A few years ago, cruises were starting to look a little like chamber music concerts. Not to knock the fine musical stylings of Felix Mendelssohn, but if you’ve ever been to a chamber music concert — or went on a cruise a decade ago — you saw a lot of grey hair, which is all well and good when affluent retirees are spending money. But to survive, a younger audience needs to be found.
Chamber music, sadly, hasn’t caught on with people born after 1982. But cruising, at least in small part, seems to be making a comeback with millennials. While it’s not exactly replacing Eurotrips or away-game weekends, cruising has gained some traction among younger travelers this decade. In 2011, a Cruise Line International Association Report put the average age of a cruiser over 50. Now, that number is down to 46.
This year’s report — put out in conjunction with JD Power and Associates — found that 70 percent of millennials who’d been on a cruise would “definitely book” a cruise for their next vacation. The American Society of Travel Agents found that almost half of all millennials had taken a cruise, and nearly two-thirds of that half liked it. And millennials made up a larger-than-average percentage of the clientele on luxury lines, a direct contradiction with the student-loan-and-high-rent-saddled stereotype we hear.
So why is the generation that’s blamed for ruining chain restaurants, macro brews, and one-size-fits-all everything flocking to the icon for generic travel? We talked to some cruise lines and did a little digging of our own to find out the reasons millennials are counterintuitively warming to cruising.
Superships play a part, but not as much as you’d think.
The conventional wisdom as to why cruising has skyrocketed in popularity among all generations is because ships are cooler than they used to be. Royal Caribbean’s new Symphony of the Seas has a ten-story slide, a water park, a comedy club, and a bar serviced by robots. Norwegian’s new Bliss features a Go-Kart track. Carnival has multiple ships with onboard breweries. That’s not to mention the now-ubiquitous rock-climbing walls and luxe fitness centers on most big ships.
That stuff sounds sexy on a brochure — but, more importantly, it plays into the “millennials want choices” narrative of marketing.
“Millennials are all about having a wide range of options that allows them to pick and choose,” says Carnival spokesperson Vance Gulliksen. “So we have to innovate with new dining, entertainment, and bar concepts that resonate with them.”
For example, the new MSC Seaside has 11 restaurants, 19 bars, and six pools — including one with a retractable roof, meaning you never have to visit the same anything twice. Or, even worse, be stuck at the same one as your parents.
The types of bars and restaurants cruise lines are putting on ships are millennial-driven, too. Carnival was the first to tap into the millennial obsession with craft beer, opening the RedFrog Pub & Brewery on its Vista back in 2016. It also added a cocktail bar called Alchemy to its ships, jumping onto the curly-mustache mixology trend. Other cruise lines offer similar concepts. Norwegian Cruise Lines launched a craft-beer bar featuring brews from its home port cities on the Bliss. All this hits the millennial high notes of craft beverages and unique, local experiences.
Adventure and local experiences are easier to find on a cruise ship.
The recent Travel Agent Cruise Industry Report found 92 percent of cruisers were looking for unique experiences, another millennial buzz phrase. That was followed closely by “exotic itineraries” at 90 percent.
“For this generation, cruising is so attractive because it turns the entire trip of traveling to each destination into an adventure in and of itself,” says Roberto Fusaro, MSC Cruises’ US President.
In response to that quest for adventure, cruise lines over the past half-decade have begun offering longer stays in port — some overnight — so passengers can get more out of each destination.
Celebrity Cruises began offering overnight stays in 2015 in many of its ports. In 2016, Carnival introduced “Cozumel Plus,” an itinerary with long port stays in Cozumel to allow for more exploration. Princess Cruises moved towards longer port stays and shorter cruises that year, as well.
Those longer stays also help millennials do what the JD Power report called “destination snacking,” where people use cruises as a chance to take small bites of a place before planning a longer vacation. Millennials reported cruising for this reason more than any other generation — a full 72 percent.
Adventure-seeking millennials might also be behind the growing interest in cruises to Alaska. That same travel agent’s report found 62 percent of travel agents saw a significant increase in demand to that state.
Shorter, cheaper cruises also contribute.
Despite cooler itineraries and snazzy onboard amenities, the biggest thing driving millennials towards cruises might be the most obvious factor: cost. The average price of a cruise in 2008 was $1,827 per person. In 2015, it was $1,488. And as younger people tend to make less money, a cheaper vacation sounds more appealing. The social media analytics group Crimson Hexagon did a content analysis on millennials’ social media habits in the cruise industry and found that the majority cited shorter and cheaper journeys as one of the top three reasons for cruising.
Nearly every large cruise line has offered shorter cruises to attract the money-minded millennial. Royal Caribbean recently retrofitted its Mariner of the Seas for short trips out of Miami. Carnival introduced short Caribbean itineraries out of Galveston and New Orleans to begin in 2019.
How much are millennials really cruising, though?
Of course, the cruise industry can, to borrow from a cliché, lead millennials to water. But can it make them drink? Literally, yes, as Norwegian now heavily markets its unlimited alcohol packages on social media. But figuratively? That remains to be seen. Industry studies show an uptick in millennial cruising, but the uptick is true across all generations, so younger people might not be cruising in such proportionally robust numbers as it seems.
U by Uniworld, known for immersive and local river cruises, launched a cruise limited to people under 45 last year. It quickly erased that age cap citing “consumer demand,” which could also be interpreted as more people over 45 asking for the product than cruisers under 45.
And think of the millennials you know. How many of them are taking cruises? Anecdotally, it seems like not that many, though none of that is scientific.
So while the cruise market is getting younger, and cruise lines are offering more of what millennials want, it may be a while before we see cruise ships all over Snapchat. The experience has certainly improved from what it once was, and ships have gotten better, cheaper, and more intertwined with their destinations.
Though millennials might not be jumping onboard en mass quite yet, cruising doesn’t look it’s going the way of chamber music. If only string quartets could figure out how to incorporate waterslides.
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