Every traveler has to start somewhere. And while you could choose any country on earth for your first international trip, there are some places that are arguably better for first-timers.
The things that make a place “better” or “best” for first-time travelers vary, but we’ve included places where English is widely spoken and understood, the flights are relatively short and cheap, and infrastructure makes it easy for foreigners to get around. We've also included spots where all-inclusive resorts offer nearby options for independent excursions, and even a few overseas places where you won’t even need to change your US currency or get a passport.
And of course, just because a place isn't on this list, it doesn't mean it's not a good spot for a first trip. In some cases (for example, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia) we left it off the list due to the length of the flight, which could be unappealing to travelers used to shorter jaunts within the US. And in others (as with Switzerland and Dubai, for example) the spot ticks all the boxes but tends to be a pricier destination that hard to do on the cheap.
The best spots for a low language barrier
One of the most popular international destinations for US travelers has long been the United Kingdom.
With robust tourist infrastructure, no visa requirements for US passport holders, and a laundry list of world-famous sights, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland make it easy for first-timers to go beyond organized tours and try independent travel.
While planning a UK road trip would require an adventurous spirit (they do drive on the opposite side of the road as we do in the US, after all), the intricate rail network means you have a lot of options without a car. The lack of a steep language barrier is appealing, too, but don’t kid yourself that US English and UK English are exactly the same, or you might think a tipsy pub patron is angry with you.
Republic of Ireland
Any country where locals act like you could be a long-lost family member more often than not is a great option for a first international trip, and there’s almost no place better for that welcoming warmth than Ireland. (And if you have even a drop of Irish ancestry, making friends at the pub is nearly guaranteed.)
Cities like Dublin are easy to navigate without a car, though the countryside is often best explored with one. As is the case in the nearby United Kingdom, you’ll need to get used to driving on the opposite side of the road, but that can be a touch easier in rural Ireland where there are fewer big cities. And, yes, the language barrier might feel lower than it actually is (your new friends at the pub are just commenting on the fun evening they’re having, not offering you drugs), so keep your sense of humor handy.
Past SCF deals include $289 roundtrip to Dublin.
The tiny country of the Netherlands is a much-loved tourist destination, whether you’re a first timer or a seasoned traveler.
Amsterdam’s international airport (Schiphol) is a major European hub for lots of transatlantic airlines, so there are plenty of direct flight options, and the train network connects visitors to nearly all of the country’s main attractions and destinations in less than three hours from Amsterdam (plus you can easily add on destinations in France and Belgium).
Cyclists reign supreme in the capital and multiple options for short-term bike rentals make it possible for visitors to join the crowd. US passport-holders don’t need a visa to visit, and many are pleasantly surprised to find that the locals speak English better than they do.
We've previously sent Scott's Cheap Flights members deals like $325 roundtrip to Amsterdam from Chicago or DC.
The northern European nations of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (collectively known as Scandinavia) offer first-time international travelers the benefit of incredibly robust travel infrastructure and widespread fluency in English.
Transportation options include boats and trains if you’d prefer to let someone else navigate, though Scandinavian highways are excellent if you’re up for a road trip. There’s no visa required for US passport-holders for any of the three countries—and venturing between them is easy, too, which means one trip can cover multiple cultures.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that Scandinavia is on the more expensive side, so it’s important to plan out a travel budget to make sure you’re not caught off-guard by higher-than-expected prices on basics like lodging and meals.
Some lump the island nation of Iceland in with nearby Scandinavia. Though there are definitely more than a few cultural similarities, Iceland is a place all its own.
In addition to the lack of visa requirements for US passport-holders and the fact that nearly everyone you’ll meet speaks fluent English, Iceland boasts a couple of inviting perks you won’t find elsewhere. One is that road trips around the island are extremely accessible to visitors—which is good, since you’ll want to rent a car in order to see the positively epic volcanic scenery.
The other is that the national airline, Icelandair, lets travelers include a stopover of up to seven nights in Reykjavik en route to or from Europe with no additional airfare costs. When turning an overseas adventure comes with a bonus destination like that, it’s almost impossible to resist. Just watch your budget. Like its neighbors, Iceland can be a pricey spot, but there are ways to keep costs low.
We frequently find deals to Iceland for under $400 roundtrip, like this previous deal from Orlando for just $240.
>> Read our travel guide to Iceland.
For good tourist infrastructure
Arguably Southeast Asia’s most popular destination, Thailand is often referred to as the “Land of Smiles.” Backpackers in particular are drawn to places like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and many decide to stay long-term. This is due, in part, to some of the things that make Thailand a great place to visit.
It’s relatively easy to get around, the US dollar goes a long way—and, because Thais are so accustomed to tourists, many of them speak a little bit of English. In addition, the country offers myriad activities and attractions, including stunning beaches, fabulous cuisine, colorful temples, and vibrant nightlife.
There’s no visa requirement for US passport-holders, and Bangkok’s airport is a major Asian hub, which makes airfare deals more plentiful. We've found members of Scott's Cheap Flights deals like $530 roundtrip from Los Angeles and $688 from NYC.
While the Indonesian archipelago has more than 17,500 islands, many travelers focus on one: Bali.
The white sand beaches alone have been luring visitors from around the world for decades, but there’s no reason to stop there. Instagram-worthy scenes around the island include verdant jungles, rice paddies, and ornately decorated temples. If “spa” and “vacation” are synonyms in your vocabulary, there are plenty of spa hotels (in all price ranges) to choose from. Hiring a car with a private driver isn’t prohibitively expensive and it means you won’t have to contend with local (sometimes unpredictable) traffic.
US passport-holders who plan to stay less than 30 days can get a free “visa exemption” stamp upon arrival, but anyone who wants the option to stay longer should choose the $35 “visa-on-arrival” that can be extended for an additional 30 days.
Scott's Cheap Flights has previously found deals like $485 roundtrip from Los Angeles.
Seoul, South Korea
While the busiest tourist destinations in Asia (Tokyo and Hong Kong) are absolutely worth visiting, South Korea’s capital city of Seoul is an excellent option for first-timers to consider—and it's a bit cheaper than spots like Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
In Seoul, you’ll find a robust travel infrastructure that caters to locals as much as it does to tourists (the city’s intricate subway system is the ideal way to get around), plus reliable trains and buses if you want to explore beyond the city limits. The architecture is an intriguing mix of modern cityscape and traditional buildings, including historic palaces and villages.
There’s no visa necessary for US passport-holders—and while English won’t get you far in the countryside, it’s a little easier to find someone who speaks a bit of English in Seoul. The food is delicious and inexpensive (with plenty of Western options for those who want the occasional option for more familiar food), and yes, day trips to the DMZ are easy to arrange.
>> Read our layover guide to Seoul.
As is the case with Seoul, the little island nation of Taiwan often gets lost in the shuffle of Asian tourist hotspots. The country’s busy capital city, Taipei, boasts an efficient subway system, and getting around outside the capital is a breeze thanks to high speed trains. Taiwan is less expensive than some other Asian destinations, but even people with a higher travel budget flock to Taipei’s colorful night markets for people-watching and fantastic (and cheap) food.
US passport-holders don’t need a visa for Taiwan. Much of the signage in Taipei is in both a Chinese dialect and English, though if you venture into the countryside you’ll be glad to have a phrasebook or translation app handy.
Taiwan deals aren't as common but we've still found deals like $588 from NYC and $488 from San Francisco.
In Central America, little Costa Rica stands out as an ideal country for first-time travelers for several reasons. It’s known for being safer overall than its neighbors, making first-time solo trips less daunting, and there are regular buses to get you to the main tourist attractions. It’s a good thing, too, since the natural beauty of Costa Rica’s rural landscapes beckons.
It’s an adventure-lover’s paradise: Ride a zip-line through a cloud forest, hike on a dormant volcano, go whitewater rafting, or explore a national park on the lookout for manatees and sea turtles. When you’re ready to kick back, there are beautiful beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean.
US passport-holders don’t need a visa to visit, but don’t be surprised if you start wondering what it might be like to retire there—in 2013, the US State Department estimated that perhaps 50,000 US expats call Costa Rica home.
For no passport and/or currency exchange required
One element of international travel that can trip up even experienced adventurers is currency. Even if you quickly get a handle on the denominations, there’s often a bit of math required before every purchase to calculate exchange rates.
In Belize, however, that’s not an issue—the US dollar is accepted everywhere. The tiny Central American country has its own currency, but since its value is pegged directly to the US dollar, both are in circulation. There are direct flights from several US airports, US passport-holders don’t need a visa, and English is widely spoken by locals. Plus, Belize’s geography means visitors can experience both inland attractions like Mayan ruins as well as sunny beaches on the Caribbean Sea, so there’s something for just about every traveler.
Scott's Cheap Flights often sends members deals to Belize under $300 roundtrip like these recent deals in the $200s.
For a bit of international flavor that doesn’t require a passport, look no further than US territories such as Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, or American Samoa. As long as you don’t travel via a foreign airport or cruise port, you won’t need a passport to visit any of the US territories. What’s more, they all use the US dollar, so there’s no new currency to learn, either.
The beautiful islands of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are Caribbean neighbors under 1,350 miles away from Florida as the crow flies, and direct flights are plentiful. Flying to American Samoa takes longer, of course, though it’s one of the most budget-friendly destinations in the South Pacific.
For resorts with opportunities for independent excursions
Mexico is one of the most popular places for US passport-holders to go for a sunny escape that doesn’t require a visa or a lot of pre-trip planning. There are all-inclusive resorts up and down both coasts, inviting visitors to relax while every possible need is taken care of by the staff—and that’s a pretty appealing proposition, particularly for residents of a country where workaholics are common.
If you’re a first-timer who wants to test the independent travel waters with the safety net of a resort, Mexico has you covered, too. The pretty beaches of Tulum on the Yucatán Peninsula are minutes from the ruins of a walled Mayan city and the famous Chichén Itzá is an easy day trip. Mazatlán’s historic and charming town center is a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean and a long stretch of public beach (a rarity among Mexican resort towns). And Puerto Vallarta’s colonial architecture and lively nightlife help fill both day and evening itineraries. If you're ready for a more independent excursions, Mexico City and Oaxaca are both great spots for amazing food, culture, and history a short flight from many cities in the US.
>> Read our travel guides to Mexico City or San Miguel de Allende.
There are so many islands to choose from in the Caribbean, so it’s not surprising that several of them are good options for first-time travelers. And while some cater to a visitor’s every whim at all-inclusive resorts, others make it easy to experience a bit of the local culture.
Beyond the beaches and reggae music, Jamaica is ideal for outdoor adventures like cave exploration, lush forest hiking, or scuba diving—not to mention foodies who like their meals on the spicy side. In the Dominican Republic, beaches share the landscape with inland deserts and surprisingly tall mountains that beckon outdoors enthusiasts, while the historic district of Santo Domingo invites a slower kind of exploring. And you can sample two different cultures on one island in St. Martin (on the French side) and Sint Maarten (on the Dutch side) where it’s best when you visit both. In each of these countries, US passport-holders don’t need a visa to go, either.
Deals to the Caribbean pop up frequently. We've previously sent Scott's Cheap Flights members deals like $133 from Dallas or Philadelphia to several islands and $70 nonstop roundtrip from Miami to St. Croix.
>> Read our travel guide to Jamaica.
When you hear Tahiti, you might automatically think of those impossibly romantic-looking (and expensive) overwater bungalows set in a remote tropical paradise clear on the other side of the planet. And yes, these French Polynesian islands are beautiful and romantic and remote—but they’re also pretty accessible for US travelers.
You can fly direct to Tahiti from San Francisco, for instance, and the eight-hour flight is often around $500 roundtrip. US passport-holders don’t need a visa to visit, and those costly overwater bungalows aren't your only lodging option. Less expensive alternatives abound, from traditional hotels to B&Bs and vacation rentals, leaving you more wiggle room in your travel budget for exploring the lush landscapes.