Last month, I traveled for eight days with a group of 114 Contiki Vacations passengers through the Eastern Mediterranean, and it gave me an opportunity to see who people in the 18-to-35 market are, what they want and how they travel.
One misconception, said Contiki President Greg Fischbein, "is that Contiki is simply an all-out party. You've got a group of young, predominantly single people together enjoying life-changing travel abroad," he said. "Do they enjoy it louder? Sure. Make no mistake: Our travelers get exactly what they want out of their Contiki trip."
On this trip, a cruise to Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt, there was definitely a fair amount of drinking and partying at the disco onboard Louis Cruises' Cristal ship, but aside from a couple of instances where excess was an issue, it wasn't extreme.
The experience was social, a mix of singles and couples just looking to mix and mingle and make friends or possibly romantic connections in between visiting culturally rich destinations, learning a bit and taking photos to post on Facebook when they got back.
It was also a mix of nationalities, races and ethnicities. Of the 114 travelers, 69 were from the U.S., 24 from Australia, seven from Canada, six from New Zealand, five from South Africa and three from the U.K.
Many had been lured by a recommendation from a friend, the pull of the destinations, the price and convenience of Contiki. But the social connections were what left the strongest impressions of the overall experience.
In interviews with the group's two tour managers, Paola Catalano, 27, and Silvia Filippucci, 29, as well as with several passengers, I attempted to tackle some of the rumors and myths about how this age group travels.
The social aspect is key, Catalano said: "They love the social part, they love meeting new people. They like that it's a lot of single people. You can see here people breaking up, people on honeymoons, getting divorced, best friends ... It's beautiful."
Filippucci said that some travel agents "advertise Contiki like a party tour, which it can be, but it's not always a party tour."
"Of course, if a single traveler comes here and there's no party, then they think they are ripped off. You have to say to the age 18-to-35 [market], it's a good experience but it's not just drinking. It depends on the people who are with you. It could be a very serious group, but they don't care about having a party. Or it could be a mix."
Tarnya, a 31-year-old office manager from Australia traveling with her husband, Rowen, said that the convenience was a big draw. "The fact that everything's organized for you, it sort of keeps you organized."
Despite what people might think, many of the couples on the trip were just as drawn to the idea of meeting new people as singles were. Tarsicio, 27, a correctional officer from Los Angeles who was traveling with his wife, Yasmin, 27, a teacher, said traveling with "people your same age makes it even better for you to meet new people and learn about other cultures."
Yasmin said the initial draw was the itinerary. But in addition to that, "everything's organized for you, so we don't have to deal with that," she said. "From the very beginning you just call, book and just go."
But for others, the chance to meet singles is a definite draw.
"When you're a single girl, it's always in the back of your head," said a 33-year-old doctor from Queens, N.Y.
Added a 35-year-old male teacher from Orange County, Calif., "I didn't think the single thing was a draw for me. But if I knew it was all couples, I wouldn't have been on the trip."
With regard to whether the roommate thing is a major drawback when traveling as a single, he said, "I actually like that a lot because you get to know somebody. To me, the more different they are, the better. I don't want somebody from Orange County."
Though young people seem to have unlimited energy, some were put off by the pace: "I know I signed up for it, but there have been heavy excursions, long days, a lot of walking," said Ernie, 34, a graphic designer from Downey, Calif. "It's been a little heavy, physically speaking. It's also maybe the pace. We have to cram so much in one day."
Young travelers can also be put off by a venue they consider designed for their parents or grandparents.
"I think they should work out a situation with the cruise provider and make the itinerary on the ship a little more friendly to people being social," said Shiraz, 30, a law school graduate from Los Angeles. "Like the fact that the Jacuzzi is only open during daylight hours. People do not want to go in a hot tub when it's 45 Celsius outside with 90% humidity. That makes sense to me, to not keep it open during those hours, and keep it open from 7 to midnight, when people might actually go there."
His cousin, Omar, 25, also a law school graduate from Los Angeles, agreed. "It's a weak ship for the price. ... Price-wise it's more expensive than much better ships."
As for other options attractive to this age group, Omar said, "That's the reason why Contiki is in business. It's not because they have fantastic cruises. It's because they say, 'We're going to put 18-to-35s together.' So, I guess the other option is to go to happy hour with people in that same age range."
And put 18-to-35s together for an extended period of time, and there will be drama. "One couple broke up the second day of the tour," Filippucci said. "This guy was very cute, and of course [he] started flirting with other girls on the tour. I was talking with the poor girlfriend, to [tell her to] try to have fun with other people in the group. I talked to him, as well."
In the end, they got back together, she said.