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Why more Americans don't travel abroad (commentary on CNN article)

04 Feb 2011
Great article on today:

Why more Americans don't travel abroad
The text is linked, but here’s the URL anyway:

If you’ve ever been out in the world, you’re likely to run into a few Americans here and there.  It seems like we’re everywhere.  But there are surprisingly few Americans with passports.  This article explains why and I’ll be going through and commenting on certain points. Enjoy!

(CNN) -- The numbers tell the story: Of the 308 million-plus citizens in the United States, 30% have passports.

That's just too low for such an affluent country, said Bruce Bommarito, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the U.S. Travel Association.
"Americans are comfortable in their own environment," Bommarito said.

There’s a lot of truth to that, but let’s put it in hard numbers.  If 30% of the United States’ 308 million citizens have passports, that means there are approximately 92 million Americans with passports.  While that may seem like a lot of people (because it is), there are 215 million passport-less Americans.

There were 61.5 million trips outside the United States in 2009, down 3% from 2008, according to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. About 50% of those trips were to either Mexico or Canada, destinations that didn't require a passport until 2007.

So of those 92 million passports, about 62 million were used last year.  That means about 30 million (!) people stayed home

The percentage of Americans with passports -- a number that was in the teens just a few years ago -- has spiked since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was adopted. It requires American and Canadian travelers to present documents showing citizenship when entering the United States.

Despite the climbing number of American passports in circulation, 30% is still low compared to Canada's 60% and the United Kingdom's 75%.

Ever been out of the US?  Canadians are everywhere.  You can tell by the flag patch on their pack.  NOTE: This does not account for Americans with Canadian patches on their bags.  Wussies

Tourism experts and avid travelers 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.

It turns out you can’t see the world – or even a small part of it – on your pittance of a salary and meager ten days of vacation.  Unless you run a kick-ass travel photo site, in which case you get no salary and plenty of vacation.  But with no salary, you can’t afford to go anywhere.  You understand.

America has it all: "From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam," as "God Bless America" proclaims. Beautiful beaches in Florida, crisp skiing in Colorado and the desert sun in Arizona are among thousands of domestic destinations competing to lure visitors.

"In the United States, we have an enormous amount of places we can travel -- basically an entire continent," said… Gary Arndt, who has been traveling abroad and blogging since 2007. "You can do all kinds of things without needing a passport."

Work culture
Many Americans follow the same pattern: work hard in high school, go to college, accrue a load of debt and get a job right away to work it off, Arndt said. The United States doesn't promote taking a year off between major life phases like New Zealand or the United Kingdom.

"Up until recently, having a gap year was a job killer, so you chose work," Kepnes said. "And that work, work, work mentality makes it much harder to leave."

A one-year break in your resume could make an American employer question your commitment to a company, whereas not taking a gap year in New Zealand would be considered crazy, Kepnes said.

"We're not a travel culture," he said. "Countries are travel cultures when they put more of an emphasis on leisure time, and Americans tend to choose money over leisure time."

Even those who do receive a nice chunk of vacation time don't use it all, and those who do seem to take shorter, more frequent trips, Arndt said.
USA!  USA!  US…aw, crap.  Back to work.

"There are some differences in terms of vacation time that are hugely influential," said Joe Byrne, executive vice president for Tourism Ireland. Workers in mainland Europe receive between six and eight weeks of vacation, while Americans average about 16.6 paid vacation days as of 2005, according to the Families and Work Institute. Thirty-six percent of those surveyed didn't plan to use their full vacation.

"It's not just about how much vacation time people get," Arndt said. "Americans don't even use all the vacation time that they have."

Wait, Europeans get SIX and EIGHT WEEKS of vacation?  But I’m sure they have to be at that job for about 50 years, right?  Right?

Cost and logistics
When trying to entice Americans to visit Ireland, Byrne said the first thing he does is remind people that it's more affordable than they think.

"That's generally true of vacations to Europe," Byrne said. "The exchange rate is more favorable for Americans than it has been in recent years."

The 30.3 million Americans who traveled overseas for vacation in 2009 spent an average of $2,708 each -- including airfare, lodging and other expenditures, according to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. It seems that getting there is about half the battle: Average airfare per person was $1,177.

Not telling a joke, it would help to know if those prices are standard or special rates, if they’re part of a package deal, if those are in-season or off-season prices, if the rooms are any good, if meals are included, etcetera.  Hey, I can get you a room in New York City for $10 a night, but you probably wouldn’t want to stay there.

I understand my previous paragraph sounds a little cynical, because if it really is only a couple thousand dollars to go visit Ireland in nice weather, then who wouldn’t go?  I mean, if you can afford it and get more than ten minutes of vacation time.

Be sure to read the article in its entirety, but I want to point out that “Americans” is a relatively loose term.  There are millions of passport holders who may only use a passport once or use it only for travel to Canada, Mexico or a specific country where they visit often because they have family and/or a timeshare or something.

Like a lot of people who have traveled, I did so before marriage and children.  I’m fairly confident that of those 62 million Americans who traveled internationally last year, a lot of those where college students going overseas, many for the first time and I’m not including those going to Cancun for Spring Break.

Study Abroad programs, as I have mentioned before, are one of the best ways to see the world for the first time.  After college, though, a person might get a job right away or travel to Korea to teach English or something.  Which you should totally do, by the way, because it’s great.

So if you take something away from this article, hopefully it’s this:

-    If you have a full time job and want to travel, getting overseas is more manageable than you may have thought.

-    If you have a family, especially small children, you might be able to afford to travel to another country, but waiting until the kids are old enough to appreciate the trip is probably your best bet.

-    If you’re in high school, college or about to graduate college, for the love of corn, travel before you have a full time job and a family with small children.  And take a lot of pictures!

See you out there!

© 2011,

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