When my daughter, J, was entering her junior year of high school, she spent several weeks of the summer on a teen travel program. Although she had been away from us before, this was the first time that she traveled to a foreign country without my husband and I. We were both excited for her to go on a solo adventure, but also concerned that she would be traveling so far away.
Based on our experience, here are 10 tips for parents when sending their child on a student travel abroad program.
1. Whether it is a study abroad program for students or a gap year program, research the program thoroughly.
Do an extensive amount of research and don’t be afraid to call up the Admissions or Program Director and ask any questions you may have. It was important that my daughter, my husband and I, were all comfortable with the program, staff, and directors before agreeing to let her participate. In addition to getting information about the program's itinerary, we also spoke with other parents and students that had formerly participated in the program, so that we could get an accurate picture of what the trip would entail. Says J, “Hearing how enthusiastic other kids were about the trip got me excited. Before I had spoken to several other students, I was a little apprehensive about being so far from home. But they all made me feel that the experience would be amazing and it was.” Even though my husband and I were a little anxious when she was traveling, we were confident that she was safe and in good hands throughout the trip. You definitely want to feel assurance about the study abroad program before booking it—and we certainly did.
2. Pick a program that's suitable for your son or daughter.
Not every program is right for your child. There are so many different travel programs to choose from. Don’t worry about picking a program that looks prestigious or impressive, but rather choose a program and an itinerary that matches your child’s interest and comfort level. Hiking mountains in Europe may sound incredible but not for a child afraid of heights. That said, don’t be afraid to let your child try new things. My daughter had never gone rafting or propelled down a waterfall before and these were two of her favorite memories of the trip. J says, “I would never have experienced either of these activities on a family vacation – we are just not an adventurous family. The trip gave me opportunity to do things I would never have considered doing before. I was scared at the start, but when I got down to the ground I felt exhilarated.”
3. Ask about medical concerns in country of travel
As you know, there are many medical concerns that make the headlines. So, definitely make an appointment with your child’s physician to get all necessary immunizations. Also, check the CDC and International SOS websites to see if there are any medical alerts for the areas your child is visiting. Also, fill out the medical forms honestly – it is important that the travel company have accurate information about health related issues.
4. Follow the packing list
Most travel companies provide a detailed packing list specifically geared toward the trip itinerary. Follow the list. Your child may not think they will wear unfashionable water shoes or need fragrance free shampoo but if it is on the list, it is there for a reason. Conversely, do not pack too many extras that are not on the list such as fancy clothes or electronics. The more they take, the more they have to transport, and the more they can lose while travel.
5. Discuss the rules in advance with your child
Most travel companies have strict rules regarding acceptable behavior. Make sure your child understands these rules and is willing to abide by them. Travel companies want to make sure that all the participants can enjoy the experience. They will not hesitate to send a child home that is breaking the rules and disrupting the group.
6. Don't expect perfection
Travel rarely goes smoothly and this part of the experience. Flight delays, missed connections, bad weather, etc. are all normal parts of a trip. Learning to deal with these inconveniences is a life lesson. It is good for children to navigate these situations without parental intervention. It builds independence, character and self-confidence. It also helps them to understand that things do not always go exactly according to plan for them to have a good time. Sometimes it’s the detours that lead to the best memories.
7. Be ready to embrace once in a lifetime opportunities
From building a house to scuba diving in the Caribbean to working with families in need – a travel abroad program can offer your child once in lifetime opportunities. Help prepare your child as much as you can so they can really appreciate the experience. Part of my daughter’s program was spending a week working with children in a day camp. Says J. “Even though I knew the children would speak Spanish, I really didn’t not fully understand that they would speak no English. I had to find ways to communicate with them, which was challenging at first. Ultimately, I did connect and came back with a new appreciation for learning foreign language.””
Having a child traveling abroad for the first time can be nerve wracking for parents, especially if they are used to speaking to their son or daughter every day. Don't worry, parents can communicate with their son or daughter by getting an International calling plan or through Skype, Gchat, Viber or WhatsApp. Avoid scheduling a set call time schedule or suggesting a daily check -in. Your child is abroad to immerse themselves in their surroundings. Let them have this chance to enjoy their experience and be really present. Remember, no news is usually good news. If your child isn’t calling, they are probably too busy having an awesome experience, which is the reason you sent them in the first place.
9 Let go
Also, allow them to handle situations on their own. In one of our conversations, my daughter mentioned that she had been separated from the girls she wanted to room with. I made the mistake of calling the travel company to rectify the situation. On our next conversation, my daughter was annoyed. J explains, “I was upset at first, but I was dealing with it and had become friendly with the girls I was assigned to room with. My mom thought I needed her to help me, but I didn’t.”
10. Be prepared for your child to return more grown up
By going abroad with her peers, my daughter realized how truly capable she was. Before the trip, she was a little nervous and unsure how she would feel being on her own. She returned a more confident, interesting and independent person. Says J, “ Going on this trip changed my perspective and gave me confidence. I saw and did things that my parents hadn’t done. Prior to the trip, I never thought I would consider a college that was more than a car ride away from my home. But now that have taken a plane trip on my own, I am considering colleges that I have to fly to.”
Having my daughter travel on her own taught her a lot and it also taught me that I my little girl didn’t always need my help.