If you’re thinking about sending your teen alone on a high school travel program, you’re probably wondering what determines whether it’s safe? There’s a lot to this question. All teens are different and so are the factors that determine whether they stay safe while traveling. Personality, medical history, dietary preferences or restrictions, and just about anything else that makes a teen unique can affect their experience.
While I’d like to believe that all travel companies take the approach to safety as we do at Rustic Pathways, the truth is that they’re not all created equal. Consider these five questions when evaluating any company that provides high school travel programs.
1. Who leads the programs?
Program Leaders (or guides, counselors, etc.) are the people directly responsible for your teen’s daily health and well-being, caring for them when they’re sick and supporting them during struggles. These leaders also challenge teens to expand their perspectives and help them develop new skills.
When considering a company, learn about its hiring processes.
2. How does the company choose its partners?
Most travel companies outsource parts of their program operations to local partners, like transportation or adventure activities providers. Partnering with local providers supports the communities where your teen travels while also leveraging the expertise of trained professionals in specific fields. Partners are a direct extension of the travel company and should be thoroughly vetted.
Ask the travel company about their approach to outsourcing. Do they perform regularly-scheduled safety assessments and equipment or vehicle maintenance checks? Do they have established risk management practices and incident response procedures? What are its hiring and training practices? You should feel equally confident in the travel company and its partners, who work collectively to ensure the safety of your teen during their program.
3. What are its policies that protect against bullying?
Every teen creates their own path to adulthood so it’s important that providers of high school travel programs have an inclusivity policy that allows them to safely express their individuality without fear of judgment or ridicule. These policies should not tolerate physical, emotional, or social-media bullying or any type of intimidation. If something does happen, students should know how they can report an incident privately and confidentially.
What is the travel company’s inclusivity policy and what does it include? How are staff trained to support inclusivity and what is the process when a situation arises? Ask for a copy of the policy and discuss any specific concerns you have prior to travel.
4. How are incidents managed?
Managing student illnesses or injuries is a critical component of any successful travel company. They should have response systems in country to manage common medical and mental health events and a support structure for escalating significant events to a skilled critical response team. Every organization should have a validated crisis management plan with regularly-conducted simulations to exercise plans and responder skill sets.
Ask about the process for managing common incidents and ask for some examples in action. What is the process for escalating larger events and evacuating students from remote locations? Who is included in a crisis response team, what additional resources are available internationally, and when was the last simulation of the emergency plan conducted? Hopefully, these measures won’t be necessary during your teen’s program, but you’ll want to know if they’re in place.
5. How will I communicate with my teen as they travel?
There’s a lot of discussion taking place within student travel companies about cellphone use during programs. Cell phones can be a distraction to the program experience, so more and more companies are restricting cell phone use while traveling. It’s important for parents to understand how and when travel companies will provide updates while their teens are abroad.
Parents should ask about routine communications versus urgent notifications if their teen should become ill or injured. What’s the process parents should follow to send a message to their teen? Do Program Leaders carry cellphones, and if so, are there any locations where they’re out of cell range and unreachable? These types of high school travel programs can be transformative for teens if they’re given the space to grow.
I know how difficult it can be to feel confident about handing over your child to a travel provider. My 17-year-old daughter traveled to Thailand this past summer on her third Rustic Pathways program. I believe strongly in these opportunities and advise parents to take the time to learn about the company caring for their child. If it doesn’t meet your expectations or isn’t willing to talk openly about your questions, then find one that does.
Request a call from one of our global travel experts to learn more about Rustic Pathways spring break and summer travel programs for high school students.
With a masters degree in risk management and more than 20 years of relevant experience, Dave is the perfect fit to lead Rustic's Health and Safety Team. Dave joined Rustic in 2014 after owning a consulting firm specializing in implementing risk management and emergency response programs for domestic and global tour operators. He now works with our global teams to ensure quality and consistency in all Rustic programs. Dave lives in Colorado with his wife and children.