7 Reasons Why Americans Don’t Travel
by Gary Arndt | December, 2007
If you have traveled even briefly outside of the United States, you will soon arrive at a conclusion which many before you have reached: American do not travel.
Not to the same degree which Europeans travel at least. No matter where I’ve gone, I’ve found more British, Australians, Germans and Dutch. I’m not talking about percentages either, but raw numbers. The United States – a nation of 300 million – often has fewer travelers in a given place than the Netherlands, with a population of 17 million. Many Europeans are shocked to learn that most Americans don’t even hold a passport.
If you ask Europeans why this is, the immediate answer they will give is vacation time. Europeans on average receive three to four more vacation weeks per year than the average American. This is certainly part of the reason, but it only compares averages. In a country of 300 million there are still millions of people who have European amounts of vacation. The population of people in the US who get five weeks of vacation per year is probably equal to or greater than the entire population of the Netherlands, so it really doesn’t explain why you see more Dutch than Yankees abroad.
While vacation time is certainly part of the equation, the real reason isn’t quite so simple. Here are seven reasons I believe Americans don’t travel:
#1 – North America is Huge
The collective size of North America is larger than that of non-Russian Europe. When Europeans visit another country, geographically, it isn’t that much different than visiting another state or province in North America.
The diversity of regions in North America is also much greater than in Europe. You can visit tropical regions in the Everglades, deserts in Death Valley, mountains in Colorado, grasslands in the Great Plains, high deserts in Oregon, fiords in Alaska, Polynesian culture in Hawaii, Latino culture in Puerto Rico and coniferous rainforests in the Pacific North West, all without ever using a passport.
That list doesn’t even include Vegas and Disney World. To visit the equivalent in Europe would require visiting several countries and, until the recent integration of the EU, required several border crossings.
#2 – Americans Don’t Need a Passport
Until recently, Americans didn’t need a passport for most travel. Prior to the changes made after 9/11, there was no need for Americans to have a passport to visit Canada, Mexico and most of the Caribbean. That is a large area and quite a few countries to explore without ever needing a passport.
Now that passports are needed for any border crossings this may change. It is funny that Europe and North American are moving in totally opposite directions in this respect. Europeans can now travel farther without a passport while Americans and Canadians cannot.
#3 – Americans Value Time Over Money
Europeans and Americans place substantially differing value on time and money. Many Europeans who came to America did so expressly to work. It should come as no surprise we value work and leisure differently.
Europeans get more time off, yet earn less money, while Americans earn more, yet have less time off. It is a trade-off.
What isn’t often mentioned is that even though Americans have less vacation time, one third of all Americans still have unused vacation time at the end of the year. Why? Many employers will compensate employees in cash for unused vacation hours.
If Americans really were itching for more vacation, you would probably see it appear in more negotiations and you would see more Americans use up the time they have. Again, Europeans and Americans have different preferences.
Another fact often ignored is that American vacation rates are higher than those found in Asia, where you see even greater preference towards work. Globally, Americans are closer to average than Europeans.
#4 – Americans Take Their Leisure Time in Shorter Bursts
Americans at all income levels are much more likely to own a cottage or second home, recreational vehicles (snowmobiles, ATVs and boats, etc.), and to take vacations by car than Europeans.
Given space and income levels in Europe, that isn’t an option for most Europeans. Hunting, fishing, and camping are all more popular in the US where there are much more open spaces and wildlife than in Europe. All of these activities take much less time and are closer to home.
#5 – Americans Lack a History of Living Overseas
Europeans have been running colonies for hundreds of years. During that time, it was very common for entire families to live, work and grow up overseas. By contrast, America is relatively new at the overseas living game, and it has only done so in an era of jet travel, where you can return home or only be gone for relatively short stretches.
There are thousands of British who grew up in places such as India, Kenya, South Africa, and Hong Kong. Comparable American spots were relatively small places such as the Panama Canal Zone and Guam.
#6 – America is More Diverse
Another factor often overlooked by Europeans is that Americans don’t have to travel as far to experience different cultures in the US. The United States, particularly in large urban areas, is an ethnic smörgåsbord of people from around the world. Even major European hubs can’t approach the diversity of cities like New York and Los Angeles. Once you escape large urban areas in Europe, diversity decreases dramatically. Even smaller communities in the US can have populations of recent immigrants.
#7 – Americans Pay More for College
Americans typically accrue a great deal of debt in the process of paying for their higher education. This necessitates the need to start earning money immediately after graduation (or not) and curbs any chance of taking a year off to travel.
For many, the prime years they can spend long-term traveling is in their 20s, and for many Americans, that time is spent working off loans.
Likewise, the idea of a gap year between high school and college has never really caught on in the US. Many students are eager to start college, especially if they endured a highly competitive process to get accepted. The issue of debt can extend well into their 30s when they have already settled down and started a family, further dwindling their opportunity to travel.
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About the Author
Gary Arndt is an American freelance travel writer, photographer, podcaster and blogger. You can follow his adventures at Everything-Everywhere.com.