A different approach to thinking about travel

A different approach to thinking about travel

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.

I hope we can normalize travel in the US someday.


Published by Lauren

I'm a nomadic freelance writer, out enjoying the world!


  • Micky

    October 10, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    I totally agree, Lauren. Americans are pikers when it comes to international travel, and it’s a shame. But there are others issues at play here, too, aside from the expense.

    Travel expands your mind. I believe that, to a large extent, the “average” American isn’t all that interested in expanding his or her mind. Look at the popularity of certain TV shows and networks.

    The other issue is time. The average American works like a dog. The current labor market is still pretty terrible; assuming we even get paid time off (many don’t), the luxury of getting away from our responsibilities for even a week is just that – a luxury.

    It would be great if we could find a way for kids/young people to get the travel bug. The earlier you do it, the more normal it seems. Maybe more school-sponsored trips abroad? I don’t know the solution, but you’re spot on.

  • lauren haas

    October 11, 2015 at 12:09 am

    Yes, time is a huge issue, too. Europeans often make jokes about the (relatively few) American tourists who try to see all of Europe in two weeks — two days in Rome, one day in Paris, etc.

    When I tell them that 2 weeks is all we HAVE, and a trip to Europe might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for an American, they are flabbergasted.

    Maybe it’s just because I’m entrenched in travel media now, but I feel like there are a lot more young people traveling widely these days, and blogging, writing, posting on social media about it. Hopefully it will reach a critical mass in the future.

    Thanks for your comments!

  • Kristy

    October 21, 2015 at 12:05 am

    Interesting thoughts. You are right about us mostly “thinking” about travel, especially to Europe. I know several people who have gone to Europe lately and their visits were a whirlwind. The way you travel allows you to really learn about the cities and countries. But I’m not brave enough. Well maybe I’m not flexible enough! Sure enjoy your travels though!

  • hanstenbrug

    October 21, 2015 at 10:21 am

    As a dutchman, who has been to all those lunch table examples you listed, i like this post! There might be relatively more europeans who travel, but I feel that most things you say are very much true for people from the Netherlands also. Definitely most people think you have to be very rich to travel.

  • Lauren

    October 23, 2015 at 4:26 am

    Thank you, Hans I really appreciate hearing a Dutch perspective. So my lunch table imaginings were accurate? I hope for a future when that’s true for teenagers everywhere!

  • Lauren

    October 23, 2015 at 4:27 am

    …or it’s just not what you love, and that’s OK. There’s a lot of sacrifice involved, and it’s not for everyone. I’m glad you enjoy my travels, though!