Why Americans STILL Don’t Travel Overseas

By Nomadic Matt | Published November 5th, 2009

US PassportLast year, I wrote an article about why Americans don’t travel overseas. It still ranks as my most popular post, sparking both agreement and controversy. In an 800 word post that could take up a novel, I tried to explain why Americans don’t travel overseas. Many people agreed with me, many people didn’t. No matter what, we all agreed that Americans should travel more.

The current percentage of Americans that own a passport is now around 21%, up from 15% years ago. Unfortunately, this common statistic is hard to back up as the state department doesn’t really keep records. Yet the number of Americans who traveled overseas has decreased overall since 2006. (Source: OTTI) So why did we all go get passports? Because we are now required to have passports for travel to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In fact, Mexico travel is up while European travel is down. Americans didn’t find a new sense of adventure. They are still not traveling. And the reasons remain the same.

Are Geography and Cost really relevant?
Many people countered my argument by saying that geography and cost were big factors but if cost and geography played a role in determining where you traveled, no one would ever travel. Yet New Zealand is the middle of nowhere and how many more Kiwis do you meet traveling than Americans? How many more Aussies? Poverty is poverty. No matter where you are in the world, if you don’t have money, you don’t travel. But is it that much more expensive to fly from America? Nope! A flight from LAX to BKK is $787 dollars. A flight from London to BKK is $654. A flight from Sydney to BKK is $794. Americans bear no extra cost burden relative to the rest of the world.

And the geography argument? Well, I’ll get to that one in a second.

Fear, Awareness, and Priorities
The reasons why Americans don’t travel overseas can be mostly explained by one thing: cultural ignorance. Many people in the previous post assumed I meant Americans were stupid. I wasn’t implying that. Americans are ignorant in that they don’t know about the world. We all have seen the Jay walking clips and the skits on TV where Americans can’t name foreign leaders or countries. Moreover, as education budgets continue to get slashed, humanity courses are usually the first to go meaning people learn very little world history. In some states, the whole world has to be explained in one year. Additionally, surveys show that news agencies devoted only 10.3% to foreign coverage in 2008 (source) while oddly, 13% went to some polygamy case in Texas. Americans are simply not told about the world or clamoring to know about it.

And why should they be? Politicians and media paint the world as a scary place, filled with crime, hate, terrorists. Bill O’Reilly, a man who clearly has never been to Amsterdam, has called that city a cesspool. (Twice!) My mother constantly tells me when I go anywhere in the world to “be careful” as if the world is a big scary place. Many of my old co-workers do the same. We are constantly told that there is great anti-Americanism in the world- wherever you go, people will dislike you. (A fallacy that is rarely disproven in media). Moreover, America’s hegemony since WW2 has ensured that we have been the dominant force in the world. Despite the rise of China, Brazil, and India, our politicians tell us everything in America is the best (yet #38 in health care). Countries will always do what we want. America is the leader. We are the city upon a hill. And when you are the best, why go to “godforsaken” countries where they hate you for being American and might rob you?

Stamps are something most Americans don't haveAnd this is why geography does play a role in why Americans don’t travel. It’s not that America’s size makes travel prohibitive, its size is important because people feel there is no reason to leave. We don’t need to travel to “big scary places” when we have deserts, tropical islands, mountains, endless summer, wilderness, snow, and more. Every landscape can be found within America’s large borders. You can have everything you want here. A friend from Iowa once joined me in Thailand. When she told her co-workers about it, their response was “Thailand? Where is that? Why would you go there? If you want a beach, go to Florida.”

Lastly, travel is often viewed as a sign of weakness. Americans typically get about two weeks of travel per year. Overseas, the average is about 4-5 weeks, not including sick leave. So time is a major factor. It makes more sense to fly to Australia for 3 weeks than it does for 1. But there is more to it than that. Travel is not a priority here. In the trade off between time and money, Americans choose work and money. While I was home, there was a story on TV about how there is a growing trend to take only ONE week of vacation. Two consecutive weeks is considered too many. It’s a sign that your work isn’t important, you aren’t a team player, or you are lazy. Workers are made to feel guilty about leaving. And, in this tough job market, no one wants to seem less than 110% committed.

Why the majority of Americans don’t travel abroad is a complex issue that is more cultural than anything else. Geography and cost are minor issues when compared with the importance we give work and isolation. As I said last year, and have expanded upon here, Americans don’t travel because we are simply uninformed about the world and told that we don’t need to be- it’s scary out there, go to Florida with your one week instead.

Change?
Last year, I had said I had seen signs of hope that this will change. Younger people are more engaged and more interested in the world. The internet has made people more at ease meeting people around the world. But the cultural forces pushing against them are strong. A weak economy, a weak dollar, and a weakening US have seemed to make America more isolationist. I don’t know the future. But I do know that right now, Americans still aren’t traveling overseas. And, sadly, that won’t change any time soon.

comments 96 Comments

I can say from experience that a goodly number of people in the Midwest don’t travel overseas because they either believe the Fox-hype that the foreigners will try to pull one over on them, feel that they can get everything they need in more either a few counties over or at Disneyworld, or simply don’t have the money to make it to the coast, much less across the ocean.

Which is sad, because a big part of why there is so much widespread and easily-stoked ignorance in the Midwest is that few people there get out and get the truth. Then, because of this ignorance, fewer people feel the need to.

It’s a vicious cycle and one that I don’t see ending soon unless Dobbs goes on TV and declares France to be a new American tourist Mecca, complete with all-you-can-eat specials, Budlight and Superbowl Sunday EVERY day.

Dalia

You can’t generalize! For my 16th birthday I chose to go to France not a sweet 16… For my honeymoon I visited 20 countries… My hubby and I are as Kansas as they get.

Nice observations!
I always thought it was unusual that despite the large population of America and the not so large population of New Zealand and the Scandanavian countries, I always meet a lot more people from the later than the former when traveling, especially for SE Asia.
Silly Americans have absolutely no idea of what they are missing out on.

I think just saying its due to fear and lack of desire about the outside world is a bit simplistic.

Australians travel because we get holidays, and because its culturally acceptable (and in some cases expected) that we travel. Many employers in Australia would look at a resume with a 1-year gap and understand that travel is part of a learning process. Many actually encourage it. The perception I have of American employers is that they’d look at this as a sign that someone is unpredictable and maybe a work-shy layabout.

We (yes I’m an Aussie) get a minimum of 4-weeks holidays each year on top of public holidays – in the US its often only 2 weeks.

In that situation I can understand why Americans don’t travel more. What I can’t understand is why Americans don’t stand up to “the man”, and how you can handle getting by with so little free time.

I couldn’t agree more. I travel a lot, but never was asked about the gaps between jobs in my cv/resume during interviews in OZ or NZ, but in Canada (I am sure in States would be the same) usually took 5-10 minutes to explain it andnot many appreciated such life style.

We don’t stand up to the man for several reasons

#1 Many people think this is the way it should be and would have no idea what to do with a 4 weeks vacation or a year off. In fact we are so work addicted that if people aren’t working for any length of time, people in this country get angry enough to be violent. Witness ammunition sales

#2 We can and will be easily laid off or replaced and are one paycheck from ruin anyway. The US has some shreds of a social welfare system but is not a Social Democracy

#3 The “man” owns our government, all parties, most media and almost all candidates. This makes normal political action useless. Protests are ignored and votes are stolen

#4 We have little in common with each other anyway and that makes it hard to agree on anything . Outside the work sphere life and values are so radically different sphere that this might as well be five or six countries.

Ding ding ding, we have a winner here I believe.

I do still think that vacation time has a huge amount to do with it. And sure you can spin that as somewhat of a choice, but it’s not really; it’s an institutional choice that many of us don’t get a say in. Sure, you could demand more, but chances are you won’t get it, and especially in today’s economy where people are begging for jobs period, most people aren’t going to pass up a paying job because the vacation time is too short. It’s a sad state of affairs that businesses haven’t become more enlightened, haven’t seen that we aren’t any more productive because we spend more time in the office. I don’t know how to change that though. We can’t all be self-employed (especially if we don’t get some kind of health care reform!).

We love to travel obviously but with real jobs and limited vacation time, I can say that you probably won’t see us packing up to go halfway around the world on most of our upcoming vacations. You just lose so much time in the travel and so many of those places demand more than a week’s stay. I can understand why Americans chose to vacation in Mexico and the Caribbean; you just need a few hours to get there, meaning most of your vacation is available for vacation, not travel. I think the more people do travel, the more they’ll see that the pain of getting somewhere can be worth it, even for a short trip, but we generally don’t give people the time they need to discover that in the first place.

Time is a factor. Like I said, it doesn’t make sense to fly all the way to Australia for a week but Europe is just as close form the east coast as California and from Cali, Central America is only a few hours away.

Aiko

I’m not sure I wouldn’t go so far to say there’s widespread fear of traveling abroad. Like you mentioned, I think priorities, pressure from work, and just thinking it’s not in the realm of possibility are the main reasons.

Even though I was raised in the midwestern US (where many of my acquaintances hadn’t even traveled out of state!), I was lucky enough to have grandparents who were travelers and parents who encouraged traveling. I caught the travel bug early. My family was not as well to do as most of my peers, and yet somehow we were able to travel more than they did.

During college, I did a fair bit of traveling, but after college that ended and I was always itching to go overseas. For me, time was the main factor. My two weeks of vacation were eaten up by visiting my family who are inconveniently (though sometimes conveniently) scattered around the country.

Incidentally, I’ve been teaching in Japan for a couple years and now that I have school holidays, I have more time, although it’s usually during peak season and Japan isn’t a cheap place to travel in or from. Here, I haven’t run into anti-American sentiment, but I’ve found that most Japanese people think America is a dangerous place; that it’s not safe to walk down the street. I’m crusading to bust the myth.

Krista

You hit the nail on the head with “cultural ignorance.” I live next door in Canada, though only some of you have heard of us, and I’m constantly surprised by Americans’ obliviousness about the rest of the world.

True story: I was at the Louvre last week and encountered a group of American tourists. While I give them credit for leaving the country, I overhead one woman say, “They have a statue called Venus de Milo here. It’s famous. I don’t know why, but we should probably go see it.”

… ok just re-read your article and noticed that you mention the holidays ;)

Love the follow-up to the post Matt.

It’s not just American media that’s trying to keep people in a state of fear, the idea of the world being a dangerous place has begun to be seen here in Canada as well. Statistically Canadians do travel more often, however I’ve noticed that same perception when I come home from overseas travel – kind of a shock and awe- some people accept it, some are jealous, others (including some of my own family) dismiss it as a waste of time & money. “You should be working on your career….Earning a living, etc”

The one thing I noticed while traveling overseas was how location specific this “state of fear” has been taking hold. I lost count of how many people from Vancouver, Toronto, & Montreal I met, a sign that they aren’t letting the media have a say in their habits. However I rarely ran into people from parts of Western and Central Canada (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Western Ontario, etc) When asking some of my own friends from those areas, none of them seem to have an interest in traveling overseas. The common answer was “Why would I leave, I’ve got everything I need here, good job, friends, good economy” – Their vacation time consists of a 1 week all inclusive vacation to Mexico. To each their own I guess, but it is awfully depressing to see such a lack of global interest in people my own age.

Matt! I love these articles, I really do :D The highpoint of my RSS feed today (and I have way too many subscriptions!)
As Holgs said above, I think European/Australian etc. culture encourages the gap year a lot more. Language is also a big issue; in Ireland for example you cannot even study at university unless you have two non-English languages up to a decent level (Irish Gaelic and usually French or German); the latter language because we as a small country and economy depend on our neighbours, who speak other languages. The importance of English for foreigners means that not having travelled, especially to an English speaking country, for a medium-term stay, leaves a huge gap on your CV and job prospects. This argument doesn’t work for Australia/NZ though, since they don’t depend on neighbouring countries as much as we do in Europe. In that case the gap year may be encouraged for personal development purposes as you said. Sadly, America seems to focus more on professional development instead. So it may just be cultural. I was amazed by the “cultural ignorance” of non-travelled Americans in the 9 months that I was there… and that was in California and NY…
One thing that is more universal though; my mother also constantly tells me to “be careful” when going to all these ‘dangerous’ countries. That’s also a generation issue, not so much a cultural one. For the record, that’s not just Americans, almost all mothers do that ;)

I think it all starts with education. With no emphasis on learning a foreign language, or learning about world history, how can we expect people to know or care about other parts of the world? Why go to all these places you know nothing about?

Stephen

What a well written article… I really enjoyed the read. I agree with you 100% you have no idea how many people get into arguments with me about the same subject matter. I for one have not traveled nearly as much as you but I’m definetly going to get there. This year alone I have been to 6 countries (Domincan Republic, Enlgand, Irelan, Peru, Argentina and Brazil). If people were less concerned with the idea of money and just more open minded about what’s in the world they would see that there isn’t a price tag that can be put on the experiences had on these trips. Another thing that one does to limit their experience is the (All Inclusive) way of traveling which really isn’t traveling its a vacation that isn’t really worth the $$$.

I am far from a history buff and never really enjoyed the subject being taught in school, but upon touching down in an unfamiliar place with the limited knowledge gained from google; I gain a history lesson like no book could ever give. To hear someone talk about their country with the love and passion means so much more than you can ever get from anything in pictures. Seriously, how does one really describe a place like Machu Picchu to another who has never been there? You simply can’t put an actual mind blowing experience in words.

I love how you touched upon “If you want a beach, go to Florida.” This is something I have a lot of debates with because I think Florida is completely overrated being from the Caribbean. I refuse to even step one foot in a beach here in the US. I have been pampered with amazing beaches to settle for less and I know when I hit Thailand that I will be blown away even further.

I only wish I could travel more and till this day refuse to take a vacation day unless im heading on a flight somewhere…

All in all great post Thank You.

Pamela

A great article. Travel has been my passion ever since I went to Switzerland at the age of 16. The experience opened my eyes to so many new and wonderful things. Three years later I got a job in Germany, learned the language and saw some of the country, then landed a job in a travel agency in London specializing in ski vacations. I should add I’m English so we are more open to travel because I think it is easier and cheaper in that we are so close to other European countries, Scandinavia, etc. Also, our histories have been intertwined over the centuries so this is a crucial part of our education. The US does have wonderful places to visit and let’s face it, flying is torture these days. I am literally in pain after a long flight! And those security lines, with armed guards, barked orders to remove shoes, put computers in bins, etc. etc., confiscated goods, hey, the rules change daily, hourly, who knows what to expect! I do believe if airlines treated passengers like special welcome guests (as on luxury cruise lines) with friendly words, decent food, room to move, fresh air circulation, a lot more Americans would travel and those that do would travel more. Notwithstanding the foregoing, I’m traveling to New Zealsnd soon to visit my son and his wife who have very sensibly sailed there on their 41ft ketch. Can I plug BBC World News? Or any other European TV news station – they have world news, news of important happenings all over. Thanks again for a great article.

Vake

Education budgets are NOT getting continually slashed. Education spending per pupil has soared over the past 40 years. This is a nice myth propagated courtesy of teachers unions.

http://www.aei.org/issue/20303

That study uses absolute numbers but doesn’t seem to factor in inflation, GDP, or cost of living. So yes the real number has increased but that is like saying food is more expensive now than it was when my grandmother bought her dollar worth of groceries even though as a percentage of income, people actually spend less on food now. Here you go on:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23116409/
http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jan/30/local/me-rally30
http://www.stateline.org/live/details/story?contentId=86486
http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/michigan/news.newsmain/article/0/7/1568572/Education/Emergency.Meeting.on.State.Education.Budget.Cuts.

It depends, if you lesson to Lou Dobbs thats right, but if you lesson to my wife, a teacher in public school, the story is different than what you believe.

“I love how generalized people from the U.S. are! Man, they are so stupid for not traveling!” That way of thinking is incredibly ignorant. The United States of America is a massive country so I can understand the want to discover the incredible diversity that the U.S. has to offer. Sure, the U.S. has a common language but if you were to visit Maine, then New Mexico, then Kansas, then Arkansas, then Oregon, then Michigan you would say to yourself “Am I still in the same country?”

If people don’t want to travel abroad then who cares, it is none of my business how one wants to spend his or her life. It isn’t my job to say to people, “traveling abroad was a great experience for me so YOU should do the same!” Because they don’t think like me doesn’t make me better or less ignorant then they are.

A former co-worker of mine has only been to two countries outside of the U.S. – Perú and the U.K. and people gave him shit for only having two stamps in his passport. But this man completed what is known in the backpacking community (not “hostel hopping” community) the “Triple Crown” meaning he has hiked from the Mexican border into Canada twice via Continental Divide Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and the International Appalachian Trail (Georgia to Canada) taking him about four and a half months each to achieve. I guarantee that he has more travel experience then a European “hostel hopper” with a 95L backpack buried in a Lonely Planet guide book. I love those people that claim, for example, that they’ve been to 33 countries but when you ask them how much time they’ve spent in each country it is often only a few days to a few weeks in “backpacker” hostels. Sure, he or she has the stamps but only skimmed through the countries in order to say, “Look at me! Look which countries I’ve visited!”.

I used to have that state of mind while hitchhiking at the age of 19 from La Guajira, Colombia to Buenos Aires, Argentina (it took me 13 months to complete). I used to believe that those whom didn’t travel abroad were more ignorant than I was. But with time I had realized that I was ignorant for generalizing entire peoples and thinking that my lifestyle was for everyone.

Best of luck on all of your travels. Remember, the more stamps one has in his passport doesn’t necessarily signify more impressive experiences.

I was wondering when I’d get a comment that would imply I’m some elitist…..

For starters, I hope people explore the US. It’s beautiful. Secondly, I’m not people are saying they are stupid (ie dumb) for not traveling overseas or should lead a life exactly like mine because it is ohh so great. In fact, I don’t care if you do- whether you backpack, flashpack, take a tour, drive an RV, cruise, or whatever- all I want to see is that more people travel! Why?

Because, forgetting the social benefits of knowing where people coming from and the politics of understanding, the US is not competitive when we just ignore the rest of the world. The world is globalized and we helped make it that way and now we see the rise of these countries and we don’t know what to do. People above mentioned education- I am for mandatory learning of at least 1 language and at least 2 years of world history. Why? Because how can we do business with the world and remain competitive on a global scale, when we have no understanding of the world and 6 in 10 Americans still can’t point to Iraq on a map!

Also, read my past posts- I hate stamp collectors. Traveling to a place for 3 days is not traveling to a place, like you said, it is getting a stamp. I am all about slow travel. Spend more time in a place to get to know it. Fast travel is just about getting stamps and pictures and meaningless.

You inferred a lot from my arguments about issues I didn’t even talk about but since you brought them up, that is what I have to say.

What’s wrong with stamp collecting? Quick travel isn’t really my thing either, but if that’s what floats your boat why not?

Having said that I still find it irritating when people count the Vatican city as a “country” to add to their tally!

@Kevin… hope you’re enjoying Medellin – thought I recognised that name!

It is an interesting topic, and one I can only contribute as a kiwi. NZers do travel a lot but this has been a large part of our psyche. The big OE was built into NZers as we grew up, our parents travelled and often grandparents etc. I left NZ when I was 19 and ended up in London doing what most Kiwis and Ozzies did. Americans have a very different outlook on life compared with other peoples which will take time to change. Although I haven’t meet many US travellers on my trips, I have come across a large number of US expats, so maybe people aren’t travelling but choosing to live abroad instead.

Pay

I’d say there’s a prevailing ignorance about the power of poverty in this country. “Poverty is poverty.” That’s a little oversimplified isn’t it? Look at Katrina. Look at how many poor people were displaced and don’t have two cents to rub together. That’s the face of America, and that’s why no one can afford to travel. Many people are struggling just to make ends meet. You can’t compare us to Sweden. It DOES cost more to travel from the U.S. and it DOES cost more to live in the U.S. and they don’t have as many social and other problems such as poverty, immigration, health care… There is no ONE factor here that answers the question of why Americans don’t travel abroad as much as other countries.

Actually, I can and will compare to Sweden. Sweden is ridiculously expensive. My Swedish friends love the fact that when they go to the US, everything they have is so cheap. Swedes pay between 40-60% of their income in taxes plus a 10% VAT on purchases. Granted, it is much cheaper than Olso but still expensive, especially for food. Sweden doesn’t have those problems you mentioned because they not to have those problems.

and as my numbers suggest above, it does NOT cost more to travel outside the US. Go to expedia, search a bunch of cities, you’ll prices are relatively the same or cheaper.

But I do agree with you on one point: It is a combination of factors that cause this.

This is an interesting topic and a lot of great points have been discussed so far. While my travel has not been extensive, I have traveled several times to other countries and I fully intend to continue to travel. I used to fall into that category of not having much vacation time and I think this is a major reason why people don’t travel. I worked in the corporate world and my three weeks of vacation time had to be carefully allotted for the entire year (and had to account for unexpected sick days). With limited vacation time, I still chose to travel abroad (learning immediately that one week in Fiji is not enough!) I was that person that started taking two weeks off and got a lot of grief from coworkers about taking too much time away from the office. I was always amazed at those who could not understand why I would want to travel overseas. And, I still don’t understand, really.

What bothers me more now, though, is not just the lack of travel overseas, but even just the lack of travel in our own country. Earlier this year, my husband and I sold the majority of our belongings and packed up the rest in an Airstream travel trailer and set off to explore the US. I spent so many years wanting to leave the country to see other cultures, that I never really took the time to see my own country. My husband is fortunate enough to have a job that allows this freedom. I had to go the unemployment route ( but we make it work. And, I must say, we live in an impressive country. So, while I would encourage more Americans to travel abroad and learn about different cultures, I would also encourage Americans to stop going to the same condo at the same beach every year and check out what the rest of this country has to offer. (I’m originally from the south and nearly everyone goes to the same Florida beach every summer!) I hope that when I have children, I instill in them a desire to travel, learn about new places, and see the world!

America is a beautiful country and driving across it a few years ago, really amazed me. I agree that time is an issue but if you can fly 6 hours to California, you can fly to Europe. It’s hard to travel when the bossman says you only get a week. That being said, even in that week most people now seem to prefer the “staycation” than even traveling around the US.

Maybe my experience was unusual, but in nearly seven months of travelling in Central & South America, I met more Americans than I did any other nationality apart from Brits – and by quite some margin, I reckon.

Alecsa Variny

I believe that the language barrier is a huge factor why so many Americans don’t travel oversees. In a country where the concept of “foreign language” in the school system does not exist, why would foreign travel have any success?

Totally agree. With no emphasis on the rest of the world, why would people even care to travel there? Moreover, beyond the social benefit, how can we expect the US to be a global player and stay economically competitive when most people can’t even point out China on a map. World knowledge and understanding not only helps society it helps the economy.

I say is a combination of all of the above.

Americans tend to be more career-oriented, more keeping up with the Joneses. Would I say we are more materialistic? Absolutely. Travel for many is deemed frivolous. If it does not line my pockets with money or make me look/feel/smell better than the next person, it is not worthwhile.

Maybe we can change that, one person at a time…

As a Canadian, I think that school costs might have something to do with it. I was educated in Canada and my law school tuition was $3500 a year. When I quit to travel the world my US colleagues were dumbfounded; they were still paying off thousands and thousands of dollars in debt. While I agree that many other socio-economic factors are relevant, it’s important not to discount the staggering cost of tuition.

Jen

Just the other day, I was saying to a Brazilian friend, “Why don’t more of your countrymen go out and explore the world? Aren’t you guaranteed four weeks of vacation? Maybe Brazil could pull itself out of third-world status if only your ignorant citizens stopped wasting their precious money on such frivolities as food, housing, medical care, education for their children, and transportation to their jobs that don’t pay much and instead focused on expanding their horizons by meditating in a yurt in Mongolia.”

It sounds less rational to make that argument when you replace it with almost any other nationality, doesn’t it? Why do you think Americans aren’t affected by the same factors that prevent the majority of people from extensively traveling outside their home country? Sure, there are Americans who uninterested in or scared of the rest of the world or who want a tidy, homogenized experience when traveling, but those kind of people exist everywhere.

Americans are often underpaid and overworked in comparison to their foreign counterparts, they have expenses that those living in countries with socialist policies rarely have to worry about, and they likely have personal responsibilities that are simply higher in priority than traipsing off to Bangkok to get a US$10 foot massage from a young woman who works 15 hours or more each day (and does things other than foot massages) to support her entire family back in her rural village.

Travel is a luxury and a privilege, and for people like you and me, a hobby or a lifestyle. It’s no different than those who restore classic cars or spend hours each day playing WoW. I’d consider it a waste of my time, but they’re no less legitimate choices. I know it’s difficult for you to imagine, but some people aren’t interested in traveling and still others find the whole experience stressful rather than relaxing or enlightening.

You say that there’s been an uptick in Americans applying for passports because “we are now required to have passports for travel to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.” So, Canada, Mexico and Caribbean countries aren’t “foreign” enough for you? They don’t have sufficient history or culture to pass your rigorous testing for what counts as “traveling abroad”? Is it because they’re in close proximity to the US or because you think you know better than everyone else as to what constitutes meaningful travel?

I know plenty of Europeans who rarely leave their own countries, and when they do, it’s usually to a nearby country that is easily accessible via car, train or a budget airline. And when they do leave Europe, they tend to spend much of their time in hostels and clubs partying.

I’ve lived outside of the US for more than three years, and I’ve found that because it’s such a sacrifice money-and-time-wise for Americans to travel and because most are aware of and fearful of embodying the “Ugly American” stereotype, they’re more likely to take time to appreciate what a country has to offer. If you really think non-Americans view travel as some kind of mystical retreat, you’ve obviously never been surrounded by Australians, Brits and Germans at a beach resort in Thailand.

And to Stephen, who thinks he’s going to be blown away by Thai beaches, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but… they’re no Caribbean beaches.

I disagree- Thai beaches are better…..you just got to go to places away from the huge development….Ko Tarutao park for example.

I answered some of this in my response to “kevin post” but continuing… Never once did I say travel was some mystical experience. I’ve been around plenty of annoying drunk aussies and brits in Thailand…I’ve lived there for many years. I was simply staying why Americans as a whole travel overseas less….I don’t care if Americans go on some mystical retreat or take a cruise or join a rick steve’s tour….I just want people to travel more.

And as I said before, poor is poor. Poor people from around the world who can’t afford to send their kids to college aren’t going to be traveling around the world but that doesn’t make travel some privilege or elitist thing. I believe Sarah Palin used that argument to explain why she never got a passport. It’s a false argument. If you can afford to fly the family to Canada or Hawaii, you can afford to fly them to Europe or Central America.

What I gather from most of your argument is that “Travel is a privilege, a hobby that most people don’t care about or think is important.” Which is why most of my Americans friends say “I would love to travel more.” But they don’t because they believe it to be grossly expensive (it is not) and have no knowledge of the world so would rather go to some place they know.

You mention Mexico/Canada/Caribbean and if they aren’t foreign enough. Yes, they are foreign countries in the sense they aren’t the US but they are so institutionalized in American travel that Americans have really Americanized those places they go to in those countries. Cancun, Cozumel, Cabo- these aren’t Mexico. They are resorts. The Bahamas is about as foreign as Miami. When I mean “foreign” I mean places far away like Africa, South America, Asia, Australia…even that study by the government tourism office distinguishes Canada/Mexico travel from foreign travel.

The myth of the ugly American and that Americans are hated are simply that myths- in fact the worst western tourists in the world were the French not the Americans. (http://current.newsweek.com/budgettravel/2008/06/survey_hoteliers_pick_the_worl.html)

To sum this all up: Travel is some not luxurious privilege. If you think that, then you are traveling in some sort of luxury that even people like me can’t afford. You can travel very cheaply if you know where to look for deals, which is why my website exists- I am trying to show people you can travel cheap. Because you can. Even if you aren’t rich. Yes, the guy that is on unemployment can’t take a holiday to France but neither can the person doing the same in England or living in a favella in Brazil.

Stellar post, sir. :) And brave, because there will be folk that will deliberately misinterpret what you’re saying (“Americans are stooopid???”) so they can have a nice conservative flamey rant.

You’re absolutely right. It’s not about intelligence, it’s about insularity. I’m a big believer that those who shout the loudest have seen the least. It’s easy to have a fanatical opinion when you’ve failed to grasp the breadth and complexity of the argument. This is why Bill O’Reilly is popular: it’s lazy, insular thinking, stringing together thoughts of least resistance, without any distracting challenging of assumptions. It’s reassuring and comforting, but breeds arrogance and dumb behaviour.

Travel is all about seeing that nothing in this world is clear-cut. Most of your assumptions melt like ice-cubes under a blowtorch. For this reason, it’s a powerful tool for our brains to use, whatever we do in life. We’re built to thrive on variety. We’re *fixed* by variety. We improve as a social species.

America is the example here, but I’d certainly include the UK too. The political rise of the British National Party, coupled with the whole “Brits on the p***” resort culture that is still strong….it reeks of ignorance and arrogance. Very worrying.

I love this post. I agree that the reasons are many, and think lack of holiday time and the idea that America is best are huge driving factors. It can’t possibly be the money, as we continue to be one of the richest nations in the world. We’re just too concerned with a bigger house and cooler car to spend our money on travel.

I think we need to start teaching our young children about all the world has to offer, and make it sound exciting rather than scary to travel!

Abi

Well, anytime anyone tries to talk about nationalities in general they run into trouble. At some point you have to generalize – and obviously that’s no good, because every nation is made up of a diverse bunch of people so you can’t possibly cover them all. That said, I’m about to generalize…

I would guess that the theme underlying all of this is not so much that Americans don’t travel as much as other folk do, but that they seem to have less of an idea about what’s going on the world – and yet they’re the ones in charge. Take the following examples…

1)”Americans are often underpaid and overworked in comparison to their foreign counterparts…”

2)“Poverty is poverty.” That’s a little oversimplified isn’t it? Look at Katrina. Look at how many poor people were displaced and don’t have two cents to rub together. That’s the face of America, and that’s why no one can afford to travel.”

3)”Oh, you’re from England! Is that in London?”
4) “My mother cried when I told her I was going to Africa. She said it was the dark continent and that I’d never come back.”

5) And finally, Sarah Palin.

Let’s look a little closer at those…

1) I’m not sure which foreign counterparts you’re talking about here. Surely not the children sold into slavery across the world, those working in sweatshops or even moving rapidly up the ranks to doctors, dentists and actors in Europe? Let us know who you had in mind otherwise there’s a danger that it sounds like you mean that Americans are worse off than most people in the world…if that’s the case then I can happily break it to you that they’re not. By a long, long way.

2) Hurricane Katrina was awful. Let’s just get that out of the way at the start. Yet this comment seems to imply that this natural disaster explains why “no-one” in America can travel – because they only have two cents to rub together. I watched the Katrina coverage with refugees from the Sudan, Nigeria and Croatia – and they were all stunned that the victims received so MUCH aid and shocked by how angry people were that they didn’t get more. I’m not taking a stand here on how the disaster was managed or meaning to minimize the nightmare it must have been for the people involved – just illustrating that things are a lot worse in the rest of the world.

3) Just in case you thought I was getting too serious by now…yes, it’s true. I’ve met a lot of Americans who don’t know where, who or what England is. I’m slightly frightened, since England’s supposed to be an ally and is in G8 and all…but then…do I know the capital of Chad? Can I tell you the name of the president of Guatemala without the help of Google? Absolutely not. So I’m just as bad. Actually, it’s probably not fair that people expect more from Americans – we know your language, your leaders and your scenery from Hollywood ;) You have no such luck.

4) Although this comment surprised me at the time – I’ve got to agree with Benny. Most mothers cry and worry when their children travel ;)

5) Can’t bring myself to write about her.

Would travelling more change any of this? Maybe yes, maybe no. Personally, I’m less bothered about whether or not people travel but I AM bothered when people don’t seem to realise that life goes on outside the borders of their own country with any kind of realistic perspective – particularly when they’re the ones voting for the government that sets the world’s agenda. See, I don’t get to vote for the US president (and leader of the world stage). All I can do is leave comments on a blog ;)

Thanks Matt for the chance to respond to the comments on your blog – even though they’ve veered away from your original post. Curse you, however, for drawing me in here! I’ve got other work to be getting on with y’know!

Tonya

For me it’s just time and money. It’s not ignorance. It’s not fear. Any areas I’m afraid of I’d avoid, but I’m not afraid of everywhere outside of the US. It’s time and money. Plus, there is so much I want to see in the US, as well. You are right that we have amazing things here and I have a desire to see my own backyard as much as other countries (I consider Canada part of my own backyard). So really, it’s time and money and being able to do it all, everything I want, which includes both exploring this amazing country as well as others. But believe me, I’m trying to work some foreign travel in. If we were self-employed and had enough money to be responsible at home as well as travel extensively, you’d see me on a plane to Europe immediately. I’m working on it.

What a brilliant, articulate article. So often I’ve had discussions with fellow Americans about traveling more and one of the common responses is that he or she has no desire to travel outside of the U.S.A. and in the same breath will express the view that there is so much to see in ones own country. I have friends who have no desire whatsoever to see other countries which I have never been able to comprehend. Why limit yourself to one culture?

Interesting piece with a lot of good arguments, many of which I agree with on a general basis.

On a personal level, money does play a big role, as does the size and scope of the U.S. I’ve been overseas several times (and would love to go again!), but a recent trip to Colorado, where I had never been before, reminded me that I haven’t yet seen most of the U.S. Even that has a high cost to it at times since I don’t travel alone (I travel w/my husband). Getting together the money for the cost of two is, well, double the expense. There are, as you pointed out, the time constraints as well. That leads to a Catch-22 wherein we would love to travel more but to have the money to travel involves working which means taking whatever vacation time we get. (I wish we had a more European attitude towards work and vacation, by the way. 2 weeks is not enough. I can’t imagine going to 1 week!)

Jan

Well, if the world has a bad optinion about people from the US, then that should be the best argument to travel more. I have to say sometimes i fall for this bullshit of stereotypes, but i only need to meet one decent person to be reminded of this stupid prejudice. How can the world chance it’s optinion if you guys just stay at home?
I notices that many US citizen relocate for living. Maybe It’s either stay at home of move everything. All or nothing :)

Todd Posey

Very well thought out article. I think this is the golden nugget:

“Why the majority of Americans don’t travel abroad is a complex issue that is more cultural than anything else. Geography and cost are minor issues when compared with the importance we give work and isolation.”

I’m sure there is some truth to the “world is a scary place” argument, but I have not come across that in my personal experience.

I have been to New Zealand on more than one occasion and have made friends there. I also worked in a tourist town, where I got to meet and converse with Europeans. I agree that it is largely cultural; Americans take “vacations”, while Europeans take “holidays” (in New Zealand, this was described locally as a “tikki tour”. These cultures encourage seeing the world and experiencing other cultures; American culture is more about having an experience, and because of that, I think it’s more a function of convenience (a staple of American culture) than fear that keeps most of them stateside. Obtaining a passport is actually an investment of time and resources that I think many American travelers see as unnecessary work and expense.

As you say, there are more diverse options within our own country than can be seen in one lifetime. And I don’t think you can rule out that the percentage of general advertising for overseas destinations is minute compared to how many times one sees a Disney ad or something promoting tourism within a person’s own state. This also would align with the idea that what is made easy for an American is likely to be a preferred option.

I would also add that American families grow up with an expectation to have an annual vacation. Other cultures do not have that expectation, and are therefore willing to wait longer and thus save more money towards an extended trip abroad. Most Americans could not fathom a vacation longer than a week away from the “daily grind”, for fear of becoming behind in their work. Americans play hard, whereas other cultures around the world live at a different pace, and this too is reflected in their leisure habits.

I believe Americans can learn a lot from their overseas counterparts in terms of how to relax, and how to partake of life. But it’s hard to miss something when you don’t know what you’re missing. It just may be that the American “style” of vacationing fits best within the overall American lifestyle, and the way Europeans and others travel is a function of their overall lifestyles as well.

Nice article.

Yeah, its an interesting topic… It’s so sad how little time people get to themselves in America. Vacation time is a joke, and I agree that it can be frowned upon by coworkers/employers if you’re wanting to take too much at once… and when you only get x days, you want to make the most of it by traveling somewhere a bit closer.

I hate that aspect of American culture. What I really think is funny is that – being someone who hasn’t even been home in over a year now – my parents have never even been out of the country… OR HAVE PASSPORTS. wtf?

Hi Matt, here is an interesting stat – there have been over 6 million overseas trips taken by Australians this year (I’m one of them!) out of a population of 21 million. http://ow.ly/15ZSGS

Most of the Yanks (slang for Americans) I do meet overseas travelling (except for the frat party boys) all want to have experiences and have the same experience-seeking mindset like the rest of us travellers, and it’s hard to pigeon-hole all Americans as non-travellers!

I also find that the more I learn about other countries, the more I learn about my own.

Tim

Matt –

Your post brings up some interesting points, however, I disagree with your analysis due to the assumptions you make and your use of a subjective term like “cultural ignorance”.

I have written up why I disagree with your analysis.

Additionally, it would have been interesting for you to include a call to action or recommendations on how Americans can be less “culturally ignorant” and would have strengthened your case.

I do want to thank you for bringing this issue back up, however, I disagree with your analysis that it comes down just to “cultural ignorance”.

Great article! There are many reasons as to why Americans tend not to travel abroad and I think you’ve covered all of them.

To be honest, I find it kind of sad. People who never leave their own country are really missing out on fantastic experiences. Meeting new people, learning about the history of other countries, experiencing different cultures, enjoying great and unusual food etc. It all broadens your mind and opens your eyes to the real world, not just the comfort of your own back yard.

I´m Brazilian but lived in the US for over 10 years and I must agree with you about ignorance. Most Americans didn´t know much about my country, thought Buenos Aires was a Brazilian city, thought I spoke Spanish or thought I lived in the Amazon… :/
Traveling around the world I have come across other Americans that knew a bit more about my country and had a better idea about world geography.

olliereed

Brilliant topic..are you still taking comments ?? I have a milion, especially at the Americans (not the ones from the blue states )seeming lack of intellectuall curiosity and incorrect assumptions about others.
Frank

Anne

I have to disagree with your analysis of Americans being “culturally ignorant”. I’m an American who was in the military for a long time (I also traveled overseas prior to that time) and have traveled (and also lived) in a number of countries, much of which was paid for by myself once I was stationed overseas (i.e. going to China while being stationed in Japan, etc). In fact, one of the reasons why I joined the military was to have the opportunity to travel. Now that I am out of the military and live in the U.S., although I am “very” inclined to travel overseas and have on several occasions to Russia, North Africa, England, and France, a number of factors persuade me to think otherwise and cost is the numero uno of them all. For instance, in my case, I a few years ago I wouldn’t of thought twice about going into debt to go on a big trip. But now, I think that it is too expensive to travel overseas and a trip to Moscow over Christmas that I was very interested in would cost me approximately $3,000.00 or more once all of the costs get factored in. This also goes for many other destinations in Europe and elsewhere overseas. It’s even a big expense to travel within the borders of the United States. Tonight, I priced a trip to Seattle, Washington and it was in the neighborhood of what it would cost for me to travel to Amsterdam. Here, we don’t have Ryanair for a pound a trip that Europeans have. We also don’t have the close geographic country borders found on most continents except for the ones in the south bordering Mexico and in the North bordering Canada and those borders are a loooooooooong way away from most states in the U.S. I have British cousins who go all over the UK and the continent by bus–that’s how close many countries are. I also feel that spending so much money for a diversion really makes me feel guilty when I see so many people around me, many of whom have recently gone bankrupt due to the bad economy. In my mind, it’s just not the right thing for me to do at the moment. In addition, there are also other factors which I take into account as well such as attacks on Americans and other westerners in foreign countries such as the fairly recent one in Mombay at a very elite hotel with a lot of security in which some people died in “Al Quada style”. When I looked up what that meant, the manner in which they died really quenched some of my desire to travel overseas. And believe me, “many” people do not like Americans abroad and I’ve met and worked with many of them. In fact, some of them have posted here. You can also peruse the U.S. State Department website in order to read the travel advisories for many foreign countries where Americans are urged not to go for fear of their safety. Contrary to previous posts, Bill O’Reilly wasn’t the original author of this stream of thought. So who needs the stress of that when you want to take a break from work and relax? Another issue is the current state of airline travel such as overbookings with resulting missed flights, long delays, multiple layovers spaced so close together, that the whole trip is filled with anxiety, etc, which I have been subjected to in the past couple of years, and frankly I’m tired of. The list could go on and on, but hopefully, people can get the picture: a staycation here in the U.S. such as a day or two in New York City to see the Christmas lights has become my preferred type of travel with the most stressful aspect being walking down the street to the Amtrak station. And, oh, another advantage is that I also don’t have to listen to how “culturally ignorant” I am.

Charles

Uhhhmmmmmm, it’s all about cost to me. Have you checked out the currency converter lately? 1 dollar = .66 euro. Conversion rates even poorer once overseas. I’ve traveled to Europe before and LOVED it – would love to travel again; unfortunately, can’t afford at this time.

All this blah blah blah about culture differences and fear are nonsense.

If the currency rates were closer (pre-2003) then Americans would flood to Europe.

Lucas

I read this post a few weeks ago, and I loved it. I love to travel and have lived all over the place (right now I’m in China). I sent this post to my parents to read, who are conservative Americans that, in my head, fit pretty well into the category of Americans who don’t want to leave the country. My dad’s never left the country. My mom’s a little more open minded and has been around Europe a bit for travel.

However, they added one thing to the debate that I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet: Some people just don’t like to travel!

Some people don’t like to travel? I told this to another foreigner in the city I’m in, and we both just laughed at the ridiculousness of it. Who doesn’t like to travel?? BUT, while I think it is no excuse for cultural ignorance (which America is full of), I think it IS true that some people just like where they are so much that they don’t ever want to go anywhere. My brother for example has traveled to several different places. He has been to Europe and he has been to Central America as well as around the US. He now is only 24, but I will be surprised if he ever leaves the West Coast of the US again because he just likes where he is.

While I find it hard to accept, I think some people just don’t like the shock and uncomfort that comes with moving around the world. AGAIN, this is no excuse for cultural ignorance, so I hope to god these people read a lot and aren’t hooked on FOX.

But I don’t think anyone has really expressed this idea on in these comments…

another small point….In the U.S. there is no such thing as a “gap year” and I think that’s tragic….no gap year = no gap year travel.

NomadicMatt

Everyone should have a gap year!

frank reed

Your article was spot on.
I would rather run into drunken Brits than an American uber patriot who 5 minutes into the conversation begins to tell me that his country is the best in the world, based on assumptions from about 1970.

Take a vacation form your overburdening routine and spend time in the lap of nature. This is really rejuvenating! Plan in such a way that you will not spend too much.

caroline

The last point you hit on rings the truest for me. With only two weeks of vacation time a year, I had to make sure I didn’t take a single day off for the past year and a half in order to have time for my India trip. This required a lot of advance planning, and in order to feel less guilty about it I planned my trip over the holidays, when flights are most expensive but work is also less busy. I can certainly see why people prefer to take shorter, more frequent vacations to locales that are closer to home.

Jennifer

Its about geography and cash flow. Unless you live in LA, NYC,ATL or Chicago it will cost upwards of 1,000 USD just for the flight.

Then anywhere between a 5 hour and 13 hour flight. Then the conversion rate. Thats a killer. You know when France is 1.5 hours by Eurostar , perceptions change. Europeans do not grasp the grandness of America because they have never been.

When they do return they always say, I didn’t realise it was such a long flight. I didn’t realise everything was so far. Some people don’t travel and its not my place to judge them. Then our complaining about how America is sooo isolated from the rest of the world. So, who cares, its a planet not an a block of flats!

The irony most Americans don’t harbor any poor feelings towards us. They don’t sit around their dinner tables and natter on and on about us. Everyone I ever met says, I wish I could go there.

Just because we can get to a slightly different culture in under 2 hours doesn’t mean we are better people or more well rounded or any other nonsense.

Larry and Katherine

The author forgot to mention one big reason American’s don’t travel. They are simply just not open. Not open to other people, cultures, etc. etc. How can open mindedness and curiosity about the world be cultivated? I think it would solve a lot of other problems too.

-------

Travel means nothing. Especially in this day and age. With technology and the internet. You don’t even need to go to a place to learn a great deal about it. Extensive travel does not mean an individual is not a moron.

Great post Matt, so very succinct. As an Aussie teaching in the US right now I am definitely learning that these are all very true. In regards to education costs which I saw someone mention is not true, it totally is. We just had another 150 positions cut in our county and class sizes are being enlarged, and there is more to come.
The focus on work and isolation is so accurate. Being an Aussie, I find it very challenging as we work hard but play just as hard. American’s I feel don’t play and relax enough. While working is important, there are also other parts to your life that should hold equal weight.
This work ethic is thrust upon students at an early age. Teaching at school, I often feel like we are on this mad, frenetic race to I don’t know where. But the students are overworked and pushed to learn far too much in a short space of time. I feel like I can’t breathe most of the time, i feel so bad for the students. The result is that they do not learn much at all as they are never given time to internalize the concepts before moving onto the next thing. It is scary to see the lack of education the students are coming through the grades with.
Time to teach anything else? Forget it, it’s all reading and math and maybe a bit of science if we are lucky. No time for health or character education- the absolute essentials for a healthy, happy life.
What is wonderful to see is the cultural exchange program I participate in is having an effect on students in school. They are able to learn through me about my culture and those of the countries I have been to. Their eyes light up with such joy and wonder. A student wrote a persuasive piece for me yesterday in which she was persuading her parents to allow her to travel the world and her reasons spoke so beautifully as to how travel was an important vehicle for her to learn about other cultures. There is some impact being made.
It is so important for all Americans who are traveling now to be ambassadors for their country overseas and to come back and share with the people of America in the hopes of inspiring them to get out of the box and see this beautiful planet of ours. Sometimes you have to have a bit of take out to appreciate home cooking.

I have two words for all you non-American westerners out there: BACK OFF.

There are reasons why Americans don’t travel as extensively abroad as Europeans do. For starters, we get two weeks’ vacation. TWO. At a minimum, Europeans get four; many get six. It doesn’t begin to compare. Do you know how fast two weeks is? Allow me to paint you a picture.

Two weeks. That’s ten (business) days. Let’s just go ahead and scratch five of them right off the bat, as those are used piecemeal here and there for things like the Friday after Thanksgiving (if I’m flying across the country to see my family for one meal, you better believe I’m making a weekend out of it) and Christmas Eve. You heard me. CHRISTMAS EVE. We only get Christmas Day; the other is on us. The same thing happens with the Fourth of July and other national holidays: if you’re doing something, it pays to extend the holiday by an extra day to make a weekend of it. Please also note that the vast majority of us don’t get the week off between Christmas and New Year’s. That whole holiday spirit? It consumes HALF of our vacation time.

So now you’re down to five days. Five days is hardly enough time to cross the Atlantic, admire Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower or what have you, and come home. By the time you’ve kicked your jetlag you’re boarding the plane back. Savvy?

As for giving us shit about only targeting the big hitters: London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Berlin, etc, I have a little something called PERSPECTIVE for you. When was the last time an American gave you shit for never visiting Kansas? Hmm?

I’d venture to say half of the Europeans I’ve met have never been to the States. HALF. And those that have wave the New York card. Which is great for me; I’ve lived in New York, I love New York, it gives us something to talk about. But for those of you who haven’t noticed, our country is ENORMOUS. We have beaches, mountains, rivers, oceans, every climate under the sun, and all of those things before leaving either coast. Throw in Alaska and Hawaii and you’ve got yourself one hell of a playground.

It’s not fair to compare your having been to a dozen countries before you turned twelve, whereas most Americans won’t go to a dozen countries in their life. You have loads of vacation time and crossing borders is a matter of mere hours in a car or train, not days spent in airplanes crossing massive continents and oceans. When you country-hop for a weekend, it’s like the Cleavelander checking out Chicago. The time and money you spend internationally is what it costs us domestically; the time and money we spend internationally is what you guys spend during your “gap year,” something I had never heard of until a few months ago. To say the least, international travel is wildly costly (often prohibitively so) for us.

So the whole “I heard only 10% of Americans have a passport” bullshit needs to stop. Americans are constantly traveling. Constantly. We do what we can, which usually translates to short domestic trips. And if we can throw in Canada or Mexico or the Caribbean every couple of years, we consider it a bonus. We’re making the best of what we’ve got. And I don’t think we’re doing too shabby.

As for those who clearly don’t fall into the European contingent (i.e. Canadians and Australians), I’d say you guys are somewhere in between. I haven’t had a Canadian or an Australian give me shit about being American. You seem to be runners-up in the flak from Europeans department, and therefore more careful about doling it out. Canadians and Australians also seem surprised by my “un-Americanness,” but not to the extent that their European counterparts are. Their vacation time is typically higher than Americans but lower than Europeans, and both their geographic location and the size of their countries mean their international traveling trends are somewhere between as well. We also seem to understand each other without any preface.

Brian B.

I may sound odd for saying this, but I prefer traveling around the United States to any nation abroad. I have traveled oversees quite a bit in my life for only being 22. I have been to Russia, most European nations, East Asia, and several countries in Central and South America, and I have got to say that none of them compare to the good ol’ US of A.

I listen to my friends talk about how they long to return to England, to Spain, or too Sweden, and I can’t get my head around it. For me, those places were nice places to spend maybe a day or two, but they are nothing with what the US has to offer.

I think that maybe Americans (at least American students) talk so much about the greatness of being abroad because they have not yet experienced what their own country has to offer. Most college students go to college in their own state or at least their own region. However, the differences in culture, climate, and general environment differ so greatly within our own nation that it almost feels at time like one is in a different country.

That is my opinion. Great article by the way.

Robert

Ummm…I just ran across this and while I am sure your prices from wherever to BKK are dated, I know I have a hard time swinging $650 for a flight to anywhere just for myself, and I make what is consider an upper-middle class salary. Not to mention the hassle and nightmare that the TSA make airports nowadays. Gas is steal cheap enough to drive it. I would rather spend 3 days driving than flying, because it is cheaper. Period.

Also consider I travel from Ohio to other places often and I drive it. A flight JUST FOR ME from Ohio to Texas for example is just under $1000, round trip….COACH. I would like to know where you get your quotes from because I would to see to cheap quotes for domestic travel. My wife and I have priced out some international flights and prices start at $1500, easy.

Joan

“A friend from Iowa once joined me in Thailand. When she told her co-workers about it, their response was “Thailand? Where is that? Why would you go there? If you want a beach, go to Florida.””
I’ve been reading a lot of these articles and statements such as this seem to pop up in most of them. All of these articles also have something else in common: they never answer the question. Why would you want to go there?
Personally, I find the travelers who assume everyone likes to travel to be the ignorant ones. Personally, I do not dislike travel and I am aware of there being a whole great big world outside of America. But I choose not to spend my time or money traveling to foreign places because what is most important to me is right here at home: my family and friends. People are what matter to me. My people. And that is where I choose to invest my time and money. I would like to see some comments on why Americans should travel instead of listing reasons why they don’t.

Melvin

I agree with you Joan. Well said. thanks.

Melvin

I agree. Well said Joan.

Mark

In response to points 1 and 2, obviously there is quite a difference in the degree of poverty between a poor person from the Sudan and someone from the United States, but it doesn’t follow that just because the Sudanese are generally so much poorer means that the relatively wealthy average American has enough spare time/money to travel. A more extreme version of this argument might say that because Americans are wealthier than their African counterparts, all Americans should own a private jet. Neither the average African nor the average American can afford a private jet. Obviously there are not many people from the Sudan and Nigeria out globetrotting either.
Point 4, my mother actually encouraged my wife and I to go to Africa, and my parents even paid for us to go to East Africa as a gift. The difference I guess is that they have been there themselves. In fact they have traveled to more than 60 countries together on every continent except Antarctica. They are also republicans believe it or not. My dad ran for the House of Representatives on the Republican ticket, so not all Republicans are like Sarah Palin. For the record, I tend to have more liberal views than they do.

Mark

I was replying to this post, I thought it would post right below it to make sense:
“Well, anytime anyone tries to talk about nationalities in general they run into trouble. At some point you have to generalize – and obviously that’s no good, because every nation is made up of a diverse bunch of people so you can’t possibly cover them all. That said, I’m about to generalize…

I would guess that the theme underlying all of this is not so much that Americans don’t travel as much as other folk do, but that they seem to have less of an idea about what’s going on the world – and yet they’re the ones in charge. Take the following examples…

1)”Americans are often underpaid and overworked in comparison to their foreign counterparts…”

2)“Poverty is poverty.” That’s a little oversimplified isn’t it? Look at Katrina. Look at how many poor people were displaced and don’t have two cents to rub together. That’s the face of America, and that’s why no one can afford to travel.”

3)”Oh, you’re from England! Is that in London?”
4) “My mother cried when I told her I was going to Africa. She said it was the dark continent and that I’d never come back.”

5) And finally, Sarah Palin.

Let’s look a little closer at those…

1) I’m not sure which foreign counterparts you’re talking about here. Surely not the children sold into slavery across the world, those working in sweatshops or even moving rapidly up the ranks to doctors, dentists and actors in Europe? Let us know who you had in mind otherwise there’s a danger that it sounds like you mean that Americans are worse off than most people in the world…if that’s the case then I can happily break it to you that they’re not. By a long, long way.

2) Hurricane Katrina was awful. Let’s just get that out of the way at the start. Yet this comment seems to imply that this natural disaster explains why “no-one” in America can travel – because they only have two cents to rub together. I watched the Katrina coverage with refugees from the Sudan, Nigeria and Croatia – and they were all stunned that the victims received so MUCH aid and shocked by how angry people were that they didn’t get more. I’m not taking a stand here on how the disaster was managed or meaning to minimize the nightmare it must have been for the people involved – just illustrating that things are a lot worse in the rest of the world.

3) Just in case you thought I was getting too serious by now…yes, it’s true. I’ve met a lot of Americans who don’t know where, who or what England is. I’m slightly frightened, since England’s supposed to be an ally and is in G8 and all…but then…do I know the capital of Chad? Can I tell you the name of the president of Guatemala without the help of Google? Absolutely not. So I’m just as bad. Actually, it’s probably not fair that people expect more from Americans – we know your language, your leaders and your scenery from Hollywood ;) You have no such luck.

4) Although this comment surprised me at the time – I’ve got to agree with Benny. Most mothers cry and worry when their children travel ;)

5) Can’t bring myself to write about her.

Would travelling more change any of this? Maybe yes, maybe no. Personally, I’m less bothered about whether or not people travel but I AM bothered when people don’t seem to realise that life goes on outside the borders of their own country with any kind of realistic perspective – particularly when they’re the ones voting for the government that sets the world’s agenda. See, I don’t get to vote for the US president (and leader of the world stage). All I can do is leave comments on a blog ;)

Thanks Matt for the chance to respond to the comments on your blog – even though they’ve veered away from your original post. Curse you, however, for drawing me in here! I’ve got other work to be getting on with y’know!”

GeoJim

I have been very intreagued by this post, and comments. I was raised in Chicago. I travel for work (Energy Industry) and I feel a major issue is that we inherited a lot of fear about travel abroad from our parents. My father was in Vietnam, then stationed in Germany for a stint. He’ll never step foot in Canada, much less Europe if he was paided too. My grandfather,a bunch of Uncles/Great Uncles, and I’m sure a lot of readers relatives we’re all over Europe and Asia for more than Half of the past Century, from WW II thru the Cold War. I know many in my family who either fought, or we’re stationed oversees. Two of my cousins were born on a base in Germany. So americans have traveled a lot last century, for good and bad it brought a lot of Americanism, the bad (McD’s, Hollywood, Disco?) and good ( Blues, Jazz, Coca Cola)

And.. what about all the business travelers out there, we may only spend a day or two in a city, usually (but not always) isolated from the cultures of the countries we’re in. I try to get out and explore as much as I can from the sterile enviorins of Hilton’s and other business hotels, all the while saving up for when I can say *uck in and go travel for a month, a year, forever… afterall I’m not my father.

neil

Last month, a worldwide survey was conducted by the UN. The only question
asked was: “Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the
food shortage in the rest of the world?”

The survey was a huge failure…

In Africa they didn’t know what “food” meant.
In Eastern Europe they didn’t know what “honest” meant.
In Western Europe they didn’t know what “shortage” meant.
In China they didn’t know what “opinion” meant.
In the Middle East they didn’t know what “solution” meant.
In South America they didn’t know what “please” meant.
And in the USA they didn’t know what “the rest of the world” meant.

NomadicMatt

Hahaha! I’ve heard that before. It’s hilarious.

Ashley

Residents in other countries across the world are more likely to have passports for a simple reason: their countries are probably smaller than America. In Europe, alot of the time, travelling to another country is nothing more than a couple-hour long drive. America’s expanse is an entire continent, so yes, we’re alot less likely to travel to have passports.

Americans aren’t as cultured as they need to be, yes, but this point is faulty.

NomadicMatt

Australia is quite a huge country as is Canada, China, Russia.

MKL

Trying to convince everyone to travel outside there country is not going to work. Some people don’t have the passion for it. Traveling is not on everyone’s top priority. You trying to convince everyone to travel is no different from a religious fundamentalist trying to force there belief on someone.

NomadicMatt

Except if you tell me no, I’m not going to tell you you will burn in hell. Nor will I blow myself up. I think people should travel, if they don’t well that is their loss in my opinion.

Ryan

NomadicMatt, what are you thoughts on the following?:

multiculturalism
illegal immigration
Ground Zero mosque
political correctness?

I’ll take my parents for example. When I told my parents last year I’d consider moving to London as I got older (I’m in high school), they laughed. My dad told me that if you travel through Europe, you will get shot. Those were his words exactly. They’re under the impression that the US is the safest place in the world. My dad has never been out of the US and my mom has only been to Mexico. (We even live only about three hours from Canada!)

Most Americans, at least in my family, are also under the impression that travel requires thousands upon thousands of dollars. My best friend and former neighbor of seven years just moved to Croatia, and visiting her would be one of the greatest moments anyone could give me. I am a YouTube partner and make around $600 a year on it, and with the extra money I get from holidays and a job this year, I could easily pay for the plane ticket to Croatia. My accommodation would be free, as I would stay with her, and most of my meals would be, too. The whole trip might cost around $1300. My parents, who think travel is extremely expensive, don’t see this…

The mention of taking a gap year to my family makes them think I’m crazy.

NomadicMatt

I’m here to tell you, you aren’t crazy.

Edward B.

Good point, but you do realize that most people are not YouTube partners and do not have a free place to stay waiting for them? When I went to Europe, I had neither of these things, and paid more than double what you did. Not saying traveling isn’t worth it, but it is more expensive than some people are making it appear. Although I agree somewhat, that it is a matter of priorities.

Mika

I’d love to travel. However I also really wanted a college education. And to pay my rent and utilities and have food to eat. I think the biggest reason I don’t travel, despite that I would love to, is that I don’t have the money. Maybe it’s not expensive for you, but to some people $600 is a month of rent and food when they are living off minimum wage. My priority is to provide for me and my unemployed mother. And traveling is not realistic for a large percentage of Americans for that very reason. I have a friend who gets to travel all the time because her parents have the money to pay for her college. She can save the money she makes. And I’m jealous, I wish I could save money to travel. But I can’t. I live pay check to pay check and I find it insulting when people say if I can do it so can you or If your not doing it then your not going to be a well rounded rounded individual (which is elitist, IMO). My friend only travels because it’s the “cool” thing to do, like so many other people I know, and it is about status for them. They are not better because of it. Btw, I’m majoring in history and sociology so I’m not culturally ignorant like you are assuming most of the Americans who don’t travel are.

Mazzuchelli

Such simplistic, anti-American pap demonstrates that you and your readers are those requiring the education. I’ve traveled all around Europe and Scandinavia. They know as little about the U. S. as we know about them. Just ask a few simple questions. We always do but not in a mean-spirited way. We like to travel with a minimum of reservations to maintain schedule flexibility. Sometimes we find ourselves in places of which we’ve heard little. Believe me, the locals know even less than we. So, drop the superior and condescending front. You’re not smart enough to carry it off.

Christine

Funny that you keep referencing Florida, I’m a Florida native (one of like 5 left in the world with all the people moving here from other places) and can’t wait to leave, for a change of scenery really. Not that Florida isn’t amazing, it is. Most people I know around here want to go to New York or California, thats really it, sad.

Most people I know share the typical American view on travel- oh but the world is scary and they hate us! I have no money (my favorite excuse from people who spend forty bucks a week on nail polish and clothes or usless details for their car.

I constantly have people telling me to be careful too, in fact when I announced my plans to go to Argentina, my mother immediatley tried to tell me that South America is an extremely and dangerous unsafe place where I would likely be kidnapped or robbed (or both) the moment I stepped off the plane.

Maybe one day people will change.

Amelia

I’m so put off travel just going to visit the family a half-USA away seems like an exercise in patience.. I traveled extensively when my family had money as a teenager, even going to various spots in Europe with only one other person in tow.
To be honest, todays skies seem like a horrible way to go. I don’t want to be crammed into a plane for 6 hours (or more depending) having angry, overworked employees chucking my 10 dollar sandwich at me. Taking a train would be nicer, but 3 days to get there with little wiggleroom on the budget for food isn’t a good option. I’d rather take a government owned ride that wouldn’t grope me, would give me a PB&J for free, and wouldn’t encourage bagless travel. (If it existed)

bamabrasileira

america is a dynamic and interesting country in and of itself. many people do not understand that america represents the world in a lot of ways due to it’s immigrants. but i think the thing that others can’t get through their brains is that americans just don’t care about other countries the way that people from other countries care. that is typical when you see yourself as a leader and the example that other people are trying to immitate and follow. taking vacation and spending lots of money to go to another country just is not a priority to many americans, when they can be spending that money on making themselves comfortable and self sufficient. i have never been able to understand why people from other countries are so insecure about the fact that americans don’t really give a f#### about them. they behave as if america would somehow be better if americans would simply become better at geography and teach their kids other languages. and while they try to talk smack about american healthcare and education, they always conveniently miss the fact that much, if not most, of the world’s useful innovation is american, and that when people who live in countries with universal healthcare cannot get the cutting edge care they need in their own countries, they come to america. why is it so hard for others to understand that american’s do not perceive themselves as needing to know what’s outside of america. america already offers it’s people the best of everything. sometimes the odd american has a personal curiosity about what’s happening outside of america. however, others need to understand that americans like working hard, being innovative, and generally making themselves comfortable. this leaves less time for spending lots of money to go look at old buildings in other countries and pretend to be fascinated by whatever it is they happen to be known for, if anything.

Culture of Fear: You don’t think other countries media play the same “violence in the streets” stories. Americans just see more because they are parked in front of the TV a lot more on average than other countries.

So what ties them together?

Capitalism. When restrained a good system when unrestrained Rockefeller takes over the world.

Education: We want more people to graduate, but we are losing quality. We emphasize science and math because they make money lots of money. History, English, Foreign Languages…not so much.

People are overworked: Business wants to squeeze as much work out of you for as little as possible. With unions virtually destroyed people are letting them. No wonder you’re burnt out and have no energy to travel. Disadvantage of living in such a large country you are easily replaced and at a lower costs. Business thinks short-term so they on’t invest as much as they should in human capital of their employees.

People don’t have money: The American economy is based on you spending as much of your money as possible. You buy new TV’s, computers, and cars. Luxury products instead of the often similar basic ones. Capitalism doesn’t want anyone to have extra money. Good example. Capitalism wants you to buy the house you can’t afford you help it grow to your own detriment.

Size: Capitalism…American Capitalism doesn’t want you helping other countries by spending money there unless it comes back to America. America touts it has every climate and everything you could want. It has a lot, but language definitely changes a culture as does history. America can’t provide that change no matter what. London is different than New York even though they are similar or substitutes.

Culture of Fear: Not exactly capitalism, but the same competition mindset. Dehumanizing other cultures makes it easy to fear or hate them. This makes it easier for a government to do what it wants militarily. Team America has support for their mission.

I’m not a communist that obviously doesn’t work because it gets corrupted and never could be used because of that. Capitalism can work, but it too has become corrupted. Americans as a whole are very good students of capitalism as Pink Floyd says, “All in all your just another brink in the wall” Capitalism is a big #$#% wall. The so-called 1% are laughing at how easy it is and Occupy is nowhere near close to toppling that wall. The Berlin Wall fell down much more easily than unrestrained Capitalism will. I just hope a way is figured out before the inevitable disastrous economic collapse happens, but I’m not holding my breath.

Lily

I think a big reason why lots of Americans don’t travel is simply immigration. This is an issue to most young Americans, all they have to do is think that you should be allowed in and poof you’re on a plane back to America. It’s been happening more and more, and I say that because it happened to me as well. After being in a holding room for hours and repeatedly called a liar for no reason my holiday was cancelled and I was back at JFK. It’s not always an Americans fault.

NomadicMatt

Sounds like you should have researched the visa rules of where you were going ahead of time.

TravelingJeanne

It looks like this is one of those discussions that will never be settled! For my part, I am still torn between love of going to places I’ve only dreamed about, and the realization that I (and many others) cannot just hop a plane whenever the spirit moves. The seemingly low percentage of Americans with passports has been nagging at me too. Now, is this the number having passports at this moment, or does it include the part of the population having had passports (and used but not renewed them) as well as those who could reasonably be expected to own passports as soon as they reach that magical “gap year” age? Because if the stats are ignoring all these folks who travel at some point in their lives, wouldn’t it be like saying that Americans seldom read books anymore because we only count the ones reading today, not those who finished a book yesterday or just ordered one from BN to read next week? (Ohh, let’s not get into the “Johnny can’t read” thing; i was just looking for an example) Do past travelers get counted along with current travelers? There are so many Americans who have been all over the world for business, in the military or Peace Corps, ministry for various denominations, who may not add to those numbers because after years of traveling, they are now staying home to do other things and have hung up their backpacks for good.
Even if the total number of Americans who visit other countries is low (whatever we might consider too low), I ‘m convinced that those who do not wish to should not, those who cannot afford to should not, and those who are too weighed down with wage-earning, care-giving, or chronic health problems should not. It’s not all about ignorance and fear, it’s individual circumstances. More education about our own and other cultures would be nice. So would more compassion.

Kuaoni

So true. I have met more French, Mexican (OMG) or Japanese travellers in Nepal, India or China, than Americans…by faaaaaaar.

Sarah

Do you have any actual statistics?! Saying “Americans don’t travel” simply isn’t true. MANY Americans travel. Many are interested in exploring other parts of the world. Study abroad programs are more popular with American students than ever before.

I could just as easily say, “Indians don’t travel”, “Koreans don’t travel”, etc. None of those statements is true. People from all countries travel. Why don’t most Americans live a lifestyle like you? They can’t afford travel. There’s a ton to explore within the US and it’s cheaper. You could spend your entire life traveling the US, visiting historical areas, entertainment sights, and never see everything there is to see. We have a lot of land and a lot of culture to explore. It’s not close-minded to travel within the US. What’s wrong with wanting to know more about your own country?

Saying “it’s only $800 to fly overseas” so that’s not too expensive is ignorant. Many people have families with children. It’s too expensive for them to fly and pay for expensive hotels and eat out. Families on a budget in America can drive to a vacation spot and bring or buy groceries to cut down on costs. They can stay at the Super 8 for $50. You don’t seem to understand the limitations of money. You also don’t understand the limitations of having children. Kids have commitments, even in the summer. They don’t want to leave their friends or activities for weeks on end. It can be hard to manage children in a foreign country. They don’t have the comforts of home. They don’t like the food.

You act as if Americans choose to have so little vacation time. Most of the time, that’s not true. Most employers don’t want employees to take more than one week off at a time. Their coworkers don’t want that either. Someone has to cover for them and returning after a long break can be very difficult. You’re a very ignorant person.

Erin

Sarah, you clearly have not taken the time to read other articles on Matt’s site or do your homework on the internet to see how it is affordable for average people.

“They can’t afford travel. There’s a ton to explore within the US and it’s cheaper.”

I saw many families, with young children, while traveling in Asia. Any extra cost in airfare, I think, is easily negated by the fact that a family can stay in a nice guesthouse for only $25 (sometimes less) in Vietnam or Thailand, meals in restaurants for $2-3, and transportation $1-3. No tipping required.

Compare this to traditional American holiday destinations such as Disneyland or beaches in Florida and any money saved by driving is definitely cancelled out by the extortionate park entry fees, hotels, and meals.

Not to mention the useless consumer crap people buy in their daily lives like flat screen TVs, laptops, smartphones, expensive clothing, fast food, restaurants, DVDs, game consoles, brand name make-up etc etc…

“They don’t want to leave their friends or activities for weeks on end. It can be hard to manage children in a foreign country. They don’t have the comforts of home. They don’t like the food.”

This is the whole point. To experience LIFE. Build independence, character, and world views. So people LEARN to manage in a foreign country (which is easier than many people think). And in fact, LUXURIES (not just comforts) often come far cheaper outside the western world – massages and beauty treatments, shopping, boutique accomodation, cheap gourmet meals, gorgeous beaches not eroded by mass tourism etc…
They don’t like the food???? They are missing out!!! You have to at least try it to know you don’t like it! I myself used to be a picky eater. Now I can’t get enough of the food when I travel!

“Most employers don’t want employees to take more than one week off at a time.”

Very true. However, have people even considered asking for a sabbatical? Contract work? Quitting your job and finding one overseas? Finding a job with better vacation? Taking a semester off college? Taking a gap year?

Do your research and you will find loads of blogs of people who have made it happen (some young, some old, some with families, some who are couples etc.) despite these “obstacles”…

Rockyra

Great article, many good points all around. Another point to ponder, even if it only effects a small percentage of those who do not travel.

A high percentage of Americans are obese. The United States has one of the highest obesity rates in the world and the percentage, population wise, climbs each year. As of 2010, over 35% of Americans fall under this category. The mere thought of trying to cram themselves into a tiny airline seat for (x) amount of hours is enough to scare a lot of these people out of even entertaining the idea of travelling, unless it is by vehicle, which translates into ‘in country’ travel. I know far too many people who would like to travel outside the continent but do not for this very reason, my parents-in-law for example. The fear of ‘discomfort’ is palpable.

Do I think that the reason ‘most’ Americans don’t travel is because of obesity? No, not at all. It is merely one of a plethora of reasons that many Americans do not travel overseas.

Devlin

There is another reason. Just no interest. Geography and all that may be excuses. But I believe the real reason is that there just isn’t any interest. I don’t even have an interest in travel, nor have I heard of any good reason to travel other then the vague “It will get you some memorable experiences” which when people talk about their experiences, its always embarrassing guffaws and cultural confusions that they remember. Thats not an experience that interests me. If I wanted experiences I would join a fight club or something.

The other reason people say to travel is to ‘gain an understanding of the rest of the world, a greater empathy and to learn from them.’ Well, they never explain how the first two are supposed to be useful. An understanding of the world helps in international politics something that is only relevant to federal level politicians. Not useful to civilians.

And greater Empathy? The U.S. already donates more money to international charities per capita then any other country in the world. A greater percentage of each American’s personal wealth on average is donated willingly to charities then any other country in the world including the ‘better traveled’ ones. So really if anything it would seem travel reduces empathy.

As for learning from the rest of the world. That sounds good but I’ll be damned if anybody can think of something to learn. They mostly try to point to how other countries have more modern infrastructure. Well fancy that, Countries that built their infrastructure after the U.S. did have more modern infrastructures, A.K.A. every country other then the U.S. because the U.S. was pretty much first. The fact that the U.S.’s infrastructure needs to be replaced is not new news, its common knowledge everywhere. The problem is that the ‘entire’ U.S. infrastructure needs to be replaced at about the same time which is far, far more expensive then building anew. And that would cost more money then is made in the U.S. ten times over each year to do. So instead America is having to put band-aids on most of the infrastructure and prioritize the most dangerously decrepit structures for modernization.

Now if there is some international country with a solution to fix that I’m all ears. But just pointing out how the other countries are more modern is just showing your own ignorance of America itself.

So as you can see there aren’t any reasons to travel other then mere ‘curiosity’. So only 30% of the U.S. population traveling internationally sounds about right to me.

Devlin

Also the ease of access to information about foreign destinations is a double edged sword. I believe It is more likely to satiate curiosity then foster it.

Yoav

I think one very important reason is the economic structure of US.

It was referenceed here, in bits and pieces:

1) Cost of tuition, which is a lot higher in the US. In a lot of EU countries the tuition is heavily subsidised, so most students finish collage/ University with no debt. This means it is a lot easier for them to save and go travel.
2) Vacation time – In most EU countries the vacation time mandated by law is a lot longer than in the US, and the custmary vacation time is even longer. Something between 3-4 weeks a year, is the norm. This means travel is a lot easier, since you can travel for a month while retaining your job.
3) Social acceptance – In many countries, travel is expected. In the US, if you went to travel for a year after college, it would be a lot harder to find a job. People don’t understand “taking a year off to travel”, like the gap-year in EU or the Over-sea-experience in Australia and NZ.
This means most americans that do travel try to find jobs at foreign locations, in order to not fall into that trap.

It is kind of a loop – if american don’t travel, this means travel isn’t acceptible, and this means it is harder for american to travel.

So I think it is mostly the building blocks of american social-economy, coupled with the fact that the US is huge and have everything in easily accesible manner, that prevent american from traveling, not fear.