A Massachusetts native, Carl lives in the Boston area. He’s in his late 20s and affable, with a broad smile. He works in the legal industry in a fast-paced job that requires confidence and skill.
And Carl is afraid to travel.
It’s not just a fear of flying, though that’s how it began. Carl (he asked that his real name and identifying information not be used) hates cars. He abhors traffic. He can’t stand being on the T, and not for the usual reasons.
“About a year ago I was having trouble just getting to work — even that sort of travel,” he said. “Driving to a family party down 93 became a nightmare. The thing about avoiding something is as soon as you start avoiding one thing, eventually that evolves into avoiding everything.”
A surprising number of Americans avoid traveling. Eleven percent have never stepped foot aboard a plane, the industry association Airlines for America reports. Ever, in their lives. Even with passports now required for travel to Mexico and Canada, 59 percent of Americans don’t have one. When they do roam, many prefer the reassuring comforts of a chain hotel or restaurant or a familiar cruise-ship cabin where they can retreat from exotic ports of call. They’ll take a theme-park re-creation of another country over going to the real thing.
They also offer (not too foreign, thank you) food for thought for people who can’t wait to go on exotic adventures and might take the experience for granted — who, when they’re planning a vacation, focus on the “where,” but not necessarily the “why.”
“Whenever I fly somewhere, I think about how difficult it is for some of my patients to get on a plane,” said Luana Marques, senior clinical psychologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders, who is from Brazil. “It really makes me appreciate more the privilege that I have to travel.”
She doesn’t have to tell Carl. He missed a close friend’s wedding because it was a five-hour drive away. He passed up good jobs because they were too distant, slowing the trajectory of his career. He never took vacations.
“There were no specific vacations that I missed,” he said. “I just didn’t plan any. It got to a point where my behavior was affecting other people, where there were places [friends and family] wanted to go that I just wasn’t able to do, and it was disappointing for them.”
For all the anxiety he has about traveling, Carl knows firsthand what he’s missing by not doing it.
“You can’t just go to work and punch the clock and go home and see the same neighbors and make the same dinners and watch the same TV shows for however long you’re alive,” he said. “I went years without seeing new things, without experiencing new things, especially in my 20s, when people don’t yet have kids, have extra money lying around, have time to see the world without being encumbered by older adult responsibilities. I missed out on that.”
Fear of travel — it has the “Game of Thrones”-evoking name of “hodophobia” — is only one of the reasons people miss out on such things. Another is cost, of course. And time: Sixteen percent of American workers don’t get vacation days, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, something else affluent frequent travelers likely take for granted. Even those who do get an average of only two weeks a year after five years on the job. More than half don’t even take all of those, according to the US Travel Association.
If traveling has always been intimidating, there are also now toughened security restrictions, fears of terrorism, and viral videos of people being dragged off airplanes.
“All of us are going to be a little bit put off by all of those aspects,” said Eugenia Gorlin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, who herself had just endured two days of delays getting to Indianapolis. (“It was really an ordeal you would associate with trying to get to Antarctica. I had thoughts of never ever wanting to do this again. And of course I will. But in the moment it’s very easy to sympathize with someone who decides never to get on a plane again.”)
Ditto unfamiliar customs and different languages. “Everyone is going to be uncomfortable in new situations where they don’t know how to behave,” Gorlin said.
Some people are perfectly content to stay home, said Marques. “Our brain likes the status quo,” she said. These people don’t have anxieties. “They have the means to travel. They could travel if they wanted to. They simply feel like, ‘We like Boston. We don’t need to go anywhere else.’”
All of these things prove a challenge for the travel industry.
“We’ve dealt with terrorism incidents, earthquakes, ash clouds, tsunamis. So there’s always the uncertainty,” said Jennifer Tombaugh, president of the tour operator Tauck. “You can put data in front of people that says the odds of this happening to you are less than having a problem when you’re driving to the airport, but that doesn’t convince everybody.”
A West Virginia native who was one of only a handful from her graduating high school class to leave the state for college, Tombaugh said, “I get it” that not everybody likes to stray from home.
But she said human beings are natural travelers, from the dawn of migration to colonization to globalization. They need to travel, she said. “People go to enrich themselves. Some people go to escape. There’s a great industry around going to the Caribbean and lying on the beach. You go to reconnect to be with people you love.”
Tombaugh remembered thinking, on a recent night in Paris, “How lucky am I? I was pinching myself. We do take it for granted if we’re accustomed to it. We see the negative, the difficulties, the long lines, the bad airport food, the constant delays. But there’s still a childhood delight when you get on an airplane and look out the window.’”
Carl has experienced that now, too. After seeking treatment to face his travel fears, he nervously got on a plane and flew to Europe.
“I decided I wasn’t going to put up with it any more,” he said. “You kind of hope you’re going to go in and they’re going to hypnotize you or there’s going to be some sort of magical pill. But the only way to get over it is to expose yourself to it.”
Facing his fear (“I still think that air travel is crazy; it’s absolutely baffling to me”) affirmed his impression that travel “helps you appreciate a little bit more where you are,” Carl said. “And it’s just fun. You’re on vacation. You turn your work phone off. You have no responsibility but eating good food and drinking good drinks or relaxing or seeing new things. You can get away from the petty troubles of your life.”
He said goodbye, packed up the car, and headed to New Hampshire in the weekend traffic.
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.