Are you planning your first trip abroad? Or maybe you’re trying to convince a friend to get out of their comfort zone and travel abroad for the first time? After spending half of my life devoted to travel, I’ve got some advice for international travel beginners.
Planning an international trip begins like writing any good story- you need to know the What, When, Who, Where and How. I’m going to cover all of these here.
Why Leave Home?
Some years ago, I asked my aunt if she’d like to come to Italy with me some day. Italy! The most beautiful and magical country! Her answer sort of blew my mind. She said “The US is huge and I haven’t seen all of it. Why would I leave the US when there is so much to see here?” I understand her point, and I’ll bet there are lots of people out there that feel the same way.
It’s true that the US has lots to offer. Beaches, cities, deserts. Grand natural beauty like Yellowstone. Manmade wonder like Manhattan. Great museums and history as you’ll find in DC. Culture-shock moments like you’ll find in the Creole regions of Louisiana. The US has lots of diversity and plenty to keep you busy. However, I have found in my US travels that there is a certain amount of sameness to the US. Even if we are a diverse country, we leave a cultural fingerprint in our ideas, attitudes and chain restaurants. It’s cool because it binds us together but, on the other hand, it does not challenge us the way international travel does.
Part of the beauty of growing and developing as a human is to have our ideas, our patterns and our expectations challenged. Getting out of your home country will change the way you look at your own habits and open up new horizons for understanding our complicated world.
WHERE Should International Travel Beginners Go?
For the extremely timid, Canada might be a good first foray. It’s like a more polite version of the northern parts of the United States. French Quebec is more exotic, it seems like an alternate version of history, if the French hadn’t sold off the Louisiana Purchase. Mexico is another perennial favorite for a first dip into other cultures, but I don’t count any of the resort towns there as international travel, they are like little US satellites.
While adjacent countries may technically count, it seems like cheating. In general, I don’t think you’ve really traveled internationally unless you leave your own continent.
If you’re going to do it right, heading to Europe is the best choice for a first international trip. If you’re from North or South America, Australia or New Zealand, chances are that you are of European origin. Certainly your culture is, even if your DNA isn’t. Western cultures begin in Europe, so it is a natural place to start. You wouldn’t start reading a book half way though, would you? Begin at the beginning.
Starting at the beginning, Greece or Rome would be obvious choices for a first trip. Western cultures are deeply informed by the histories of both countries. Solid choices, but I’ll admit that they are kind of adventurous for international travel beginners. They are pretty exciting destinations, though. Starting here, with great food and deep history, you may never go anywhere else!
Great Britain is a nice choice, particularly for anyone from an English-sepaking country. It is easy to be in a country where you can (mostly) understand the language, but the culture and long history of the British Isles informs our cultures more than we realize, and is just different enough to give that culture-shock feeling. Imagine sitting in a cozy pub with a pint of good beer and a steak pot pie, a stroll through the lush green countryside, or a ride in a double-decker bus.
HOW to Begin
The first task is to get a passport. Everyone should have a passport, even without travel plans. You never know when the trip of your dreams will fall into your lap and sweep you away on an adventure! Best to be prepared.
Passport application is simple but takes some time. You should do this right now. Really. Stop reading this and do it now. I’ve even made this really easy on you, click on the link below depending on where you are from. (Sorry to omit other countries, but Google tells me that these countries are my majority readers.)
Americans can go HERE
Canadians can go HERE
Australians can go HERE
Fill out the forms, get passport photos taken (or do it yourself), write a check and get it sent in. It can take up to two months or more, so just do it now and get it over with. Owning a passport, even if you aren’t planning to go anywhere, can be thrilling. Makes you feel like a spy. I like passports so much that I have two.
The internet has made booking a trip extremely easy. Do a little research, look for a great fare on websites like Kayak.com or Skyscanner.com. The cheapest fare may be going somewhere you hadn’t considered, like Brussels or Frankfurt. Maybe that is the universe telling you where to begin!
I’m a guidebook writer, so of course I suggest getting a pile of guidebooks to shape your trip. The library has lots of glossy travel guides that can spark your imagination. If Europe is your destination, there is no better resource than Rick Steves. Our guidebooks are top notch and selective. Follow one of them closely and you’re guaranteed to have a great trip with good hotels, restaurants and experiences.
WHO to Go With
Finding a perfect travel partner can be a tricky business. Most people will automatically want to go with their spouse or partner or best friend. If your travel partner is cool and you always have a blast together, then you’re all set. Just to let you know, though, people are different when they are out of their comfort zones.
I have traveled with thousands of different people as a tour guide and have observed all sorts of dynamics. The best travel partners are not necessarily close. Travel can emphasize your habits, beliefs and character, some people have a hard time with change. Whatever happens on a trip, I can assure you that you will know your travel partner far better at the end….for better or worse.
My best advice is to choose someone with similar interests. If you’re into art, you’ll have far more fun with someone who is enthusiastic about the Louvre, rather than terrified by it. If you’re into food, you may not want to go with someone on an elimination diet. Night owls and early birds don’t mix well on the road, same for vegans and carnivores. Stamina and physical fitness is also a point of contention amongst traveler partners.
Tour groups can be great for finding like-minded travel partners, especially if you choose a company with a particular idea about travel. Some of my favorite personal friends have been folks I’ve met in my travels as they have similar interests and a sense of fun.
Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with going alone, even on a first international trip. Going solo has many advantages, as I’ve written about HERE.
WHEN to Go
The When is totally dependent upon your schedule. Ideally, I suggest going in early or late season to avoid peak crowds and prices. This is particularly important for first-timers because peak crowds can sour a trip and ruin any desire to keep traveling. I suggest March, April, October and November for a first trip. January is incredible in Europe, there is nobody anywhere, but the weather sucks and beaches are out of the question.
I wrote a calendar for European travel, with destination suggestions, which you can find HERE.
WHAT to Do with Your Time
The What of your travel depends on your interests. Most people will naturally gravitate to only doing the things they know they like, for example, hikers will want to go to the Alps and cooks will want to do a cooking class. That’s a good strategy, but I suggest you cast a little wider net. First timers should try a broad range of things and see what fits. The beauty of a first trip abroad is that you may find things that spark your imagination that you’d never considered before.
International travel beginners should definitely consider doing a tour. Yes, I know that sounds predictable coming from a tour guide, but I believe in what I do. I lead Best of Europe tours for Rick Steves and am always amazed by how they affect people. Getting an efficient, well-organized sampler platter of experiences makes a big impact. There are so many ways to spend your time and so little time to spend, a curated experience gives the biggest bang for buck per minute and may expose you to things you hadn’t thought you’d enjoy.
If you’re not into group tours, day tours are well worth your time. Tour guides are worth their weight in gold, seriously! Soaking in a city at your own pace is a joy, but having someone point out the details and give you some background give it meaning and depth.
Whatever you decide to do, try something new. Travel is meant to broaden your perspectives. Talk to locals, dance in the square, be bold and fearless. Nobody knows you in a foreign country, try on a new persona. Dress better. Read more. Eat passionately. Be the person you really are or at least that you’d like to be. What happens abroad stays abroad, as long as it’s legal.
Am I Going To Make It?
One of the hurdles to clear for international travel beginners is the fear factor. Long flights. Weird food. Foreign language. Fear of getting lost, kidnapped, robbed or falling into a bottomless pit, never to be seen again. It’s ok to be worried or afraid. It’s normal.
The flight is long. Yep. That’s true. But here’s the thing- international planes are far more plush than on domestic flights. The service is nice and attentive. Seats are more comfy with more legroom and cushy headrests. There is great entertainment on the long-haul flights. Free gin and tonics! Nobody gets hauled off kicking and screaming like you see on the TV. It’s mostly a calm, dark cabin full of sleeping people. I’ve got kids, so I kind of enjoy the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts.
The food is weird. You may get a tummy ache. You will definitely get constipated, so be prepared. Bring some Pepto Bismol and a gentle laxative, just to cover your bases You’ll get used to the food and your body will adjust. More likely, you’ll find new foods you adore.
No doubt about it, those foreigners speak foreign languages, even the British. But it’s ok if you don’t understand everything. Do some language practice ahead of time if you want, but moreso, just listen. The human brain is fascinating, it will do whatever it can to understand what is going on. If you pay attention to what’s going on around you, you’ll understand far more than you expect, which is a thrill.
You will get lost. Bring maps and a cell phone with data service and Google Maps. Keep local cash and the business card of your hotel in your money belt, hail a cab if you need to. It’s going to be ok. Getting lost is part of the fun.
You probably won’t be robbed, kidnapped or sold into slavery, as long as you’re smart about where you go and what you do. Europe is pretty darn safe. Wear a money belt and don’t look like a target with flashy or touristy clothing, bags and cameras. Sticking to the touristy areas is an easy strategy but beware of pickpockets. Ask the locals for advice if you’re nervous.
Overall, you’re going to be ok. You’ll make it. I’ve never lost a person, even people who have injured themselves have gotten home just fine.
Travel is a risk, but living at home is a risk too. You’re more likely to die in a car crash in your hometown than an international incident. Don’t let fear stop you. The bigger risk is getting to the end of your life and realizing that you’ve missed out. Go. Go now, while you’re thinking about it and are healthy enough to go. A whole world awaits you with open arms, and you will never be the same once you’ve seen it.