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Financing Your Travel Bucket List

Images from social media and magazines entice us to visit faraway lands for relaxation and enjoyment, with some suggesting travel can actually make us happier over the long term. But there's one major catch: money.

How are Americans affording so many vacations? What sacrifices do they make to visit other cities, states, or countries? We surveyed 984 people to find out. If you're craving your next great vacation, you might want to read what our travelers had to say.

Budding Bucket Lists

Bucket list progress

Older respondents were further along in completing their bucket lists than younger generations, but the gap between millennials and Gen Xers wasn't as large as one might expect. Although millennials reportedly completed an average of 29% of their bucket lists, Gen Xers had completed 32%.

This might reflect Gen Xers' unfortunate monetary situation, leaving some experts to describe the generation as "financially wrecked." With more credit card debt than any other generation, as well as an increased likelihood of families and homeownership, Gen Xers have made little headway in checking items off their travel bucket lists compared to their younger counterparts.

Unfortunately, our data showed Gen Xers losing hope, as well. Only 29% of respondents aged 39 to 54 felt optimistic about completing their travel bucket lists. Even baby boomers felt slightly more optimistic. Millennial optimism was unsurpassed, however, with 37% of this generation feeling they would be able to travel everywhere they wanted.

To Travel or Not to Travel

Travel roadblocks

In spite of lowered optimism, significant portions of all three generations had traveled to new cities, states, and countries in the past year. Eighty-seven percent of the least optimistic generation, Generation X, had traveled to a new city in the past year, while 71% had visited a new state, and 30% went to a new country. Surprisingly, though, over 1 in 10 respondents across all ages never left their city.

Millennials have fueled the "staycation" trend, where a traveler can explore and enjoy a vacation more locally. Our data backs this up, revealing 91% of millennials saw a new city in the past year.

But millennials didn't always do everything right. They were the most likely to say that credit card debt and the current cost of living kept them from checking items off their travel bucket lists. They were also two times more likely than Gen Xers and five times more likely than baby boomers to say their mental health prevented them from taking vacations. This may be an unfortunate Catch-22, as a vacation has been shown to alleviate stress and even improve life satisfaction.

Managing Travel Money

It is not how much you make, but how you manage it

Once again, the data revealed that mindsets trumped financial realities when it came to travel: Those who earned $47,000 or less annually traveled just as often as those who earned more than $47,000. In fact, those earning $47,000 or less visited more cities, on average, in the past year.

Considering respondents often cited financial issues as reasons they were unable to travel, you might wonder how income made little to no impact on respondents' travel history. The explanation respondents shared was money management. How a person managed their finances mattered significantly more than the overall amount of money they made. People who traveled the most were more likely to do the following: track their expenses, reflect on potential purchases, save each month, manage debt, and make financial goals.

Nearly 1 in 5 millennials spend outside their means to complete travel bucket lists

It may seem that the battle is won once you're actually on vacation, but the average American was unable to enjoy the aftermath of vacation bliss due to poor spending habits while away. Respondents reported feeling the adverse financial effects of overspending on a trip for an average of four months after returning home.

Strategy Frequency

Financial strategies of frequent travelers

Simply put, saving money afforded more travel. Respondents who looked for ways to save on travel took twice as many trips, on average, in the past year compared to those who traveled without looking for ways to save. Those traveling the most frequently said they saved money by booking in advance (74%), using travel credit cards (51%), and collecting miles or points (42%).

When you want that big trip, however, credit card tricks and advanced booking may not cut it. You'll have to save – a tactic 75% of respondents said they did to afford their last big trip. Unfortunately for the nation's overwhelming debt levels, 1 in 5 also took on debt to fund their latest big trip.

Saving and Seeing the World

Making time and saving money for travel

Going into debt wasn't the only thing Americans did to afford their dream vacations. Many were more responsible. Seventy-three percent told us they cooked instead of dining out to help afford their next vacation. Forty-two percent started working out at home, while another 40% said they lived below their means. And instead of streaming nature documentaries about their next great trip, 22% canceled their subscriptions to save and see it in real life.

Careers, however, were rarely jeopardized for travel. Just 15% took an extended leave from their jobs for vacation, and only 12% tried working remotely while moving about the world. Pets were an even rarer sacrifice, with only 10% saying they postponed getting a pet to travel more freely.

Traveling the World in Financial Style

Where there's a will, there's a way. And if the will is to travel, the way is a savings account – or at least more financially responsible behavior. Lifestyle changes before a vacation or any large purchase can make checking items off a bucket list more of a reality than a fantasy.

Whatever your travel or financial goals are, don't be afraid to dream far and wide. There are a seemingly infinite list of places to go and ways to get there. While traveling may temporarily deplete your bank account, it will make your life rich. So save, travel, repeat.

Methodology and Limitations

We surveyed 984 people about their travel experiences, lifestyle activities, and financial habits. For respondents to be included in our data, they were required to complete the entire survey and pass an attention-check question. Participants who failed to do either of these were excluded from the study.

Of all respondents, 52% were women, 48% were men, and less than 1% identified as nonbinary. Forty-six percent of respondents were millennials (born 1981 to 1997), 36% were from Generation X (born 1965 to 1980), and 18% were baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964). Generation Z (born 1998 to 2017), the silent generation (born 1928 to 1945), and the greatest generation (born 1927 or earlier) were excluded from the study. The average age of respondents was 41, with a standard deviation of 12 years. The data had a 5% margin of error for millennials and Generation X and an 8% margin of error for baby boomers.

To group respondents into "Traveled the Least" and "Traveled the Most," we assigned each respondent a "travel score." We asked respondents how many times they traveled to a new city, state, and country in the past year. Each city they reported was assigned a score of 1 point, each state was assigned a score of 2 points, and each country was assigned a score of 3 points. We then totaled a raw score for each respondent. We assigned the average score (9.25) a z-score of 0. Of the normalized data, respondents in the bottom quarter (25th percentile and below) were categorized as "Traveled the Least," and respondents in the top quarter were categorized as "Traveled the Most."

The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include but are not limited to: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration. In finding averages of quantitative values, we removed outliers so that data were not exaggerated.

Fair Use Statement

If you're already online, you've probably seen some inspiration for that next great vacation. Make sure to pair that inspiration with some data-backed knowledge. You're welcome to share this research online for noncommercial purposes, so long as you link back to this page.