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It’s a commonly held belief that Americans don’t travel nearly as much as their jet-setting counterparts in Europe or Australia, preferring to stay safe at home while more adventurous nationalities explore the globe. You’ve probably heard or even made arguments as to why Americans stay put, however these debates rest on a faulty premise: that Americans travel significantly less than citizens of other developed countries.

When it comes to traveling (or not) American patterns follow those the rest of the world does. How much you travel has less to do with your nationality than it does with the size of your pocketbook and proximity to the nearest border.

Where Does The Myth Come From?

Likely a holdover from the early 1990s, when in 1993, out of an eligible population of roughly 253 million, only 17 million – 6% of U.S. citizens – held passports. Today that percentage has risen to about 40% and the media’s fuzzy math hasn’t quite caught up. According to the State Department in 2012 there were 113,431,943 passports in circulation out of the 283 million possible. (313 million people live in the United States but approximately 20 million legal and 12 million illegal non-U.S. residents are ineligible for American passports [PDF].)

Why You Don’t See Americans Out And About Internationally

First of all, even with 113 million potential travelers, they’re not all going to the same place at the same time so you’ve got to spread the total number pretty thin. Also, baby booming American travelers tend to hover around the older and younger demographic – the former not likely to book accommodations at a hostel.

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But really, we can blame our Paleolithic brains. We have evolved to be drawn to others like us, called in-group bias, where our bodies pump out feel-good chemicals when we’re near folks we can relate with. (Additionally, those chemicals highlight events in our memory so after our trips those “people like us” are more easily recalled.) There’s also something called observational selection bias we succumb to, pretty much us noticing in others what we notice in ourselves and thinking the frequency of said thing has increased. “Hey, I’m a traveling Australian, there are other traveling Australians over there! We must be everywhere!”

So traveling Europeans have a tendency to perceive more traveling Europeans, not to mention that there are roughly 2-3 times as many Europeans in the world than Americans. (Depending on where you define its borders.) We perceive there are more people like us traveling because our brains are primed to focus on them, plus they then trick us into believing the reverse (i.e. people who aren’t like me don’t travel).

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mexican skeltonDistance Plus Income Equals Travel

Although the World Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) requiring Americans to show passports upon entry to Canada and Mexico was enacted in 2007, something more significant has happened since 1993 to encourage travel. The GDP of the U.S. has gone up by a third with Americans now having more disposable income than any other county. (People worldwide tend to spend the same percentage of their disposable income on leisure travel.) Young people are also spending more bling on backpacking – like $217 billion annually – than ever before. Currently America is an average of 6.8 years younger than Germany and getting younger while the rest of the developed world ages.

According to the market research organization GfK Austria, Germans are one of the most internationally traveled people in the world. Approximately 65% have been outside of their borders at least once. Yet, only 20% have ever left continental Europe. Compare this to the United States, where only 20% have ever traveled internationally, but roughly 65% have traveled once domestically for leisure purposes. That seems surprising at first, until you consider that continental Europe is relatively the same size as the lower 48 United States. Well what about Australians, whose country is about 80% the size of the US? They have about a 20% international travel rate as well.

Take a look at this map of passport holders by state, courtesy of The Expeditioner, and you’ll notice those with the highest percentages are generally along international borders with Canada or Mexico.

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passport holders by us state

Then look at this map of GDP per state in 2010, see the similarity?

american states by gdp 2010
In Russia, the biggest country in the world with one-half the GDP of Germany, 15% of their population has traveled internationally at least once [PDF]. And the Chinese are catching up fast, about 8% international travel in 2012; double what it was 5 years ago when China’s GDP increased by 25%.

Travel Patters Are Surprisingly Human

As I mentioned above, research published in the Technological Forecasting and Social Change journal shows people worldwide spend around 13% of their disposable income on leisure travel with 80% staying in comfort zones of 1,750 kilometers (~1,090 miles). How far we travel transcends local culture, as well as local vacation time. A critical factor on how thick the average passport is has more to do with how close the nearest international border happens to be, especially if we have the money to cross it. Generalizations that Americans are scared to travel or Australians are fearless vagabonds don’t tell the real story, that globally, we all happen to be a little of both.