Backpack app, apps, millenials, travel, couch surfer

Millennials and their ‘backpack full of apps’

10 minutes to read
Lea Goeron

This article discusses millennials, their travelling habits and whether these have a positive or negative impact on the tourism industry. Many teenagers leave after high school or university for a "gap year" abroad: to work and travel in different countries. Travelling is also a part of globalisation, which is an important factor for the travelling industry.

In this case globalisation shows through digitalisation. Travellers use the internet as a vast infrastructure for their travels. With different motives and different travel habits every backpacker is different, but they do have a few things in common, which I am going to elaborate on in this article. Nevertheless one fact is already clear: we all know at least one person who packed their bags and left to broaden their horizons by travelling.

Millennials’ urge to travel

According to the Urban Dictionary, “millennial is an identity given to a broadly and vaguely defined group of people.” We can divide this group into two parts: generation Y and generation Z, which are often at odds with each other. Generation Y “grew-up on personal computers, cell phones and video game systems,” while generation Z “has grown up on tablets, smartphones, and apps” (Urban Dictionary, 2017).

Although it is hard to make a clear age distinction between the two groups, one can say that millennials are roughly born between 1981 and 2001. Generation Y and Z have both been transforming communication and identity on a global scale.

Millennials are prone to postpone completing education, getting jobs, and marrying and having children. Instead of following the baby boomers’ dream of a house, a dream car, a steady job and a traditional family, they want a purpose-driven life, to make a difference in society instead. They prefer to consume experiences, like going to concerts or dream holidays (Veríssimo and Costa, 2018).

Millennials do not want to wait until their golden years to see the world.

But what motivates them to travel and postpone their future in the first place? One of the main reasons is that social media have made teenagers and even children fascinated by the world, and the endless travel hacks online make for easier travels. Millennials also do not want to wait until their golden years to see the world. They have grown sceptical of the best-laid retirement plans and do not want to rely on their uncertain future. Travelling also seems to open up opportunities for growth and experience in a particular job or educational field.

Graduates mostly use this time to reflect on and evaluate if their education, job, and life choices were the right ones, and what they might have to change to be happy (Machado, 2014). Happiness is the biggest factor which separates generation X and millennials. The latter, it seems, want to pursue a deeper meaning in their life and happiness with their career.

Apart from exploring the world in between your responsibilities, you can now also travel while working.

Digital nomads, also known as location independent workers, are still small in numbers, but the travel industry has taken note. […] Their impact on some destinations is noticeable: more-co-working spaces are springing up and digital nomads have an influence on other young travellers through blogging travel and lifestyle advice.” (Mohn, 2018)

Instead of a gap year this is then called a remote year. A year out of your comfort zone, in different countries around the world and surrounded by new people.

Social media as an influence

Staying connected and making new connections online are the most important things for most young travellers. As Shallcross (2015) notes, today’s millennials are travelling with “a backpack full of apps.” Millennials use technology to communicate with a global audience as part of their travel experience. Known as highly active social media users, social media represent an integral part of their travel experience. They prefer to travel alone or with friends, instead of with family or a partner (Veríssimo and Costa, 2018).

Travellers upload photos on Facebook and Instagram or write blogs and record vlogs about their experiences, tips, and tricks. Through these threads, blogs, Facebook groups, and Instagram accounts travellers get inspired and informed about their travel destinations. They share tips, advice and the best spots to visit. There are also websites, for example Triphackr, “which mixes travel hacks, like how to get cash back for delayed flights, with Instagram trip-spiration” (Harrison, 2017). Travellers rely on peer-to-peer visual user-generated content to make the most out of their vacation and get the best insider tips from social media influencers their own age.

They are constantly developing what they want out of their travel experience.

Millennials also rely on apps to book their travels, such as flights, activities, and hostels. These technical infrastructures help them along the way - before, during, and after. In the photo below you can see some of the most commonly used apps like Hostelworld, Tripadviser, Skyscanner and Couchsurfing. The interconnectedness of these apps helps travellers to save their ideas, documents and photos, but also help them stay connected. In her article in Conde Nast Traveler , Shallcross explains why being a millennial is an advantage while travelling:

Having grown up in the digital age, they're free of the hang-ups that hindered past generations of travellers. They don't think twice about booking a flight online or spending the night in a stranger's apartment—and with that comes the freedom of choice.

Figure 1: Screenshot of essential travel apps on a smartphone

Their freedom of choice and the urge for a unique experience off the beaten track is the reason why the tourism industry has to change and currently is changing.

Tourism industry in a time of change

Due to millennials using social media, online websites, and apps to book their travel experiences, the tourism industry is forced to be in a constant flux. It is bound to move along with recent trends and changes to keep up with and offer what millennials are after: authorship. It is about having the choice to go where you want and do what you want, rather than be dependent on the tour bus or limited by the buffet selection. But this also means that no itinerary fits all, an issue which makes it very hard for the travel industry to offer products that are going to sell.

Offered tours thus change from covering the traditional places for sightseeing like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Tower Bridge in London to more hidden gems most of the world has not seen yet. Millennials are more interested in where the locals meet, have coffee or hang out on sunny days. The perfect Instagram photo opportunity is just around the corner.

Over-tourism can erode the balance of local life. Rent increases and noise disturbance are possible results

Not only the way they book their vacation is changing, but also how backpackers are spending their money. According to Fiz, a platform for travel experience content, “millennials want a bit of everything” (Charles, 2018). Although a lot of travellers stay in hostels and budget their travel, many are willing to spend a bit more, or even splurge , to join a one-off secret concert or a rare cultural spectacle.

They want to go undercover, have a drink at a local bar, eat what the locals eat. But they also want to see the Mona Lisa at The Louvre, go to the British Museum and all the other classic tourist hotspots. They want it all, they want it now and they want the Instagram photo to go with it” (Charles, 2018).

Millennials are also a diverse group of young and independent individuals, who travel more and in all sorts of ways. And although they may not have the same purchasing power as previous generations, they are still willing to part with their hard-earned money for an 'authentic' travel adventure (Charles, 2018).

This over-tourism can erode the balance of local life. Tourists staying in homes instead of being concentrated in hotels can cause rent increases and noise disturbance. Also, renting apartments through websites like Airbnb can lead to a major loss for hotels and hostels that are not able to beat the luxury of a private apartment.

Case study: Couchsurfing

During my own travels through Australia I mainly stayed in hostels for long-term stays and rented a camper van for longer journeys through different cities. Only when I settled down in the heart of New South Wales and made local friends did I learn about a cheap and fun way to travel all over the world. Although it is (usually) not suitable for longer stays, one or two nights can easily be arranged through Couchsurfing.

After moving to Tilburg in the Netherlands, I spontaneously went to a concert in Amsterdam, but because it was on the same day, I could not find a bed in a hostel anymore and also did not want to come back from Amsterdam straight away. I decided to contact multiple hosts to find out if someone could offer me a place to sleep for the night. Omar, a young Muslim man replied and offered me a bed in his spare room, which I gratefully excepted.

Couchsurfing is a community mainly consisting of travellers either willing to host other travellers in their home or searching for a place to sleep for the night. The Couchsurfing community describes themselves as follows:

Couchsurfing is a global community of 14 million people in more than 200,000 cities who share their life, their world, their journey. Couchsurfing connects travellers with a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience".

It is an easy concept, which is pictured below to clarify how Couchsurfing works. The initial step is to create a profile with as much information about yourself as you are comfortable with. This helps with hosts accepting you as a guest, since they already have the feeling they know you a bit better.

Figure 2: Screenshot of my personal Couchsurfing account

The second step is searching for possible hosts and contacting them with additional information with the date and reason of your travels. A lot of hosts have their own rules for their house so one needs to check their profile for those beforehand. In Figure 3 you can see that there are 38,463 hosts only in Amsterdam who are or might be accepting guests spontaneously.

Figure 3: Screenshot of the search results for Amsterdam, tonight on the Couchsurfing app

After getting to know your host and having a good time you can rate them and vice versa. This serves as a guideline and reference for future hosts and fellow travellers. You also have the opportunity to voice concerns to the Couchsurfing admins in case your stay or guest was not as pleasant as planned.


Figure 4: Screenshot of my first reference on the Couchsurfing app

The last feature of the Couchsurfing community is your local community. Getting to know your neighbourhood, city, and also making new friends, are all positive aspects of using the app while being at home.

So, why is Couchsurfing so popular amongst millennials and other travellers? For most users it is the best way to continuously meet new people from all over the world. Their priority is not the free accommodation, but what you get to share with others: experiences, stories, advice, languages and connecting with locals (Nomadic Matt).

Millennials vs traditional tourism

All in all, millennials are as diverse as humans get. Although we can summarize their main motives to travel, such as inspiration, experience, a break from work or working abroad as digital nomads, it is not possible to sum up their travel habits as a whole. Most travellers are looking for an authentic vacation mixed with the traditional sightseeing program.

But what does this mean for the tourism industry? The consequences of millennials' travelling are mainly positive. The industry is in constant flux and more versatile than ever before. We can almost always find a suitable solution for our travel plans, whether it be online through travel agency websites, social media,travel apps or the old-fashioned way: through travel agencies on-site.

As the case study shows, one can also find affordable tips and tricks online, for instance through Couchsurfing, which are not only reserved for millennials. Globalization, more specifically the mobility of people, made it possible for millennials to see as much of the world as possible. People are moving to different countries and making new connections and friends, and millennials are right in the middle of this movement. While travelling they are testing the waters before diving in head first.


Charles, M. (2018) Millennial travellers and how they’ve changed travel for the better 


Harrison, V. (2017) Why millennials are the next tourism frontier

Machado, A. (2014) How millennials are changing travel

Mohn, T. (2018) What are young travellers up to? A new survey reveals their splurges and where they go for happiness

Nomadic Matt, How to crush it on Couchsurfing

Shallcross, J. (2015), How millennials are travelling better than you


Urban dictionary, Millennials

Veríssimo, M. and Costa, C. (2018) Do hostels play a role in pleasing Millennial travellers? The Portuguese case