Americans Abroad | Debunking the Travel Myth

Scene: A hostel common room anywhere in the world.

Hello, where are you from?            

Oh, hi! I’m from the US. I grew up Florida & most recently lived in New York City.

Really? That’s crazy! You’re the first American I’ve met while traveling. Americans just don’t like to travel.

Central Park, New York City – 22+ hour drive from my hometown

If I had this conversation once, I had it 100 times since I left to travel full time in December 2010. It seems my countrymen have quite an isolationist reputation.

To be fair, I realize that I am a part of a relatively small group of Americans who travel recreationally very often. Having worked as a travel publicist in NYC and then leaving to see the world by myself, I’m surrounded by world traveling friends and colleagues, so it’s easy for me to forget that not everyone is constantly crossing borders and stamping passports.

But still, this stereotype that Americans don’t travel, and the insinuation that we don’t enjoy it, really grinds my gears.

Walt Disney World – 3 hour drive from my hometown

Real talk: it’s not that Americans don’t like to travel – because I think by historically and by nature we are a country of explorers and adventurers — but there are a few key factors that contribute to our reputation as isolationists. Let’s discuss!

Size. The US is the 4th largest country in the world after Russia, Canada and China. We have 50 states with varied climates, terrains and attractions. Visiting every state within our own country is a feat most of us never achieve due to size. I’ve been traveling around the US since I was a kid and I think I’ve still only seen 38 states. In fact, I’ve now been to more countries than states.

To put it in perspective, America is 2.5 times the size of Europe. (Click here for a cool graphic illustrating the point.) So while every European guy I’ve met in a hostel has visited Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, etc., that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s more well-traveled than an American who’s never left the Western Hemisphere. From a mileage perspective, it’s highly possible that an American who’s never left America actually has traveled more extensively than say, the Belgian who’s been to 12 nearby European countries.

More about states. If you’re not from the US, but you’ve been here, and you’ve only seen NYC, Los Angeles and Las Vegas – you haven’t really seen the US! Every state is different, and I assert that each one has enough cultural cache to be thought of as its own country. If you drive 100 miles from my parents’ house in North Florida in any direction, you’ll find completely different accents, priorities, traditions and cultural norms.

Hawaii – 15+ hour flight from my hometown

And that’s not even taking into account America’s status as a melting pot. I can travel around the world in a few hours in New York City or any metropolis in the country, tasting authentic cuisine, speaking dozens of languages and meeting people from clear across the globe. Just yesterday, in my relatively insular hometown, I spoke broken Arabic with a kebab restaurant owner. He looked at me like a had three eyeballs when I started to chat him up, but it just goes to show there’s no lack of international opportunity right here in our own backyard.

Geography. Our geography ensures that leaving the country is probably going to be expensive and time consuming. The US only shares borders with two countries – Mexico & Canada. Unless you live in a border state, it’s not terribly easy or convenient to visit the neighbors. Consider I’m from Florida, surrounded on 3 sides by water – it takes at least one flight, if not more, to get to either international neighbor. It’s not like we can just hop a train and in 45 minutes we’re speaking a new language.

Whitewater rafting in South Carolina – 7+ hours’ drive from my hometown

Vacation time. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to travel for Americans is the lack of vacation time. According to a study from 2010, every 1st world country (except Canada, Japan & the US) mandates at least 20 paid vacation days per year. In France & Finland, it’s 30 days. In the US, it’s ZERO.

That’s right. The only reason we get any time off at all is due to the generosity and benefits of our employers. When you factor in many blue collar Americans get at most 10 paid vacation days (like my Dad, who’s been working his butt off for 35 years), it’s no wonder you don’t find so many of us in far-flung locales. (Check out this interesting article on the topic from the New York Times.)

For example: it takes around 4 days of transit time to get to and from Australia, so for someone with at most 10 days off (often including sick days) for an entire year, that leaves very little time on the ground to actually enjoy the destination or more importantly, to get to know its culture. It’s one of the reasons I quit my job to travel full time. I knew I’d never see the world if I had to do it in 5-day sprints over the course of 50 years. And my situation is so extreme – most people do not have the luxury, either financially or otherwise, to leave home indefinitely to explore. Sometimes there’s a tough choice to be made, and often it must be in favor of family, children, job, bills, etc.

Is it any wonder Americans are known to stick a little closer to home?

Passports. I hear folks spouting passport statistics all the time – only 30% of Americans have passports, hence, Americans are uncivilized, untraveled, uneducated jerks! But let’s be clear – that’s almost 100 million people! And considering all I’ve described about the obstacles to travel – distance, geography and especially vacation time, I’m pretty proud of that intrepid 30%.

Sledding with my cousins in Wisconsin – 20+ hours’ drive from my hometown

I’ll get to the whole, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re American. You seem so normal,” myth later. (The myth that Americans can’t be normal, well-adjusted travelers, not the myth that I, myself, am normal.) There’s not enough space in this post to combat the image that MTV projects about American culture overseas. You wouldn’t believe how many people are floored when I don’t act, talk and dress like Snooki or one of those hoodlums from My Super Sweet Sixteen.

My point here is simple: statistics don’t tell the whole story about American travelers. So please don’t assume if you don’t see as many of us out there on the road that it’s because we don’t like you or we don’t want to see the world or worse, we stay home because we think there’s nothing else to see. There’s so much more to the story!

Hollywood – 5+ hour flight from my hometown

So what do you think, foreign friends? Does all this info jibe with what you know about the American traveler?

Hometown peeps – am I striking a chord? What keeps you from traveling?


About The Author

55 thoughts on “Americans Abroad | Debunking the Travel Myth”

  1. Its easy to get defensive but Americans as a whole dont travel a lot. Im American so I’m not biased.
    I’m living in Australia at the moment and they travel so much more and they’re an island in the middle of nowhere! They’re the same size and have deserts, snows and beautiful seas so I think that’s not the reason why.
    The main thing is they get 4 weeks compared to our 2. A lot of people opt for staycations because they cant be bothered in two weeks.

    1. That’s definitely the big difference between Aussie travelers & US – the time off. And there’s a gap year culture there that we don’t have in the US. Would love to see that instituted here.

    2. Yep–what he said. Most Americans don’t even take their two weeks because their companies make them feel guilty for it. I also attribute that to why there are so many health problems (like obesity) in this country–our work culture doesn’t allow for being active and enjoying some much-needed R&R every now and then!

      It’s why I always wanted to be Danish–six weeks off a year, MINIMUM. And then comp time for every hour they work over 35 each week. And they’re *required* to take it. Can you even imagine?

      1. Exactly. In all my years as a publicist, I never once – NOT ONCE – took my vacation days without working. And I never got comped for the many, many, many full weekend days I worked. I don’t know what I would do if someone forced me to take my vacation time back then… probably just die of joy!

  2. THANK YOU for writing something like this. As an American living in Norway, nothing is more irritating than people saying Americans don’t enjoy traveling or seeing the world. It’s so far from the truth it makes me want to scream. Here in Norway, where most people claim to be so international and well-traveled, the majority spend their month long vacation at one resort in Greece/Turkey/Spain/Canary Islands and stay at resorts with only other Scandinavians and don’t leave the place at all during that month. Then they criticize Americans for not traveling.

    People don’t realize that there is more to the story. I heard the ‘You’re the first American I’ve met on the road’ story one too many times when I was in southeast Asia and I constantly told the person…that is not true…in our hostel dorms alone I was NEVER the only American in there. I think sometimes people just enjoy saying it because it is a conversation starter and they don’t have the confidence of starting the conversation another way. Just like Norwegians strike up a conversation here with me asking ‘Why America doesn’t have free healthcare’ (apparently they think their’s is free). Out of all the things American, that is all they can think of to talk about.

    I have been to 45 US states, over 30 some countries and I know I’m not the only one out there. There are plenty of us, but like you mentioned, our country is plagued by little vacation time and the vastness of the land itself. And people are engrained with the notion that you have to work, work, work and go to school…so sometimes they don’t have the willpower to travel despite the innate desire to. But I see that changing more and more now as they realize it is possible when they see others out there doing it.

    Thanks for writing this post…I can’t wait to share it 🙂

    1. You make such a great point – I think it’s easy to say, “Americans don’t do this, Americans are like that,” because it’s a conversation starter.

      And my gosh, I think I’ve got enough ranting for a whole other post on people asking me about free healthcare. I HATE discussing politics with people who don’t live here and have no idea how the system works. Makes me bonkers!

      1. Agreed! I often get the healthcare debate when I am out enjoying a beer at a bar somewhere in Europe. I don’t understand it…I can think of about 10,000 better things to chat about over a drink.

  3. Some of us love to travel but don’t like to fly. Therefore vacations are limited to destinations we can drive to- meaning: see the US, plenty to see right here 🙂
    Good article!

  4. OK, this is the exact same argument I have over and over again while traveling–we have so much to explore within our own boundaries that you could never possibly do that in a lifetime!

    Great post.

  5. Good article, Angie! I am not as well traveled as I would like, and you’ve hit the major reasons…time, location,etc. I have been to Europe, but did little traveling from there during the 3+ years that I lived there. Small children were my main hold-back at that time. I, like most Americans, have seen only a small portion of the States…21 States mainly from the window of a car as we traveled from one coast to the other. I am planning my first “abroad” trip this October! Yea! Getting to go, albeit only for a week, to Ecuador. Not on a missionary trip, but on a mission to find out if I want to relocate there. Email me any tips you think would make my trip better. Love you.

  6. Seriously, LOVE THIS POST! As a fellow American, I agree with every point. I quit my job to travel throughout SE Asia and then worked in Germany for several months after- that is the only reason why I have been lucky enough to travel. Travel outside of the US, especially with a full time job, is hard, if not impossible!

    1. Our corporate culture makes it nearly impossible to get away… I only realized it once I was in the trenches myself and thought, “I’m never going to get out of here!”

  7. This is SO Spot on! I know a few others addressed this in the comments, but the corporate culture in America is so backwards. My number one annoyance with corporate USA is the lack of vacation days.

    I definitely had previous colleagues borderline harass me about traveling abroad (and when I was changing jobs, for example “Will your new boss actually let you jet off for 2 weeks to Australia?”) I once exaggerated that I had a free plane ticket to ‘allow’ the approval of my pending trip…

    Hopefully more people can embrace traveling and help USA’s image. 🙂

    1. Even though I loved my previous job, the one thing that drove me nuts was the constant harassment about taking days off. I’d be out of town for work for 14 straight days, wouldn’t get paid for a single overtime or weekend hour, and yet when I’d come back and want to take a morning off to catch up on bills or laundry, I’d get criticized for not being in the office enough. WHAT?!

  8. I think you’re absolutely right that most people under appreciate how big the U.S. is. We started our full-time traveling in North America in April of 2010. More than two years and 141 stops later, we’ve only covered about 60% of the U.S – and only the highlights at that. We figure it will take us another year to finish our U.S. “highlight tour.”

    And yet at some of the major sites in the West (like the Grand Canyon) we figured we heard more people speaking foreign languages than English. It was astounding how many international tourists had made it to that remote part of the world – and how many American’s have never been.

    Growing up I know that we never really traveled, either at home or abroad. I think that was true of most of my neighbors and still seems true for people who live in that area. So I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “myth” that Americans don’t travel. More like a stereotype that rings true for many but not for all.

    1. Totally – the US is huge and well worth seeing. But corporate culture even prevents us from making those smaller trips stateside. And the myth I was referring to was that Americans don’t want to travel, not necessarily that they don’t. I think that’s the reaction I get most often and the insinuation is that we don’t want to see the rest of the world because we think the US is better than everywhere else =)

  9. Great points, Angie. I really like the way you analyzed everything objectively and compared the US to Europe in size; and the fact that we have 30% of the population that does travel really does equal some 100m people.

    Unfortunately it’s very hard to change stereotypes. I do it myself, every single day, and have to give myself a nudge when I catch myself doing it. The perception of america as travelers will take a long time to change because we’ve done such a great job of building that image. Props to travelers like you that want to make a difference.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Charu. It’s not an easy stereotype to change, but the more I encounter it the more passionate I get about spreading the word =)

  10. najeh rawashdeh

    As tourism professional in Jordan and meeting many tourists come to Jordan I get the response that is common among all the travelers which if you don’t get there you will not what is in there and there is much to know and learn about in the outside world all we have to do is to get out of our comfort zone and enjoy ourselves ,in addition to that we must respect and appreciate everything that is different of what we are used to. At the end I encourage all the readers of this response to plan to travel wherever they think the tour will be rewarding and enjoyable

  11. Thanks for this article, it really rings true for me as well! I have lived and worked abroad on and off since graduating college, and for the last 3+ years I have lived in Portugal. It is a little horrifying, the various stereotypes that crop up in normal conversation, and this travel-averse myth is one of the most strange to me! I will hereafter refer all stereotype holders to this well-argued blog post. 🙂

    The flip side of this belief is something you mentioned in the article. What I also hear a lot of is, “The only place I could live in the US is New York!”, and there are so many people who travel to the US to only see NYC. I love NYC, went to college there and worked there for almost 8 years, but man… I LOVE road trips through the US! There are so many other amazing places to see that give you a better sense of the real America.

    Then again, I am not sure Europeans appreciate the beauty of the road trip, what with the exorbitantly expensive fuel prices here and the tendency to fly from city to city rather than explore the hinterlands. My Portuguese husband looks at me in shock when I suggest driving 4 hours (each way!!) to see a cool little village. If only he knew how far I once drove just to see the world’s largest bottle of ketchup!

    1. Agree with you on all counts. NYC is brilliant & I adore it, but it’s SO not the rest of the country. I feel even worse for the folks who only visit Las Vegas… that’s REALLY not a good representation of the US.

      As for the road trip… when I explain to folks that it takes 10 hours to drive just through my own state, they begin to understand why Americans have this reputation. Some of them don’t go further than 10 hours by train in their whole lives!

      Thanks for reading & commenting!

  12. “You wouldn’t believe how many people are floored when I don’t act, talk and dress like Snooki or one of those hoodlums from My Super Sweet Sixteen.”

    THANK YOU for this article. I’m going to stash this away for the next time I have to deal with the exact conversations mentioned above.

  13. Enjoyed this! I have over four weeks vacation, plus a flexible work schedule, but I realize I’m very much the exception to the rule in the States (and will NEVER leave my job because of this). One of my french friends always marvels at how Americans move frequently for jobs and I sometimes wonder if a lot of our vacation time gets gobbled up visiting family who may not live nearby, not finally going on that Southeast Asian adventure we’d always dreamed of. All my European friends are about a 2 hour train ride from every mom and grandmom they have, which can easily be done over weekends, whereas we tend to be a bit more spread out. I like to use at least a week, sometimes two, visiting family. Fortunately this still leaves two weeks somewhere else in the world.

    I also think you can travel cheaply and well in Europe, with the help of nice hostels and cheap flights. That’s a bit more difficult here. I have yet to find a three dollar flight in the States, but did find a 3 euro flight once in Europe from Athens to Istanbul.

    And yep, America is big! I’ve been to 43 states, and some like California have required multiple visits and I’m still nowhere close to seeing it all. But I still feel like I’m not well traveled since my country count only equals six. But if I add that to my states it equals 49 so thanks for putting it in perspective for me. Not too shabby I guess.

    1. Great point – it is much easier to travel on a budget in Europe where there are trains, public transportation in the cities and of course, copious hostels. Not so much in the USA!

      You are DEFINITELY well traveled. Don’t let any snooty country counters tell you different!

  14. Just came across your site & would whole heartedly agree with this!

    I know we don’t do us a huge favor by continuing this media perspective of “Jersey Shore” types & “Sweet 16” brats.

    This country is huge with so much to see. I’ve been from the east to the south, to the west back to the east, it’s amazing to see the difference within our own country, for sure you could spend much of your life exploring it.

    Vacation time also plays such a huge role. When we don’t even have time to go out in the world, we get caught up in our local surrounding. Often consuming, consuming consuming material goods which burden us down more.

    After reading this I’m with you, Kudos to us 30% we see the world at the same time enjoying our own country!

    1. Thanks for reading & sharing! Now that I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve started really putting together this image that folks from other countries have of Americans… some stuff is true, of course, but I think by and large we have an undeserved reputation. Looking forward to writing more about it in the future!

  15. Hi Angie!

    It’s your first article that I’ve stumbled across and I loved it! I’m not American, never been to the States (although that’ll change in less than 2 months) but also never had this stereotype of Americans not liking to travel.

    Of course, we’ve all heard in Europe how Americans don’t have passports and most of the images we have of you come from Hollywood and TV. I guess when you watch a TV series from your own country, you immediately see how f.e. none of your friends live this way or that the life style that is portrayed is way too expensive for your average Joe, and yet when you see an American production, you tend to take it in as a good representation of the nation. Sad and harmful, but true.

    As for the time off at work – I was quite shocked the first time I heard about it not so long ago. Makes you wonder a lot.

    Also, the costs of travelling seem to be much higher within the country itself. I’ve gotten so used to finding great international flight deals that, honestly, a 20$ flight already seems pricey for some routes 😉 Whereas, I was booking my JFK-MLO flights for November just yesterday and I must say it’s the most expensive ticket (apart from the one to the States or to SEA) that I’ve bought in my life. I could have at least 10 RT back in Europe for that price.

    Bottom line – thanks for this article. It gives a nice look at things from the inside of your vast country, plus the ‘why’s we should all take into account before making our future statements about ‘those Americans’.


    1. Hi! Thank you so much for your comments. You’re right across the board – it’s much more expensive to travel within the US than within Europe. I can usually find cheaper flights to London than I can to California from Florida.

      Have a blast in the US when you do visit & let me know if you’re in Florida!

      1. Thanks!
        I’ll be in Orlando for Halloween and then busy with Tony Robbins and his seminar for three days, before I head back to NYC.
        You anywhere around at the time? 🙂

  16. Agree with what you’ve said here, Angie. Looking forward to the “you seem so normal” post, as I’ve gotten that several times, too. …it usually evaporates as soon as I ask for ketchup, though (kidding!). 😉

  17. AWESOME post, Angie! All of your points are spot-on (and I totally agree that anyone who says they’ve “done” the U.S. while only visiting NYC, LA and Vegas did NOT see the U.S.).

    Another big obstacle, I think, is just the way American culture has developed. We have very, very different views on work and success than other cultures do. That whole “American Dream” thing, where the dream is to make as much money as possible, because it’s ingrained in us so early that money = happiness. Unfortunately, I don’t see that aspect of our collective culture changing anytime soon…

    1. Yes – the American Dream is a huge problem. It’s foisted on us when we’re young and I think very few folks are able to claw out of it or see past it. Great point!

    2. Unfortunately, Amanda, the notion that money equals success is just as strong over here, as anywhere else.

      In Poland’s it’s the same. However, the cost of living / salaries correlation is much worse than in Western Europe or Northern America, and so is the standard of life. Which, in turn, makes people focus on money even more.
      A very sad direction our societies are heading to…

  18. Zara @ Backpack ME

    I always thought the opposite, actually. That USA citizens travel a lot and even at young age, do gap years, a lot of backpacking, etc. Plus a lot of mature tourists going around too!
    At least traveling around Latin America this past year the most travelers I have met are actually from the US!

    1. Definitely a lot more mature tourists. That’s our corporate culture… work, work, work your youth away, then if you happen to make it to retirement, only THEN can you travel. I just decided to flip that around =)

  19. We’re from NZ so to us America definitely is a great place to travel. I totally agree with you that just by driving a few hundred miles you can feel like you’re in a totally different country – different customs, cuisines and culture. We aim to visit a new country every year but we include visiting a new state in the US as equivalent to a new country. My son is 2 and he’s already been to six different countries and four states in the US.

    1. You’re entitled to that opinion of course. But I’d like to counter because A. I was drugged unconscious at an upscale restaurant in Cancun, and given all of Mexico’s issues – it’s hardly known as a *safe* destination and B. Americans travel to Mexico because of its proximity, not it’s safety.

  20. All good points and certainly true, Angie. I think money is another big issue. As an American living overseas with my active duty military husband, I am often blown away that at least half of the others at our base have never even been to Venice, a mere 45 minutes away by train at the cost of €11 round trip. The main reason: money.

    I also think that being nervous or scared is another reason Americans don’t travel. At least that’s certainly another reason so many military families overseas don’t leave the general area of the base.

  21. When I see the passport statistic, it drives me insane! Yes, Americans have low passport holdership compared to some countries like The UK. But how much you wanna bet that the only reason most of them have passports is to travel on package holidays to the south of Spain and travel with tons and tons of fellow Brits? I bet we are on par with actually experiencing new cultures.

  22. I think you hit the nails on the head, Angie. All of your reasons sound correct to me. I, for one, travel every chance I get, but I have to do it during vacation time at work, which isn’t nearly enough.

    But I think there’s one American-ism that you might have missed, and one that might alienate people when I say this. But there are a LOT of Americans who do not like to leave their comfort zones. Americans who WANT to go to Applebee’s because they know what they’ll get there vs. venturing into the unknown. I can’t relate to these people at all, but I’m surrounded by them at work and in my husband’s family. These are the people who don’t venture out of the country, and on the off-chance they do, will be looking for a McDonald’s as soon as their plane lands.

  23. good life means travel included..think of it like a blip on your phone its a necessary thing…..check this out– and get refreshed

  24. americans live to work, happier at work than living.
    they get heavy in debt b/c their country has a rigged system whereby the debt hamster wheel chain you to work ad nauseum in a employee at will culture. Hence, you definitely feel guilty even taking 10d off. country is a sinking ship. look elsewhere.

  25. They get such few if any real holidays–and with no work/job security –they cannot take any time off save Christmas or another national break. Sad. Poor quality of life in American, they dont know what they dont know.

  26. I don’t travel abroad because I don’t care for the cultural differences in regard to nudity. I don’t want to see naked people on the beach or in ads for shampoo or on billboards… sheesh!!! I’ll stay in the States until the nudists ruin this country too. Hopefully, I’ll be dead by then!

  27. Most americans are too busy hamster wheeling in a hustling and opportunistic failed country. anything/everything for a buck. hustlers. and constant expansion, more, more, mas, more. They are hyper individuals, narcopathic nature obsessed with themselves and with more, more, mas, more =hyper consumerism/hyper expansion. They do not have mandated holiday time, they are even the only country that has ’employee at will.’ It is a sick, dying country/corporation that is in its dark ages (Berman). Most of the psychotic imbecilic populous exalt sports ‘heros,’ who got voted off the island, which teacher had sex with whom, and they sit on their arses consuming the nonsense “news” corporate owned propaganda. Most americans are generally too stupid to understand the world around them as most are narcopaths and present Cluster ABC mental derangements. Only ~12% have passports, and those that do usually go to Mexico, Canada, or cruiseship in order to avoid reality/truth. They love living in their delipitated country in cubicle concentration camps as they blindly clock in, clock out–nothing more than tax and debt slaves to a failed nation and its demented, profoundly ignorant priorities.. A bunch of Horatio Alger myths and -Steinbeck–Socialism never took root in america because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Enjoy the decline-Aaron Clarey.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Get exclusive updates with all the latest news and posts delivered directly to your inbox
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.
Scroll to Top