Travel Stereotypes: Why Americans Get a Bad Rap

Jericho, Palestinian Authority

Throughout my life I, like most other people, have heard all of the negative stereotypes about Americans when we travel overseas. According to legend we are fat, lazy, loud, stupid and pushy. While I usually am of the mindset that stereotypes exist for a reason, I’m not so sure in this case.

A few years ago, while visiting Bangkok, we stayed at the Bangkok Marriott Resort. The hotel is a large, riverside resort with great views of the city and a very relaxed, Thai feel. We were guests for almost a week, and every morning we rose dutifully and took the hotel boat shuttle into town for a day of exploration and discovery. Every morning though, I noticed the same scene at the pool in the center of the hotel. Dozens of guests were encamped in lounge chairs next to the pool, where they would stay for the rest of the day. The tourists in question, German in this case, rarely left the hotel and instead spent most of the day poolside.

This shocked me to no end. Why on earth would anyone travel halfway around the world only to plant themselves in a beach chair. It would’ve been easier and cheaper for them to take a quick flight down to Mallorca.

In Jordan a busload of French tourists refused to shut up during the Petra at Night experience, drawing the ire of tourists and Bedouin alike. In Morocco a Brit got pretty stern with a hotel employee because he didn’t get his morning tea and croissant. In Israel, a bunch of Russians got hideously drunk at the Dead Sea and made a scene.


I don’t cite these examples to say that Americans are perfect travelers, far from it. I’ve seen just as many American tourists embarrass themselves abroad as anyone else, but they’re not alone. The issue isn’t nationality, it’s personality type – whether or not they’re a touron.

I think it’s easy for most people to throw stones at Americans. On the whole we are boisterous, outgoing and showy. Some of our best exports have been 7-11, Starbucks and KFC. We’re easy targets. I think though that by using us as scapegoats, people from other countries give themselves a free pass. In their estimation, they surely can’t be as bad as an American tourist, regardless of how awful they really are.

The truth is no one is the perfect tourist, we all make mistakes and we all embarrass ourselves from time to time. I’ve been guilty of perhaps causing a scene once in a while, and I definitely have been found in a McDonald’s in some of the great capitals of the world. It’s not a question of whether or not we’ll make these mistakes, because we will, it’s what we learn from them that matters. Some of us will grow as travelers while, still others, will sadly remain tourons.

What do you think? Are bad travel manners inherent in certain nationalities?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

36 thoughts on “Travel Stereotypes: Why Americans Get a Bad Rap”

  1. Totally agree. What makes stereotyping the American tourist even more difficult, I think, is that our country is friggin huge. Within it we have a million subcultures – some perhaps fit the stereotype, but I’m sure the majority probably don’t.

    Living in Spain, I can easily say that they’ve got the “boisterous, outgoing” bit covered far better than us Americans. I’m also pretty convinced that they like Burger King and McDonald’s more than the average American…but hey, there I go stereotyping ;).

    1. That’s exactly right, but most countries have the same issue. There’s no single British type – there are Londoners, Manchester, York, etc. Each with their own quirks, every country is like that.

  2. I sometimes like to give a backstory to someone who I think is pulling a ‘turon’ display. Like the German poolsiders were working with a nightclub all night on a business trip but didn’t want to waste the beautiful day. So they lounged by the pool, to get what they could out of the trip.

    One of these days I’ll turn all these random thoughts into short stories just for entertainment. But in the meantime, as long as it doesn’t directly involve me I try to give them the benefit of the doubt unless I see first hand they reallly are obnoxious tourists, orn sometimes just people in general.

  3. I’d like to put in a word for you – as a non-American! So you know it’s not just a matter of self -defence in your comments LOL! You are absolutely right, and the incidents you mention I’ve seen too. I could also mention incidents with other nationalities but we could go on forever. It’s a sad but true fact that many people, though they won’t admit it, are jealous of the US lifestyle, and thus like to take Americans down a peg when they get the chance. Truly, as an English ex-pat I see much to be ashamed of in the conduct of many of my own countrymen living in Spain, and I also lived in one house for 8 years, where my neighbors were from another European country (no point in saying which really). They lived here only in Winter, learned not one, and I mean not ONE world of Spanish though the spent a full 6 months of the year here, patronized only shops which were run by their own countrymen or aimed at their nationality, ate only their own cuisine, and hadn’t even visited a local marina/resort only ten minutes away from where we lived. That said, they were very nice people and great neighbors, just incurious I guess!

  4. I agree it’s probably more about the person than the nationality. That said, I have seen a lot of bad American tourists, which have left me shaking my head.

    My first trip to Europe as an adult in 1997, some friends of mine & I were on the Chapel Bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland, which is a replica of a 17th Century Bridge. We’d had a bus tour of older Americans arrive right before us. As we were crossing the bridge, one unpleasant looking lady turned to her husband and said loudly “The least they could have done is put a moving walkway on here!”

    I know it’s just one example- but it one that sticks with me.

    One last thing, I will say that the more exotic (& expensive) places I go, I’ve found the American tourists to be a little more well-behaved.

  5. As I type this, I am lounging by the pool at a hotel in Fes, Morocco. It’s a beautiful place, and it’s been wonderfully quiet for the past hour and a half, a nice way to unwind after a day of sightseeing.

    Unfortunately, a busload of Portuguese (or so I believe) tourists just arrived. They are loud and boisterous, screaming and laughing at each other from across the pool, disregarding everyone else, as well as a warning from the hotel management about keeping things peaceful.

    It goes to show, Americans may be notoriously rude and showy, but any tourist from any country can be a moron.

  6. I was in sarajevo, in a hostel one day talking with a worker from the hostel, listening to him recount how he grew up during the siege but was not old enough to fight (they didn’t let their children fight he said)…on the couch next to me were 2 guys from florida. As the sarajevian hostel guy is recounting his time during the siege, on of the other americans interrupts, very loudly,
    “What’s the big deal. You (bosnians and serbians) all speak serbian. Right.”

    Needless to say me, and this dumbasses friend, were both ashamed to be american at that moment. And somehow the hostel guy (I’m leaving his name out) managed to not jump across the counter and deck the dumbass in the face (which is more than I can say what id have done).

    I’ve heard americans get the worst rap, cause we are notorious for only speaking one language, knowing less geography, learning less about past and current issues (unless said issues directly effect us) and so on.

    Also you forgot the stereotypes that all americans are rich and all american woman are whores. ;-)

  7. Interesting post. Here in Cambodia, we tend to get the lowest of the low from all over the Western world. This is partly because it is still relatively easy to get away with things you can’t get away from elsewhere and partly because both Thailand and Vietnam have taken steps to make it harder for Westerners to hang out in their countries indefinitely, so they’re coming here.

    I have to admit to having an anti-American prejudice, but have seen my own prejudices challenged here many times. When I was new here and saw an individual or a group of foreigners behaving badly, I immediately assumed they must be American. Nine times out of ten, as soon as they opened their mouths, I discovered differently: they were French, German, Russian, Australian or . . .. That’s not because American tourists are better here, it’s because there are less of them.

    I’m outside of the loop of Asian travellers, but have heard stories about Koreans and Chinese behaving badly. Then of course, some Cambodians don’t do their country any favours, either.

    The moral: I’ve learned to stop making snap judgements and simply do my best to make a positive contribution and accept and learn from my personal shortcomings. In the end, that’s all any of us can do anyway. Good and bad behaviour are not cultural characteristics, they’re human characteristics.

  8. As an American who’s spent a fair amount of time in Southeast Asia recently and also worked in the American tourist industry back in the 90s, my experiences on both sides of the fence have lead me to the conclusion that the majority of tourists from all parts of the globe can be pretty damn ugly. And while the wealth and class disparities between those of us serving busloads of Americans, Japanese, Chinese, etc and our clientele were certainly not as large as those between first world tourists and their Vietnamese or Indian hosts, we employees of the Grand Canyon Lodge were acutely aware of our status–as an assistant gift shop manager I made $4.75 per hour–and we were expected to do whatever it took to satisfy the customers. They thought they were getting an “authentic” taste of the Wild West. It is true that many Hopi and Navajo Indians on staff–mostly from Las Vegas or SLC–and mule packers–from Chicago or Rhode Island. And we wore Fred Harvey getups that harkened back to the days of the Harvey Girls. Even the housekeepers played their roles, coming and going from filthy cabins like shadows. We sold the brand, smiling to the faces of upper-middle-class families willing to overpay for canned and frozen Cisco food dressed up with fancy names. Behind their backs, we snarled and drank away our resentments in the employee pub.

    Saigon’s District One, Danang, Hoi An, Sa Pa, Nha Trang, Hanoi’s Old Quarter: Whether you wear a backpack or a Coach purse, you will be hard pressed to be seen as anything other than an obnoxious meal-ticket in any of these tourist zones. American, Chinese, Australian, or French–you are dinner and nothing else, though for now you can at least take comfort in knowing that generally your money is going directly to the service and not some multinational. The solution? Get the hell out of the minibuses, and stay as far away from these areas as possible. A real adventure awaits those willing to strike out alone on a motorbike. And the people of the countryside will take you in as their own. The same is true the world over.

  9. goingnomaddanib said: I’ve heard americans get the worst rap, cause we are notorious for only speaking one language, knowing less geography, learning less about past and current issues (unless said issues directly effect us) and so on.

    —– starting with “cause we are notorious for….” and all those reasons could also directly fit the majority of folks here in China.

    American get a bad rap: the USA is large and very different. When folks travel who are from the USA, they travel within the country or perhaps down to Mexico, S. America… but because of work and time constraints many of them don’t travel. Doesn’t have to do necessarily with ignorance, but because of priorities, time constraints, works, etc…

    After 10 years in China, the expats that seem to be the most helpful and outgoing are indeed the Americans. But maybe that is because there is more of them here than other nations’ folks.

  10. Matt, Americans get a bad rap much because everyone likes to pick on the big strong guy when they get a chance. After all what fun is it to pick ion Andorrans or Liechtensteiners?

    In Canada I hear far too many of us point the finger at our southern neighbour and blame you for giving North Americans a bad reputation around the world. It doesn’t help when American politicians ::cough:: W ::cough:: show little respect for the rest of the global community, or that there are so many American tourists, that just by sheer numbers you are more likely to see a “bad” American tourist than any other. I have seen my fair share of horrible tourons from Canada, Australia, France, Russia, France, The UK, France and France. ;)

    Just go to Cuba where there are very few if any Americans and you’ll see enough non American tourons to convince you that it’s a world wide phenomena.

    I have met some incredible American tourists/travellers while on the road. Helpful, kind, quiet, considerate and friendly. One of my favourite travel moments ever was when I met a cool couple from the US at the top of the Cathedral in Florence. I was feeling particularly sad and missing a friend who had passed away a few months earlier, and when we began to talk, the guy just grabbed me and gave me a big hug. He said I looked like I needed it. :)

    That’s the kind of American tourist I like to remember.

  11. I agree with you Ken, Americans are just easier to pick on. They are really loud though, so they’re kind of asking for it. Sort of like Australians, except Aussies are often really loud and embarrasing (I’m an Aussie, btw, so I can say that!). But, it’s always nice to meet both Americans and Australians whilst travelling. Almost all are very friendly and helpful.

  12. Amen! As an American and a traveler, I get annoyed by the anti-American stereotypes. We don’t have a lock on rude, insensitive tourism. The overzealous Aussie snapping in-you-face-photos of women and children, the drunk 18 year old British gap year student, the German sex tourist… the “ugly American” isn’t always (ahem, usually) American.

  13. Matt, I really enjoyed this post. I don’t think American tourists are all perfect, and in fact, I’ve been annoyed by some myself! You touch on some very good points though – it’s easy to make Americans scapegoats because of stereotypes. Being an American traveling abroad, I have disliked very much getting lumped into a category or getting ‘schooled’ on what my country has been doing in global politics. I am very aware of global politics – it’s what I spent three years of my life studying! Saying that all travelers from any country are alike is definitely too generalized for my taste. If people lump me into a category before having a conversation or really getting to know me, they are someone I don’t need to get to know any further.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, I appreciate the. I agree on all points, I especially dislike being lectured about whatever thing my government has done that people don’t like. LOL

  14. Great article. We had a French girl stay with us that was surprised to learn how false the stereotypes Americans are. Kind of feel responsible now when we travel to represent America well ;)

  15. As an American living abroad, having traveled a lot and worked at one of America’s most expensive resorts, I think the ignorance factor has a lot more to do with economics and education than culture/ ethnicity. The fact that uneducated Americans have (until now) been able to afford to travel (and show their asses) internationally adversely affects those of us who actually enjoy observing and following local customs and cultures.

    That said, in Indonesian (conservative) Bali (not!) I’d appreciate it if all tourists would respectfully put some clothes on when walking around the streets/ restaurants/ shops. There are remarkably few Americans here – and those who are here aren’t the people eating half-naked in the local food joints.

    DIsrespect is disrespect. Have some class – look around and at least TRY to fit in. It’s much more pleasant than being that “ugly tourist” or “meal ticket.”

  16. I recently was staying in a hotel in Costa Rica. The dude at the hotel, when he saw I was alone, asked me out for drinks after his shift. He told me some hilarious stories from dealing with annoying tourists. He said that the most annoying tourists were Indian and then French. He had nothing bad to say about Americans.

    I think the annoying American traveler stereotype is largely disappearing as many have decided not to travel at all. I think annoying travelers whether American or any other nationality are ignorant. The media that portrays foreign travel as dangerous (i.e. reports of Mexican drug cartels, terrorism, etc. . ) heavily influences the rude and ignorant American travel; therefore, they go to Florida, California, and Las Vegas instead.

  17. Before our first visit to Paris, my travel partner and I had heard all the stereotypes about how rude the French can be. So we went out of our way the whole time there to speak in French as best we could, and assimilate into the culture. Let me tell you, we were terrible French speakers, but every person we came across was SO friendly and helpful. It was an amazing experience! After Paris, we got on a train to Amsterdam and happened to be sitting next to two American girls so we started chatting. The first thing they said to us was they couldn’t believe how rude the French had been to them! I was shocked, since that was the complete opposite of our experience. But during that train ride things started to become more clear. Apparently they were from New Jersey, and were incredibly irritated by anything that was different from back home in America. I cringed at the thought of them interacting with the French people in their Jersey-accented English everywhere they went, and then thinking the French were being the rude ones. These girls are the ones perpetuating the rude American stereotype!!

    1. Yeah as long as you go into any new culture with respect and some humility, you should be fine. Sadly, not everyone gets that. Although I have to stand up for Jersey, my partner is from there and they’re not all bad I promise. :)

  18. First I agree with your point about ugly travelers being from no one place but from many different countries in the world. But I think there is some truth to the american traveler stereotype. But he causes for those stereotypical habits stem from logical reasons. Let me explain.

    First America is a very large country. People rarely need to step outside to get a vast amount of variety in travel. For the last 300 years, the country has been rarely untouched, apart from the vast number of migrants. With such a history, ethnocentrism is inevitable. Go to China, Russia or other such untouched large nations and you will find the same. The difference is that American culture has found place in the lives of people all across the world. The opposite is very rare. You will rarely find an American watching an Australian sitcom.

    I have heard from friends in the travel industry about how loud and obnoxious some Americans can be. From the way they dress (usually in khakis/jeans, graphic tees and sneakers), to their expectation to find american food and to their expectations for people to know American English terminology. From these small habits result the stereotype.

    1. NO doubt we can be that way, but my point was that so are other tourists from around the world. I don’t think rudeness is endemic to one nation.

  19. I’m a Singaporean and I have noticed there are mainly three things that Americans do here that easily distinguish them from other western people.

    1. Putting an awfully lots of ice in their drinks.

    2. Eating while walking down the street.

    3. Your big backpacks, tennis shoes and the American flag on your clothes.

  20. I am an american in puerto Rico at the moment, in a very popular tourist area. I am surrounded by hundreds of tourists, mainly Americans, and I would say most of them are not seasoned travelers. Cultural differences are very obvious, and the tourists do seem rather entitled an annoying, but what is most remarkable is the grace and patience I am observing from the puerto rican people here. They seem genuinely tolerant, and seem to even enjoy their interactions with tourists from time to time. I have a theory about why this might be. San Juan in general is not a particularly beautiful place, nor is it particulary safe, prosperous or pleasant. But where we are here in San Juan Viejo, it is very beautiful, very safe and very pleasant. I think puerto ricans here are well aware that this little oasis of gentility exists mainly through the constant flow of tourist dollars. That flow of dollars depend on their reputation and they work to preserve this area as a gardener would preserve a fragile flower. As ugly as the tourist personality may be, the tourist economy is precious. Remember that, as awkward Or annoying as we may be in the world outside the familiar, we still serve a vital purpose despite ourselves.

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