The cruise industry insists millennials love them—but the proof is unconvincing

Millennials totally welcome.
Millennials totally welcome.
Image: Reuters/Jon Nazca
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The platitudes about millennials and travel are so often touted, any reader can probably recite them: Millennials value experiences over things. They seek unique adventures and unusual surroundings to capture on their smartphones. And when they go abroad, they want to ‘live like a local’ instead of, say, amassing loyalty points in a chain hotel.

Now think about a cruise ship—identical state rooms, themed buffets, and the prospect of taking in an entire Greek Island in five hours or less. On face value, those things seem to be diametrically opposed to the millennial travel preferences we’ve heard over and over. And thus, if we are to believe one of the latest new trends of the cruise industry—that millennials are flocking to mega-ships and smaller ships alike in increasing numbers—part of the above seems like it must be wrong.

So let’s look at the claim a little closer. It’s not hard to find articles touting the idea that massive cruise ships like Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas—which, after its maiden voyage in early April, is now the largest cruise ship in operation—are being built in part to satisfy the demands of this new, younger, and more Instagram savvy crop of passengers. All those kids who were taken on cruises with their parents are supposedly now booking them with their friends and families of their own. And on board they are finding a suite of themed and trendy offerings uniquely tailored for them. And lots of selfie-worthy amenities.

However according to Ross Klein, an academic at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of two books and numerous papers about the industry, that’s not how the dynamics of cruise industry demand typically work.

“They would like people to believe they’re building new ships because of consumer demand,” Klein said. “But historically, the demand from consumers is stimulated after new ships are built by manipulating prices to make cruises so cheap that you can’t afford not to go on a cruise. They are shaping perceptions—and this is not a new tactic for them.”

So this raises the question: Are the millennial-focused cruises cropping up because millennials want them? Or is it because cruise lines want millennials to want them and come on board? As Quartz reported in December, U by Uniworld’s millennial-focused cruise, which launches this month, was meant to have a maximum age limit of 45. However, due to “consumer demand,” the company scrapped the age limit before the ships even set sail. You can view that one of two ways: Either lots of over 45s wanted to be treated to “immersive experiences along popular rivers across Europe”—which is what a rep for the company said—or not enough under-45s did.

The simplest way to settle this question would be to ask the cruise lines directly. But when Quartz queried some of the largest cruise lines—Princess Cruises, Disney Cruise Lines, and Carnival Cruise Line; Royal Caribbean did not respond in time—for information about the age distribution of their passengers, specifically millennials, the data wasn’t made available.

Carnival pointed to the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s international trade organization, which says the average age of a cruiser in North America is 46 (PDF, page 2), a number that has gone down from previous years. While that average age is certainly not reflective of the retirement stereotype many people have of cruisers, an average also doesn’t tell us the number of people in each age group—so it’s not that helpful.

The cruise industry shares other data to make it seem like millennials love to book cruises, but dig a little and the assertion seems less convincing. CLIA’s 2018 Cruise Travel Report says the number of millennials that would “definitely” book a cruise for their next trip jumped from 63% to 70%. The sample size of 1,605 was stratified into four age groups, and the number of millennials polled wasn’t published. Another study, from the American Society of Travel Agents (and sponsored by the Carnival Corporation), said that a whopping 48% of millennials had cruised in the past and a 61% of them strongly liked it. The sample size of this study, which spanned three different age groups, was 1,522 and said to be representative of US census in age proportion.

When you think of this data another way, if almost three quarters of millennials plan to book a cruise for their next trip and half of them have been on one in the past, the average millennial should find that the majority of their friends are trading conventional travel in favor of the high seas. (For the record: I’m a millennial, and I can think of only a single friend who’s been on a cruise.)

That said, Colleen McDaniel, the executive editor of leading cruise website Cruise Critic, has anecdotally seen an uptick in millennials’ interest in cruises. She adds that some of the changes cruises are making to attract millennials go beyond mere optics like music-themed and family-oriented cruises—millennials are parents, too—and extend to a refocussing on the destinations that cruises visit.

“Overwhelmingly people choose where they’re going to cruise to first, rather than by ship or by line. So cruise lines have begun to spend more time in port,” McDaniel said. “And I think that’s significant—it’s not just a quick drop in where you might only have five hours. You can actually spend the whole day there.”

She adds that more cruise lines are adding overnight visits to ports in popular cities like Sydney or Barcelona and getting wise to the fact that destinations like Ibiza need to be visited when their main attraction—nightlife, for example—is most accessible to visitors.

Still, it’s hard to deny that the numbers available to support this widely-made claim leave quite a lot to be desired. Klein confirms that it’s not unusual for cruise lines to not release any data about passenger trends on their ships. In fact, he thinks the sheer size of some of these ships makes the economics of filling a cruise less about age groups, and more about price points.

“Unless you have a specific draw like a music themed cruise, I don’t think millennials are going to be a primary market,” Klein said. “I don’t even think it’s the older demographic versus younger demographic—I think people are attracted by pricing. Today the ships for mass markets are up to 6,000 or more passengers. How many millennials do you need to have to make it noticeable that millennials are there?”