Each summer, thousands of North American high-school students travel abroad with organizations that specialize in educational travel programs.
Many of these lucky students return home with increased self-confidence, a heightened understanding of global issues, fabulous photos for Facebook, and a college essay topic that will impress even the most ruthless Ivy League admissions officer.
Parents and students who decide to invest in an educational travel program should be applauded, but choosing the right program is a daunting and complicated task. Dozens of organizations specialize in youth travel, and among these organizations there are tremendous variations in travel style, educational philosophy, and overall quality.
When it comes to youth travel programs, making the right choice requires extensive research and careful consideration. The following questions will help you make sense of your options.
1. What Risk-Management Policies Are in Place?
Every student travel company will tell you participant safety is their number one priority, but you should ask about their specific risk-management policies. At a minimum, trip instructors should be certified Wilderness First Responders, have extensive in-country experience, and be backed up by a qualified emergency services provider.
Student behavior is a greater risk than riots, floods, or bacteria. Does the program tacitly allow students to drink alcohol? Are students allowed to ride motor-bikes or hook-up with each other?
The travel company will probably insist that students are not allowed to engage in risky behavior, but ask former participants how strict their leaders were and you might get a more honest response.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that travel in developed countries like France or Argentina is not necessarily any less dangerous than travel in poor countries like Cambodia or Bolivia.
A qualified and experienced instructor team operating under carefully prepared risk management policies is the best line of defense against accident, injury, and illness.
2. How Many Students Are in a Group?
Small is beautiful. A travel group of 10-12 students is an ideal size, but 16 is too many and anything above 20 will guarantee a lack of instructor supervision and a cookie-cutter experience.
Ask if student groups will ever be combined. Some youth travel companies operate in-country base camps where several groups of students live at the same time. This is not an ideal scenario because it resembles summer camp – students will spend their time frantically forming cliques and be less likely to immerse themselves in the local culture or learn something new.
3. What Is The Instructor / Student Ratio?
Just as important as small group size is a low instructor to student ratio. One instructor for every four students is solid, one for every six is risky and one for every 10 is dangerous and irresponsible.
A low student-instructor ratio helps instructors keep close tabs on student health and behavior while giving students lots of individual attention. If only two instructors are trying to keep track of 20 students, they will not be able to do anything more than take attendance and make sure students are on the tour bus every morning.
Likewise, if an instructor gets sick, or needs to leave the group in order to escort a student to a hospital, it’s important to have at least two instructors who can stay behind and keep the group safe.
4. What Are the Instructors’ Qualifications?
Beyond basic qualifications like first aid training, ask if instructors are professional educators or just glorified baby-sitters.
How old is the average instructor? Many organizations hire recent college graduates or even current college students, which is asking for trouble.
How much in-country experience do the instructors have? Some organizations hire instructors who have never been to the country where the group will travel.
Finally, are the instructors even called instructors, or are they ‘guides’ or ‘counselors’? A guide leads a tour group and a counselor works at summer camp. If you’re looking for a genuinely educational travel experience, examine the credentials of the instructors with great care.
5. What Is the Organization’s Philosophy of Travel?
Philosophy of travel is a difficult concept to quantify, but it can make all the difference between a fun but forgettable vacation and a profoundly memorable learning experience.
How touristy is the program? Will the group be traveling on tour buses, visiting famous attractions and consuming pre-packaged experiences, or will they get off the beaten path, interact with local people and enjoy a uniquely memorable learning adventure?
A good traveler should be humble, appreciative, curious, and respectful of local customs. If the organization is promoting a whirlwind tour or spring break style party trip, stay well away.
6. What Is the Main Focus of the Program?
Some programs are focused on service projects, some on language studies, and others on niche activities like sailing or wildlife conservation.
This works out well when students’ interests and goals match the specific focus of the program, but other students might want a more comprehensive experience.
7. Will Students Interact With Local People?
When a dozen teenagers are thrown into a situation together, they sometimes find it difficult to pay attention to anything but the social dynamics of the group.
Since genuine interaction with local people is such a valuable element of travel, find out how students are encouraged to meet the locals.
Will there be home-stays? Are students given solo time? Does the program emphasize culturally appropriate behavior and give students the practical skills they need to communicate?
8. What Costs Are NOT Included in the Tuition?
Youth travel programs aren’t cheap, and it’s important to know exactly what you get for your money. Most companies list a tuition price that does not include international airfare.
Other costs that might not be covered include student visas, travel insurance, airport taxes, and money for personal items and souvenirs.
9. How Many Swimsuit Photos Are in the Catalog?
Finally, allow me to introduce The Swimsuit Test – my favorite metric for determining the quality of a youth travel program.
The Swimsuit Test is simple. Look through the program catalog and count the photos of attractive students who are either shirtless or wearing swimsuits. The more swimsuit photos, the less respectable the company.
Why is The Swimsuit Test a good barometer of quality?
Youth travel companies know that photos of cute boys and girls having fun in swimsuits will attract teenage interest. Beyond the moral issue of using scantily clad teenagers for marketing purposes lie questions of cultural respect and educational priorities.
In many countries, showing so much skin is culturally inappropriate behavior. The very scenes that companies use to market their trips will alienate the local people and separate the students from the genuine culture they are ostensibly there to experience.
Moreover, while hanging out on the beach might look like fun, it’s not an activity students need to travel across the world to enjoy.
Find a program that focuses on challenging students to do more than just have fun at the beach. Travel is too valuable an opportunity to waste.
Support Youth Travel Programs
Wondering if youth travel programs are worth the investment? Read Tim Patterson’s recent essay “Youth Travel Programs Are Vital To Our Security.”
Compare Youth Travel Programs
Here is a list of companies that specialize in youth travel programs. If you notice an omission, feel free to add a link in the comment section.
Center for Cross-Cultural Study
Students in Brazil
For more information and resources, check out this high school study abroad page at Transitions Abroad, which is loaded with quality articles and advice.