In this short series I wanted to take a look at some of the things we take for granted in travel, both in general and in the miles and points hobby. Last week I discussed the privilege of being a native English speaker in a world that caters to the language of business. This week I want to take a look at just how affordable international travel is these days, and how I tend to take that for granted.
I’ve been fortunate to take multiple international trips per year for the past few years. Some have been as close as Canada, or as far as Australia. My wife and I spent a month in Europe in 2016, and I took my older two kids to China in 2018. I even added my fourth continent to the list when my daughter and I headed off to Argentina this spring.
All this to say, we’re amazingly blessed by the travel we’re able to do. I like to think that we’re a pretty “normal” family, at least in terms of where we’re at financially (adopting three kids obviously isn’t normal). Lately I’ve realized how much of a privilege it is to be able to globe-trot.
The “Golden Age of Flying” Wasn’t Golden for Everyone
Travel used to be a luxury. For many it still is. A hundred years ago, people in the U.S. didn’t travel very far. A trip to another state was quite an endeavor. Trains had made things easier starting in the 1800s, but automobiles were just adding greater ability for people to move about. Planes took off in the 20s and 30s, but we were still years from routine passenger flight.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the average American family started taking a week or two to vacation. Even then, these were overwhelmingly trips by car. Flying remained expensive, something only available to the wealthy. Fares across the country still cost $1,000s (in today’s dollars), and it was a long, multi-stop trek. Intercontinental fares were even higher, and the journeys much longer.
Fast forward to the 1970s, where flying is at least somewhat available to the average person. These were still predominantly for domestic trips, and international travel wasn’t routine. A ticket from New York to London flying standby was a screaming deal at $1,000 in today’s dollars. A more realistic ticket price was roughly twice that. Sure, flying was a wonderful, luxurious experience, but it came at a cost.
Today things are totally different. The multi-course meals have been swapped for pretzels and a can of coke, but you can fly across the Atlantic for under $300 round-trip. And this is a wonderful privilege.
Budget Travel: More Possible Now Than Ever Before
The age of budget travel is the “Golden Age of Travel”, in my opinion. Never before has the world been more connected and more accessible. It should be no surprise that international tourism has exploded in the past 40 years. Annual international tourist arrivals will soon hit the 1.5 billion mark. This is over 60 times the number of trips taken in the 1950s!!
You no longer need to be wealthy to see the world. The number of people headed abroad reflects this. Economical flights have democratized travel. A fantastic fare sale, a backpack with the essentials, and you’re off. You can easily have a great week-long solo trip for under $1,000. If you’re especially good at pinching pennies, you could probably stretch that to two.
Even if backpacking isn’t your thing, saving money through the year can easily yield enough for a family vacation abroad. This was basically unheard of just 40 years ago. My dad’s way of seeing the world was to join the Navy. I’m very glad that’s not the route I have to take.
Affordable International Travel: A Personal Case Study
Let’s forget the current situation and head back to my poor college student days. Granted, I never had really poor days, living on nothing but ramen. But cash was certainly tight and I didn’t travel nearly as much as I do now.
Recalling my trip to Great Britain just before I turned 19, it was one of frugality. I visited London and Scotland with a good friend and his family. The plane ticket cost something like $700, which was quite a lot for me at the time. Much of the cost in London was covered by his grandma (thank goodness, otherwise I would not have afforded it), including lodging and some meals. We then spent maybe $400-500 more for our time in Scotland, most of which was our train travel. The time in Scotland was spent mainly hiking, and we either camped or stayed in hostels.
All said and done, the damage was probably somewhere around $1,300 per person for nearly three weeks. Less than $70 per day isn’t bad at all. Yet I’ll wager that we could visit for even cheaper now and still enjoy a two-week trip.
Yet Not Everyone Can Still Afford It
We might be able to easily spare a couple grand for travel each year, but this definitely isn’t possible for everyone. Sure, there are more people headed abroad every year, and certain markets are growing like crazy (e.g. China). But if you’re able to push around a few thousand dollars to travel every year, you’re still in the minority.
Living in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is something for which I’m often thankful. The annual household income in the U.S. is over six times the world average. Flying used to be something for the wealthy of America. Now it’s something for the wealthy of the world. Still, things have come a long way, and I’m thankful for that. Living in this age of travel is an immense privilege.
Affordable International Travel is a Modern Privilege
I’m thrilled to be able to have seen so many beautiful and amazing places already in my life. And I haven’t even traveled all that much compared to many! It’s even better to be able to show the world to my kids, one of my main goals of travel. I love experiencing new places with them, and hearing them recount the stories of our trips when we get home.
This wouldn’t be possible for a family like ours without extremely affordable international travel. Sure, miles and points help tremendously. But even if I wasn’t into this hobby, heading to Europe annually for a 10-day excursion would be entirely feasible for us.
It’s a privilege to live in the age we do. I’m thankful we can see so much of the world so cheaply and easily.