I have sand in all of my tanks and I LOVE it. I like it way more than gravel (which I had in the past) ..very easy to clean IMO. All you do is skim the top with the gravel vacuum because all the waste sits on top...with gravel it doesn't sit on top you have to dig for it with the gravel vacuum (not tha big of a deal but I think sand is easier and I like the look better but it's all personal preference)
I also have live plants in all of my tanks and I love them...I wouldn't ever want to go back to fake but again, personal preference...plus, when you get into more species of plants besides the few really simple ones like java fern, java moss, moss balls, etc, you have to start worrying about fertilizers, lighting, co2 (in some cases), and if I were a beginner again, I wouldn't want to have to worry about trying to keep my plants alive along with everything else that comes with beginning fish keeping...so, as Lebron suggested, IF you ate going to do some live (or even all live), I would stick to the more simple and less demanding plants, then maybe get more into them in the future when you get the hang of things..
I can't remember if you already mentioned this, but how big will your tank be? Are you going to have a heater? Filter?