Last week I began a new series called Travel 101. The series is designed for the rookie traveler who wants to travel abroad but doesn’t know where to start. My goal is to give you some tips and tricks which answer your questions and help prepare you to step on that big ol’ jet for your first big trip.
We started last week with getting a US passport. Once you have passport in hand, congratulations! You’re one step closer and it probably feels pretty cool! But where should you go?
Picking your first international destination
So let’s begin with, like all great tutorials, some caveats. Trips to all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean are pretty easy because honestly you’re around other Americans most of the time and are drinking booze the rest of the time (maybe that’s just me?). For the purposes of this tutorial I’m assuming:
- You want to go to Europe
- You do not speak any languages other than English
- You have about 7-10 days for a trip
Before picking your destination, you should have an idea of the amount of time you’ll be able to travel. Obviously a 3-day trip to Europe will not afford you as much flexibility as a 7- or 10-day trip but for the example here we’re assuming a 7-10 day trip, which should allow you plenty of time to recover from jet lag and see a few different things.
What do you want to do on your trip?
You need to try and answer this question as best you can because it can have a big impact on your trip. If you’re a history buff and want to see the beaches of Normandy then obviously you’ll be going to France. If you love scotch whisky and want to do a tour of distilleries then unsurprisingly you’ll want to focus on Scotland.
If you’re kind of stuck and just Want To Travel then I suggest the following: take a look at what you like to do at home. Are you into fitness/yoga? Do you like live music? What sports teams do you follow? What about your food preferences, are you the biggest tapas enthusiast you know? Or do you absolutely love Italian food?
Why is that question the first step? Often what’s exciting on international trips is discovering the origin of something. “I like Italian food, let’s go to Italy”, “I like tapas, let’s go to Spain”, “I like Manchester United, let’s go to Manchester to watch a match” etc. etc.
I feel like a bunch of people think that Europe is just a place with a bunch of old buildings and boring museums. It’s hard to get excited about the Louvre or the Prado if you don’t really care that much about art, which I totally understand, so look inward to get you started.
Now that’s not to say you shouldn’t try anything new on your trip. Your first international trip should have a blend of the familiar and the new with a little room for the unexpected. I simply want to help you build a framework that will help you decide a destination.
Should you focus on one place or travel around to a few?
This is where my opinion comes in as there’s no real correct answer. Some people say they could spend a month in Rome and still miss out on things, and they’re probably right. Personally, I like to travel as if I’ll visit again and not rush to see everything I can. Depending on the region you picked your ability to see other things might be limited, but speaking very generally I usually recommend visiting a big city and a small town on your first trip. Some people love the hustle and bustle of London and Paris, others like the slower relaxed pace of places like St. Gilgen. It’s good to experience both on your first trip.
If you’re heading to London, why not take a train out to Oxford or the Cotswolds for a night or two? If you’re in Munich, why not head over to Salzburg or Hallstatt? Sure Dublin is great, but seeing Galway and the Cliffs of Moher might be nice too. And it’s not even that those other places are necessarily the best places in the world or even that interesting in and of themselves but sometimes it’s fun just traveling within Europe from place to place.
If you have a little more time you could do a point-to-point journey, like flying into Venice and leaving from Rome.
So to sum this point up, I recommend traveling to a big city and a small(er) town/village on your first trip for no other reason than you’ll get to see two sides of a foreign land.
What if English isn’t the native language of the place I want to go?
The default for many Americans is to go to England, Scotland, or Ireland for their first international trip, simply because of the spoken language. I advise the exact opposite. If the only reason you want to go to a place where they speak English is because they speak English, go somewhere else.
First of all, you will be amazed at how many people in Europe speak perfectly fluent English. In some cases, like Denmark and Norway, there’s a good chance they will speak English with better grammar than you will! It’s good to get out of your comfort zone a bit and most of Europe is tourist-friendly enough for you to get by without speaking the local language.
Does that mean you need to learn the language of the place you’re visiting? Well, no, but most people will appreciate it when you have tried to learn a few words and phrases in their native language. Before I travel to a country I try to learn at least the following in the native language of that place:
- “Thank you”
- “Where is the restroom?”
- “Pardon me”
- “Do you speak English?”
- “I’m sorry I don’t speak _____”
- “How much does this cost?”
- “You’ve gotta be freaking kidding me, it says right here that this is made in China. Come on [man/woman], cut me a bit of a deal here, how about 20 euro?”
- [ok I was kidding about that last one]
You don’t HAVE to learn all of those phrases, but at least get your hellos, goodbyes, and thank yous down. Youtube is a fantastic resource for this as is the amazing and free language-learning site DuoLingo.
The main thing about trying to speak in another language is that you cannot be afraid to make a mistake or mispronounce a word! What you’re saying to someone is you understand that you do not speak their language but you want to try, as you recognize you’re a guest in their land and want to honor their customs. Most people will listen politely, smile, and either speak to you in English or, if they truly don’t speak English, realize you do not speak their language and use gestures to make everything easier.
Overall, let me assure you of one thing: You will be absolutely amazed at how capably you can communicate with someone when neither of you speak a similar language. Going to a place where you don’t speak the language helps it feel more foreign and thus more like a journey. Well, at least to me, others are terrified and that’s ok, this is just my opinion after all!
I like to do very light research when thinking of a place to visit. Once I’ve picked my destination I’ll begin researching in earnest but I try not to get too far into the details at first. I will typically visit WikiVoyage and click through a few articles to see what there is to do, followed by TripAdvisor. That usually covers the main city I want to visit and then I simply go to Google and type in “day trips close to [main city]” and it will instantly spew back 10-15 good ideas. That should be enough to give you 3-5 different big city/small town ideas in only a few hours (if that).
We’ll get into travel arrangements in the next post of the series, but hopefully this gets your mind churning a bit. Leave any questions you have in the comments below!
Postscript: some travel themes and destinations that are great for them
Did you figure out a few of your interests from the first step? Let’s look at a few destinations that might coincide with them. It’s a probably biased list that I know will cause some consternation as it generalizes entire countries, but I’m just calling it like I see it, feel free to disagree in the comments below 🙂
- England (mainly London)
- Denmark (mainly Copenhagen)
- Italy (Florence and Rome)
- Spain (Madrid, Toledo, and Bilbao)
- England (London)
- France (Paris)
- Norway (Oslo)
- Poland (WWII history specifically)
- Italy (especially religious history)
- Beer – Belgium, Ireland, England, Germany, Austria
- Wine – Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Portugal
- Champagne – France
- Whisky – Scotland