The way we travel now

| Article

What sorts of journeys do today’s travelers dream about? Where would they like to go? What do they hope to do when they get there? How much are they willing to spend on it all? And what should industry stakeholders do to adapt to the traveler psychology of the moment?

To gauge what’s on the minds of current-day travelers, we surveyed more than 5,000 of them in February and March of this year.1 Our universe of respondents included travelers from five major, representative source markets: China, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. All respondents took at least one leisure trip in the past two years. We asked them more than 50 questions about their motivations, behavior, and expectations.

Results from this survey, supplemented with findings from focus groups and other additional research, suggest six vital trends that are shaping traveler sentiment now.

Travel has become a top priority, especially for younger generations

Sixty-six percent of the travelers we surveyed say they’re more interested in travel now than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. This pattern holds across all surveyed age groups and nationalities. Respondents also indicate that they’re planning more trips in 2024 than they did in 2023.

Travel isn’t merely an interest these days. It’s become a priority—even amid uncertain economic conditions that can make budgeting a challenge. Travel continues to be one of the fastest-growing consumer spending areas, rising 6 percent over a recent 12-month period in the United States, even when adjusted for inflation. Only 15 percent of our survey respondents say they’re trying to save money by reducing the number of trips they go on. And in the February 2024 McKinsey ConsumerWise Global Sentiment Survey of more than 4,000 participants, 33 percent of consumers said they planned to splurge on travel, ranking it the third-most-popular splurge category—trailing only eating at home and eating out at restaurants.2

Younger generations appear to propel much of the rising interest in travel (Exhibit 1). In 2023, millennials and Gen Zers took, on average, nearly five trips, versus less than four for Gen Xers and baby boomers. Millennials and Gen Zers also say they devote, on average, 29 percent of their incomes to travel, compared with 26 percent for Gen Zers and 25 percent for baby boomers.

Younger generations show significant, growing interest in travel.

Younger travelers are the most keen to venture abroad

Younger travelers are particularly excited about international travel. Gen Zers and millennials who responded to our survey are planning a nearly equal number of international and domestic trips in 2024, no matter their country of origin, whereas older generations are planning to take roughly twice as many domestic trips (Exhibit 2).

Younger generations take nearly as many international trips as domestic trips.

Younger travelers’ thirst for novelty might be motivating their urge to cross borders. Gen Zers say their number-one consideration when selecting a destination is their desire to experience someplace new. For Gen Xers, visiting a new place comes in at number eight, behind factors such as cost, ease of getting around, and quality of accommodation.

There might be a mindset shift under way, with international travel feeling more within reach for younger travelers—in terms of both cost and convenience. Younger travelers have become adept at spotting international destinations that feature more affordable prices or comparatively weak currencies. Low-cost airlines have proliferated, carrying 35 percent of the world’s booked seats over a recent 12-month period.3 Meanwhile, translation software is lowering language barriers, mobile connectivity overseas is becoming cheaper and more hassle free, and recent visa initiatives in various regions have made passport-related obstacles easier to overcome.

It remains to be seen whether this mindset shift will endure as younger generations get older. But early evidence from millennials suggests that they’ve retained their interest in international travel even as they’ve begun to age and form families. It could be that this is a lasting attitude adjustment, influenced as much by the changing dynamics of travel as it is by youth.

Baby boomers are willing to spend if they see value

Baby boomers are selective about their travel choices and travel spending. Enjoying time with family and friends is their number-one motivation for taking a trip. Experiencing a new destination is less important to them—by as much as 15 percentage points—than to any other demographic.

Although older travelers appreciate the convenience that technology can offer, they prefer human contact in many contexts (Exhibit 3). For example, 44 percent of baby boomers—versus only 30 percent of other respondents—say they value having a travel agent book an entire travel experience for them. And only 42 percent of baby boomers have used a mobile app to book transportation, versus 71 percent of other respondents.

Baby boomers are less comfortable using technology for travel than other generations.

While this generation typically has more accumulated savings than other generations, they remain thoughtful about how they choose to spend. Their top two cited reasons for not traveling more are “travel is becoming too expensive” and “not having enough money to travel.” They make up demographic most willing to visit a destination out of season, with 62 percent saying they’re open to off-peak travel to bring costs down.

Baby boomers might be willing to spend strategically, in ways that make travel more convenient and less burdensome. For example, whereas 37 percent of Gen Zers are willing to take a cheaper flight to lower their travel costs—even if it means flying at inconvenient times or with a stopover—only 22 percent of baby boomers say they’ll do the same. But these older travelers don’t splurge indiscriminately: only 7 percent describe their attitude toward spending as “I go out all the way when I travel.” They’re much more willing to forgo experiences to save money, identifying this as the first area where they cut spending. Gen Zers, on the other hand, will cut all other expense categories before they trim experiences.

Whatever baby boomers’ stated feelings and preferences, they still account for a substantial share of travel spending. And they still spend more than younger generations—three times more per traveler than Gen Zers in 2023, for example.

The adventure starts before the trip begins

Travelers are delighting in crafting their own trips. Only 17 percent of survey respondents say they used a travel agent to book a trip in the past year. When asked why, respondents’ top-cited reason is that they want full control over their itineraries. Their second-most-cited reason? They simply enjoy the planning process. In fact, studies have shown that the anticipation of a journey can lead to higher levels of happiness than the journey itself.4

When seeking inspiration during the planning process, respondents are most likely to turn to friends and family—either directly or on social media (Exhibit 4). Advice from other travelers is also sought after. Fewer and fewer travelers rely on travel guidebooks for inspiration.

Travelers cite many sources of inspiration for trip planning, but most common is a recommendation from family or friends.

Today’s travelers tend to view the planning process, in part, as a treasure hunt. Seventy-seven percent of respondents describe the research phase as an effort to ensure that they’re finding good deals or saving money. And all demographics describe “value for money” as the most important factor when choosing a booking channel.

Unexpected traveler archetypes are emerging

When we analyzed our survey results, we identified seven clusters of travelers who express shared attitudes and motivations toward travel. While the distribution of these archetypes varies across source markets, respondents within each archetype exhibit strong similarities:

Seven clusters of travelers express shared attitudes and motivations toward travel. Each archetype’s distribution varies across source markets, but the travelers within them exhibit strong similarities.

  • Sun and beach travelers (23 percent of respondents). These vacationers travel rarely and spend frugally, preferring sun and beach destinations that are easy to get to. They like to relax and visit with family. They’re relatively more likely to place significant value on nonstop flights (72 percent, versus 54 percent overall) and are less interested in authentic and immersive experiences (only 13 percent say these are main reasons why they travel).
  • Culture and authenticity seekers (18 percent). These are active and high-budget travelers who typically spend more than $150 per day on holiday, love to sightsee, are willing to spend on experiences, and don’t want to settle for typical bucket-list destinations. Only 6 percent prioritize familiarity when choosing where to go—the lowest percentage of any traveler segment. This segment is also least likely (at 17 percent) to say they would shorten a holiday to save money.
  • Strategic spenders (14 percent). These travelers are open to selectively splurging on authentic, carefully curated experiences. But they keep a watchful eye on total spending. They’re willing to sacrifice some conveniences, such as nonstop flights, in the interest of cost savings.
  • Trend-conscious jet-setters (14 percent). Travelers in this high-budget group (they spend more than $150 per day when traveling) turn first to friends and family (79 percent) and then to social media (62 percent) when scouting destinations. Seventy-six percent say the popularity of a destination is an important factor, compared with 63 percent overall. And 75 percent say they focus on hotel brands when selecting accommodations.
  • Cost-conscious travelers (11 percent). This travel segment is made up of predominantly older travelers who travel rarely and frequently return to the same destinations and activities. They’re relatively more likely to care about the familiarity of a destination (54 percent, versus 35 percent overall) and the cost of the trip (76 percent, versus 65 percent overall).
  • Premium travelers (12 percent). This segment expects high-quality trappings when they travel, and only 20 percent say that cost is an important factor. These frequent travelers are especially selective about accommodation—they, on average, are more likely than travelers overall to care about brand, prestige, exclusivity, design, decor, amenities, and sustainability. Similarly to trend-conscious jet-setters, this traveler segment is, on average, more likely than travelers overall (at 27 percent, versus 18 percent) to be swayed by celebrities and influencers when choosing travel destinations.
  • Adventure seekers (8 percent). This younger segment enjoys active holidays that present opportunities to encounter like-minded travelers. Nineteen percent say they’re motivated by adventure and physical activities, and 15 percent say meeting new people is a major reason why they travel. They aren’t after large-group events; instead, they prefer small-group adventures. This segment prizes remoteness, privacy, and sustainability.

What travelers want depends on where they’re from

When asked what trips survey respondents are planning next, 69 percent of Chinese respondents say they plan to visit a famous site—a marked difference from the 20 percent of North American and European travelers who say the same. Chinese travelers are particularly motivated by sightseeing: 50 percent cite visiting attractions as their main reason for traveling, versus an average of 33 percent for those from other countries.

Emirati travelers, like their Chinese counterparts, favor iconic destinations, with 43 percent saying they plan to visit a famous site. They also have a penchant for shopping and outdoor activities. Fifty-six percent of respondents from the United Arab Emirates describe the range of available shopping options as an important factor when selecting a destination—a far higher proportion than the 35 percent of other respondents. And respondents from the United Arab Emirates report going on a greater number of active vacations (involving, for instance, hiking or biking) than any other nationality.

Travelers from Europe and North America are especially keen to escape their daily routines. Respondents from Germany (45 percent), the United States (40 percent), and the United Kingdom (38 percent) place importance on “getting away from it all.” Only 17 percent of respondents from China and the Middle East feel the same way. European travelers are particularly fond of beach getaways: respondents from the United Kingdom and Germany cite “soaking in the sun” at twice the rate of American respondents as a main reason they travel.

Travel is a collective story, with destinations as the backdrop

Younger generations are prioritizing experiences over possessions. Fifty-two percent of Gen Zers in our survey say they splurge on experiences, compared with only 29 percent of baby boomers (Exhibit 5). Gen Z travelers will try to save money on flights, local transportation, shopping, and food before they’ll look to trim their spending on experiences. Even terminology used by younger generations to describe travel is experience oriented: “Never stop exploring” is tagged to nearly 30 million posts on Instagram.

Younger generations are more willing than other generations to devote significant spending toward travel experiences.

The value of experiences is often realized in the stories people tell about them. Books and films have spurred tourists to flock to specific destinations (for instance, when droves of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia [Viking Penguin, 2006] readers visited Bali). And travel has always been a word-of-mouth business, in which travelers’ stories—crafted from their experiences—can inspire other travelers to follow in their footsteps.

Social media is the latest link in this chain: a technology-driven, collective storytelling platform. Ninety-two percent of younger travelers in our survey say their last trip was motivated in some way by social media. Their major sources of social inspiration, however, aren’t necessarily influencers or celebrities (30 percent) but rather friends and family (42 percent). Consumers’ real-life social networks are filled with extremely effective microinfluencers.

Posting vacation selfies is a popular way to share the story of a journey. But a growing number of social media users are searching for ways to present their travel narratives in a more detailed and more enduring fashion, and new apps and platforms are emerging to help them do so. The microblogging app Polarsteps, which more than nine million people have downloaded, helps travelers plan, track, and then share their travels—allowing journeys to be captured in hardcover books that document routes, travel statistics, and musings.

Giving today’s travelers what they need and want

From our survey findings, important takeaways emerge that can help tourism industry players engage with today’s travelers.

Know customer segments inside and out

Serving up a one-size-fits-all experience is no longer sufficient. Using data to segment customers by behavior can help tourism players identify opportunities to tailor their approaches more narrowly.

Cutting-edge data strategies aren’t always necessary to get started. Look-alike analysis and hypothesis-driven testing can go a long way. Even without having data about a specific family’s previous travel patterns, for example, an airline might be able to hypothesize that a family of four traveling from New York to Denver on a long weekend in February is going skiing—and therefore might be interested in a discounted offer that lets them check an additional piece of luggage.

The same philosophy applies to personalization, which doesn’t necessarily need to be focused on a single individual. Merely having a clearer sense of the specific segments that a provider is targeting can help it craft a more compelling offer. Instead of simply creating an offer geared toward families, for instance, providers might build an offer tailored to families who are likely to visit in the spring and will be primarily interested in outdoor activities. And instead of relying on standard tourist activities, providers might find ways to cater to more specific traveler interests—for example, facilitating a home-cooked meal with locals instead of serving up a fine-dining experience.

Help travelers share their journeys

Today’s travelers want to share their travel stories. And friends and family back home are more likely to be influenced by these stories than by anything else they see or hear. Providers should consider ways to tap into this underexploited marketing channel.

Hotels can install a photo booth that enables guests to share pictures from their journeys. Guests can be given small souvenirs to take home to their friends and family. Hotels might also send guests photos on the anniversary of a trip to help jog happy memories and prompt a future booking.

Given the right incentives, customers can act as a distributed team of marketers. Reposting guests’ social media photos and videos, for example, or spurring engagement with contests and shareable promo codes can encourage travelers to become evangelists across an array of different channels.

Recognize younger generations’ unquenchable thirst for travel

Younger travelers’ remarkable desire for experiences isn’t always in line with their budgets—or with providers’ standard offerings. A new generation of customers is ripe to be cultivated if providers can effectively meet their needs:

  • Travel companies can better match lower-budget accommodations with younger travelers’ preferences by incorporating modern design into rooms and facilities, curating on-site social events, and locating properties in trendy neighborhoods.
  • More affordable alternatives to classic tourist activities (for example, outdoor fitness classes instead of spas or street food crawls instead of fine dining) can be integrated into targeted packages.
  • Familiar destinations can be reinvented for younger travelers by focusing on experiences (for instance, a street art tour of Paris) instead of more traditional attractions (such as the Eiffel Tower).

Cater to older travelers by using a human touch and featuring family-oriented activities

Older generations remain a major source of travel spending. Providers can look for ways to keep these travelers coming back by meeting their unique needs:

  • While older travelers are growing more comfortable with technology, they continue to favor human interaction. Stakeholders can cater to this preference by maintaining in-person visitor centers and other touchpoints that emphasize a human touch.
  • Older travelers are generally fond of returning to familiar destinations. Providers can look to maximize repeat business by keeping track of guest information that aids personalization (such as favorite meals or wedding anniversary dates). Identifying historical behavior patterns (for example, parents repeatedly visiting children in the same city) can help providers make targeted offers that could maximize spending (for example, a museum subscription in that city).
  • The off-seasonal travel patterns that older travelers often exhibit might open opportunities for providers to create appealing experiences scheduled for lower-occupancy periods—for example, an autumn wellness retreat at a popular summer destination.
  • Older travelers’ propensity to visit family and friends opens the door to offerings that appeal to a range of generations, such as small-group trips pairing activities for grandparents and grandchildren.

Travelers are more interested in travel—and more willing to spend on it—than ever before. But the familiar, one-size-fits-all tourism offerings of the past have grown outdated. Today’s travelers want to indulge in creative experiences that are tailored to their priorities and personal narratives. The good news for providers: new technology and new approaches, coupled with tried-and-true strengths such as managerial stamina and careful attention to service, are making it easier than ever to shape personalized offerings that can satisfy a traveler’s unique needs.

Explore a career with us