This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.
This week’s travel question is from Andy M. he asks,
Q. “What are good destinations for first timers?“
A. – I’ll answer this question from a North American perspective. However, given the international nature of my readership – please custom tailor this advice to your own native language, and cities/countries that may be a good fit for you personally.
When taking your first international trip there are a few key factors to keep in mind that will take what can be a relatively terrifying experience, and make it more manageable.
1. Language Barrier – If you are an American going abroad for the first time, consider countries that are native English speakers as launching points for your trip. Even if you are semi-fluent in French or Spanish, cities like Madrid may not be ideal for your first time out of the country. Instead, I suggest countries like England and Ireland which will be exotic, different, but also far easier to navigate. While the language barrier really isn’t something to worry about, your first major trip can be stressful and most of your experiences will be new and novel. This includes everything from ordering a sandwich to navigating the metro and asking for directions when you get lost.
2. Public Transportation – A great first time city is a city with fantastic public transportation. If you can avoid it, don’t plan on renting a car right away. Focus instead on countries and cities that have well established public transportation systems that are reliable, easy to navigate, and which are simple to figure out and use. London is a prime example of a city that has an extensive public transportation system that is ideal for most first-time travelers.
3. Passion – Ask yourself what history and culture is most interesting to you. Most people have a certain period of history, or cultural region they are more interested in than others. While there can be a lot of pressure to visit certain places right off the bat, I always suggest launching your travel career in the region or area you are most curious and passionate about. While this may conflict with tip #1, it is important to go where you want even if that means an American might take their first trip to somewhere like Tokyo, where you’ll find English to be fairly common but not spoken as the native language.
4. Use a Program – If you are looking at your first trip abroad and uncomfortable doing it yourself, consider using existing tour programs. For younger people there are a wealth of fantastic options which range from semester, or summer abroad programs to Contiki, Intrepid and GAdventures style organized trips. While these are not destinations per-say, they are beneficial tools for exploring areas fresh out the door which might otherwise be too intimidating or challenging to tackle on your own.
5. Security – I suggest starting in a safe city. While your safety and general experience will vary largely based on your own behavior in a given city, it’s usually advisable for first time travelers to avoid cities that have extremely high mugging, kidnapping or violent crime rates. This is another reason I tend to suggest cities like Dublin, Edinburgh and London for first time travelers. While they have their issues, and dodgy areas all three tend to be relatively safe and well policed. Bribery also tends not to be a major issue, which helps first time travelers avoid uncomfortable situations.
So, what specific cities would I suggest? For an English Speaker from the US or Canada I would suggest launching your travel career in the British Isles. While London and Dublin are far from my favorite cities, they will offer you a wonderful starting point for your trip. They are easy to reach, and have fantastic rail and bus systems (metro as well in London). Trips out into the surrounding country side are easy, and for those eager to also explore places like Paris and Rome – trips as part of the second leg of your visit are easy. Other cities in Europe that are extremely visitor friendly are Amsterdam where the language barrier will be nearly non-existent, Paris, Rome (I would avoid Naples initially) and Madrid which regularly handle massive numbers of foreign tourists, many of whom are novice travelers. Other prime candidates include Sydney and Auckland in the Oceania region. If looking for countries in Asia consider Seoul in South Korea and Tokyo in Japan.
Ultimately, where you start is up to you and your sense of adventure. Remember that your personal mentality and approach to the experience will be what defines and shapes if it is positive, negative, or just a neutral experience. Chose to chase your passion and pick your initial destination based on what your comfort level is. You know yourself better than anyone, though hopefully your first trip abroad will help you learn about and strengthen parts of who you are.
Would you like me to elaborate on an aspect of this response? Let me know!