This summer, give your older child the gift of a lifetime by sending them on an adventure outside their comfort zone through a teen travel program. Geared towards middle and high school students, travel experiences pick up where overnight camp leaves off, with programs ranging from cross-country bike treks to wandering the world’s greatest cities to exploring faraway landscapes, with and without academic or philanthropic elements.
Where can kids go? “It really depends on the parents and how willing they are to go outside of their comfort zone to allow their kids to travel far and wide,” says Risa Goldberg, an adviser at The Camp Experts & Teen Summers, which matches kids to camps and travel and educational excursions around the world. Programs welcome kids in grades 7-12; though the majority are designed for older teens (especially academic or service trips). The ideal candidate should be open to adventure and meeting new people, genuinely interested in participating and learning new skills and willing to take advantage of opportunities. Trips can last from just under two weeks to six weeks, with three being the sweet spot for most kids. Accommodations can vary from hotels and hostels to homestays, dormitories and camping under the stars.
There’s no way around this: teen travel camps are pricey. Fees vary based on accommodations, guide-to-student ratio, length of trip, planned activities, class fees and how expensive the destination is, along with the cost of airfare which isn’t usually included. Parents can expect to pay anywhere from $1,000-$3,000 per week, sometimes more. Volunteer programs aren’t necessarily cheaper. There’s some financial help—the Council On International Educational Exchange (CIEE), Where There Be Dragons and Global Leadership Adventures (GLA) offer partial scholarships to help cover costs. RootOne offers vouchers for Jewish teens interested in traveling to Israel.
Still, for those who can afford it, the benefits can be life-changing, whether from making friends from around the world to setting them on an academic and career track. Traveling also allows kids to taste independence. “Other than camp, they’ve never had to live in a different environment other than their own comfort zone. Detaching teaches them to be much more self-reliant,” says Goldberg.
Speaking of which, many parents and teens view travel programs as a nice addition to their college application. “Focused programs where students learn something new, enhance a skill or do true community service are the most attractive to colleges,” says Janet Rubin, a college consultant based in Short Hills. So ask how much of any given program is truly devoted to charity work before choosing a service program.
Here’s a breakdown of the types of programs available:
TEEN TOURS DE FORCE
Tours limited to the U.S.—from cruising the Cali coast to exploring national parks—are the OG of travel programs for adolescents in the NYC metropolitan area and are still a typical first experience though many tours take teens all over the world, too. What differentiates a tour from other programs is that the focus tends to be on fun, friendship and the thrill of travel, whether Euro-railing or discovering the wonders of Southeast Asia. While some tours specialize in areas such as biking, writing or photography, the primary goal is seeing the sights, appreciating other cultures and having a fantastic time.
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
From taking climate action in Copenhagen to mentoring underprivileged kids in Morocco, a program with a service spin can instill a mix of compassion, problem-solving abilities and leadership skills, says Goldberg. Costa Rica is an especially popular destination for American kids interested in exploration and service.
SPEAK THE LANGUAGE
Language immersion programs fast track fluency while giving teens the chance to authentically connect to a different culture. Students may live with a host family or in a hotel/dorm with other students. Programs typically combine language classes with real-world opportunities to practice and develop conversational confidence.
Whatever your child’s interest, there’s a program that will locate them in the center of their obsession. These can be part of a tour-type program or set in an academic space anywhere from L.A. to Lisbon. Does your child love animals, archaeology or fighting for women’s rights? There are plenty of opportunities at the intersection of interest, service and study. There are international programs where students spend a summer teaching a sport like tennis or soccer to underprivileged kids, says Rubin.
College-based programs have the advantage of built-in facilities and educators, while providing a safe home base for exploring a new city or continent. Even programs in another state can feel like a world away.
A campus adviser can help find a good match, but word-of-mouth and research can narrow the choices. The sites goabroad.com and gooverseas.com aggregate many programs, letting you filter by age, interest, destination and program length. Whatever you choose, remember: It’s the journey, not the destination.
Here are some well-known programs to get started:
Rein Teen Tours: The Wayne-based favorite is known for classic jaunts to the American West and more.
Global Leadership Adventures: GLA offers meaningful travel inspired by the Peace Corps.
Apogee Adventures: They’ll lace up their hiking boots for confidence-building exploration in the great outdoors.
Moondance Adventures: Teens will journey to the world’s most awe-inspiring places.
Travel for Teens: Authentic immersive cultural experiences take place anywhere from France to Fiji.
Putney Student Travel: Choose from trips focused on service, language, adventure and career, plus pre-college options.
The Experiment in International Living: Immersive programs aim to deepen cultural connections through homestays, language learning, art, food and fun.
National Student Leadership Conference: They’ll jump into career discovery at prestigious universities.