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.

Frequent Flyer Credit Card Whoes

The Fjords, Norway

**UPDATE** – While still frustrated by the experience I had, I recently decided to give FF programs another go.  While I have continued to face frustrations with the process, booking and usage of my points, there is value there for those willing to play the game.  It is important, however, that you be prepared to play that game and do your research.

A few years ago I signed up for an Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Credit Card.  It seemed like a great idea.  After all, I fly internationally 2+ times a year, love travel, and put most of my expenses on my credit card. They were offering a 20,000 mile signing bonus which was solid at the time and a few additional perks including a large partner network. Unless something drastic changes I’ll never sign up for another frequent flyer card again.

It’s now 3 years later and I still have those 20,000 points. As well as another 18,000 or so I picked up before I stopped using the card out of frustration and transferred over to a Capital One cash back card. Each year as my December trip approaches I sit down and try and use my miles.  Each year I end up wasting 30-40 minutes on the phone before hanging up disgusted.

Let me tell you a bit about this year’s adventure.  I’m pretty flexible about where I want to visit.  My main criteria is time based.  My window this year starts on December 15th and ends on January 4th.  That means that I’m willing to depart December 15th-17th and return January 1st-4th.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s a far more flexible schedule than most people have. Also, I’m not overly picky about where I end up going.  A good deal in the general region I want to explore is usually good enough for me.

With nearly 2 months to go before my date of departure I called the Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Concierge service and got a very friendly associate. I gave her my dates and gave her a few countries – not cities, but entire countries – I was interested in while specifying I didn’t mind which city I ended up in.

We searched Peru without any luck.  Then Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia. From there it was on to Argentina and Chile before adding Panama, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.  You would think, given that she was searching all partner airlines with flights from Phoenix that at least ONE flight to at least ONE of these countries would have been available.  No such luck.

Annoyed but not overly surprised I groaned at the ridiculousness of it – after all – I’d essentially searched 2/3s of an entire continent and been unable to find so much as a single flight that would work.

So, I expanded my search to Asia. After all, there had to be at least some availability to somewhere. The search continued; Thailand?  Nope. Cambodia, Malaysia or the Philippines?  Nope.  Vietnam?  Another nope.

So…Asia was out. In a final act of desperation I figured I’d check two off-beat destinations in Europe I wouldn’t mind visiting – Greece and Turkey.  Want to guess the results of the queries?  You got it – nope, and nope!

So, I gave up.  She was apologetic and suggested I try to make my reservations further in advance in the future or considering upgrading to a business class ticket.  Apparently ~2 months isn’t enough lead time.  I’m sympathetic to the fact that December 14th-January 10th is a peak travel period…but seriously, with 2 months lead time, semi-flexible travel dates, searches across 3 continents and in 18 countries you can’t find me a SINGLE flight? That’s straight pigswill.

Oh, did I mention that for the privilege of being a Miles Rewards customer I get to pay a $75/year fee?   I’m sure there are a few people out there making these programs work for them, but if you’re an average consumer and you’re using a mileage plan, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re essentially being robbed.  Hell, did you know that the vast majority of “travel” cards still charge the exact same transaction fees as a normal credit card?

My advice for non-business travelers?  Tell em’ to go to hell, switch banks and pick up a Capital One cash back card that doesn’t have an annual fee, puts actual $ back in your account, and which doesn’t charge 3% on every purchase you make while abroad.  In the long run those are perks you’ll actually be able to use and which will leave you with real, tangible benefits no matter when you choose to travel.