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Why don’t more Americans travel abroad?

I read an interesting article recently, entitled Why Americans Don’t Travel Overseas. And before anyone accuses me of making a gross generalization, here are a few statistics:

70% percent of Americans don’t have passports

Only 1% percent of American college students study abroad

Many Americans don’t travel outside of the continental US. It’s a fact. A puzzling one that many theorize has to do with America’s size (“Why go snorkeling in Australia when we’ve got Florida?”) or America’s diversity “(“Why go to Mexico to speak Spanish when we can go to Taco Bell?”), but I think that it has more to do with the fact that it’s so easy to live this risk-free, safe life in America that people find themselves stuck. They tell themselves that they can’t travel because they don’t have the money or the vacation time, but those are just excuses that mask the real reason: they just don’t want to. They’re comfortable in their shells; watching their lives dribble by in between commercial breaks of CSI.

It seriously irks me when my single, childless friends tell that they don’t have enough money to go anywhere. Seriously, what’s stopping you? Even if you only get paid minimum wage, if you lived on a tight budget, you’d be able to save up the $10,000 needed for a round the world trip in a year and a half or so.

Before I went to India for four months, I sold my car and worked three jobs in order to save up for the trip. For nine months, my life was not fun. I didn’t go out or eat out or shop anywhere but the sales racks at Target.

And now I’m 26 and I don’t have a career or a car or a lot of expensive clothing, but I’ve traveled to 25 countries in 10 years. Some would argue that it was all a waste of time and money, and that’s fine. Those people have cars, spouses, children and flat screen televisions instead because that’s what they wanted.

Americans don’t travel for the same reason anyone from a developed nation doesn’t travel: it’s not a priority. If it was, they’d find a way to do it regardless of their financial situations. I think that they’ve all just bought into the popular American marketing plan that the world is too dangerous or too expensive or too unpredictable and that travel just isn’t worth the hassle.

Maybe I’m being naive but I really think it’s that simple. What do you think?

P.S. Behind the myth that Americans don’t have passports disputes everything I’ve just written. The author brings up some good points, but she uses the example of the average American couple with the added expense of children. I still assert that the average childless couple could afford overseas travel.

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24 thoughts on “Why don’t more Americans travel abroad?

  1. I can't tell you how many people I know that fall into this category. I had a friend tell me next time she comes to Europe she'll take a cruise 'because then there's always a safe comfort zone to return to'.

    I've also had tons of friends tell me they want to come and then their next topic of discussion is that they are pregnant or just bought an expensive house.

    I'll also never understand it. You get one life to learn and experience things. It really sounds like you're making the most of all the world has to offer.

  2. I knew a lot of people who worked on cruise ships who said they same thing. They wanted the experience of travel but a safer version where they didn't have to venture too far from the ship if they didn't want to.

    I think that there's nothing wrong with having children or being a home-owner, by the way. I wouldn't mind trying both one day.

    I think it's interesting to explore WHY it is that Americans don't want to travel abroad. Somewhere in the comments section of the article, a woman made a list of American priorities in life.

    1. A good job
    2. A partner
    3. A house
    4. A car
    5. Good, quality THINGS
    6. Travel

    I thought that was pretty accurate. I think that it's also that American culture doesn't hold a traditional pre/post college "gap year" travel tradition like the Europeans, Israelis, Australians and New Zealanders do.

    People argue that it's because America is so far and isolated (unlike European countries) but that doesn't explain why Australians have a higher percentage of international travelers. They're even more isolated and yet that just makes them want to travel and see the world even more.

    Furthermore, what about the Canadians? They're stranded out here in North America too and yet nearly half of all Canadians have passports.

    Anyone got a theory on why this is?

  3. Something to do with the comfort zone from your previous post.

    What's worst is half of those who travel still doesn't get out of their filled with stereotypes comfort zones. A gap year eurotrip is a fine example of a worthless travel that just deepens those stereotypes. The real life Pulp Fiction's Vincent Vegas – people who while in Paris eat at McDonalds and all they learn is that beer is served there.
    Like I recently read the whole blog of this ryanrunseurope.blogspot.com and despite his awesome way of traveling and academic interest in sacral architecture I still catch him on that close-minded & straight from USA approach & the way of thinking.
    Too few are like You. So maybe it's better for them to stay home rather then spread false world travel experience.

  4. The only issue I have concerning Americans not traveling abroad is when they say, "America is the greatest country in the world," even though they've never left it.

    I love America now that I've moved, and can't wait to get back, but I'm still only allowed to say, "America is a great country," since I have yet to live anywhere outside of Japan and America.

    I think it's because everybody thinks that America is the "greatest country in the world" is a HUGE reason as to why so few Americans travel abroad. Why visit all of those other, lowly countries when you're on the best part of the planet right now?

  5. "Those people have cars, spouses, children and a flat screen televisions instead because that's what they wanted."

    Before you go looking down on these other Americans from your "enlightened" pedestal, take this into account. America is THE place to make your career dreams come true. That goes for most careers, including tech, entrepreneurial, and medicine. That's why we have such an influx of immigrants.

    To make that happen you have to work a crapload. The statistics are out and Americans work more and take less vacations than anyone else in the world, including Japan.

    You could assume these people just want flat-screen tvs. Maybe some of them do. But a lot of them have a dream that doesn't include travel and they are working hard to make that dream come true.

    I have lived, studied and worked abroad, and traveled abroad. I myself get disgusted with American "consumerism" when I return from a backpacking trip, but then I realized a lot of these condemnations were generated in my own head and I needed to relax. 🙂

  6. Hmm. So you think I'm on a pedestal about it? Maybe a little. But I didn't mean to suggest that a dream of travel is any better than a dream of becoming a doctor or a TV repair man or anything else.

    I guess it's just tough for me to live in a culture that places so little value in travel. I don't think that travel is this cure-all to everyone's problems or that it makes people necessarily any more enlightened or wise but all I can speak is from my personal experience. And for me, well…travel really changed me for the better. So naturally I encourage everyone to do the same.

    But I do recognize that that may not be everyone's path in life. If a successful career is what makes you happy, that's awesome. There's nothing wrong with that.

  7. Also, most Americans only have a week of vacation on average… and usually don't want to spend it hustling around in a foreign country but want to spend it at home relaxing since its the one week out of 52 to be home. I know your willing to give away all your stuff to travel but a lot of Americans can't really travel all over, and then just end up back at their parents. Risking loosing their job, house ect. Especially in these times.

  8. In regards to students going abroad:
    Working enough during the school year (say, 2 – 3 jobs) to save up for a world-wide vacation over summer break will guarantee you Bs and Cs (unless you are a genius). Now, if you're not serious about school, that's fine. But if you are… Obviously, that's not good. I know, because before I got pregnant I tried. I made $1,678 in savings over the year (I had to pay my way through school, and rent/food/etc. too), and got a B- that threw me into a very serious "I'm never going to get into grad school and I've ruined my life" depression, so I gave up (which was lucky, because I needed that money when I found out I was pregnant two weeks later).

    Also, in regards to being a student abroad: Speaking as the child of lower-middle-class parents in the Canadian prairies (where diversity is non-existant and having more than one car is fancy): Haha. It *is* possible, but to qualify for a lot of the programs you need to have a skill set you won't be able to develop here (unless you live in a large city, of which there are 5 across all three prairie provinces). The schools here have next to zero connections to international programs. You can apply for semester or year abroad programs that are pay-based, but most of the ones I found in high school and the early years of university were $8,000-$10,000… Not bloody likely (again, if you're serious about your studies). Also, learning a foreign language other than French in small-town prairie-ville is next to impossible. I know this is a very Canadian perspective, but I would think this probably applies to the American midwest, too.

    Have you met many Canadians oversees? How many were from BC/Vancouver, Ontario/Toronto? How many Americans have you met abroad who were from North or South Dakota or Minnesota? I ask because I have a theory that people on the coasts and highly populated areas of North America have higher chances of getting out.

    Having said that, I DID live in France for four months, post daughter, but it was a huge mistake. Our financial situation is so shaky now, I'm going to forever curse myself for putting wanderlust before what was best for Evelyn. And now this comment has become way too personal so I'm going to end it.

  9. Actually, I have an amendment:
    Almost every Canadian between the ages of 16 – 35, regardless of province of origin (territories excluded) has traveled and/or lived in Australia, or will be doing so in the foreseeable future. This excludes me, because I have no desire to ever visit the Island of Poisonous Things.

  10. I came across a couple articles related to this thread. Americans aren't the only nation to not travel much abroad. The French and Chinese also don't travel abroad.

    French tourists seen as world's worst: survey
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20090709/lf_nm_life/us_france_tourists

    This post is from a blog I read to study Mandarin. He writes a humorous story about how Chinese people view traveling abroad (they see it as worthless).
    http://www.bjshengr.com/bjs/2009/05/have-you-been-abroad/

    I love these little insights into how other cultures view travel.

  11. I don't know that kids that grow up in cities are more likely to study or live abroad than those who grew up in small towns. This is just speaking from personal experience, but most of my friends who grew up in NYC have barely left it. That could be just part of the whole 'New York is the best place on Earth so why would we live anywhere else?' mentality. I grew up mostly in Hawaii and lived on a little island, 45 mintues away from the capital, Honolulu, and from as early as I can remember, I had this urge to get out and see the world. Most of my friends felt the same way and now nearly everyone that I knew growing up now lives in either a different state or different country.

  12. Kira, that's really brave of you to move to France with your daughter. What did you do for a living while there and did you go by yourself? What went wrong?

    I can't even begin to imagine how stressful that must have been. Have you ever read this blog?

    http://www.sixintheworld.com/

    It's about this couple with five children who traveled around the world for a year. Their youngest was just three at the time.

  13. Yeah, in Europe it's small town kids who are more likely to live abroad and take on travel related challenges. It's a matter of mentality not ability. In this case it's "America is the best country in the world so why go anywhere else"

  14. I'm Australian, not American but I cop a lot of people saying I'm "lucky" to be able to travel. That really bugs me because it's not like I've WON holidays as prizes. I've worked and saved to afford to travel.

    I do think though there is a real mentality in Australia that you should travel and see the world before settling down to a career.

  15. Vin. ~ Thanks for those links. My French and Chinese friends have always claimed that but it's interesting to learn that there's some factual truth to it as well. Oddly enough, my friend in China says that everyone there is obsessed with everything Japan and travel to Japan whenever possible. I thought that was interesting considering the history between them.

    Kathrynoh ~ Good point! I also find it sort of insulting when people write off all the work I've done to prepare for a trip as me just being 'lucky', or worse, rich. People sometimes assume that I'm a trust-fund child or something but I've always been financially independent and have paid for everything on my own. I'm certainly lucky to have been able to live with my family in between cruise contracts, but the few times I have stayed with them longer than a couple of weeks, I've paid rent.

    I think that you're right that they use that as a cop-out. It's really difficult to save money (and I'm pretty bad at it actually), but it's certainly manageable if you want something badly enough.

  16. I guess people are simply wired in different ways. I have friends who are very well travelled and knowledgeable, friends who are well-travelled and cannot sort themselves out (I don't really see the point of traveling if it's just some form of therapy, but hey, why not? :-), friends who have only lived in one place but who are wise about life, etc, etc, etc.

    I know it wasn't really the topic of your post, but the comment section seems to lean towards whether or not people who don't travel are somehow missing out on life. IMO, not necessarily.

  17. From the article, How to save for a round the world trip: "If you are an average person, you probably eat out 5 to 7 times a week." Really?! Gosh, no wonder people have trouble saving.

    There are interesting points of view in the comments to this article, well done for writing something so thought provoking.

    BTW, sad to read that you are ending this blog, I will miss it!

    – Bri, 28 year old Australian currently saving to go to Norway and Poland next month and Thailand next March 🙂

  18. Hey Bri,

    Thanks! Well you never know…this blog may just well make a comeback. I just need a little break so that I can get my life organized. Subscribe to the blog and you'll get a notice whenever I start it up again! Might take a couple of months…

    Thanks for reading and enjoy your trip to Norway and Poland. Poland is actually one of my favorite countries…the people are so friendly and it's has such a fascinating history!

  19. 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.

  20. R,

    I love your article and agree 100%! I am so tired of my friends and family giving me those lame excuses of why they don’t travel abroad. #1 Don’t have money like you. #2 I don’t have anyone to travel with…:( #3 We have everything right here in the USA. These excuses actually anger me, and I can not believe educated enlightened people actually say these things! We just returned from our 6 month Round the World Trip and it was the best thing we ever did! We are both physicians, so we had every excuse in the world to not go, but we didn’t let it hold us back. We quit our jobs, sold everything just like you, and it changed our lives so much that we are moving abroad:)

    I disagree with a couple of comments. Do not kid yourself people, if you stay in the states all of your life, you are missing out! The USA contains roughly 5% of the world’s population, do you really believe that 95% of the world has nothing to offer? That u can’t learn something from other people’s way of life? You are sadly mistaken if you do. The USA is sterile and safe, we think we are individualists, but we really aren’t; we conform to whatever group we fit into. My doctor friends join country clubs and drive Mercedes. My athlete/ construction friends go to local bars and drive trucks, etc., etc… Our culture suffers from it’s insular nature. We do not take criticism well nor do we take other countries’ advice well, and that means we do not improve or grow. A stagnant culture will eventually fail! I find that the deepest, most interesting people, most genuine people are folks who travel. Not just because they travel, but because they are introspective, and try to relate themselves to the world around them. Saying you are “just wired different” is another lame excuse….

    ps-Only 18% of US adults have passports (official)

  21. Hello, I am a 26 year old wannabe traveler who really likes this blog. I stumbled across it while looking for recent writing of today’s travelers. I am interested in traveling after reading a few world history books, which turned into a variety of readings on history, culture, societies, etc. and I wish to see them for myself. My personal problem is I am part of your article’s chagrin; I am an American who has not crossed borders yet. And, I take a little offense at your questioning of my excuse, money. I work hard and yes it is only minimum wage, it will take me some time before I can afford to go. Now, I am not saying you did not work hard to become a doctor or anything like that, you are probably much smarter than I am but it is false to say I do not long to travel. In fact, I’ve met a few people who came from old money and have traveled, but missed having any insightful or learning experience on their travels. I think they are a minority but food for thought. Not all of us isolated Americans are doing it by choice.

    PS: I do have a passport, just without any stamps.

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