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Student Travel : The Book on Teen Study Trips : Tours: Some get passing grades; some don't. It pays to check ratings and ask plenty of questions.

March 13, 1994|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

No one wants a vacation trip to go wrong, but a bad travel experience is perhaps worse for teen-agers who have signed up for a week or a month or more abroad.

They may be away from home for the first time in their lives and may not be as prepared as an adult to cope with unexpected hassles. Compounding the disappointment of dashed expectations is a sense of hopelessness. What do you do when Mom or Dad is an ocean away?

A case in point is Rachel Wellborn, a 17-year-old Washington high school student who returned home last summer feeling "frazzled and ripped off" after an expensive five-week tour of Spain and Morocco. Wellborn had hoped to practice her Spanish-language skills, soak up a bit of Mediterranean and African culture and--quite naturally--have a good time.

Unfortunately, some of her strongest memories are of problems with the tour program and with its two leaders. One of the tour guides had never been to Spain and spoke little Spanish, she reports, and--even worse--the two guides apparently didn't get along with each other. On one occasion, a tour guide swore abusively at a Spanish waiter--"I wanted to crawl under the table," she says. Poor planning resulted in days of tedium rather than education and enjoyment. Complaints to the tour company's home office brought no satisfaction.

In choosing the tour, Wellborn and her parents thought they had done a thorough job of research. They got a positive reference from a friend who had traveled with the company the year before; they talked by phone with the tour organizers; they asked lots of questions; they read all the firm's literature, and they consulted guidebooks.

What can other high school students and their parents do to assure a more satisfactory summer holiday abroad?

Each year, thousands of teen-agers head for Europe, Asia, Australia, Mexico and elsewhere on a variety of organized trips that last from a week to a full summer. By one count, as many as 400 U.S. organizations--profit and nonprofit--offer teen-age travel programs, and foreign firms have put together even more. Some trips are primarily sightseeing tours, such as the one Wellborn chose; others are home stays, where students live for one or more weeks with a foreign family, and still others promise adventure. This summer, Austravel, an Australian travel agency, is introducing a 25-day camping trip for teens to Australia and New Zealand called "Teen Camp Down Under." Many trips are regularly advertised in magazines, such as Seventeen, published for teens.

For most student travelers, a trip abroad "is such a positive experience," says Anne Shattuck, director of operations for the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, a nonprofit organization charged with keeping an eye on travel programs aimed at American high schools. The 10-year-old council, located in Leesburg, Va., has established a list of nine standards in an attempt to assure that participating tour companies are financially sound, that their programs are well-organized and that guides are properly trained. Students and their parents use the list to judge the quality of trips in which they are interested.

To meet the standards, a tour organization must show that its programs have clearly established goals and learning objectives; it must submit a signed statement from an independent certified public accountant attesting to its financial stability; its brochures and other promotional material must be accurate; it must assure that all participating students possess health and accident insurance, and it must provide effective screening, selecting and training of its tour leaders.

The council maintains a mailing list of the approximately 400 U.S. organizations offering teen tours. Each is invited to submit voluntarily to a detailed evaluation by the council's 13-member study team, but many do not. The evaluations are repeated annually, and for the review period of 1993-94, a total of 58 tour organizers met all nine standards. The qualifying organizations are listed in an annual booklet, "Advisory List of International Educational Travel and Exchange Programs." Copies are mailed to every high school, but they also can be ordered by sending a check for $8.50 to the council at 3 Loudoun St. S.E., Leesburg, Va. 22075.

Beyond that, young travelers interested in study tours abroad--and their parents--should compare the programs of more than one tour organization and ask plenty of questions. Shattuck and others in the teen travel business cite some of the many factors to investigate:

* Does the program provide what you are looking for? Be specific in your queries. If you hope to practice your classroom Spanish, find out what opportunities will be available. Will you get to meet Spanish teens? Know exactly what you are getting.

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