Cruising off-the beaten path – Ushuaia, Argentina

Cruising has expanded exponentially since the 1970s and there are now more than 300 cruise ships plying the seas in almost every part of the world. But Millennials are abandoning traditional types of vacations in favour of more authentic and adventurous types of travel. Will this generational change sink the cruise industry?

Vacations by cruise ship continue to be a popular option with Baby Boomers (adults aged 53 to 71 years), who ranked it as their second most favoured means of international travel in 2018.  But there may be rough seas ahead for the cruise industry if they are counting on Millennials (20 to 36 years old) to fill their cabins in future.

According to research from the American Association of Retired People, there are significant differences in the travel expectations of Boomers and Millennials. For example, Millennials are more interested than Boomers in travel that offers adventure, a new experience, or improves their health. Furthermore, Millennials are seeking a “more authentic” travel experience, and are less interested in traditional accommodations such as big chain hotels, and anything that damages the environment.

Unique cruising destinations include the Hebridean Islands in Scotland

The types of destinations and modes of travel they choose are also driven by different factors. For example, fulfilling a “bucket list” trip continues to be the key criteria used by Boomers in choosing an international vacation. In contrast, Millennials have little interest in “bucket list” trips, and are more likely to choose from a wide variety of trip types based on its potential for adventure.

These findings have to be disturbing for the cruise industry, particularly since the number of Millennials and GenXers (37 to 52 years old) are becoming a larger segment of the travel public as Boomers age and die. Perhaps as important, the survey showed that Millennials are already planning significantly more international trips than Boomers – 2.6 per year versus 1.5. So attracting and keeping Millennials as customers is bound to become more important to the survival of the world’s major cruise line companies as time goes by.

The good news is that some cruise lines seem to be keenly aware of the changing travel demographics that the industry faces and have already begun to put plans in action.

One response has been the dramatic growth of expedition cruising, which is designed to appeal to adventure-minded travellers who are seeking more authentic experiences. As I reported in June, some 30 to 40 new expedition ships will be launched by 2023 as both new entrants and established cruise lines bring new capacity into the adventure cruise market.

Antarctica offers an adventure destination

Expedition cruising is all about visiting out-of-the-way places that provide beautiful scenery and opportunities to get close to rare wildlife. These types of cruises usually take place on small ships with reinforced hulls, shallow drafts and a low capacity of between 50 to 300 people, and where the main theme of the voyage is discovery, experience and education. They also visit smaller ports where larger vessels cannot go, and often ferry passengers ashore in inflatable Zodiac craft.

Some of the amazing itineraries offered by expedition cruise lines include the Chilean fjords, the Canadian Northwest Passage, Antarctica, the Galapagos, the Australian Kimberly Coast, the Norwegian fjords and North Cape, Micronesia and the Amazon River.

A growing number of cruise lines are also building ships with more single cabins that have limited space and amenities, but feature dedicated areas where solo sailors can meet up to share their plans and experiences with each other. After all, research shows that many travelling Millennials just want a comfy bed to sleep on and a communal space, rather than amenities they will never use like a tub, a writing desk, and a clothes dresser.  This is one reason why Millennials have eschewed big hotel chains in favour of boutique accommodations.

Rarely seen wildlife like Blue-Footed Boobies in the Galapagos are staples of adventure cruises

Cruise lines have also introduced much healthier and varied menus on board their ships that cater to a wider variety of diets. For example, having spent the past week aboard the Silver Shadow of Silversea Cruises, I have been impressed by the number of gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian menu options. In addition, even the mainstream menu features many healthy options including an abundance of local fish and vegatables.

Furthermore, in 2020 Silversea is introducing a new initiative called S.A.L.T. (Sea and Land Taste), which will have three different features. These features will include a restaurant that offers recipes from every destination the ship visits, an interactive space where guests can join chefs to learn how food is prepared in the region, and a bar that includes local cocktails such as a Pisco Sour in Lima.  A number of vessels are also offering a chef’s table, where a limited number of guests can sign up to shop with the chef on shore, and then experience the local creations at a special table next to the kitchen.

The shore excursions offered on most cruise ships have also been expanded to include a number of more active and adventure-style options. For example, this week we’ve had the option to go zip-lining through a rain forest, hike up a trail to a waterfall, go snorkelling with sea turtles, and make chocolate from scratch. And during our recent cruise to the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, we were able to hike and cycle along ancient paths through the hills and along the coast, and visit a number of single malt distilleries to see how Scotch whisky is made.

Magellanic penguins in South America

Cruisers who want to custom-tailor their shore excursions can also opt to go ashore independently, or book an organized shore excursion with a specialized land tour company. These types of excursions are often less expensive than taking the tours offered by cruise ships, and provide much more flexibility.

Many cruise ships have also added lower-carbon emission engines during their refits, and most new ships being built today have much more efficient engines. These lower-carbon burning fuel engines are required to sail to the most environmentally sensitive destinations, including Alaska, the Galapagos and more. In fact, Ponant Cruises is one of several cruise lines that plan to add alternative power plants for their new ships, including electric hybrid engines powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).

So while the travel expectations of Millennials may differ in significant ways from the declining Boomer generation that has filled so many cruise ships to date, the cruise industry has not been indifferent to these growing changes. In fact, cruise lines have not only made changes, they will continue to do so in the hopes that Millennials will join Boomers in walking up the gangplank, and will not abandon ship.

I’d like to hear your opinion on whether the cruise industry is adapting to the travel preferences of Millennials. Over the last 35 years I have taken 71 cruises and explored more than 200 ports and towns in almost every part of the world, many of which I have written about in this blog. If you have enjoyed this story, please “like” this post and/or leave a “comment”. Our search function also works well if you want to look back and see some of our previous articles. 

Feature image – courtesy the Baldwin Agency

9 replies »

  1. We are middle 80 ‘s , thought we would not like boring cruising. But we really did and took 5 cruises. The best cruise was Rotterdam to St Peters-burg on not too big ships. Big ships with the hoopla we avoid.


    • I agree that smaller ships deliver a better experience, except for perhaps multi-generational family cruises where all the hoopla on big ships (like rock climbing walls, water slides, go karts, etc.) can help keep children from getting bored.


    • Thanks for the note. You are correct. There were some 314 cruise ships operating at the end of 2018, and another 24 were added in 2019 for a total of 338. The number will increase again as many lines still plan to add new ships, including Silversea who we were told by Managing Director Mark Conroy this morning will be doubling their passenger capacity over the next 5 years. I thought I had corrected this figure in an earlier update, but it apparently did not work the first time. So it stands corrected now.


  2. Those rascally Millennials certainly have their own set of buying preferences. Service providers need to adjust accordingly or go the way of the buggy whip manufacturers (good to see that the cruise lines are adjusting accordingly). Hmmm … wonder if the Millennials know what a buggy whip is?? Cheers, Jim PS: Enjoyed your article, David.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great blog post Mr. Moorcroft. I’m sure the millennials will also love the 4am hot tub experience that us boomers enjoyed. Perhaps they won’t stack their formal wear (from the earlier evening) adjacent the tub as neatly as we did, but they will no doubt still appreciate seeing the dawn’s early light from that unique perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

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