If you think that prepackaged tours of the Galápagos Islands or Cambodia are strictly for grandparents, you aren’t as cool as some cutting-edge millennials. One of the latest trends in travel is the guided small-group excursion, tailored to give a pack of like-minded young people an immersive experience in a destination.
According to the World Tourism Organization, the global youth travel segment accounts for 23 percent of all international arrivals each year — more than 284 million travelers in 2016. It is no wonder that established travel companies as well as startups are targeting this demographic. Leigh Barnes, North American regional director of Geckos Adventures (geckosadventures.com), an outfit that sends groups of 18- to 29-year-olds all over the world, says that younger travelers want “authentic immersion into a culture rather than just driving by and ticking off the key sites.”
Tara Cappel, founder and president of For the Love of Travel (ftlotravel.com), which curates group trips for 24- to 36-year-olds, concurs. “Millennials are not looking for an all-inclusive stay where they don’t leave the hotel,” she says. “They want to go deeper, try local food, meet new people, and experience everything a destination has to offer.”
COMPANY ON THE ROAD
There are several reasons to try a type of travel that’s more associated with the AARP set than with recent college graduates. With varying work schedules and budgets, it’s difficult to get a group of friends to coordinate so they can travel together. But many young people want company on the road. “Traveling with people around your own age enhances the overall travel experience in many ways,” says Casper Urhammer, global CEO of Contiki Travel (contiki.com). Contiki offers trips for different categories of travelers, from high-energy athletes to take-it-easy types, sun seekers to the culturally curious. Jacquelyn Turner-Haury, 27, from New York City, speaks of meeting new people as one of the highlights of her For the Love of Travel trip to Yucatán: “I just launched my own company in January, so it was really amazing to connect with the others on the trip because we had so much we could learn from each other. There were other entrepreneurs and people from other industries that made it really stimulating.”
Then there is the expertise that trained group leaders bring to the mix. Forget about Yelp. Carefully selected local guides know the terrain and can help with the language. Says Barnes, “Want to find the best kebab in Istanbul? Amir will take you to his favorite cafe. Need advice on trekking the Inca Trail? Renaldi can show you the ropes. Want to order off the local menu? Arsaya is on translation duty.”
Unlike many older travelers, who might want every detail of a trip taken care of by the tour provider, young people want lots of free time and flexibility built into the itinerary. “We feel that our purpose is to introduce our travelers to a new place, show them some of our selectively curated spots, let them explore on their own, and bring everyone back together at the end of the day to share our experiences,” Cappel says. A typical day on a For the Love of Travel tour of Norway, Sweden and Denmark might include an afternoon wandering the Old Town of Oslo, followed by a group trip through the fjords on a traditional wooden sailboat and then tickets to the Oslo Jazz Festival.
SUSTAINABILITY AND SOCIAL CONSCIENCE
For a generation brought up on recycling and community service, sustainability and social conscience are as important in travel as in real life. Every time someone books a safari, Geckos makes a contribution to Friends-International, a nonprofit job training initiative for young people in developing countries. It has also joined the ban on elephant rides. To offset each traveler’s carbon footprint, For the Love of Travel has joined Plant With Purpose to plant 10 trees for every person who joins a trip. And it has committed to doing business 99 percent paper-free. Coach buses owned by Contiki have Euro 6 engines that convert exhaust into a mixture of harmless water and nitrogen.
Group travel is no more expensive than traveling on your own, and in many instances can be cheaper. Trips generally don’t include airfare, allowing travelers to use frequent flier miles or search for the cheapest way to fly. Because not all meals are included, you can spend as much or as little as you want on food when you’re on your own. Solo travelers are paired up, bringing down the cost of hotel rooms. Discounted group rates on everything from boat charters to museum guides also help bring down costs.
It’s easy enough to plan your own trip to Austin or Miami. But trickier destinations like China or Cuba offer challenges. Think of all the hours you might spend researching and booking hotels. With group travel, someone else does the work. Arranging transportation from one place to the next, especially when there is a language barrier, can lead to annoying delays. Alison Allaire, 26, of Queens, describes her two Contiki trips not only as “unbelievable and unforgettable experiences,” but as “stress-free . . . everything is already planned out for you.”
Top millennial spots
According to Leigh Barnes at Geckos Adventures, Central America, Morocco and Southeast Asia top the bucket lists of many millennials. Contiki has seen an uptick of interest in the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China. For the Love of Travel focuses on Europe. Here is what you might do and see on one of these trips:
VIETNAM HIGHLIGHTS This 15-day Geckos trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi Bay includes a boat cruise in the Mekong Delta, one-night home stay with a Vietnamese family, shopping in Hanoi’s markets, a countryside bicycle tour outside Hoi An, and beach time, snorkeling and mud baths in coastal Nha Trang. (From $800, including accommodations and some meals; not including airfare to and from Ho Chi Minh City)
EGYPT AND THE NILE See the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and spend three nights cruising down the Nile on this eight-day Contiki adventure in Egypt. (From $1,260, including accommodations, some meals and internal transportation; not including airfare to and from Cairo)
THE HEIDELBERG AND MUNICH TRIP Spend eight days in the land of bratwurst, beer and Bach, organized by For the Love of Travel. Biergarten-hop in Munich, cycle along the Rhine, tour Neuschwanstein Castle. Cross the border into France to visit UNESCO World Heritage city Strasbourg. (From $1,999, including accommodations, some meals and internal transportation; not including airfare to and from Germany)