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Hail to the Queen

The Globe-trotting English

By Matt Zedler

Have you traveled outside of your home country in the past six months? Is a passport the equivalent of a birth certificate for you, something that is unheard of to be without? Does taking a weekend trip to another country to ski, explore historical sites, or just relax on the warmer beaches seem like a normal event? If you answered affirmatively to all these questions, then you may be English (or at least European). As an American living in the UK, I was ready to take advantage of the close proximity of England to the continent, and I soon realized that trips off the British Isles, mostly by airplane, were a common occurrence for most Cambridge students. The success of low-cost, no-frills carriers, the relative cost of traveling, and the location of the UK all seemed to explain this phenomenon.

While travel by rail is still relatively common around Europe, the recent emergence of budget airlines such as RyanAir and EasyJet have revolutionized travel by making flights cheaper than almost any other mode of transport. Every week, it seems there is a new special on the Internet where flights to Prague, Stockholm, Rome, or a myriad of other locations are available for the cost of exactly zero GBP (British pounds). When one reads the small print and adds in the requisite taxes, this price jumps to about 20 GBP (40 dollars) for a round-trip flight, still a ridiculously low fare when one considers the typical cost of traveling in the United States. How do these carriers succeed in bringing the prices down so low? No meals are served on the flights (though you can buy food or duty-free items), no seats are assigned, and the airports flown to are some of the smaller ones near the larger cities. While this can sometimes cause some difficulty (e.g., flying to Frankfurt only to discover that the RyanAir airport is an hour away from the city, with a bus ride costing nearly 20 euros (more than 20 dollars), most of the tourist locations have built-in transportation and accommodation to serve the influx of budget tourists. In the US, we are starting to see budget airlines such as JetBlue, AirTran, and Southwest, but they are all still rather costly, a somewhat obvious result of the longer distances involved.

RyanAir and EasyJet may explain the increase in the number of English traveling to the European continent, but what about travel to the rest of the world? The English fly all over the world, to almost every continent but Antarctica. The economic reasons for this diaspora are obvious — everywhere in the world is cheaper than the UK. Even though flying to Sri Lanka or Botswana may be rather costly, actually holidaying there is not with the current exchange rates that make living in London expensive even for Americans. Transport within the UK is also expensive, with petrol (gasoline) prices the highest in the world; a bus from East Anglia (where Cambridge is located) to Scotland can be more expensive than a flight to Rome booked a few weeks in advance. The English seemed to have discovered that the best way to live is to earn money in the UK and spend it somewhere — anywhere — else.

The third reason for travel I quickly discovered while living on the small island of the UK. The weather is a notorious force in English life, something that is often talked about and more often felt. It rains quite frequently, especially around the winter holidaying season. While the UK summer can be one of the best around, the island’s location near the Arctic Circle can make grey winters nearly unbearable. Spending the holidays on a warm beach in Spain or in South Asia carries much greater appeal than a grey, wet Christmas in Manchester or London.

A final reason is especially relevant for those transitioning from secondary school to university (something like high school to college). The “gap year,” a British invention during which recent secondary school graduates take a year off of school to “experience” life through work, travel, or volunteering, is becoming increasingly popular among the middle class, even in the US. Most students I met tend to spend half the year working to earn extra money, and then spend it on their travels during the latter half of the gap year. These students tend to travel to either Asia or America, trying to get as different an experience as possible from the UK. Why not visit all those places or former colonies one has read about in the history books? While the actual positive influence of such an experience on the youth is debatable, it does give even more English folks a chance to travel and spread out from their small island.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the English travel abroad more frequently than their American counterparts and at an earlier age. People in the United States tend to travel within their country rather than outside of it, mainly because of location, size, and cost of foreign travel. The impact of this penchant for traveling has yet to be determined, especially in terms of environmental effects. In addition, there seems to be a correlation between this increased travel and a desire to stay informed about world affairs.

But stay tuned for more on the relation between global awareness and the English in two weeks.