Everywhere I go in the world, I meet people from the Netherlands (Holland). Tiny country, but those Dutch folks get around. It’s very common for people to do a long-term trip when they’re young, and the travel bug stays with them for life.
Imagine growing up in a culture like that. Everyone you know — your parents, all your aunts and uncles, your neighbors, your cousins and teachers — casually talks about their time in Argentina, or Malaysia, or Ethiopia, and it’s simply expected that you will also travel.
As a young teen, you’d go along to drop your older siblings at the airport, read their e-mails and see their photos, pick them up all weary and well-traveled at the end of their gap year. This sense of travel being “normal” must drain all the fear out of it.
Imagine conversations at the 9th grade lunch table that sound like this:
“I think I’ll go to South America like my brother and hike the Inca Trail and see Machu Picchu.”
“Not me, I want to walk on the Great Wall of China like my aunt did.”
“I want to go to Africa and climb Kilimanjaro.”
Yes it’s expensive, but it’s considered a ‘normal’ expense. I think it must be similar to how Americans feel about buying cars. They cost thousands of dollars, yet almost everyone has one. We don’t go around gasping and asking each other “How could you AFFORD that?!” or even “Isn’t that dangerous?”
We know cars are dangerous. We know they’re hard to afford. But we can’t imagine life without one, so we make it happen. Everyone we know manages to buy one, so we take for granted that we need to manage it as well and we suck up whatever sacrifices we have to make to get one. And if your car bites the dust, you don’t shrug and say “Well, guess I don’t have a car any more.” You solve that problem somehow, even if you were broke yesterday, because not having a car is simply unacceptable in most US cities. Yes, in theory you could move closer to work, walk, take a bus. But we don’t.
Everywhere I go, people ask me why Americans don’t travel. I used to say “We can’t afford the long flights” but of course we can. You can fly from Florida to South America round trip for $299, or fly to Europe for $650. My average 10-day overseas trip cost $1500 total, for food, lodging and flights. To take one trip a year meant I had to sock away $28 a week, or $4 a day. That’s not such a great hardship for the average American.
The real reason Americans don’t travel is because other Americans don’t travel. It’s the unknown. We think it’s vaguely scary, even though statistically our risk of being a victim of a crime is probably higher inside the US than it is in most of the countries we might visit.
We think travel is expensive because we don’t have a concept of travel that’s separate from luxury vacations, resorts, fine dining, cruises, and pre-packaged tours. For some reason, we have this notion that if you go somewhere you should be waited on and given cocktails and lobster. Travel and splurging on vacations are both very nice, but they are totally separate things.
But I think the main reason Americans consider travel ‘too expensive’ because it’s something our peers aren’t indulging in. We’ll say a trip is “too expensive,” or act shocked that someone we know is going to Europe, but at the same time we’ll spend thousands of dollars a year on a new car, cable bills, cell phone bills, restaurant meals, espresso drinks, sporting event tickets, salon highlights, lawn care services, pet grooming, etc. We may think of those things as “expensive” but if our peer group also spending money on them we will find a way to keep up with the Joneses.
There will always be people who don’t want to travel, of course, and that’s fine. There will be people who can’t afford it, and people whose health or physical limitations won’t allow it, and that’s unfortunate, but it could still become the norm rather than the exception.
I think for the US to remain competitive in a global economy, we need a better-traveled population. I hope it can be seen as an ordinary expense for middle-income folks and a normal part of a person’s education.