Sixty four percent of the population of the richest and most influential country in the world have never been abroad. Our citizens can be our best diplomats by showing the world who we really are, but we have to leave our own country first.
According to the State Department, there are 113,431,943 valid passports in circulation, which means 36% of Americans own a valid passport (and therefore 64% do not). Let’s assume that those with a valid passport have used it and those without have never been abroad — that means that a healthy majority of the population has never left the United States. Why not? How we decide to use our time and money are major factors in our failure to get abroad, as is a general lack of travel ambition.
Americans received an average of 12 days of vacation in 2012 (down from 14 in 2011), but used only 10. Moreover, 68% of American vacationers admitted to checking in with the office either “regularly” or “sometimes” during their vacations, which suggests that most Americans are still prioritizing work during their time off. Europeans receive between 25 and 30 days of vacation a year and typically use every day; few check back in with the office. From a practical standpoint, ten days just doesn’t offer a lot of flexibility for international travel — from a cultural standpoint, we Americans are clearly a little overly concerned with our jobs.
(Before you defend our vacation masochism and accuse the Europeans of being lazy, according to a mounting body of research, failing to take vacation is counter-productive; see studies from each of these: The Atlantic, Time, BusinessWeek, Harvard Business Review, Ernst & Young, New York Times)
Of course, there’s also the cost. According to the Department of Commerce, American international travelers spend an average of $1,351 per trip on airfare and $1,232 per trip outside of airfare, which means 52% of an international trip’s total expenditures are spent on simply getting there and back. A $2,583 trip would certainly seem a deterrent for the average American, who spends about the same amount on entertainment annually.
However, travel doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive – with the internet, it is easy to find cheap accommodations and dining, which will be the bulk of your international expenses. Cutting on airfare is not quite as easy, but it is possible (here are some solid suggestions).
I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces that claim that Americans’ fear and ignorance of other countries deters them from traveling abroad. However, I haven’t seen one study supporting (or refuting) this claim, so I’m not going to include fear as a factor
However, I will accuse Americans of a lack of ambition. According to a 2012 LivingSocial study, three of Americans’ top ten dream destinations are right here in the United States, including Las Vegas and Disney World. Really? Of all the amazing places to go in the world, with seven continents and over 200 countries, we pick Disney World as a dream destination? Let’s dream a little bigger than that.
Mark Twain once said that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” The planet has never been more interconnected and it scares me a little that 64% of the citizens of the world’s most influential country have never seen any other part of the world. On a less lofty note, international travel is so much fun and it’s tragic that so few in such a rich country have experienced it.
I have three recommendations for Americans who have the means, but have not been abroad:
1. Get over yourself – use all 12 days of vacation this year, without doing any work while you’re abroad.
2. Budget smart – travel can be affordable with just a little planning and creativity.
3. Dream bigger – Disney World is not an option. Try some of these instead.
If you don’t have a passport, apply for one right now and start researching your first international trip. It will be the best decision you’ll ever make.