Student Loan Debt Impacts Travel Habits for Gen Z, Millennials

Beer sloshed down the front of my shirt, which could have been barely a shirt, as I jostled toward the bar. My new friends were ahead of me, and I hoped I wouldn’t lose them in the undulating crowd. It’s 2014, I’ve been in college for a week, and I’m standing in The Red Garter, a bacchanal of a bar in Florence, Italy’s city center. While the bar teems with other study abroad students and young people on gap years and grad trips. The uniting factor is that our Italian isn’t very good, we’re all very drunk, and this isn’t the last time we’ll all be cramped into a hockey watering hole less than a hundred yards from one of the most iconic cultural monuments in the world.

As much as I look back on these moments with a certain amount of horror and embarrassment—three euro vodkas don’t lead to great decision-making skills for anyone, let alone for a nerdy 18-year-old—it’s weird and maybe a bit of a relief to know that this kind of bar crawl tourism, which was so popular when I was in college, is becoming a relic. With the crushing pressure of student loan debt, young Americans haven’t stopped traveling but are changing how they do it.

“We’ve seen a big shift in the last 10 years away from this party-led travel, this hedonistic-style travel to much more strategic, big picture travel,” Will Jones, brand manager at StudentUniverse, told Thrillist. “Gen Z travelers are for the most part increasingly culturally aware, open to more meaningful experiences, and willing to dig a bit deeper into the places they visit.”

Part of this wiser approach to travel behavior comes down to getting good value for their money. My freshman year spent studying abroad, including my room and board and education cost me nearly $500 a day. I grew up poor, so federal student loans and scholarships paid that bill. But a decade and an additional degree later, I now have a triple-digit bill from the government that I’ll be paying once a month until 2048.

Student loan payments cut into disposable income

Student loan payments resumed in October 2023 after a multi-year pause due to the pandemic, and Americans with student loan debt are paying an average of $503 per month. Of the 43.2 million people who have student loan debt, 7 million student debtors are under 24, and 15 million are between 25 and 34.

These often lifelong financial obligations have obviously not stopped young people from traveling. In fact, Gen Z is spending nearly half of their disposable income on travel. This trip is less likely to include bar hopping from one drinking spot to another, though.

According to a recent survey by StudentUniverse, which polled 6,000 young people between 18 and 25, 83% of young people would consider taking a vacation that included drinking no alcohol at all. The same study revealed that partying and clubbing are the lowest priorities for young people—only 21% of young people are interested in boozy activities, compared to 70% who are interested in sightseeing and 68% who are interested in experiencing different cultures.

The crushing weight of student loan debt in the US, which amounts to $1.61 trillion, is a net negative in almost every conceivable way. Student debt disproportionately affects poor and marginalized people and is criticized as a method of social control over these groups. People who hold student debt will have fewer economic opportunities than their debt-free counterparts, even when college is considered a way to navigate themselves into better financial circumstances. As someone who has had many privileges extended to them through their university degrees and is grateful for the experiences that came with the education I received, I still have a hard time feeling like the deal I’ve got is just. The government owns my ass, and I hate it.

A change in how young people travel might be a good thing

Every dark cloud has a silver lining.

“Obviously, yeah, it sucks that people make these huge payments and that’s not fair,” Jones says. But if the financial pressures have one positive, it has created a more conscious young traveler. “They’re much less interested in just going away to basically spend all their money in bars and beach parties.”

The idea of ​​getting trashed on a beach isn’t really appealing when you could have an enriching and potentially life-altering experience by learning and exploring a new culture for the same amount of money. Having done a bit of both, I can agree that there’s merit to this way of thinking. If you’re a young person planning a trip soon—whether it’s a study abroad trip or a vacation—don’t totally 86 a bit of nightlife adventuring, whatever that looks like to you.