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Why do Americans do so little International Travel?

First, full disclosure, this theme for this post was decided on a layover in Chicago on the way to a business trip to Shanghai. It seems only fitting as the topic is Why do Americans do so little international travel.

The Myth of Americans not being interested in International Travel

Well firstly let’s get something out of the way. It’s largely a myth that Americans do not want to travel internationally. By the numbers nearly 131 Million U.S. residents hold a passport, or around 42 percent. So obviously quite a few Americans either want to do international travel or have done so within the typical passport cycle, about ten years. Why do I say that? Assuming people are rational they would not spend the 100 dollars on a passport they would never use. As such they obviously intend to do at least a little international travel.

Limited Actual American International Travel

Despite the moderate size of passport ownership, according to the data less than 5 percent of the US population actually travels internationally each year. When people compare the US to other developed nations they cite this number as evidence Americans travel less than their counterparts. At a high level it is true, but why?

Cost, the reason why Americans do so little International Travel

The number one quoted reason in surveys for why Americans do so little International travel is costs. Simply put we don’t live in a place like Europe where you can travel between countries in a few hours using cheap train travel. As someone who lives in a mid-state its more than a 13 hour drive to a foreign country from my house. That means in order for me to travel internationally I almost have to fly. Compare that to my last trip to Germany. We rented a car. During the course of the trip we took an hour jaunt to France for sight seeing. I also drove the 8 hours to the Netherlands, through Belgium, for work during the same 2 week trip. Even on the US borders I can’t think of any location where you could drive through 3 nations within 9 hours. So on it’s face international travel for Americans is way more expensive then our friends in Europe.

Why is International Travel so Expensive for Americans

This doesn’t explain it all though, simply put Australians do more international travel then Americans. Australians can drive to less international locations then Americans, at exactly zero. Yet they international travel at a rate of 31% to Americans’ 5%. The thing is, having visited Australia I can also tell you flights are less expensive internationally from Australia. I do not know why, but paying full freight from Australia is significantly less expensive than doing so from the US considering the same distance. My guess is it has something to do with a more concentrated set of destinations, since volume drives down rates. Australians concentrate around 65 percent of this travel in 10 countries. Americans, after throwing out Canada and Mexico as outliers, travel just about everywhere.  This obviously drives up costs.

Just How Expensive is International Travel

So, we’ve established that international travel is expensive in of itself. How expensive? Well I did a quick accounting in my head of all of my international travel. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve done approximately 50 international trips. This has been across about 16 countries. I am altogether an outlier in International travel. But what did I spend? Well, let’s ignore that ¾ of my travel has been business for a moment and add up all my work receipts and personal. A quick accounting shows the out of pocket costs for all this travel would have been measured in the multiple 6 figures. Yes, that’s right, I estimate between my company and me I’ve spent over $200K in travel in the last 15 years. That type of number is out of reach for most Americans, in fact if I had personally footed the bill it would be out of reach for me.

Travel and Credit Card Hacking allows International Travel

That all being said, what I’ve actually spent is a tiny fraction of $200K. I do not know the exact number, but recently I answered an interview request for Physician on fire.  One of the questions asked what I would do for travel if I had a budget of 11K.  I struggled to answer the question. Why? Because I have never spent more than 5K in travel in a year. My family, that manages to travel internationally on average 2x a year and domestically 1-2x for personal reasons, has spent less than 75K on every trip I’ve taken domestic or international in 15 years. I estimate the actual end number is even less, potentially lower than 25K. So how did I do so?

Well I’ve written about this before.  Travel hacking has driven the costs down significantly. Even before I discovered credit card hacking I was finding cheap fares and low costs housing to keep costs below 5K. Now that I do the credit card thing it’s not uncommon for the net cost of travel to me to be between 0 and 1000 dollars a year. In fact my goal for this year is 0 dollars.

Travel Hacking and Credit Card Hacking are not Mainstream

The thing is, while these tactics are making the rounds in the personal finance and travel spheres, they seem to be largely ignored in the mainstream. Probably about once a month I talk to a coworker about travel or credit card hacking. Their jaws hit the ground when I talk about the cost of say a trip to Martinique even before I highlight the credit card hacking impact. They’ve never considered those steps, which I guess is really why they work. The companies would close the credit card churning methods if they were used by everyone because they would lose money. Instead they are largely subsidized by those paying full fare or not paying their cards on time.

Bringing it All Together, Lessons learned

So, I guess the point of this slightly rambling post is to remind you of the values of those methods. The reality is traveling has significant value. It can help you learn about other cultures and how to interact. It can teach you about history and even provide alternate perspectives that could lead to improving your life.

In this ever increasingly connected world the ability to deal with those in other countries will increase in value in the job world every year. So, will the ability to interact in other languages. I view the travel we do as just as important to my and my children’s education as something that I enjoy. It’s important to not be the typical American whom does so little international travel. For your own future and that of your families, use travel hacking and credit card hacking to expose yourself and your family to international travel.

Do you do travel hacking? Have you been abroad? Do you have an alternate hypothesis on why Americans do so little International Travel?


  1. Mr. Need2Save
    Mr. Need2Save August 7, 2017

    Wow! 50 international trips in 15 years.

    We recently took a family (4 of us) vacation to Ireland and England and the all in total cost was around $8k. We are just getting into the travel rewards hacking game, so we will see how the next international trip goes.

    I agree that cost is the biggest obstacle, at least for us. I suppose that some may see language as a barrier. However, it seems like most people in the hospitality industry speak English. So unless you go too far off the beaten path, I imagine you would be just fine.

    • fulltimefinance
      fulltimefinance August 7, 2017

      It sounds great until you go to Asia on a four day business trip cattle class…

      I have found most touristy areas speak English, but I’ve also found places where that is not true. Where in England did you go?

      • Mr. Need2Save
        Mr. Need2Save August 7, 2017

        Funny you should mention Asia. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll need to go to South Korea at the end of the month. That will be my first Asian trip.

        In England, we spent time in London, out in the Cotswolds, Birmingham, and Liverpool. That was my second time to England and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both times.

        • fulltimefinance
          fulltimefinance August 8, 2017

          I haven’t has the opportunity to do Korea. Let me know how Korea is as I’m always interested in new places.

  2. Mrs. Adventure Rich
    Mrs. Adventure Rich August 7, 2017

    I have not traveled internationally (beyond driving to Mexico for a mission trip and Canada for camping) but with travel hacking, I hope to be able to take our family overseas when our son is older! I think I would assume it would be too expensive if hacking was not on my radar

    • fulltimefinance
      fulltimefinance August 8, 2017

      Hacking sure is a game changer.

  3. Rich @
    Rich @ August 7, 2017

    I remember growing up and thinking international travel was almost unattainable. It really is a function of proximity for most people. In addition to the cost, there’s the loss of time when dealing with jet lag and layovers and so on, which eats into one’s vacation time.

    We’ve lived overseas for 2 years and visited 10 countries, but it was no more complicated than traveling to several states around the east coast of the US. No jet lag, no 10 hour flights.

    • fulltimefinance
      fulltimefinance August 8, 2017

      I’d love to find a job stationed in another country. Some day maybe.

  4. Jacq
    Jacq August 8, 2017

    I think the amount of vacation time typical in the US vs Europe may account for some of it too. If I’ve only got 2 weeks, not always taken together, staying ‘local’ is easier.
    Personally I’ve worked temp jobs where if I didn’t work I didn’t get paid, so a day or two to make a long weekend was one thing. It’s tough to justify the cost of longer travel with the lack of pay. I now have an get role with 2 weeks. Last year we did a longer family trip, and my current job let’s you go into the negative, which I did. Now I’m trying to save up time to go to England Ireland and Scotland next year. I’ve realized by my age my dad had 3 weeks of vacation (32 years at the same company ), but 2 weeks seems to be standard for mid level roles now. The execs at my company rarely take full vacation and are working remote after the kids have gone to bed. They might get more weeks, but don’t seem to use them.

    • fulltimefinance
      fulltimefinance August 8, 2017

      I can definitely see the vacation time playing a part as well.

  5. Team CF
    Team CF August 8, 2017

    We have been to about half of the US states by now and can say that you hardly need to do international travel! The country has so many nice things to do and see (especially on the nature side of thing). Make it understandable that so few Americans don’t do international travel (besides the cost points you note, obviously)

    That being said, some international exposure would be good for most Americans, as too few have an idea what happens outside their own country.

    • fulltimefinance
      fulltimefinance August 8, 2017

      Your last paragraph definitely speaks to an important reason for that international exposure.

  6. We LOVE travel. Have been to England, France, Mexico, Canada, Jamaica (a bunch), and others.

    Would like to do Europe more but airfare is just so expensive.

    • fulltimefinance
      fulltimefinance August 10, 2017

      Have you been utilizing travel hacking?

  7. Jover
    Jover August 28, 2017

    I think part of the reason is because the US has so much to offer domestically. Everything from beaches to mountains to deserts, history, culture, architecture, etc. And a common language, which is a barrier for many to travel internationally.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance August 28, 2017

      Perhaps.. though it does miss out on a whole other set of cultures and ways of thinking.

  8. Ruby @ A Journey We Love
    Ruby @ A Journey We Love August 28, 2017

    Actually found it opposite that I’m finding more and more deals for international destinations than domestic – hence would rather travel abroad (but visas make it harder)

    Then again there’s allegiant, spirit, and frontier, where you can easily travel to another US state or city on a weekend trip and not have a big dent in your wallet. It’s just that people refuse to fly these airlines for some reason or another (people moan:
    “ohhh they suck”, even though our experiences have been good so far)

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance August 29, 2017

      Nothing wrong with budget airlines or domestic travel.

  9. Bernz JP
    Bernz JP September 23, 2017

    Here’s my take on this post. I’ve previously worked for the Federal government and many of my co-worker’s excuses were either they could not afford it or they are afraid to travel internationally. Traveling internationally is pretty much closed in their books. I believe it’s somehow slowly changing but yes one of them is fear.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 23, 2017

      That’s a very good point, fear definitely plays a role for many. The question is what are they afraid of?

  10. Quynh
    Quynh March 25, 2018

    My husband and I discovered travel hacking almost two years ago and since then we’ve made a few international trips. For this spring break, we spent 2 weeks in Asia flying in business class and staying in 5* hotels. The total cost was about $3000-3500 total (we haven’t finalized our numbers yet), which also included food, intra-Asia flights, giving to relatives, and 60-90min massages at every destination.
    If it weren’t for travel hacking then I would not travel abroad often. The US already has a lot to offer and it’s so darn expensive to book international flights, esp to Asia and Australia. It took me 14 years to visit Vietnam and since travel hacking, I’ve been there three times in one year.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance March 25, 2018

      I hear Vietnam is really nice. It’s on the bucket list. You are right, travel hacking makes the price much more doable.

  11. Lisa
    Lisa March 26, 2018

    42% with a passport seems low to me. To me, that means Americans aren’t travelling internationally. I know people who have never left the country but it’s not necessarily that expensive. Likely most Americans can afford to drive/bus/train to Canada or Mexico if they really want to. I’ve known quite a few people who just didn’t grow up travelling and didn’t know how much it cost, what it would be like. I can see fear or lack of interest being a bigger obstacle than money.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance March 26, 2018

      Maybe my standards are lower but 42% seems pretty good from where I sit. Distance and cost don’t just put a hurdle up to traveling internationally. It also increases the fear you mentioned.

  12. Alex
    Alex July 24, 2021

    Or they could be not interested, like me for example. There’s another reason why I don’t travel internationally is because of anti-American sentiment.

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