Taking a big trip is exciting, a bit nerve-racking, and an adrenaline rush. But what if you’ve never actually been out of your mother country and traveled before? You have to start somewhere and picking the right first trip is the first step!

There are a few “styles” of travel – from solo trips to working abroad to group tours – and some are better suited for first-timers than others. Regardless how you travel, to have a truly rewarding experience you must have an open mind, a step out of your comfort zone, and embrace change. From personal experience, here are my suggestions for a good first trip abroad with some recommended first-time destinations as well!

– Backpacking –

By far my most recommended form of travel, especially for new travelers that want to just hit the ground running. You learn so much about yourself and your surroundings by carrying your life on your back from city to city. With a rough plan, only what you need, and an open mind, you will truly experience places with nothing tying you down. Traveling this way requires a person to really open themselves up to strangers, foreign languages, strange surroundings, making mistakes, and going with the flow. By just taking off for a few months with a few checkpoints in mind, you never know who you’ll meet and where your feet will take you. Buy a ticket, pack your bag (but cut your pile in half because you’ll never even see the stuff at the bottom most likely), and GO.

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My first backpacking trip circa 2009

– Study Abroad –

I participated in a short program abroad of just 3 weeks, but if I could do it again, I’d go for a full semester! I’m such an avid supporter of studying abroad because I feel like it is really the best way to get to know a different country, its people, learning a new language, and embracing a different culture. You’re put in a whole new environment and pushed out of your comfort zone but still have a small safety net of in-country support and some fellow pupils that are facing the same challenges as you. Not only is the experience amazing, but it looks fantastic on your CV! And of course, as long as you have an open mind, it can be the best experience of your life!

More from my study abroad trip to Cambodia here!

It’s too expensive!” There are plenty of grants and scholarships that will aid in your semester abroad tuition. It’d be wise to check out what options your school suggests, but also look into Fulbright, Boren, and CLS programs. Also, with technology these days it’s easy enough to start a kickstarter or crowdfunding! Plenty of people are willing to support a student who’s trying to expand their education.

– Teaching Abroad –

Teaching programs are a fantastic way to experience a new place and earn a bit of cash along the way. Teaching English is one of the most common options because it doesn’t always require a teaching degree, specifically for places like Cambodia, China, Korea, and Thailand. Just a TEFL certificate [if that] will land you a job with room/board paid for and possibly some extra pocket money. China and Korea seem to have the highest demand and will pay the most depending on your qualifications. It’s easy enough to land a job while in country, but for Korea and China, there are plenty of organizations that will set you up for a yearlong contract or more ahead of time. Countries like Spain, Czech Republic, and Germany are in high demand for English teachers and tutors, but usually require a teaching degree higher than a TEFL certificate. Some great sources to search for TEFL certifications and jobs is GoAbroad.com and GoOverseas.com.

– Volunteering

‘Voluntourism’ has become huge in the last couple years. It allows you to travel to new places while donating your time to the local community. I really think volunteering is a fantastic way to see a country, however with all the new companies selling volunteer trips, it’s hard to choose the right one where you’re actually making a difference. There’ve been a few articles about whether volunteering abroad actually hurts or helps a community. The biggest factors in successfully volunteering are:

  • The company you choose is so important because many volunteer organization leaders unfortunately have ill-intentions. They see that companies can invite Westerners – who are willing to pay a decent amount of money – over for a few weeks and all they have to do is house them and make them feel like they’re contributing to something. It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this, but it’s important not to continue this trend and allow it to progress. It’s hard to really know if your money is being used towards what they claim it is, so a lot of research is highly advised. I suggest checking options though your school, word-of-mouth, or investigating options while you’re already in the country so you can see the organization first hand.
  • Piggybacking off the topic of choosing the right company, it’s also important to choose the right program where your skill set is most efficiently utilized. If you’re not very good with kids, working at an orphanage or teaching may not be for you. Don’t sign up for something just for the credit – make sure you’re donating your developed skills towards an area that benefits everyone.
  • The amount of time you spend volunteering is so important as well because it’s necessary to build relationships with the people you’re working with. If you’re at an orphanage or womens’ home, it’s hard to truly connect with them if you’re only there a few weeks. A couple weeks may seem like a lot to you, but to them, having a new round of volunteers every month makes it hard for them to trust and open up. Try to commit at least a month or more so you can experience the local life and develop lasting bonds.
  • Lastly, your attitude really affects the impact you make while volunteering. Even if you’re just doing a construction job, you never know who you’ll meet and how your trip could blossom. If you put your heart into it, make your skills accessible to whomever needs them, and dedicate yourself, your help will be appreciated… sometimes not just in the area you originally sign up for.
Marine volunteer program in Madagascar with IVHQ
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Surf Program in Cape Town, South Africa with IVHQ

– Guided Tour –

I’d recommend a guided tour mostly to young travelers whose parents are less than willing to let them go in the first place, or to travelers going to a very remote place where self-guided transportation may be difficult and time consuming. I took a few guided tours when I was in high school for my first trips abroad. They’re great for younger travelers because you’re monitored just the right amount so parents can feel a bit more relieved, but the traveler still has some freedom. One main perk of being part of a tour group is that you don’t have the stress of planning step-by-step, but you still get a few days of free time to wander and feel free. I’d also suggest going with an adventure company like G-adventures or Intrepid who offer small group sizes and more immersion options, like home-stays and meeting locals. There’s nothing worse than being shuffled around in a large group through tourist traps… zzzzz

*Another good option instead of a full guided tour is opting for a day tour or 1/2 guided, 1/2 self-guided. Start off on a guided trip to get your bearings, then take a couple weeks after to continue wandering on your own. Plan guided day trips rather than full 2-3 week tours to relieve some of the planning stress but still give you freedom and control.

– Best Destinations for 1st time Travelers –

Europe – This is the best jump-off point for fresh, young travelers. It’s the most easy to navigate, has the least amount of culture shock, and has an abundance of other travelers to help you get acclimated. If you backpack one of the popular routes through Western Europe, try to veer from your comfort zone a little more and reach out to true locals so you get a truer feel for the country. Another option is to navigate through Eastern Europe or the Balkans instead. It’s also fantastic for being a teacher, tutor, student, or nanny.

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Southeast Asia – Far more exotic and seemingly mystical than Europe, but still trodden by many tourists and other backpackers. Once you get going, you’ll notice a common route most backpackers take. This area is usually a 2nd backpacking trip for most travelers, but I’ve met plenty that visit as their first trip away from their mother country. Again, I advise to try volunteering or teaching to get to know locals a bit better, rather than just hopping from one boozy city to another… which is still a fun holiday in all honesty. Feel free to party, but do try to learn and respect the local culture rather than just drinking your way through the area.

South America –  A great backpacking option for 1st or 2nd time backpackers because it’s inexpensive for most of the world and has a wide cultural spectrum. Backpack to the major spots like Machu Picchu and Rio but also spend time in small villages, coffee plantations, and farms. Try an English teaching program here so you can get acclimated, meet locals, and give back to the communities. 

South Africa – Obviously one of my favorite countries, but also great for first time travelers. Cape Town is quite Westernized to relieve some of the culture shock, but venturing out, visiting the townships, and road-tripping along the coast will give you a better understanding for the countries true identity. It’s easy to spend at least a month in the country alone, but if you have even more time, venture to Zimbabwe or Mozambique to truly appreciate a different way of life.843047_1821518708721_1755173053_o

*My biggest tip for taking your first big trip is… go alone and with an open mind! The first time I went backpacking, I went with my best friend. We had an amazing time and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But since then, I’ve done all my travels solo and I must say, there’s something about going alone that really pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you adapt and grow. You need to {or get to!} make all of your own decisions and you’re “forced” to interact with new people… which is actually the best part! It may seem intimidating, but it’s so worth it.

What was your first trip?

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