The Myth That Americans Don’t Travel

“Americans don’t travel. They’re scared of the world and fear the unknown. All they’re concerned about is the money they make at their boring jobs to pay for the massive houses they don’t need. They don’t care about seeing the world.”

I heard these words at the Nicaraguan border crossing as I made my way to Costa Rica. I’ve been to many places and heard this same criticism aimed at Americans many times before. The person who said this to me was American, like me. The other times I heard these words they were also spoken by Americans in foreign countries. But is it true? What’s really going on here?

Americans DO Travel

The fact that every person who has made the claim that Americans don’t travel has been at the same time American and traveling is funny to me. Although I can see where they’re coming from. Americans are often unfairly categorized as being ignorant of the world and self-absorbed. The rest of the world is obsessed with Soccer when Americans are wondering who will win the World Series (which is a misleading title if you think about it).

But that doesn’t mean that Americans don’t travel. Far from it. In fact Americans do travel. The Airports Council International lists off the top 30 busiest airports in the world by number of passengers. Five of the top ten are in the United States and twelve airports are in the top 30.

According to a lifestyle Gallup poll in 2005 about 64% of all Americans traveled within the previous year. That’s a lot of people. 90% of individuals who made over $75,000 a year had traveled.

The Origin of The Myth

One of the biggest origins of this myth were news stories about how many Americans have passports. Some stories have reported as low as 7% or 10% of Americans have passports. The true number is hard to find since exact figures aren’t recorded.

This number is often contrasted with the number of passport holders in Britain. This is unfair mainly for one reason. British citizens are renowned for their traveling enthusiasm. They travel probably more than any other countries’ citizens in the world. Because Americans don’t have as many passports as them is no reason to say that they don’t travel at all or are afraid of the world.

Another reason that using passport numbers as an argument that Americans don’t travel is obvious. Look at the geography of America. It’s the third largest country in the world at 3,717,813 square miles. Two oceans are on either side, Canada above it and Mexico below it. England is roughly the same size as Alabama, the 30th largest state. Of course, Brits have more passports, their diminutive size requires them to.

Also realize that Canada and Mexico used to be easily traveled by Americans without passports. That means 8,331,362 square miles were passport free to Americans. That’s an area 165 Englands would fit into.

This area doesn’t even include the Bahamas, US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and other popular Caribbean destinations that US citizens don’t need passports for. The next nearest countries Americans travel to that needed passports are Belize or Greenland. This explains the low level of passport holders in America.

This has been changing since America, Mexico and Canada have required passports to travel between the countries since 2009. Passport issuing agencies were overwhelmed for awhile issuing new passports because of the new requirement. If Americans really didn’t travel then passport numbers wouldn’t increase.

The Truth Behind the Myth

Like any great myth, there is some truth behind it. This myth is no exception. Consider the number that was given for the world’s busiest airports. Twelve of the top 30 busiest airports by passenger travel are in America. However, change that list to the world’s busiest airports by international passenger traffic and America doesn’t show up in the top ten at all. It appears on this list only three times.

The other number I used estimated 64% of Americans vacationed in 2005, only 19% of them said they traveled outside the United States. 36% of those who made over $75,000 a year traveled overseas. Of Americans below that salary level, the number drops drastically to just 7-17% depending on income.

Americans and International Travel

There are a number of reasons that Americans don’t travel internationally as often as domestically. Firstly, the number of days off provided to employees are low. Americans had on average 13 days of vacation time a year. Britons got 26 days and the French got 38 days. The small amount of time given to workers is prohibitive to international travel. The long amount of time it takes to arrive or come back from another country is daunting. This makes more modest domestic travel more appealing.

Another reason Americans don’t travel overseas is because of their jobs. The workplace is extremely competitive and America has a very flexible labor force. Anyone can lose their job at any minute and everyone knows this. You can see this competitiveness in American vacations. For Americans, many days on vacation include time spent for work email and catching up with other work related materials.

Because of that, Americans take shorter vacations. Shorter than even the 13 days allotted to them each year. In 2009, Americans “gave back” 436 million days of vacation. In order to make up the time lost for shorter vacations, they travel closer to home.

The reason more wealthy people travel overseas is because they aren’t afraid of losing their jobs. Americans making over $75,000 a year are going to be business owners, self-employed or highly paid professionals that cannot easily be replaced. They have more freedom to travel abroad because there is less of a motivation to stay home.

There also might be a misguided belief that international travel is expensive. In my own experience, those who have never traveled overseas almost always note the expense as a reason for staying near home. This might be another reason wealthier Americans travel overseas more than others.

How to Fix This

Getting more Americans to travel internationally will need a change in culture. Since international travel is mostly confined to wealthier Americans, the majority of people will not have grown valuing international travel or even know how to do it. This barrier is a disadvantage to Americans who have a desire to travel internationally. They need to realize international travel isn’t as expensive or difficult as they might think.

A solution to this is to encourage Americans who have traveled internationally to tell their stories and encourage others to see the world. By spreading their stories about how easy international travel really can be, they can get others to follow in their footsteps.

Americans like traveling; however, they need to make traveling outside their borders a priority in their lives and realize its importance. There is nothing wrong with traveling domestically; however, international travel is fulfilling in so many other ways.

I fully believe that international travel is one of the most life fulfilling activities people can do. The people and cultures we encounter inspire us, motivate us and breathe life into us.

Samuel Johnson probably put it best when he said, “All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.”

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Comments

  1. Great post. I’ve only made a couple of overseas trips, so I know how hard it was to convince myself to spend the extra money to go overseas when I takes me 3,000 miles to just travel to go to New York City. I love overseas travel, but it’s hard for me to justify leaving the country when I still have 29 states to see with all their gloriousness. It’s like trying to explain to a foreigner that they haven’t actually seen anything of America, even though they stopped in Las Vegas.

  2. I’m with Miranda (and with you). There is so much of America I haven’t visited yet. I love traveling to other countries and experiencing their culture and seeing other ways of life, but we have it all! Volcanoes, beaches, mountains, deserts, glaciers, valleys, wide open plains, the list goes on.

  3. @Miranda & Jessica

    Both of you are right. There are many places I want to see in America too such as the Grand Canyon, New York, Boston, Hawaii, Las Vegas, Burning Man festival and others. Those would all be great places to visit.

    I just think that some Americans should expand their travels. I know that many Americans don’t want to see other countries and that is just fine. However, I know so many Americans who do want to travel internationally and are faced with these hurdles that stops them. I think many of the things that are stopping them can be overcome with a little encouragement to see the world.

  4. Figures on business of USA airports are not very helpful in understanding what’s really going on: That’s because they include non-Americans travelling through those airports (I am going to guess that’s a lot), and people travelling purely for business reasons (again, I’m going to guess a lot).

    If you take estimated figures on passport ownership and compare them to similar figures for comparable countries (vast, and far from other countries) like Canada, it remains evident that a smaller percentage of Americans travel.

    And I think that’s because there is a perception among Americans that they are naturally better than everyone else and that their country is always right, and superior to other countries. See, for example, the cultural furor about France when the Chirac government wouldn’t join the Americans’ misadventure in Iraq; the constant and dismissive put-downs of Canada; the bigotry against immigrants from Latin America; and on and on.

    There are incredible things to see in the world. And I dare say that many, if not most, of those incredible things are outside of the USA, particularly if your idea when traveling and sightseeing is to understand other people’s viewpoints and experience different cultures. And in my experience, Americans generally are not interested in this. They are not inclined towards that kind of travel.

    As an example of this phenomenon, I note the preferences expressed by commenters above, to visit all 50 states of the USA, before seeing such amazing world sites like Paris, the Pyramids, Machu Picchu, etc.

    Why would you want to visit Vegas or Kansas before those amazing international destinations? No offense to Vegas or Kansas, but they simply do not contain the sites or have the same cultural history that indigenous ruins or truly international cities do.

    When international destinations present more opportunities for interesting, exciting, and valuable travel, and Americans still prefer to stay within their own borders (for their whole lifetimes, or before seeing anything else outside of the USA), something is terribly wrong.

  5. The United States are such a great place to visit, with endless possibilities and lower costs than Europe. I can see why Americans would want to visit their own place first!

    Sadly the same thing happens in Canada…we get very few vacation days per year, and my boss won’t even let me take 10 tens in a row. It’s a sad, sad world!

    Great article.

  6. @Luke

    Thanks for responding. I’m sure that a portion of the people passing through American airports are international visitors and business people, but the same is true of every other airport. Even still, that doesn’t discount the 64% of Americans who traveled for vacation purposes in 2005. 19% of all Americans traveled internationally (both stats are for those over age 18 for those wondering).

    As far as Canada having more passports than America. That’s likely true. Once again, definitive information on passport numbers is sketchy at best. But I never claimed that Americans made many international trips. In fact, I said outright that they don’t . They tend to take trips closer to home.

    Americans don’t travel internationally because of the workplace which shortens the time they have to spend traveling. They make up that time by staying closer to home. – see this article http://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?id=86551&page=1

    Throughout the recession, American travels dipped only slightly which shows that we feel that traveling is important. In fact a study by the Tourism Intelligence International predicts that Americans will soon travel at the same level as before the recession. Plus, they say that Americans traveling overseas will grow by 7.5% from 2008 to 2015. See http://www.tourism-intelligence.com/article.php?id=452#mce_temp_url# That sounds to me like many Americans have interest in traveling abroad. They just haven’t gotten there yet.

    I agree with you that there are many things in the world to see that aren’t in the United States. I spent the last portion of my article explaining ways I think we can increase Americans interest in overseas travel.

  7. I believe a big deterrent is the lack of vacation time. 2 weeks a year, which is pretty standard in the States isn’t much to see the world. Sadly, lots of people have to use vacation time to do basic life stuff…

  8. @Steve,

    thanks for your reply. Yes, I agree with you here, as well as with the points in your original article, that Americans travel less, not just because they aren’t interested in other cultures, but also because of shorter vacation times. I also agreed with your suggestions in the original article for increasing Americans’ overseas travel.

    It’s kind of a depressing state of affairs that Americans have such short vacations and do not have the worker protections enjoyed in Europe: For example, workers fussing about the short holiday times or even trying to take unpaid leave can be replaced easily.

    But where is the fuss over this? Whither the insistence on gap years, sabbaticals, and the other long holiday times that Europeans can enjoy without serious detriment to their long-term career ambitions? In addition to being largely uninterested in other cultures, Americans tend to view developing careers and putting down roots as important life ambitions, to the exclusion of other valuable pursuits (at least this is in my experience).

    And while career and long-term goals may be important, life is just too short to be possessed with them to the exclusion of all else.

  9. I still think money is a major issue. The cost of getting to europe from here is major. If you compare what it cost to fly vs drive you will see a major reason many americans stay in the US. Your own research shows that anyone that makes less than $75,000 a year is very unlikely to travel outside the country. If you look at the % of americans that make more than $75,000 a year you get something like 20%. Isn’t that the percentage of people that are already traveling outside the US? It seems to me until the price of traveling outside the country gets significate cheaper you will not see a great increase in the percent of people traveling over seas.

  10. I also think it has a lot to do with America’s economic and cultural dominance over the world in the past 50 years or so. The impact on the world has been extraordinary – and many Americans take that as cultural supremacy.

    A – “there isn’t much “to learn” out there, since Americans are teaching all of the lessons” – mentality.

    That’s shifting though, the US will no longer be the center of the world cultural and economy. There are many other places in the world coming in to fill those roles, like China, India, Brazil, etc… and down the line.

    Not know a second language, never been to Germany, think they’re all out to get you?

    America will soon have to get over that if they want to stay competitive in the world. Traveling is the best way to get perspective in life -

  11. I love to travel and have traveled extensively. But lets get real…most people can’t afford the expense. In the statement about people who make $75,000 a yr or more…they are in a higher tax bracket and pay more in taxes. Some of these so-called high earners can’t afford it either. American culture is such that here, we don’t encourage European travel much like the Arts, some Americans find it frivolous. Then there’s the perception of Europe that still permeates throughout our culture regarding WWII…French are weak, soft and rude. The British are stuffy, boring and the food is bland. Some people still can’t let go of Pearl Harbor, Korea and Vietnam. So this is ripe for nipping the travel flower in the bud. Unfortunately, Americans are very isolationist and set in their ways regarding their perception of Europe. Hell, some people still don’t have cable, satellite, cell phones or Internet service. So what does one expect. At the end of the day, until the culture here s changed and the gap between the rich and poor is shrunk, most Americans just won’t get to see the beauty of the world.

  12. John (UK) says:

    I’m willing to bet that more British people have travelled outside Europe than Americans who just own a passport. This article is silly, instead of debunking a “myth”, you just gave excuses to justify it.

    The points about geography and size are red herrings. When I speak to American friends, just about all of their cultural experiences are given relative to Mexico. “Our healthcare is good, just look at Mexico”, “I do travel, I went to Mexico last summer”, “We don’t need to travel cos we have everything here, look how much worse Mexico is”.

    The American fear of travelling is probably the root of why Americans are largely unpopular. Americans love to stereotype everyone, from the French being surrender monkeys (despite winning America its independence) to the British having bad teeth (despite having superior dental hygiene to Americans nowadays) to Russians all being alcoholic communists. The point being that these stereotypes are all ancient history and their continued use in all American media culture makes Americans look bad to other developed countries. Anyone who travels can understand how far much of the world has come recently and would never be so foolish and to blindly believe his own country is chosen by God or somehow superior.

  13. I take issue with the ‘argument’ you make where you basically say “well the UK is small and British people love to travel, so we can’t compare them to Americans”. While I don’t think that’s the most logical argument, I think it makes a lot more sense to compare to Australians, who have more barriers to travel than Americans.

    Australia is almost as large as the continental United States, and traveling overseas for Australia is formidably more expensive than what it would cost someone in the US to spend a week in Europe. And yet in any given year, 20% of Australians travel overseas, and the majority have been outside of their borders. So despite the fact that Australians have a similar wealth of geography and far more barriers to overseas travel, they still do it more than Americans. The only thing that Australians have as an advantage is that on average they have perhaps 6 or so more vacation days than the average American. Not a huge difference.

    What you are right about is that the culture needs to change – in the meantime, we are creating generation after generation of Americans who are terrified of anything different from the culture they grew up with or see in the movies and on TV. And that is a sad, sad thing indeed.

    • I really agree with zander, I am an Australian myself and I know that Australians have a very proud perception of their country but I think that the culture in the US is horribly wrong. Obviously I can not stereotype everyone but from everything I have seen from the US is that they think their huge country is the most important place in the world. Their ignorance always continues to shock me, the New York Zoo has a sign that the Tasmanian devil is from the country of Tasmania, I don’t expect anyone to know all the states of australia but I expect the New York zoo to know what country their animals come from. Unfortunately their society is obsessed with capitalism and themselves, they still have guns because of a constitution that was written hundreds of years ago… This document actually confirmed that Americans don’t travel not debunked the myth. For Australians it is just as expensive and just as difficult the only difference is that we don’t think our country is the be all end all. I have taken the year off to travel and I have seen maybe 5 times more Australians than I have Americans and our country is 16 times smaller than yours. Once again I don’t want to stereotype 315 million people but the majority of people I have met from the us believe that the earth revolves around the us. The few Americans I have met who dont have this opinion also despise American people and culture. I believe American culture must change, from what I have seen too many people are obsessed with material possessions and social status than actual life. I think it’s reasonable to travel your own country but I bet there isn’t much difference between the 30 something states you haven’t seen as the ones you have. Unfortunately it will take decades for the us to realise that Europe has tens of countries vastly more interesting than their states and that Asia has more culture than you could ever experience in a lifetime of living there and that South America is full of life and history and that Africa is mainly full of vibrant colours and children that are happier than any us child. I think that too many people in the us think that a big house, nice car and nice clothes are too important to give up in order to see the world and its a huge shame.

  14. Perhaps this information is a bit outdated, but on a cross country road trip in 2006 I travelled alone and met hundreds of amazing people. I tended to spend most of my time with locals on my stops and it seemed that the vast majority of people spent a lifetime within their comfort zones, with family. When they had ideas about travel, it often involved moving due to job relocation, hardship or financial need or to be closer to relatives. It just didn’t sound to me in my informal cross section of america that folks were traveling to see the world or their own country. It seemed more that folks would travel to maintain comfort zones. That is the antithesis of how I perceive travel and how I have understood travel to be important by fellow travelers who yearn to live and experience new cultures. I guess I’m making more of an observation than a point.

  15. El Gringo says:

    I know this is politically incorrect what im about to say and the American media/society will frown on it. However, as an American male I can assure all men on this post that we are treated like celebrities when traveling abroad. Especially, with the foreign women. Obesity and high maintenance behaviors are very rare amongst foreign women (which is a lot more common with American women) and the ratio of attractive beautiful girls are much much higher abroad than in the states (again going back to the obesity issue we have here). The social environment is much more open and stress free than in the United States. I have lived and taught English in Brazil, Costa Rica and the Phillipines. True we might have a lot of diversity to see here in the United States but who wants to remain surrounded by uptight and stressed out people (Americans). Not I.

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