Tinto de veranos in Madrid

In the weeks after my return from my month-long, mostly solo trip to Europe earlier this summer, I was met with a mixture of surprise, concern and awe when I mentioned that I ventured off by myself. Curious to get to the root of their reaction, I did what we all do when we have a question we can’t answer: I Googled it.

When I did, I  learned that I may have put the proverbial cart in front of the solo travel horse. My search results yielded more media articles and blog posts about why Americans don’t travel abroad than why we’re more hesitant than other countries to globe trot solo.

As it turns out, examining the country’s attitude toward travel in general may offer clues to help answer my original question.

So first thing’s first; why don’t Americans travel internationally?

According to the State Department, only 36 percent of Americans hold a valid passport. In comparison, that’s embarrassingly low next to 60 percent of Canadian passport-holders, and 75 percent of Brits and Australian nationals.

Maybe it’s because the United States is so large, and with each region of the country boasting its own landscape, cuisine, culture and even accent, traveling to a neighboring or far away state can feel like a completely different place. Take my current home state of California; I don’t have to drive very far for coastline, the desert, the mountains and valleys. This Paste magazine post seems to think so too.

One could argue that we don’t get enough vacation days. Typically, full-time positions include 10 days of paid leave, though I was shocked to learn that we are the only country with an advanced economy that does not legally guarantee paid leave. By contrast, countries in the EU as well as Australia and New Zealand guarantee 25 – 30 days.

Yet, maybe it’s because because we live in a work-driven culture and, by this Travel+Leisure post, we are being vacation-shamed by our bosses. Did you see that survey that basically says how we left 658 million vacation days on the table last year?

Another cultural characteristic we tend to be labeled with; we want to spend the money we do earn on things instead of experiences.

Our entrepreneurial spirit creates jobs, encourages innovation and helps many people manifest their dreams into reality. However, when it comes to the things we acquire and consume, when is it too much?

I used to be THAT girl; still am in many ways. We want the latest iPhone (check!), the sportiest sports car (I drive a Prius, so if by sporty you mean eco-friendly, then check!), the corner apartment in the cool neighborhood located in walking distance to the best cafes and coffee shops (during my final days in Los Angeles, check!). For every survey describing today’s American jonesing for more experiences rather than things, there is the heap of contrary stats in response, like this roundup from Becoming Minimalist.

On the other hand, maybe my own perception of American’s attitudes toward solo travel needs some tweaking. My Google search also retrieved articles describing the rise of solo travel among single and married Americans of all ages.

Take this fairly recent post from the Washington Post and the New York Times for example. The posts explain that more solo time is a result of a rise in the number of people living and dining alone, and changes within the travel industry like lower single supplement rates for group travel experiences and cruises, which marketing has been taking note of.

By my own solo travel experiences, I’m often the only or one of the few female American solo traveler among my international counterparts. This thoughtful post from This American Girl offers some perspective on why that is, and I agree with many of her points. Fear seems to keep people in one place, and when I hear words like “brave” and “adventurous” used to describe my recent trip to Europe, it feeds the idea that traveling alone, and out of the country is dangerous and impossible when, for the most part it’s not.

With a number of research-backed reasons aimed at explaining why our culture is a mostly stagnant bunch, I returned to the same ideas as I clicked through link after link: Once you make your own decision about when you will take that leap abroad and confront your own, personal reasons for not doing so sooner, there’s no going back. Unless it’s back to the country that got you up and out in the first place.


Tinto de veranos in Madrid