the truth about americans traveling overseas


Today CNN posted a story entitled “Why more Americans don’t travel abroad.” It included some fun facts for travel nerds like myself:

– 30% of U.S. citizens have passports

– There were 61.5 million trips outside the United States in 2009, 50% of which were to Canada and Mexico

– Prior to 2007 when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was adopted requiring passports for Canada and Mexico, the percentage of U.S. citizens with passports was “in the teens”

– Comparatively, 75% of British Citizens and 60% of Canadian citizens have passports

None of these figures are truly surprising, except for the fact that now fully 30% of U.S. citizens have passports. In places such as the Middle East and the more remote parts of Asia, I have found very few Americans traveling. On the Trans-Siberian Railroad , for example, surrounded by drunk Australians, I met one lone American from Iowa whose first words to me were “Don’t worry, I didn’t vote for George W. either.” I found it to be the perfect ice-breaker.

In terms of the percentages of Americans with passports, the President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association was quoted as stating “That’s just too low for such an affluent country.” Well, I might agree with that, but to assume that will ever change is fantasy. There has not been, nor, in my opinion, will there ever be an easy one-to-one comparison to explain why Americans and those of other nationalities have differing travel habits. The article states that “tourism experts [who shall apparently not be named] and avid travelers [who might they be?] attribute Americans’ lack of interest in international travel to a few key factors, including: the United States’ own rich cultural and geographic diversity, an American skepticism and/or ignorance about international destinations, a work culture that prevents Americans from taking long vacations abroad and the prohibitive cost and logistics of going overseas.” Let’s look at this.

1. The United States’ own rich cultural and geographic diversity. The U.S. is indeed an extremely culturally diverse country, but unlike Canada, it does not have an institutional cultural duality (i.e. Quebec). If I lived in Pennsylvania and another language was spoken in New Jersey [some may argue that this is in fact true – see Jersey Shore], chances are I would know that language. If not, I would certainly be exposed to it, growing up in an environment where it was omnipresent. This is true, for example, for the Italian living in Torino, about a 30 minute drive from France. Family holidays in Pennsylvania may be taken to the actual Jersey shore, but family holidays in Torino may be taken to France. The Italians would have less distance to cover getting there by car than the Pennsylvanians would. In terms of the sheer expanse and geographic diversity of the U.S., yes this is a valid point. While the distances are far, there is a rich diversity of eco-systems to see, especially when one adds in the newest members of the fun 50: Alaska and Hawaii. And when one adds U.S. territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, etc. there would be little reason to leave the “country” to travel. At the most recent New York Times Travel Show I estimate that at least 50% of the vendors represented Caribbean destinations, a fact no doubt reflective of consumer demand, and inclusive of U.S. territories.

2. An American skepticism and/or ignorance about international destinations. Sigh. I am never quite comfortable when foreign friends generalize about the U.S. gen pop in these terms, but I also don’t like it when I’ve gained weight after eating a box of donuts. It is what it is. Just bring a map with you sometime and ask random strangers to pick out France or India on a map. I’m just sayin’. What’s worse, is that I would venture to guess that the large majority of the U.S. gen pop who are “pro-war ra ra go military woo hoo” folks have no idea where Iraq or Afghanistan are on the globe, much less the complex geopolitical impact of the smallest of actions. Geography education is dying, and apparently U.S. history as taught in high schools often ends at World War II. Why not end the story while you are on top…Seinfeld did it.

Exposure vis a vis the media is also a factor. The article rightly points out that “foreign countries generally don’t make it into the media for doing good things, just for natural disasters or bad news.” Ling Ling the Chinese Panda notwithstanding, this is generally true. Can you really call it “World News” when the farthest point of reference is Los Angeles? For that matter can you really call it a “World Series” when the world does not participate? I hereby name myself King of MacDougal Street [just because I can].

3. A work culture that prevents Americans from taking long vacations abroad. This is sadly true, and [again] sadly based on the insatiable need for productivity and some kind of residual and twisted sense of the Protestant work ethic that permeates both individuals and corporations. In Expedia’s 2009 International Vacation Deprivation Survey, it was found that employed adults on average earned the following amounts of vacation days: United States [13], Japan [15], Canada [19], Australia [19], New Zealand [21], U.K. [26], Austria [27], Germany [27], Spain [30], Italy [31], and France [38]. The French better enjoy it while they can, as austerity will no doubt change that very soon. It seems in the race to the bottom, Japan is the actual loser, giving back on average 7 of their 15 vacation days. U.S. citizens give back on average only 3 of their 13 days. Cause for celebration? The real travesty is that in the U.S. fully 436 million vacation days were given back at an estimated value of US$63 billion. Are you people crazy? Does the U.S. gen pop feel guilty about taking vacation time? I know you like your comfy couches, but come on.

4. The prohibitive cost and logistics of going overseas. This is BS. It’s all about priorities and choices. All of those U.S. households with Wii’s, large screen TVs, multiple SUVs, Xbox 360s, and every other gadget make the choice to become insular with each additional purchase. They could just as easily choose the experiential expenditure over the consumerist expenditure. It would probably benefit their children more as well. In terms of logistics, one can practically travel anywhere these days by paying for a trip and showing up at the airport. The many adventure travel companies out there will then take them and hold their hand all the way through. No need to think at all. Only to eat and drink. Who wouldn’t like that?

In the end it comes down to education and choice. Just because one does not walk away with something physical after spending money does not mean that it was not worth it. In the end, your large screen TV will end up in the dumpster. You will always have your experiences.


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jt is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Italy and has a Masters in International Relations. He has traveled to all seven continents and one hundred nine countries and is quite fond of a good cappuccino.


  1. Those donuts 🙁

    When I as living in the US, I felt very guilty for taking a vacation. It felt very extravagant and indulgent. No one else I knew was lazy enough to take two weeks off to traipse off to an exotic location. c.f. Belgium, where the most common question in April is “where are you going for your summer vacation?”.

    Vive le roi de la Rue MacDougal.

  2. America may be geographically diverse, but not much more so than Australia, so it doesn’t really explain the American exceptionalism.

    BTW, on France and austerity, there is no economic reason why holiday time should decrease. In fact you can make a strong economic argument that holiday time should increase. Afterall, the number of labour hours in an economy can be split in multiple ways, and when you have a pool of surplus labour it is better to split the labour hours more evenly to ensure that everyone participates equally. Decreasing the holiday time would just decrease the number of people required in the labour force to complete the job, increasing unemployment. Decreasing holiday time only makes sense in an economy with full employment and need for extra supply – a condition which almost only occurs during wartime.

    • In terms of geographical diversity, the idea is not that that is a sole causal agent, but that it is a contributing factor wrapped in every issue raised in that paragraph. When combining that same causal agent vis a vis Australia that has a a tradition of Gap year, etc., the outcome is different, and I would agree, preferable.

      In terms of France and austerity, true there may not be a direct correlation. However, the psychology of austerity tends to permeate all levels of society. Looking at it from the business perspective rather than the government perspective, when French business realizes that by cutting back only 2 days per year of vacation time per employee they could save billions of Euros and increase productivity, it is likely that the idea will be on the table. Businesses will not care about unemployment figures, they will only care about the bottom line. Damn that capitalism!

      • Except you may remember a few years ago that the French government tried to reduce unemployment by cutting back the number of hours the French worked, on the grounds that companies would hire more temp staff to cover the extra hours. There was indeed a small increase in job numbers, but it soon settled down as employers found that the staff were more productive once they had more time off, giving the French the highest productivity per hour of any labour market.

        Luckily, the government sets the minimum holidays, not business, and I doubt they could get away with such a bad plan in continental Europe. The UK and Ireland seem to have bought into the “austerity” rubbish though.

        • That’s actually incorrect, Luxembourg has a higher productivity rate than France. : ) In addition, according to the OECD the French productivity rate has declined three consecutive years 2007-9 -0.4% -0.6% and -1.3% respectively and France’s GDP per hour worked was 54.5 whereas Belgium was 56.5, Germany 53.3 and the US GDP per hour worked was 57.4.