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TRAVEL INSIDER

An Accelerated Course in European History : Tours: High schoolers are whirling faster than ever through Europe. Yet somehow the blur is rewarding.

August 29, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Every year, thousands of American high school students earn, beg or borrow $1,000 or $2,000, sign onto a package tour, leave their parents behind, and fly off to see Europe for the first time. It's a pricey, potentially hazardous, deeply rewarding, possibly life-changing experience.

It's the way I saw Europe for the first time. I still clearly remember rumbling by bus from country to country, sleeping two and three to a hotel room, gawking at Stonehenge, eating bad pizza in Paris, throwing a party on a college rooftop in Rome, and so on. The trip covered nine nations in five weeks, and cost about $1,700. That was 1977.

These days, the student tour of Europe is as popular a custom as ever. By one estimate, more than 100,000 high-schoolers will travel on group tours this year. But trips like my 1977 journey, says veteran tour marketer Peter Jones, "are dinosaurs. Nobody travels on those programs any more. It's more instant ."

In today's climate of higher prices, shorter attention spans and scarce leisure time, say Jones and other tour operators, the length of the average student tour has dwindled to about two weeks. And that's only one of many new facts of life in the world of young people's European tours.

Consider Peter Jones. As a 28-year-old employee of American Leadership Study Groups in Italy, he was the supervisor overseeing that Roman rooftop party I remember from my first trip. Since then, he and a group of colleagues have built the American Council for International Studies, now among the largest high-school tour operators in Europe.

American Leadership Study Groups, meanwhile, lies mired in sad circumstances--a tale I'll come back to in a moment.

To find the right tour, teachers, student travelers and their families should ask questions: What's the company history? How is deposit money protected? (Many tour operators use escrow accounts or file performance bonds to cover potential losses.) Is trip cancellation insurance available? Can the tour operator put you in touch with past customers?

The following companies do their marketing through schools, and bring teachers along to share responsibilities with company tour leaders. In most cases, bookings must be made through local teachers; interested families should begin with inquiries at their high schools, the earlier the better.

American Council for International Studies, 2811 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 707, Santa Monica 90403; telephone 310-453-5126. Based in Boston, ACIS was founded in 1978 and deals exclusively with school groups, through teachers. Jones, executive vice president of sales and marketing, estimates that ACIS booked 25,000 students last year (mostly 11th-graders) and transported them around Europe via bus. About 95% of the company's itineraries are in Europe, with others in Australia, Africa, the Caribbean and Central America. Popular tour: " Toujours en France ," a nine-day trip that includes Paris, the Loire Valley, Versailles and Chartres. Price: $1,200-$1,500 (depending on time of year), triple occupancy, including air fare from Los Angeles.

Cultural Heritage Alliance, 107-115 South 2nd St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19106). This 25-year-old company was founded by a pair of foreign-language teachers from Philadelphia public schools. It has grown into a national firm that sends most of its tours to Europe, but also a few to Australia and Central America. The teachers, Augustine and Louise Falcione, still own the company. Sales manager Mort O'Shea declines to put a number on the firm's annual bookings, but says figures are in the same range as those of competitors ACIS and EF Educational Tours. Popular tour: "London and the Theater," a 10-day trip that includes three theater performances, Stratford-on-Avon, Windsor Castle, Canterbury and Dover. Price: $1,189-$1,509 (depending on time of year), triple occupancy, including air fare from Los Angeles.

EF Educational Tours (a division of the EF Institute for Cultural Exchange), 1 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, Mass. 02142; tel. 800- 637-8222. This Swedish-owned, for-profit company that specializes in high-school group tours began in 1980. Molly Wrobel, executive assistant to president Olle Olsson, says the firm offers about 100 different tours to Europe, Australia, Africa, China and Central America, and last year booked an estimated 40,000 American and Canadian travelers. Most travelers were in their teens, and almost all were under 25 years of age. Popular tour: "Paris in the Spring . . . Or Anytime," a nine-day trip offered year-round. Price: $1,140-$1,350 per person (depending on time of year), triple or quadruple occupancy in hotels, including air fare from Los Angeles.

Professionals agree that the three companies listed here dominate the high-school tour market, but there are many other reliable smaller operators in business.

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