NTUF Issue Brief #167 - July 28, 2015
Michael Tasselmyer

Still Up in the Air: The Uncertain Costs of Presidential Travel Abroad

Through July of this year, Barack Obama has taken 41 international trips as President, spanning a total of 161 days and 90 countries (including repeat visits).

Through his first six and one-half years, he has taken more trips over more days than Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan over the same period of time, but spent less time abroad than Bill Clinton, whose international travel totaled 178 days at this point in his presidency. President Obama’s trips tend to be slightly shorter – about 3.9 days each – than those of Bush, Clinton, and Reagan before him, all of whom spent an average of at least 4.1 days abroad per trip.

International travel is a part of the job for any President, who as Chief Executive is the most visible and influential representative of the U.S. government. However, when the President travels abroad, many of the key functions of his Office must be brought along with him.

 Transporting the Presidency overseas is a costly and complicated process requiring weeks of advance preparations, hundreds of staff and security personnel, and intense planning for every variable including transportation, accommodations, medical care, and even the President’s meals. However, a detailed accounting of the costs associated with Presidential travel abroad – even the non-security related costs – remains unavailable. For several years National Taxpayers Union Foundation has tracked the international travel of U.S. Presidents and its known costs in order to shed some light on how taxpayer money is used to finance this official government function.

Our latest update comes as President Obama is returning from a six-day trek to Africa, with a visit to his father’s homeland in Kenya to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit before heading to Ethiopia (making him the first sitting U.S. President to visit that country). The trip has stirred significant controversy because of recent terrorist attacks in Kenya as well as human rights and press freedom concerns related to Ethiopia. While those factors will certainly have political ramifications, the heightened security concerns will also mean additional costs borne by U.S. taxpayers as President Obama’s protection and logistics teams prepare accordingly.

The President’s Travel to Date


In 2013, the last time NTUF published a major update of Presidential travel data, we found that President Obama had spent more time overseas than almost any other president during his first four years in office: the 95 days he spent abroad were second only to George H.W. Bush’s 102.[1] Since then, Obama’s travel pace has slowed, but among recent two-term Presidents he still ranks second in terms of number of days spent abroad.

Although President Obama is tied with Bill Clinton for the most trips taken through July of his seventh year in office, his trips tend to be shorter than other presidents’. On average, President Obama’s trips have lasted about 3.9 days each, while George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan have spent 4.1, 4.3, and 4.8 days, respectively. This is a trend that we also observed in our previous update.



Table 1. Presidential Travel Abroad Through July of Seventh Year in Office

President Obama’s Most Frequently Visited Countries

President Obama has traveled most frequently to Western Europe during his presidency, which is unsurprising given the strong diplomatic ties the United States has to the region; France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are all among Obama’s most-visited countries. President Obama will have visited 52 unique countries by the end of his trip to Africa.


Historical data shows that Presidents tend to travel significantly more in their second terms than in their first four years, perhaps because of fewer political concerns about reelection or a desire to “legacy build” by tending to international policy priorities. Our analysis shows that President Clinton is the most well traveled Chief Executive in history. If President Obama keeps up his current pace of travel (just over 2 days abroad per month) through the remaining 17 months of his term, he will have spent a total of 195 days overseas, less than Clinton and George W. Bush, though previous two-term Presidents actually fell short of their projected travel rates.



Table 2. Days Spent Abroad in a First Term vs. Second Term




Presidential Travel: Costs and Logistics


Transporting the President overseas requires a massive logistical effort in order to ensure that the trip goes safely and according to plan – or at least, as smoothly as possible. While many of the particulars are never revealed to the public due to security concerns, we do know something of the costs and planning that have gone into recent trips.


All Presidential travel is classified as either official or unofficial. Official travel is that which is directly tied to the President’s duties as Chief Executive and Commander in Chief, while travel to political functions is considered unofficial. The government pays for all costs associated with official travel, including food, lodging, transportation, and incidental expenses for both the President and all those traveling with him; the White House must reimburse the government for all unofficial travel. Vacation travel, while not directly related to a governmental or political function, is still considered official (according to a 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).[2]


Aircraft Costs


On international trips the President travels in the iconic “Air Force One,” which is the flight designation used for either of the two VC-25 jets maintained for such purposes by the U.S. Air Force’s 89th Airlift Wing. The VC-25 is a Boeing 747 retro-fitted with the military accommodations necessary to ensure the President’s safety, including missile defense systems, radar jamming capabilities, and videoconferencing equipment.[3] In January 2015 the Air Force announced that it would be contracting with Boeing to replace the aging VC-25’s with new 747-8 aircraft, citing concerns over “[p]arts obsolescence, diminishing manufacturing sources and increased down times for maintenance.”[4] It has been estimated that replacing the current fleet of VC-25 aircraft could cost upwards of $1.7 billion over five years.[5]


Air Force One operating costs are measured by the hour, and include “fuel, flight consumables, depot repairs, aircraft overhaul and engine overhaul.”[6] In 2012 CRS reported that Air Force One’s cost per flight hour stood at $179,750. The most recent estimate NTUF has been able to verify was obtained by government watchdog organization Judicial Watch, who reported earlier this year that in Fiscal Year 2015 it cost $206,337 per flight hour to operate Air Force One.[7] That is slightly down from the $228,288 per flight hour it cost in FY 2013.[8] This decline is most likely attributable to lower fuel prices.


Accordingly, the President’s aircraft costs alone can total several million dollars anytime he travels abroad. For example, flying to Nairobi, Kenya from Andrews Air Force Base, just outside of Washington, D.C., takes slightly less than 14 hours; from there to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and back to D.C. adds another 15 hours.[9] That means the President’s most recent trip to Africa will cost taxpayers about $5,983,773 in Air Force One flight costs alone.


It is important to note that when the President travels outside of the country, several passenger and cargo aircraft, in addition to a “backup” VC-25, accompany him.[10] Secret Service personnel must fly to – and often remain in – an international destination weeks before the President arrives in order to make advanced security preparations, which also requires military aircraft. During President Bill Clinton’s 11-day trip to Africa in 1998, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that C-5 cargo planes flew a total of 1,975.6 flight hours at an hourly rate of $12,605 for an aggregate cost of just under $25 million to carry supplies needed for the trip.[11] As of April 2013, the cost per flight hour for the C-5B Galaxy cargo plane stood at $78,817.[12]


Security and Entourage


The President’s security detail is perhaps the most elaborate element of international travel. Nearly everything he does while overseas has been planned and approved months in advance of his arrival in order to guarantee that security personnel are prepared for all possible scenarios.


Ahead of the President’s previous trip to Africa in 2013, The Washington Post obtained confidential documentation from White House and Secret Service staff that detailed some of the provisions.[13] At least 200 Secret Service protection agents were flown in to ensure around-the-clock protection. In light of lower quality hospitals and health care in the region, the U.S. Navy planned to send a vessel with a fully equipped medical center and staff to be kept offshore in the event of an emergency. Military cargo planes planned to airlift 56 support vehicles – including 14 limousines and 3 trucks tasked with carrying bulletproof glass for the President’s hotel windows – and U.S. fighter jets operated in shifts to provide 24-hour air protection. It was estimated that the security preparations cost between $60-100 million.


It is not uncommon for the Secret Service to book entire hotels (or portions of them) in order to have more control over the buildings’ security. For example, in 2010, President Obama traveled with the First Lady to India, where he stayed in the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. The U.S. government booked all 570 rooms in the hotel (which was attacked by terrorists in 2008) ahead of the President’s visit.[14] And for the President’s one night stay in Brisbane, Australia for the 2014 G-20 Summit, the U.S. delegation spent $1.7 million on 4,000 rooms at three different hotels.[15]


Ground transportation centers around “The Beast,” the Presidential limo that is specially outfitted with military-grade protections. Upgrades include a reinforced frame, 5-inch-thick bulletproof windows, Kevlar-enforced tires, and an airtight seal to protect the President from biochemical weapons.[16] There are 12 of the vehicles in rotation, several of which accompany the President on any given trip not only in case of maintenance problems but also to serve as decoys (some were spotted in Nairobi ahead of the President’s recent visit).[17]


As noted, the President does not travel alone: several hundred government officials typically accompany the Chief Executive abroad – it is difficult to get an exact head count. After The Guardian reported that a 900-person entourage joined the President in Belgium, the White House informed the Washington Post that the figure was inaccurate, yet, due to security reasons, refused to provide the correct figure.[18]


The only official government accounting of a President’s international travel entourage took place in 1999 when, as previously mentioned, the GAO conducted a review of the costs associated with President Clinton’s international travel throughout 1998. Clinton traveled to sub-Saharan Africa that year for an 11-day trip, and according to the GAO it required 1,302 support personnel (not including Secret Service agents; the government does not indicate how many accompany the President on any given trip). That same year he traveled with 510 support staff to China (for 9 days) and 592 to Chile (for 4 days). [19]


In FY 2015 the Office of Management and Budget reported that the Secret Service was appropriated an estimated $852 million for “protection of persons and facilities” and $31 million for “international field operations, administration and operations.”[20] However, there is no indication of how much funding was dedicated specifically to travel-related security functions.


President Obama’s 2015 Trip to Kenya and Ethiopia

The President is currently traveling to Kenya and Ethiopia to host the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi and meet with regional leaders in Addis Ababa. The trip is his fourth to sub-Saharan Africa, his first visit to either as President, and the first time any Chief Executive has ever paid an official visit to Ethiopia while in office. The White House announced in a press release that President Obama intends to “build on the success of the August 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit by strengthening ties with our African partners and highlighting America’s longstanding commitment to investing in Africa.”[21]


The United States government has invested heavily in both Kenya and Ethiopia in recent years. According to the Agency for International Development, the U.S. gave $515.6 million in development funding to Kenya in FY 2014; that same year it gave $490 million to the Ethiopian government. From FY 2012 to 2014 the U.S. gave a combined $2.7 billion in development funding to Kenya and Ethiopia.[22] Each country also receives additional State Department counterterrorism assistance.[23]



Table 3. United States Agency for International Development Funding for Kenya and Ethiopia ($ millions)



Both Kenya and Ethiopia have faced a host of problems in the months leading up to the President’s visit. The Al-Qaeda linked terrorist group Al-Shabaab, based in neighboring Somalia, has launched several large-scale attacks on public targets in Kenya, including a 2013 incident at Westgate Mall in Nairobi that killed at least 67 people.[24] In April of this year, the group attacked Garissa University, killing 152 people (mostly students) and wounding 79 more.[25] Several smaller-scale attacks on remote villages have been carried out as well, in what the group has called retribution against Kenyan military presence in Somalia.[26] The State Department has issued a travel warning to U.S. citizens visiting the country due to “continuing and recently heightened threats from terrorism and the high rate of violent crime in some areas.[27] Last July, the Peace Corps suspended all volunteer activities in Kenya, and the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which was bombed in 1998 killing 12 Americans and 212 Kenyans, has restricted U.S. government personnel from traveling to certain parts of the country.


In Ethiopia, government leaders have faced widespread criticism over recent elections that many watchdogs have condemned as illegitimate. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been in power since overthrowing the government in 1991, claimed a 100 percent victory in the May 24 general election and won every seat in the country’s parliament.[28] The EPRDF has been the focus of human rights groups in the past for suppression of free speech and the silencing of its political opponents; [29] in fact, the United States itself has deplored as recently as June 2015 the “restrictions on freedom of expression,” “politically motivated trials,” “harassment and intimidation of opposition members and journalists,” “alleged arbitrary killings … torture,” and “limits on citizens’ ability to change their government” in official reports.[30] Incidentally, five journalists who have criticized the party in the past were released from detention just days before President Obama’s visit.[31]


Security and Logistics In Africa


The President was accompanied by a group of 20 members of Congress –19 Democrats including Senators Chris Coons (DE) and Ed Markey (MA), Representatives Karen Bass (CA), Cedric Richmond (LA), G.K. Butterfield (NC), Charlie Rangel (NY), and Emanuel Cleaver (MO), and one Republican, Senator Jeff Flake (AZ). In addition, other named officials included the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of the Commerce Department, the President of Overseas Private Investment Corporation (a federal agency), the head of Small Business Administration, and representatives of the State Department. The exact size of the entourage has not been reported: the New York Times noted that Obama is returning to Kenya “with an entourage of hundreds.”[32] 


The volatility in the region means that the President’s trip will require intensive security and logistics considerations. Over several weeks before the visit, the U.S. stepped up military attacks against Al-Shabbab in neighboring Somalia. While in Kenya, local and international media outlets have reported that the country’s government will deploy over 10,000 security and police personnel to assist the American contingent, and the U.S. had delivered at least eight military helicopters and several armored cars to Nairobi in advance.[33] The report is in line with the type of aircraft support that was used during President Clinton’s 1998 trip to Africa, which required five military helicopters and four cargo planes (which flew a total of 196 missions over the course of 2,764.8 flight hours to transport all of the vehicles needed). Robert Rotberg of the Woodrow Wilson International Center has estimated that the security detail required to protect President Obama in Kenya will cost roughly $60 million,[34] an amount roughly in line with what it cost to protect him during his 2013 trip to Africa.




While the State Department and the White House do regularly report on the President’s official overseas travel, very little information regarding what these trips cost is ever made available to the public. This is troubling when considered along with the fact that modern Presidents are frequently flying abroad. What little we do know is only made available due to requests made under Freedom of Information Act procedures, or anecdotal media reports from host countries. The last official accounting of any Presidential travel was conducted over a decade ago in GAO’s 1999 report on President Clinton’s trips to Africa, Chile, and China.


Federal agencies would do well to provide a more transparent display of the costs associated with overseas Presidential travel, which is funded entirely by the taxpayer. There are understandable security considerations to keep in mind, but until more information is made available, there can be no public debate on the costs and benefits of international travel.



About the Author

Michael Tasselmyer is the Policy Analyst for the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, the research and educational affiliate of the National Taxpayers Union.


[1] Michael Tasselmyer, “Up in the Air: A Study of Presidential Travel and its Uncertain Costs,” National Taxpayers Union Foundation Issue Brief #166, June 26, 2013.

[2] L. Elaine Halchin, “Presidential Travel: Policy and Costs,” Congressional Research Service, May 17, 2012. Accessed at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21835.pdf.

[3] Jordyn Phelps, “Air Force One All Access Pass: Secrets of the Iconic Presidential Aircraft,” ABC News, May 4, 2015. Accessed July 16, 2015 at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/air-force-access-pass-secrets-iconic-presidential-aircraft/story?id=30799245.

[4] “AF Identifies Boeing 747-8 platform for next Air Force One,” United States Air Force. Published January 28, 2015 at http://www.af.mil/News/ArticleDisplay/tabid/223/Article/562748/af-identifies-boeing-747-8-platform-for-next-air-force-one.aspx.

[5] Philip Ewing, “Boeing to replace Air Force One,” Politico, January 28, 2015. Accessed July 24, 2015 at http://www.politico.com/story/2015/01/air-force-one-boeing-747-8-114689.html.

[6] L. Elaine Halchin, “Presidential Travel: Policy and Costs,” Congressional Research Service, May 17, 2012. Accessed at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21835.pdf.

[7] Amanda Macias, “It’s ridiculously expensive to fly Air Force One,” Business Insider, February 19, 2015. Accessed July 16, 2015 at http://www.businessinsider.com/price-to-fly-on-air-force-one-2015-2.

[8] Michael Tasselmyer, “Travel Study Update: President Obama is Most Internationally Traveled President through 5 Years,” National Taxpayers Union Foundation, March 24, 2014. Accessed July 16, 2015 at http://www.ntu.org/foundation/detail/travel-study-update-president-obama-is-most-internationally-traveled-president-through-5-years.

[9] Estimated using calculator at http://www.travelmath.com/flying-time/ and a cruising speed of 575 MPH.

[10] L. Elaine Halchin, “Presidential Travel: Policy and Costs,” Congressional Research Service, May 17, 2012. Accessed at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21835.pdf.

[11] Government Accountability Office, “Presidential Travel: Costs and Accounting For the President’s 1998 Trips to Africa, Chile, and China,” accessed July 16, 2015 at http://www.gao.gov/archive/1999/ns99164.pdf.

[12] Mark Thompson, “Costly Flight Hours,” Time, April 2, 2013. http://nation.time.com/2013/04/02/costly-flight-hours/

[13] Carol D. Leonnig and David Nakamura, “Document: Major resources needed for Obama Africa trip,” The Washington Post, June 13, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obamas-trip-to-africa-poses-special-challenges-enormous-costs/2013/06/13/29d9270a-cd29-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html

[14] Fox News, “Entire Taj Mahal Hotel Reportedly Booked for Obama Mumbai Visit.” Accessed July 24, 2015 at http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/10/24/entire-taj-mahal-hotel-reportedly-booked-obama-mumbai-visit/.

[15] Jeryl Bier, “Obama’s Hotel Bill for One Night in Brisbane: $1.7M,” The Weekly Standard, December 8, 2014. Accessed July 24, 2015 at http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/obamas-one-night-brisbane-australia-hotel-bill-17m_820753.html.

[16] Amanda Macias, “There is no car like the president’s armored limo – aka ‘The Beast,’” Business Insider, February 10, 2015. Accessed July 24, 2015 at http://www.businessinsider.com/the-beast-presidents-limo-2015-2.

[17] Daily Nation, “Barack Obama’s ‘Beast’ causes stir at fuel station in Nairobi,” July 22, 2015. Accessed July 24, 2015 at http://www.nation.co.ke/news/Obama-beast-cause-stir-fuel-station/-/1056/2802598/-/1xqqhj/-/index.html.

[18] Colby Itkowitz, “Wanna host Obama? It’ll cost you.” The Washington Post, March 25, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/in-the-loop/wp/2014/03/25/wanna-host-obama-itll-cost-you/

[19] Several additional anecdotal reports of the President’s entourage were included in NTUF’s 2013 report on Presidential travel.

[20] United States Office of Management and Budget, “Budget Appendix – Department of Homeland Security,” accessed July 16, 2015 at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2016/assets/dhs.pdf.

[21] The White House, “Statement by the Press Secretary on the President’s Travel to Ethiopia,” June 19, 2015. Accessed July 17, 2015 at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/19/statement-press-secretary-president%E2%80%99s-travel-ethiopia.

[22] USAID, “Dollars to Results.” Accessed 7/17/2015 at http://results.usaid.gov/.

[23] Government Accountability Office, “Combating Terrorism: State Department Can Improve Management

of East Africa Program,” June 2014. Accessed July 26 at http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664126.pdf.

[24] Jason Straziuso, “NYPD report on Kenya attack isn’t U.S. gov’t view,” Yahoo News, December 13, 2013. Accessed July 17, 2015 at http://news.yahoo.com/nypd-report-kenya-attack-isn-39-t-us-151711825.html.

[25] BBC News, “Kenya al-Shabab attack: Security questions as dead mourned.” Accessed July 17, 2015 at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32177123.

[26] Murithi Mutiga, “Al-Shabaab kills more than a dozen in Kenya attack weeks before Obama visit,” The Guardian, July 7, 2015. Accessed July 17, 2015 at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/07/al-shabaab-kills-more-than-a-dozen-in-kenya-attack-weeks-before-obama-visit.

[27] Department of State, “Kenya Travel Alert,” July 13, 2015. Accessed July 18, 2015 at http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/alertswarnings/kenya-travel-alert.html.

[28] BBC News, “Ethiopia election: EPRDF wins every seat in parliament,” June 22, 2015. Accessed July 17, 2015 at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-33228207

[29] Human Rights Watch, “Journalism Is Not A Crime,” January 22, 2015. Accessed July 18, 2015 at https://www.hrw.org/reports/2015/01/21/journalism-not-crime.

[30] United States Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 – Ethiopia,” June 25, 2015. Accessed July 18, 2015 at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/236570.pdf.

[31] Edith Honan, “Five Ethiopian bloggers, journalists released from custody,” Reuters, July 9, 2015. Accessed July 18, 2015 at http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/09/us-ethiopia-bloggers-idUSKCN0PJ1GZ20150709.

[32] Peter Baker, “Kenya Trip Takes Obama Back to a Complex Part of Himself,” The New York Times, July 22, 2015. Accessed July 23 at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/23/world/africa/africa-trip-takes-obama-back-to-a-complex-part-of-himself.html.

[33] Tonny Onyulo, “Nairobi on lockdown as Obama arrives for Kenya visit,” USA TODAY, July 24, 2015. Accessed July 25, 2015 at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/07/24/nairobi-lockdown-obama-arrives-kenya-visit/30610709/. 

Oliver Mathenge, “2,000 GSU, 800 Marines to guard Obama,” The Star, July 10, 2015. Accessed July 18, 2015 at http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2000-gsu-800-marines-guard-obama.

[34] Robert Rotberg, “Going to Kenya Is a Dumb Idea, Mr. President,” Politico, May 7, 2015. Accessed July 18, 2015 at http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/05/going-to-kenya-is-a-dumb-idea-mr-president-117737.html#.VavAlBNVikp.