I just returned to the United States after an incredible, 7-month sojourn with my family of six on the tropical island of Fiji while teaching psychology. It was incredibly enriching and mind-expanding, and fulfilled a longtime dream of mine to live abroad with my family. It seems to me that many Americans similarly dream of traveling the world, but never seem to get around to it. While traveling in Fiji and during my travels in several other countries, I have noticed that most of my fellow travelers are either from Europe or Australia. It has left me scratching my head and wondering, ‘Why am I not meeting a lot more Americans?’ We are one of the wealthiest nations on earth and yet we are vastly underrepresented in the global tourist scene. In fact, fewer than half of Americans even own a passport. Why? I propose five reasons.
I recognize that some of my blanket statements about American culture may not apply to you. I don’t mean to generalize or stereotype as I realize that many do not fit these categorizations. However, I am convinced that there are some core aspects of our culture as a whole that prevent many of us from taking advantage of some potentially amazing, mind-broadening experiences.
#1 The American Dream Actually Gets in the Way
I think as a society, we are guilty of promoting the notion that you must first achieve the American dream of wealth and prosperity and then you can go travel the world. The core problem with this philosophy is that few of us actually become fantastically wealthy and so we don’t end up traveling or by the time we have “amassed” enough wealth to feel like we can travel, we’re too old and in too poor of health to travel. Meanwhile our Australian and European counterparts at various income levels are becoming greatly enriched by their travel experiences. They aren’t forever putting off these fulfilling ventures; they are doing them now.
#2 Americans Tend to Focus on Things Over Experiences
I’ve now lived on two tropical islands—Hawaii and Fiji—and it seems that they shared a common theme of the island people is to not really care or worry much about material possessions. This stands in sharp contrast to our American mentality of keeping up with the Joneses by constantly acquiring more and more stuff. Americans, from my observation, tend to be quite competitive and so acquiring more things is one way that we can prove that we’re better than others. The downside of this kind of competition is that it leaves few reserves left for international travel. Perhaps Europeans compete through their trips and Americans compete through their acquisition of things.
#3 Americans Place a Premium on Privacy and Security, Making Travel Much More Expensive
Given the above point, I had this perception that you needed to be somewhat wealthy to travel the world. Then, during a trip to Egypt, I met some Dutch school teachers who had been traveling in the region for the past 5 weeks. Since then, I’ve met several middle-class and lower-middle-class individuals who were taking these long trips abroad. How did they do it? Well, aside from the fact that they are spending their money on experiences rather than things (see point #2), they are also willing to give up privacy and security to stay in communal hostels, engage in couchsurfing, do house swaps, hospitality exchanges, and take advantage of a number of other money-saving opportunities that make most Americans cringe. When I posted on Facebook about my house and car swap in New Zealand, several of my American friends said they could never live with the idea of strangers living in their house and several expressed concern about the idea of strangers driving their vehicle. Other cultures are much more trusting and don’t mind sharing their private space and possessions with perfect strangers. This enables them to able to go on long and extensive trips abroad that they could never afford if they were paying for their own “private” hotel room each might (a luxury many Americans demand). The communal orientation of many other cultures makes their people more amenable to shared space, even tight quarters. As an American who loves to travel on the cheap, I've written a book that details my secrets called See the World On Any Budget. Using these strategies, I just set up a three week trip for my family of six to visit Costa Rica. I found a way for us to fly for free, free housing, and the last thing I need to do to make it a completely free trip is find a way to have a van for free!
#4 We Work Longer Hours with Less Vacation Time than Most Countries
Some surveys put us at #12 in the world for most number of hours worked per year. We average 260 more hours than the British and 499 hours more than the French. With the usual 2-week vacation allowance, Americans can barely get acclimatized in a foreign country before having to head back, providing a major disincentive for loner travel. Conversely, many Europeans get 4 or even 6 weeks off in the summer and they can really stay long and thoroughly explore rather than engage in the American whirlwind tour. In fact, every other industrialized nation in the world requires and pays for you to take a vacation. Be forewarned that the information in this graph is rather depressing if you’re American:
Note that these are paid working days so 38 days off in Austria amounts to 7 ½ weeks of paid vacation. Also, it’s actually mandatory to take this time off unlike in America, where you may be able to “get ahead” by not taking your vacation leave.
#5 There’s a lot to See in America
Let’s be honest, we live in a massive country that offers rich diversity in sights and experiences. According to a telegraph.co.uk article, the United States has the largest domestic travel market in the world and we take an average of 6.7 trips per year per person. Thus, it’s not that we aren’t going places as Americans, it’s just that we aren’t leaving America to see them. From 58 national parks, a huge plethora of man-made parks (aka Disneyworld), unique cities ranging from New York City to Las Vegas, a diversity of landscapes ranging from the red-rock desert canyons of Utah to the tropical jungles of Hawaii, and wildlife ranging from black bears at Yellowstone to alligators in Florida. Many Americans may consciously or unconsciously wonder why they should go elsewhere when it’s cheaper, safer, and much less stressful to stay domestic. There’s so much to see here that you could spend your entire life exploring our own backyard. Some may call it ethnocentrism, but the fact of the matter is that we live in a pretty fantastic place leaving many people content with what is easier and more comfortable. We work ourselves so hard in America that when we finally get a week off of work, we’d rather relax than explore. Going abroad is not especially relaxing.
I’m sure that this is not a comprehensive list and that there are plenty of other reasons why Americans tend to stay in America; however, I think I’ve covered some of the core issues. What else other reasons do you perceive? I’d love to hear your thoughts or reactions in the comments section. In any case, despite these and other obstacles for traveling abroad, anyone who has spent significant time outside America can vouch for how personally and culturally enriching it can be. Let’s not let the American Dream, materialism, over concern about privacy and security, workaholism, or ethnocentrism to stop us from having enriching experiences abroad. After all, at the end of our lives we won’t be able to take with us any of our “things,” but we will forever retain our memories. I hope this article may stir within you a desire to break through these obstacles and make international travel a higher priority in your life.