Avoiding the American Cliche Destinations

I’m always shocked when smacked in the face with the statistic that 54% of the American population has not traveled outside the USA. How do we know this? Because only 46% of the population holds a passport.

Of course these numbers aren’t exact. They don’t take into account that within my lifetime one didn’t need a passport to travel between the USA and Canada or Mexico, so there are a number of people who visited those countries before the new rules were put in place. It never ceases to amaze me that citizens of one of the largest, wealthiest, and most free countries on the planet choose not to exercise their wealth and freedom to participate internationally on an individual level.

And where are the 46% going?

Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe.

Out of the top ten destinations for American travelers, eight are to the aforementioned regions according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.

The exceptions?

Canada, which is right next door and can be accessed overland with a passport card (cheaper than a real passport), and China, the ninth most popular travel destination for Americans.

There are some good reasons that people gravitate to these destinations, not the least of which is that they are the closest, and therefore the cheapest, to visit. Also, with the exception of China, they are countries with well developed tourist industries and reputations for making it easy to visit (and spend your money!)

I’m from Canada. Mexico is one of my favorite countries. I’ve spent at least a month in each of the top European contenders.

So where would I recommend you start within that golden top ten with your newly minted American passport?

How ‘bout, none of the above.

Yes, those top 10 (except for China) are the easy ones. Yes, those are the popular ones. And yes, you can do better.

Alternatives to the popular destinations

Instead of Mexico, which you were considering because it’s warm and cheap, why not substitute Guatemala? Spirit Airlines runs direct flights from Fort Lauderdale for about $320 round trip (search Wednesdays). We recently flew one way from Chicago for $250, and Delta runs non-stop round-trips from LA for about $800. Guatemala is cheaper than Mexico, has some of the most spectacular Mayan ruins in the world, one of the top ten most beautiful lakes, and a surf-tastic Pacific Coast that is not nearly as overrun by tourists as the so called Mayan Riviera in Mexico.

Or why not try Costa Rica? It’s fantastically gorgeous, has reliable infrastructure and is tied up with Nicaragua for being the safest country in Central America. There are no shortage of posh resorts (if that’s your thing) or off the beaten path adventures, and while not as cheap as some of the poorer Central American countries, your American dollar will still stretch further than at home.

Instead of hopping on that cruise to the Caribbean, can I suggest visiting some of the islands just off of the Caribbean coasts? The Cayes of Belize, tucked into the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, make for some spectacular diving and a tropical hideaway. Why not consider Roatan or Utila, Honduras for an absolutely idyllic Caribbean feel while providing easy access to the mainland where you can dry your feet and have some land based adventures, too?

Will you have to work a little harder to get there than you would stepping onto a cruise ship in Miami? Yes, and that’s a very good thing. What you give up in luxury and isolation, you will gain in meaningful interactions with locals, on their terms, and isn’t that what travel is really about? Seeing the world as it really is?

If you absolutely must go to Europe, then go. I get it. Between the art, the history, the culture, the food, and the languages, it’s alluring – all of it. By all means, check Paris off the list and get that Eiffel Tower selfie, but please don’t stop there.

There is more to Europe than London, Paris, Rome and Amsterdam.

Go to Prague. Better yet, go to Brno, and get the selfie with their alligator. Take a cross country road trip in the Ukraine (you can do this in a two week trip if that’s all you have.) Ride a bicycle the length of the Rhine, or the Elbe, or both. If you’d love to go to Europe but it’s just too far and too expensive, then my secret North American-European pick is Quebec City, Canada. Stay within the walls of the Vieux Port, and you’ll really believe you’re in a small town in France. It’s where I go to get my Euro fix when I need it!

What if you want to take it to the next level?

What if you’ve got a newly minted American Passport and you’re looking for a first trip that defies the American stereotypes and takes you solidly outside of your comfort zone? What if the words you’re hoping to define your adventure by lean away from cheap, relaxing, all inclusive, or easy, and tend toward epic, adventure, and bad ass.

Do I have suggestions? I’m so glad you asked.

How about overlanding Borneo, from Kuching to Sandakan, including Brunei. Dive, explore head hunter villages, keep a journal of the number and species of monkeys you encounter, try not to get run over by a palm oil truck, don’t miss the water villages, climb Mt. Kinabalu, bathe in jungle waterfalls and pick leeches off of your feet, collect nutmeg as you hike the jungles (try not to step on a snake!).

Return with stories from a place most Americans can’t find on the map.

Spend your Christmas holiday attending the Festival du Sahara, at Douz, Tunisia. The tricky part, of course, is that no one knows exactly when this festival is going to be, on a given year, until just a few weeks before it goes down. Blame the Bedouin mindset. I staged three months of a trip around making sure to attend. It was worth every second. Camel races, Arab horsemen straight out of childhood storybooks, dancing women, bands of pipers and drummers painting an oasis night with sound, date palms, goat herds, spice markets and the muezzin at dawn. Some of the most epic adventurers of our time are among my friend set, and yet I know no one else who has done this. You could.

Take a boat down the Mekong, in Laos. You could buy one, like a guy I know did. Or you could rent one. Or you could just hop the public boats from town to town and ride with the locals, moving their goods up and down the river. Stop and stay on islands. Learn to plant rice on a lazy afternoon. Make friends with water buffalo. Look for the elusive pink dolphins. Explore the ancient ruins of Champasak, much older than Angkor Wat next door in Cambodia. Bicycle Don Khong island, and eventually walk across the land border with Cambodia. It makes a great 37th birthday present.

Drive Australia. Other than the massive distance and costs to get there, I will hear no excuses for why Americans cannot visit Australia. It’s easy in all of the ways that would matter to an American with a newly minted passport. English is spoken. Food is similar and predictable. Culture is not wildly different.

Australia is a fantastic country to road trip, and the diversity to its length and breadth are breathtaking. Don’t miss the Eucalyptus coast of Western Australia or the beaches that defy description. If you claim to have driven Australia but miss the Great Ocean Road, in Victoria, I will unfriend you. Stay a night in Warnambool and enjoy whales like nowhere else in the world (September is a good month for the whales). The Red Center, in all of it’s hot, dusty, Outback glory is worth every painstakingly flat, straight mile. In spite of what everyone tells you, there is plenty out there to see. Two weeks will just be enough to frustrate you. Make your first trip a good one and go for at least three months. If you can get a longer stay visa, you’ll thank yourself.

If you’ve got a passport, don’t waste it, and for heaven’s sake don’t limit yourself to the American cliche travel destinations.

The world awaits!

Photo credits: pisaphotography