Many Americans tense up at the thought of traveling overseas for the first time. The U.S. is a sheltered country where the only language you need to know is English. At 23 years old, I had never traveled alone much less outside the country! When I was picking the itinerary for my first trip abroad, I questioned which countries would provide an interesting experience with as little shock and stress as possible. Where did I choose……….??
ITALY...where no one speaks English…. don’t recommend!
But first the U.K. and Ireland ;). Now with three years of experience in traveling different parts of the world I have compiled a list of the best countries to visit as new travelers based on transportation, safety, and culture.
1. New Zealand
New Zealand lands the top choice due to the friendliness of the people, amazing landscapes, and culture. From Glowworm caves, to Maori traditional dances, to adventure sports, and mild temperatures . . . it is the number one to visit for first-timers.
Nearly every town has an Information Center with friendly locals who guide visitors to the hidden gems, must-sees, and also provide a free map. Consultants book accommodation, buses, and plan itineraries at no extra cost. Although it’s on the other side of the world, from California Air NZ flies a direct 13 hour flight. Air NZ is a great choice for flights as they offer decent meals, comfortable chairs, and individual entertainment. While you fly, the time also flies!
I recommend at least a few weeks for each island. Six weeks is the perfect minimum but for those with less time, just one region or a few specific places is better. All too often I had Americans come to me trying to see everything in ten days–impossible! The ones on the cruise were usually miserable because they were just always moving and seeing but not REALLY seeing.
Croatia provides a nice budget friendly option for travelers. It’s quite popular among tourists yet still retains a bit of culture and authenticity. Like New Zealand, Croatia is very safe and the people will help in the case of getting lost or answering any questions. Although the locals may not smile often at strangers or engage in conversation, if asked something they will help and soften after giving them some friendly chatter. The first week in Split specifically I had to adjust to the seemingly unfriendly demeanor and understand it’s not intentional rudeness but rather just the cultural norm.
The cities are small and walk-able but you also have options for efficient public transportation system that’s very simple to use. The driver’s will give guidance and ensure passengers find the right stop. I found the people in Zagreb very friendly and helpful with using the tram. They will explain how it works and which number goes where.
For the lovely accents, cool pubs, dancing, music, friendly people, and clean/safe environment, beautiful Ireland makes the third spot. Pick smaller towns like Dingle, Galway, or Killarney rather than Dublin unless you want a party scene. The people are much nicer and these towns provide more nature and culture than Dublin. Some people love Dublin but it was the first place I landed and I was filled with disappointment at being in just another city. One day I may give it another chance 😉 For now, I still think the smaller towns are better! Tip: Rent a car! I used buses but if you have money and multiple people, a car is much better.
This choice is obvious for it’s similar culture and language. Choose Edinburgh over London–it is smaller, less expensive, more relaxed, and simple. You can easily take trips to the beautiful mountains and don’t forget about the Scottish accents!! Glasgow is also underrated. I really enjoyed the live music on the streets and vibe of the city. Northern Ireland is also worth visiting but rent a car or take a tour would be better than public transportation.
You need a car for Slovenia unless you just visit Ljubljana! The locals speak English and it’s a small country so easy to see in a week. For those with only a short amount of time, Slovenia enchants its visitors with nature jewels and hidden gems . Bus and tour options provide transportation but I think car is better to have flexibility and enjoy the gorgeous mountains, waterfalls, and scenery at your own pace.
Ahhhh Germany. I have spent the most time in this country besides New Zealand and have visited it on two separate trips. It’s full of culture, easy to use transportation, and locals typically speak English (at least 1/3 can speak well). The train system is easy to use but riders must validate tickets in the stamp machine before getting on the train or risk hefty fines. Conductors check for tickets often so be sure to validate!
I’ve met many backpackers who got fined but never have to pay because they don’t track you down but to me not worth the embarrassment especially since they check most of the time. If you go to Bavaria check out the Bayern ticket. It’s a good value if you plan to go many places in the region in a day.
Surprise! Didn’t expect Asia did you?? Actually most Japanese don’t speak English but that doesn’t stop them from making sure you get help. The transportation system is overwhelming at first glance but actually it’s shockingly easy to get around. The transportation is ALWAYS on time. If you leave early, you are on the wrong bus. I had this happen and I had to desperately try to get off the bus. Luckily a lady explained to the bus driver and I got off quickly and sprinted back to the station to catch the right one. It isn’t “easy” at first but I still recommend it because it’s extremely safe, clean, the people are AMAZING.
Japan offers something new and interesting to see every day even if you stay in one city the whole time. I toured all around central Japan for five weeks but for a first-timer, just one or two locations are sufficient and you can take side trips to smaller towns and the countryside from there if you choose. Tokyo, Hiroshima, or Kyoto are great bases for exploring. Tip: the bus is cheaper and just as easy so consider taking the bus! Region train passes are a better deal than a JR Pass unless you plan to go all over the country in a very short amount of time–then you will have to take the Shinkansen (fast train). You should take it once at least just for the experience. It’s like flying on the ground!
During my five weeks I used the regional ticket when I needed to go several places in that region or go long distances and took buses for shorter distances. Please note that 7 Eleven is best place for free wifi and withdrawing cash. Cash is king.
Australia makes the list for its English speaking citizens and similar western culture. This is a good option for those who are really nervous about traveling overseas. It is a long trip which is why it is not with the U.K. but you can see some beautiful beaches, hold a koala, take pictures and play with kangaroos and plunge in the ocean with some of the world’s most dangerous creatures. I did it all!
The bus system is the most common for getting around though some backpackers rent cars or hitchhike. The distances between interesting points are VERY long however so do not underestimate how long it will take to get from on interesting place to the next. P.S. you probably won’t die from the wildlife. It’s not that bad. I only saw one snake the whole month and it was a rare sighting with all the people around it taking pictures.
Salzburg is one of my favorite cities. In the summer it’s packed with Americans and other tourists so I recommend shoulder season (Spring and fall). Culture, safety, cleanliness, history, and friendly English speaking locals put this one on the list.
10. Czech Republic
Prague more specifically. This is also one of my favorite cities for it’s charming character and beauty. It’s quite touristy so it’s easy to find people who speak English and can help you with anything you need. The old town is walkable and it’s another great option for those one a time or money budget! Be sure to avoid restaurants in the city center and try to find ones just outside. The food will be more authentic and WAY less expensive.
These are my top picks for first-time western travelers! Stay tuned to learn more about each country on my upcoming blogs