Congratulations! You just got your passport and there’s a great big world out there to explore. But if you’re new to international travel, you may be uncertain about where to test the waters. Perhaps you want a country where English is often spoken? Or maybe you'd prefer a city that's easy to get around? And of course, you want somewhere that's budget-friendly. We’ve come up with a list of 10 destinations that meet some or all of these criteria. Plus, they’re truly interesting and beautiful places to visit.
Have Irish roots? About 11 percent of Americans do. And we’re pleased to report that Ireland makes a great first international destination (even if you’re not Irish). The reasons: English is spoken (although with a brogue, so it can be a challenge to decipher), flights to Dublin and Shannon are among the most affordable to Europe, and the Irish are a welcoming bunch who’ll invite you join them for a pint at the local pub. Driving (on the left, mind you) can be tricky, so if you’re not confident behind the wheel look into tours.
What would make you feel most comfortable on your first trip to the Caribbean? Sometimes familiar hotels such as Hilton, Hyatt, Renaissance, or Marriott (but on a gorgeous beach with terrific sunset views) make you feel more at home. How about plenty of restaurants and a late-night casino scene? If so, Aruba is the sun-and-fun getaway for you. Part of the ABC Islands (along with Bonaire and Curacao), this Dutch territory is located below the hurricane belt and is known for its constant breezes—great for sailors and windsurfers.
If you’ve always dreamed of visiting France, but want to test your ability to navigate a land of French-speaking wine-lovers closer to home, consider the Canadian province of Quebec. Head first to Montréal, where English is widely spoken and summer festivals—from jazz to film to comedy—make for daytime and nighttime fun, especially in atmospheric Old Montréal. Then drive (or take a train) to Quebec City, which will charm you with its landmark castle hotel, historic cobblestone streets, and fondness for poutine (French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy). English isn’t widely spoken among locals, but there’s usually someone who can help you.
So close and yet so far—just a five-hour flight from New York but with a landscape that seems transplanted from the moon. Why visit? Because it’s the most easily accessible place that’s like no other. A country of just 338,000 people (two-thirds of whom live in the capital, Reykjavik), Iceland is known for its volcanoes and geysers (most of the energy is geothermal), its populations of adorable Icelandic horses and puffins, its otherworldly Blue Lagoon, and its tradition of Vikings and elves (yes, elves). Reykjavik nightlife is incredible, and while food and alcohol prices are high, we’ve never met a person who hasn’t returned from Iceland smiling. One caveat: Visit in summer when daylight lasts 18-20 hours vs. five hours in winter.
Attention nature-lovers: This safe and budget-friendly Central American country is a must-see. With its combination of beach resorts (on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts) and jungle retreats (near waterfalls, hot springs, and volcanoes), you’ll have access to some of the highest biodiversity on the planet—50,000 species in all. Among those easily spotted are sleepy three-toed sloths, raucous howler monkeys, tiny hummingbirds, and blue morpho butterflies. And while Spanish is the national language, most Ticas and Ticos (what Costa Ricans call themselves) in the tourism industry speak English.
If you love to hike, fly fish, or ski, and want to see mountain vistas and glacier-fed lakes that give our Rocky Mountains a run for their money (sorry, Colorado), then visit this stunning province that’s bisected by the Canadian Rockies. Home to the resort areas of Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise, its easy access (fly into Calgary and rent a car), five national parks, 600 lakes, abundant wildlife (eagles, bears, big horn sheep, deer, elk, and moose), and massive Columbia Icefield make Alberta an adventure-lover’s playground at a very appealing price: One Canadian dollar is about U.S. 75 cents, so take 25 percent off the cost of everything.
If you like your vacations well-planned, favor mountain and lake vistas, and you love train travel, consider Switzerland: a small and orderly country that’s big on scenery. Depending on where you visit, the locals will be speaking French (in the west near Lake Geneva), German (in the heart of the country and in major cities such as Zurich, Lucerne, and Basel), Italian (to the south in Ticino), and Romansh (in pockets of the southeast). But most people who work in hospitality know English. So if you adore chocolate, cheese, and Charlie Chaplin (his former home and a terrific museum are in Vevey), surrender to Swiss efficiency—and discover some surprisingly good Swiss wine in the process.
First a confession: Italy is every bit as crazy as it is captivating. But amid the travel frustrations—train and bus strikes, long lines at museums, hotel rooms with ridiculously small bathrooms—are sights, sounds, and tastes that will stay with you for a lifetime. Here, you'll encounter once-in-a-lifetime experiences like the Colosseum in Rome or Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence; the Puccini aria sung by a gondolier as he navigates the Grand Canal in Venice; the best fried calamari ever on the Amalfi Coast, and the freshest cannoli imaginable in Sicily. So if you’re up for a challenge that delivers abundant rewards, choose Italy.
If “go big or go home” is your motto, consider boarding a flight from L.A. to Auckland and discovering why travelers have long sung the praises of this two-island, English-speaking nation that neighbors Australia in the South Pacific. Think of everything you love about California (gorgeous beaches and exceptional wines), Maine (quaint harbor towns and delicious seafood), and Montana (majestic mountain peaks and trout-filled lakes). Add in glaciers, fjords, massive bird colonies, millions of sheep, and the Maori people unique to Aotearoa (their name for New Zealand), and 13 hours on a plane will be well worth it.
Our 50th state is about as international as it gets within the U.S.—making it a great first long-distance destination for travel newbies. Not only is it in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (about four hours by plane from Los Angeles), but it’s also home to fascinating tropical flora, fiery volcanoes, and a melting pot of Polynesian, Asian, and even European cultures. And yes, there’s lots of relaxation, too. The main islands—Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island of Hawaii—are known for their golden-sand beaches and stunning sunsets. You can even visit all four in a single week aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America.