Destinations For First Timers – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

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!

Have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.

Five Major Differences Between Long-Term and Short-Term Study Abroad Programs

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

It sounds simple but if you’re like me, you probably view all study abroad programs as essentially the same, and you probably view most international students similarly as a result.  Hold your horses!  The two are actually vastly different.

I’ve participated in the two extremes of study abroad.  My first introduction was the summer after my Freshman year of College at Arizona State University.  I attended a six and a half week study abroad program through the Barrett Honors College which spent three weeks in London, ten days in Dublin and twelve days in Edinburgh. We traveled, we explored, we took two courses, and it was a great intro to international travel.  In the 7 years since I completed that program I used it, movies, and conversations as a general way of relating to all of the international students I met.  While it helped some, I now realize I made a lot of mistaken assumptions.

Just over three weeks ago I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’ll be spending the next two years pursuing a masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. An experience which I’ll be documenting here on VirtualWayfarer.  My formal studies start in less than three weeks and without even beginning the academic portion of the experience I’ve already realized that long-term study abroad and short-term study abroad are vastly different.

To clarify terminology – when I say short-term study abroad I’m talking about trips which last less than 7 months but longer than 5 days.  When I say long-term study abroad I’m including year long programs but mainly focusing on complete degree undergraduate and graduate programs.

Here are five of the key differences:

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

1. Commitment

As scary and challenging as short-term study abroad programs can be, you never truly have to commit to leaving.  The study abroad trip is an adventure, sometimes a relatively long one, but always experienced with a set perception of your native country as home.  You know that you’ll be going back at the end of that program and even if that program is 6 months long, you’ll always be in a social/passing through phase.  While you may become a participant in the local culture, you’ll never find yourself striving to become a truly active member or to go native.

In a long-term study abroad program you have to go all in.  You’ve committed to something more than just an extended visit and are literally moving to your destination country.  You operate on the realization that in the 1 to 6 years you’ll be gone that everything will change drastically, that you as an individual will be completely different, and that you are re-locating your home.  There is a realization that to not only enjoy, but to survive the experience you have to make an effort to go native.  That you will be changing far more than just where you sleep and study, but also how you eat, how you socialize, and perhaps even some of your core assumptions and values.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

2. Support

One of the best parts about a short-term study abroad program is that almost everything is taken care of for you by the partner schools, program coordinators and chaperones.  You’re told exactly what to do to engage in the process, where to be, and what to expect. Things like housing, transport, and course registration are handled, and most programs have you experience the trip as part of a group of people from your University or home country.  For my first trip this consisted of  two courses taught by faculty from my home University and our group was made almost entirely up of students from Arizona State’s Communication and Honors colleges.

While the experience may vary, I’ve found that long-term study abroad comes with significantly less support.  Especially for international students who are completing entire degree programs.  As a full program international student you’re not engaging in a study abroad program, so much as you are opting to study abroad.  The subtle difference is that while one is a program, the other is standard application and acceptance in a University that just happens to be international.  That means that virtually nothing is taken care of for you, though most Universities offer international programs offices which try and provide some guidance and limited help. At a basic level, however, consider all of the things that go into applying for College or Graduate school as a student attending an out of state school (housing, strange fees, long distance phone calls, different time zones, different banks, paperwork, transcripts, moving your possessions etc.) and then consider doing those internationally across thousands of miles.  Things like visa processing and paperwork, language barriers, international time zones, and vastly different education system structures all come together to create a very challenging and daunting experience.    Believe me, trying to complete the housing and visa process alone with minimal guidance or support is an incredible challenge and one that has left me with more than one sleepless night.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

3. Different Educational Systems

While most people know this, I don’t think people truly internalize the fact that school systems around the world differ greatly. American educational systems are vastly different than European systems which are completely different than Asian systems.

I mentioned earlier that for my short-term study abroad experience we brought our own teachers with us.  You’ll find that in most short-term study abroad programs the academic coursework and structure remain largely the same as the country of origin.  This makes sense as switching back and forth for a few weeks/month-long program would be messy and confusing.  It also goes back to the experience as a visitor vs. participant/member.

Long-term study abroad programs, however, are done in the local educational system.  Remember – you’re just a regular student who happens to be from abroad.  As a participant this means figuring out and learning vastly different registration, course schedule, course load, teaching style and testing systems.  Even the little things like how course hours are credited can be vastly different.  For example while US schools operate on a credit hour basis, University of Copenhagen and most of Europe uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

4. Social Restart

I mentioned earlier that short-term study abroad programs tend to set you up with, or travel in packs.  Even though you probably didn’t know most of the people before the trip began, you’re put with a group that automatically forms into a new peer group/group of friends. Some will become great friends, some you’ll tolerate because, hey, it’s only a few weeks or months, and one or two you’ll probably absolutely detest.  Ultimately though, this becomes your social network while traveling and fills in for your family and friends back home.

While there is some of this in long-term study abroad the nature of the program makes it significantly more difficult. There’s a huge sensation of loss as you realize that you’re not returning to your regular social group and good friends in a couple of weeks or months, but that it will likely be years. Years during which they may get married, move elsewhere, or change drastically as people.  As a long-term student you also have to effectively start over from ground zero.  One of the biggest frustrations I hear from people who did long-term study abroad programs and had negative experiences was that they never managed to meet new people or establish a new network.   It’s tough, and it takes an active willingness and investment in meeting, connecting, and generating friendships in a way most of us haven’t done actively in close to a decade.

There is no fall-back social group, or core-social group that you can always spend time with or call up to go grab a coffee, see a movie, or grab a beer. That sense of initial isolation is where I’m at right now, and while I feel very positive about the people I am meeting and my ability to build a new social network here in Denmark, it can be rough at times.  A lot of that will also change as the other international students starting my program arrive in town and courses start giving us an easy common thread to network through.  Still, that in and of itself poses another challenge as I know that if I’m going to be here for two years I need to do more than just hang out with other international students. That means going outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are far less comfortable for an international student – it means committing myself to the culture.

I’ve met some great people in the three weeks I’ve been here, and as orientation starts up I know I’ll meet a wealth of new ones. Despite that, it has definitely been a vastly different experience than traditional short-term study abroad.

Dad and I

5. Family

I always wondered how my international friends, roommates, and acquaintances dealt with being away from family. I come from a very close family where my parents, brother and I talk regularly, travel well together, and have an incredible relationship as peers.  For a long-time I wondered what long-term student’s relationships with their families were like that they were comfortable and able to leave their family for years at a time.  I think at a certain level, though I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it, I assumed that their relationships with their families must not have been incredibly close which made it easier to spend time away.  I’m happy to say I had no idea what I was talking about.  Leaving family behind and knowing that visiting and communicating will be much more challenging is easily one of the toughest things about long-term study abroad, but it in no way reflects the strength of the relationships between an international student and their siblings/parents.

As I write this I’m engaged in a two year program which may extend into a PhD and has the potential to lead just as easily to an expat scenario as a return stateside at the end of my two year program.  Two days before I flew over to Denmark my brother flew to Africa with the US Peace Corps for a two year deployment to Zambia.  Moving thousands of miles away, after spending most of our lives less than an hour away from our folks and each other was an incredibly difficult decision. But it was one that was made possible largely BECAUSE of how close our family is.  Their support, encouragement, and constant wisdom made the move a reality.  So, I encourage you all not to make the same mistake I did.

Are you thinking about studying abroad, or have you done a short or long-term program?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, observations and answer any questions you may have!

Reflecting – The British Isles

Hello again, I’m currently writing from Berlin – Sorry for the lack of updates – there just hasn’t been time or quality access. I also apologize as I will inevitably switch out Ys and Zs during this post – the keyboards here in Germany are different and I may not have time to correct/notice all the errors.

During the final day in London I explored the city a bit more. Unlike the previous days where I had started out at Picadilly Circus or Leicester Square I decided to head toward the London Bridge and the Tower of London. Unfortunately, the map I’d purchased didn’t quite extend that far. As a result, I ended up kinda guessing as I picked tube lines…meandered in their general direction. Eventually, I made it to the Tower of London where I poked around the outside a bit, walked along the water front (it was a beautiful, crisp day, with the occasional light misting/bone chilling breeze), then made a huge loop around the entire Tower. I decided not to pay to go in, as I’d done the tour in ’04 and a lot of the info was still fresh in my memory.

From there I wandered north – exploring the skyscrapers and eventually ending up in the financial district. It was awesome, so much energy and bustle. The architecture – Lloyds building especially – is spectacular. It’s also a pretty eye-opening experience standing in front of a medium-sized old gothic cathedral, and being surrounded by massive skyscrapers that dwarf everything.

After my meanderings I made my way back to the hostel, ate, took a nap, and tried to connect with some family friends by phone but didn’t have any luck. Then, decided that despite my aching legs and feet I should hit up the salsa club again for round two.

I was not disappointed. The experience was a blast. Great energy, friendly people, great dancers. Met two French girls who I ended up dancing with for a good chunk of the evening. We had a fun political discussion before calling it a night and I caught the last tube home – the tube closes down around 12:20 which is a major PIA.

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed, splashed some water on my face and made my way to London Heathrow where I caught a nice flight on BMI over to Amsterdam. I’ll leave off there on the update part and focus on general reflections.

I really loved my time in the British Isles. Even – and perhaps more so – after this second visit I’m definitely still in love-fascinated by the Highlands. The beauty, richness, and majesty of them is captivating. My taste of England was also reallz enjoyable. It wasn’t planned but between Leeds, York and London I feel like my experience was diverse. York was incredible from a historical sense, it was beautiful, and rich. Leeds was an awesome university experience. The warm reception I recieved from Meagan and the guys/girls in her dorm was reallz fantastic.

The other side of Leeds that was truly fascinating was it’s business and economic prosperity. The city, while possesed of historic architecture is also very modern. A feeling added to by the mixture of contemporary architecture and Victorian era shops, markets, and buildings. It truly is a youthful, vibrant, beautiful city. My hunch is between the universities and the economzy – that it pulls a lot of the best and brightest from the small English towns across the country side and retains them.

London – Well London is London. The city’s depth and diversity is incredible. The history is fantastic and for a big city the people were decent as well.

The pound-dollar difference was really rough. It’s incredible what a difference it makes and how it changes the way you calculate things and view them. I suppose the benefit is that it forces you to pick more carefully what you choose to do as well as really increasing your level of awareness about how much you spend, where you spend, and the spending habits you have that you don’t even really realize you have. The lucky thing is that in general things in England are slightly cheaper e.g. – where a burger might cost us $6 it will only cost 4 pounds. I think that slight difference more than anything really saved me…that and finding ways to avoid the tourist areas and exploit that cost of living difference.

I would have loved to visit one of the Colliers offices while I was in GB – but just did not have the opportunity. It was really fun though seeing Colliers-for-lease signs up all over the place. Though I didn’t see a ton in London, they seemed to dominate Edinburgh. There were also a decent number in Leeds.

The last 48 hours have really been a different experience. I’ll write a bit more about it later, when I write on Amsterdam and Berlin – but briefly, it wasn’t until I arrived in Berlin that the language barrier really hit me hard and I really felt like … Ok, here I am. Just me. Right now. Right here. What the hell have I gotten myself into. Oh well – time to swim.

The Isles and Amsterdam were really a great soft transition. The architecture is different (though not AS different as say, Germany). Even the simple difference in background noise really effects the way you feel and think. In the Isles it was familiar, normal, ‘right’ if you will. Now it’s different, it seems almost wrong on a subconcious level. I find myself in a different state of mind – different perspective on how I fit into the culture and need to approach things in part because of it. My ears and brain are constantly scanning. Trying to locate the familiar or make sense of it. It’s incredible, but also definitely tiring. Hostels – so far they’ve been really good. Better than I expect. Some are loud, some are dirty, some are less secure than I’d like – but all in all the people have been fun, decent people. While there have been one or two nights where I couldn’t find someone to explore with, or socialize with – in most cases I’ve met people and found things to do. It’s definitely a different experience sharing a room with 10-20 perfect strangers.

It’s also really interesting to watch how standard protocol and rules go out the window. The mixture between cultures and environment creates a very unique experience. Especially between the sexes. Since many of the dorms are mixed and everyone is constantly coming and going things are much more sexually relaxed. While not, per say common – it’s not overly unusual for people to change quickly in the dark, sleep/walk/mingle in their boxers, or wander around in towels. Especially since most of the bathrooms-shower areas etc. that I’ve seen so far are mixed sex even if the dorm itself isn’t. In a lot of ways it’s much nicer and more natural (in a completely non-sexual way) than things are normally. I think the longer people spend traveling and in hostels, the more comfortable they become not only with themselves but interacting with and being around others.

Some have kitchens, others don’t. So far one of the biggest things I’ve found is the importance of a common area where people can mingle – and a common area with a ‘backpacker’ feeling to it – so people WANT to mingle. The greater the number of long-term residents typically the colder and more clickish the crowd. This can make it hard when you first arrive to try and mingle and meet people.

Drinking – both a blessing and a curse. While in no way necessary, it’s a big part of the travel experience. I’ve come to the conclusion that a new designation needs to be created for young (and perhaps old) travelers alike. That of the TA – the Traveling Alcoholic. Short of Salsa, i’ve found few ways to mingle, meet people, and cement bonds as quickly as sitting around the hostel drinking in the common area, or heading to the local pub, or a pub crawl with people after a long day spent exploring the city. In many ways I think it’s a major component of the hostel culture. It is that one thing that brings complete strangers together, provides a common interest that then allows friendships or at the very least social acquaintances to sprout.

It’s really something else traveling on my own. I knew it would be, but theres even more to it. I have not quite figured out how to put it into words, but when I do – I’ll let you know. Beyond that though, being forced to deal with and push through highly uncomfortable situations is really an incredible experience…One that builds confidence and really makes you more comfortable with facing decisions that scare you, or you don’t want to make.

Times running down, I’ll try and post my Amsterdam – and First Berlin experiences later tonight.

Sorrz again for the ys and zs!