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In recent years, I’ve grown to feel that we Americans are getting much better at travel than we used to be. Other than a few spot-on stereotypes (we’re incredibly loud people), we don’t fit the ‘ugly American’ mold in quite the way we used to. The last few times I’ve traveled, I’ve bumped into other traveling Americans and, unlike a few years ago, have not been deeply ashamed.
But while we’re getting better, I still don’t think Americans deserve the title of ‘world’s best travelers’ — that goes to the Brits.
Obviously, such a judgment is necessarily based on anecdotes, omissions, and stereotypes. I’ve never been to Ibiza, which I’ve heard is at times an absolute hellhole of British teenage debauchery, and I’ve managed to avoid a lot of the typical party places while traveling, disposed as I am to a beer, a chat, and a good night’s sleep. So maybe I’ve just managed to miss the worst.
But in my experience, Brits are courteous, fun, and engaged travelers. Here’s why I think that’s the case.
They used to own pretty much every country.
Remember that place you used to live with all those wacky roommates back when you were in college? You were kind of an inconsiderate dick back then, and your relationship with your roommates was a bit tense at best, but now that you’ve moved on to bigger and better things, it’s nice to go back to the old apartment to hang out with the old roommates every now and again. You get along much better now that you’re not smelling their laundry or dealing with their loud sex.
That’s what I imagine traveling as a Brit is like. Because the British Empire used to include virtually everyone. Parts of Africa, huge parts of North America, vast swathes of Asia, all of Australia — all of these places are like old British apartments they get to drop in on every now and then. They’ll get along with all their old roommates as long as they promise not to stay permanently and get super manipulative and creepy again.
Seriously, though, shared history is a factor when traveling to a different country. The US probably has the most shared history with Mexico, Canada, and the UK, and I’ve found these places to be among the easiest for an American to travel in — in part because of language considerations, in part because of similar values, and in part because of similar temperaments. The Brits spread their culture throughout the world, and though they’ve pulled their borders back to their own islands, that culture is still waiting for them when they go back.
British reserve is a real thing.
The national character obviously helps in travel. Americans are a loud, boisterous, friendly people, but when we go into other countries, that loud boisterousness often feels more rude and crass than friendly or charming. Brits — particularly the English — do not have this problem. The British character of having a stiff upper lip, being less openly emotional, and generally not making a big deal of things is extremely well suited to foreign travel.
This isn’t to say Brits can’t be extroverted — a ton of them are — just that their baseline is a lot lower than Americans’ or Australians’. Many Canadians are similarly soft-spoken and polite, and it makes them better travelers as well.
Consider the geography.
One of the reasons international travel is so much less popular in the United States than it is in Europe isn’t because we’re close-minded or disinterested in the rest of the world — it’s that other countries are so goddamn far away from the United States that it takes hours longer to get there. And we’ve got fewer options: Our only land borders are Canada and Mexico, and the only other close-by countries are tiny islands in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
In the UK, you can be in Ireland or France in no time at all, and you could easily travel to the rest of Europe, Northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East in the time it would take me to drive from my current city, Washington, DC, to my hometown of Cincinnati — only about a quarter of the way across the US.
As such, it’s much harder to live in the UK and never travel abroad than it is to live in America and never travel abroad. So you’d probably learn how to travel at a much earlier age, and it’d be a much larger part of your culture. Of course, this advantage is available to anyone who lives in Europe, not just Britons, but it’s compounded by the other factors.
They can travel more cheaply.
This is similar to point three: Travel is much cheaper in Europe than it is in the United States. I’ve been told by British friends that Americans travel too fast, that they tend to speed from one tourist landmark to the next, hopping through cities, snapping pictures, and moving on.
The reason is the cost. I recently took a trip to London and Paris with my girlfriend, and even going as low-budget as we can, with our incomes, we likely won’t be able to afford to get back over to Europe for another two to three years. So the impulse, once we get there, is to see as much as we can.
This wouldn’t be the case if America had more cheap airline options, like England’s EasyJet or Ireland’s Ryanair, and better, cheaper rail systems. And while, again, this is a benefit for all of Europe, Brits have the advantage of London airports being the central hub for a lot of these budget airlines.
In short, Brits have a number of cultural, geographical, and economic factors that make them more likely to travel and, as a direct result, more likely to be a better traveling culture. Or, you know, maybe they’re just fleeing the weather.