Aerial view of beautiful white cruise ship above luxury cruise concept tourism travel on holiday vacation time.

How cruise lines can win Gen Z and the travelers of tomorrow

Younger cohorts have lower brand awareness and unique preferences, our survey shows. Here’s how to capture the new-to-cruise segments.

In brief
  • In a shift from older consumers, younger generations prioritize authentic experiences and sustainability, according to new EY-Parthenon research.
  • In a redefined post-pandemic landscape, cruise lines have an opportunity to reimagine their destinations and add-ons to appeal to more travelers.
  • Additionally, educating travelers on social media and enabling seamless online booking experiences are also worthwhile to drive consumer engagement.

After facing unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, cruise companies are now broadly seeing record spikes in demand — but it would be a mistake to think that travel has simply returned to normal. Our research shows that, through reimagined experiences and consumer education, the cruise industry has a golden opportunity to secure loyalty from a new generation of travelers.

The industry has made progress in appealing toward younger generations as a complement to the repeat (and generally older) stalwarts. Yet the EY-Parthenon Cruise Industry Consumer Survey, completed in the first half of 2023, shows how much work remains: among all age groups, members of Gen Z and millennials are the least aware of cruise brands and the least likely to purchase a cruise trip in the next three to five years. In short, they are a demographic to be captured now — or lost later. Rather than waiting for them to gravitate toward cruises and then secure their loyalty, brands should be out in the market with the new generation’s interests in mind in the marketing channels they frequent.


Their importance cannot be overstated: they constitute 28% of the world’s population, reflecting $360 billion in purchasing power (as of 2021) that will only continue to grow, according to the Gen Z Segmentation Study 2022. The new-to-cruise segment is anticipated to experience significant growth as about 50% of the survey respondents who had never been on a cruise are likely to do so in the next three to five years.


Catering to their preferences — such as (for example) easier booking tools with more destination variety, personalized experiences, and excursion options and add-ons — also offers ways to present a new value proposition to existing customers and strengthen market share. Here are three key takeaways.


Chapter 1

Pursue new experiences guided by new priorities

Younger generations have preferences that deviate significantly from older travelers — in terms of destinations, add-ons and more.

Pursue new experiences guided by new prioritie

As the consumers of tomorrow, Gen Z and millennials will drive expectations for what successful travel experiences will look like, providing a roadmap for how the future travel provider can remain competitive and grow.

Millennials and Gen Z both prioritize experiences (36%) above all other factors, as well as affordability, which baby boomers and Gen X cite as No. 1 (37% and 23%, respectively). But appealing to the sensibilities of one group does not conflict with the others: 95% of respondents overall prefer to spend some time on their trip on new and unique experiences, ideally averaging 3 hours a day, and 81% agree they want to travel to places where they can immerse themselves into the local culture.

Reflecting how affordability has become less of a concern, 77% say they are willing to pay more for a brand that connects with a location on a deeper level, providing a sense of understanding and appreciation for the culture, people and history of a destination. Among those who booked a cruise in the last five years, 51% and 60% of Gen Z and millennials, respectively, have also purchased a vacation package, highlighting the shift from single vacations to full experiences.

Travelers also expect brands to be involved with their communities and engage with an authentic voice, particularly when it comes to environmental sustainability, the No. 2 preference of Gen Z and millennials. This presents an opportunity for cruise brands to appeal to the market through transparency around environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in every part of the business — from supply chain, ethical labor, diversity and inclusion, and investments (including in destinations and in shipboard experiences). Some of the new ships being delivered in the coming years have a greater focus on environmental sustainability and might help turn the tide on the industry’s reputation. Case in point, 82% of consumers surveyed want the values of brands to align with their own.

Considering your latest cruise which add ons if any did you purchase

When it comes to add-ons, Gen Z travelers are significantly less enamored with shore excursions than their peers, with 30% saying that they have purchased one compared with 44% of millennials and 52% overall across age generations. Such a gap strongly hints that the type of excursion isn’t in demand or that it is difficult to book one (for instance, if it’s not available on an app beforehand).

Building off the influence of social media, and coupled with their desire for new and authentic experiences, Gen Z and millennials gravitate toward add-ons that enable those experiences to be highlighted and shared among their peers. Relative to other generations, the most popular cruise add-ons for them include Wi-Fi access and vacation photos or videos to share, as well as spa treatments. Cruise lines have an opportunity to start fresh with these younger generations and fulfill their expectations at a premium price point, driving incremental revenue without the sticker shock that more established cruise travelers could experience.

In terms of destinations, Gen Z is looking further afield for places to travel beyond the typical hot spots, showing the appeal of greater variety. Their most popular destination is not a surprise: at 38%, it is the Caribbean, which offers a combination of the most destinations, a growing number of private island and beach club experiences with more amenities, and some cultural variety on itineraries lasting three, five and seven-plus days. They are also more likely to look toward central and western Mediterranean, although recent anti-tourism measures have prompted cruise lines to get more creative in where — and how — they can market some of the more culturally important markets (e.g., Spain and Italy). Overall, as the Caribbean market becomes somewhat saturated in the mid to long term with berthing capacity on key dates, cruises can get creative and explore destinations such as Bermuda and the Pacific coast of Mexico, and deliver new forms of community engagement aligned to their values.


Chapter 1

Educate the consumer of tomorrow

While younger travelers generally have clear preferences, they don’t know much about the established cruise brands in the market.

Gen Z answered that they were aware of brands in the market just 31% on average — about half the rate of older generations — and the most popular brand reaches just 55% awareness.

Which of the following cruise lines do you know

Furthermore, only 8% of Gen Z and 16% of millennial cruise participants surveyed expressed that they ended up booking a cruise each time they considered booking one, compared with 53% for Gen X and 38% overall, indicating some form of disconnect either with the product, process or both.

What alternative plans did you make last time you considered booking a cruise

Those who have been on a cruise said they found the experience highly satisfying. In fact, among all consumer groups, over 90% of consumers who opted for this mode of vacation indicated that they are likely to continue purchasing these trips. However, Gen Z and millennials typically opt for alternative travel options, highlighting the need for consumer education on the value proposition of the cruise experience — which can improve decision-making and secure brand loyalty.

How did you first discover your preferred cruise line brand chart

Especially in the wake of the pandemic, social media is the key conduit through which younger generations are exposed to travel inspiration and information, such as through peer-to-peer content posted by influencers, our survey confirms. Cruise brands can seize opportunities to create momentum and drive cruise followership with Gen Z through viral trends, as other communities and brands have done.

Such education and marketing campaigns on social media should emphasize peer-to-peer voices and content and be responsive to destination travel influenced by pop culture. This is also an opportunity to double down on other priorities expressed by Gen Z, building on partnerships and accessibility to local businesses and individuals for authentic experiences.


Chapter 3

Smooth out the booking process through digital enablement

Digital transformation has found its way onto C-suite agendas across sectors. Here’s what it looks like for cruise lines.

How did you typically book your cruise

Digital enablement offers the potential to improve customer booking experiences online and drive a greater percentage of demand to book directly with the cruise line while also enabling the trade and travel agent segment to provide more options initially. Our survey showed that over 50% of cruise participants overall book through direct channels or directly through the websites of brands. However, as a disruptor to both the direct booking and trade industry channels, online travel agents (OTAs) are gaining influence in shaping which brands that Gen Z selects, and cruise lines should engage them accordingly. These trends also impact the broader trade industry, including in-person and third-party booking platforms, which have proven to be successful and remain relevant.

Possible pain points from booking directly online should be alleviated as a way to improve the online experience for all customers. Nimble and easy-to-use reservation systems can drive more direct bookings and increase margin, and opportunities include improving reservation systems so that it’s easier to book cabins together, for example. Also, online sites can better enable demand for flexibility, which will continue to dominate company pricing models as customers pay premiums for contingencies.

The following Ernst & Young LLP professionals contributed to this report, Senior Director Andrew Hill, Consultant Melissa Harari and Associate Farid Noori.


The cruise industry has made great strides in catering to the needs of Gen Z and millennials, who are most likely to switch brands that align to their preferences and values. Currently, brands differentiate themselves mainly through the ship itself: itineraries and shore excursions, quality of travel and reputation. In the post-pandemic landscape, the industry should explore greater variety in destinations, all-inclusive shore excursions (focused on cultural balance), and personalized dining and add-ons. Brands should reimagine their offerings and promote them on social media for greater consumer education, as well as seize opportunities to smooth out the online booking process.

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