unrest from late 2022 to early 2023, but they reopened in February 2023, according to Travel Weekly.

Another top spot is South Korea, which Berna said is typically more affordable than Japan. Intrepid Travel said they saw 172% increase globally in bookings to South Korea from 2022 to 2023.

"People want to go away and have these stories. They've settled back post-pandemic into feeling life, wanting to travel again, and seeking connection," Berna said. "Not just with other travelers in groups but with destinations."