Top Ten Tips for Safe Overseas Travel for Students

by Kate Goggin, former Community Liaison Office Coordinator, and author of Backpack Kids: The Safety Planning Checklist for Overseas Travel

George Mason High School teacher Kent Foster and his French class returned from Paris just days before the volcanic ash disruption. He says the trip was pretty much “by the book” in terms of planning, and “nothing unexpected happened.” That’s in stark contrast to the headache and heartache of missed planes, mounting hotel bills, and lack of cash that were reported by later travelers, including groups traveling with children.

The circumstances were all painful reminders about the importance of a safety planning checklist that should include purchase of travel insurance. Foster’s group purchased theirs, just in case, but many other leaders don’t, including those who chaperone student volunteer trips abroad. The recent earthquake in Haiti highlighted that issue for both parents and leaders.

Whenever delays occur, the losses are not only felt in terms of time and money, there are also serious concerns for stranded passengers who run out of prescription medications and supplies. That’s why it’s important to check health insurance limitations and have medical evacuation insurance – both additional key items on the top 10 tips for safe overseas travel with children. Learn more about what to know before you go in this handy checklist.

Review Health Insurance Policies, and Buy Travel and Medevac Insurance

According to the State Department website, most U.S. based health insurance policies do not extend benefits overseas. Additionally, Medicaid and Medicare do not cover expenses incurred abroad. That means if a child falls ill or is injured abroad, the majority of expenses will be paid out of pocket, and those costs can skyrocket when the monetary unit is a foreign currency like the Euro. Also, most people are unaware of medical evacuation (medevac) insurance, according to a 2006 study by the U.S Travel Insurance Association. Travel insurance will allow reimbursement for most missed flights, especially if the high-priced versions are purchased, which cover “Acts of God,” like the eruption of a volcano or a tsunami event. Medevac insurance covers medical treatment and hospitalization, as well as the option to be flown home if needed. Most parents don’t realize what happens when an injured traveler cannot complete the trip. If the child cannot sit up in a plane for the duration of an international flight, often the whole row of seats must be purchased to accommodate a gurney. And of course, patients cannot negotiate a gurney by themselves, so a medical escort is then required, and that escort will need a ride back home too after transporting the patient home. These are some of the many reasons why a typical medical evacuation, without the insurance, can cost from $50,000 to $100,000 depending on the country of origin.

Visit the Doctor at Least Six Weeks Before Departure

Children are more likely to become ill during international travel than adults. That’s according to a new study in the journal, Pediatrics. Additionally, children require hospitalization more often than adults. Yet, the study found, children are less likely to receive pre-travel medical advice. “Parents should take kids for an exam at least six weeks before departure,” says Dr. Gordon Theisz, of Family Medicine in Falls Church. “Not only should required vaccinations be discussed, but also availability of medications for pre-existing conditions, and health conditions in the country to be visited.” The Center for Disease Control and Prevention Web site contains extensive health information for over 200 destinations. “I use that website every day to advise patients with the latest information about illness outbreaks in particular countries, and if they may need some special medicine. For example, there are different types of malaria, and the treatment is specific to each country.”

Additional tips from the State Department website include: be sure to travel with prescriptions in the original container clearly marked; bring an extra pair of eyeglasses (and the prescription); and travelers going abroad with a preexisting medical problem should carry a letter from the attending physician, describing the medical condition and any medications, including the generic names of prescribed drugs.

Research the Destination Country

Look beyond the site seeing options and digest the current information about entry and exit requirements, the safety climate, road conditions and special circumstances, all found in Country Specific Information from the U.S. State Department. In Egypt, for example, “the Embassy has received increasing reports over the last several months of foreigners being sexually groped in taxis and public places.” Additionally, it notes “unescorted women are vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse.” Knowing this gender-specific warning beforehand is important to any young girl on a work-abroad or exchange trip.

Also, check the State Department’s Travel Warning list, which is collated with the Country Specific Information. Current countries listed include: Mexico, Philippines and Haiti.

Petty crime is a worldwide problem and often preventable with the proper preparation. Linda Johnsen, another teacher at George Mason High School in the City of Falls Church, relates, “On the trip to China two years ago, one student decided he did not need to pay attention to the warnings about keeping his wallet in his back pocket, and he was promptly pick pocketed while walking near the hotel. We also had a few students who had wallets stolen from their backpacks in Toulouse, France.” Her advice to leaders, “we all learned a lesson that time: do not carry wallets in your backpack, or else wear your backpack on your front. It looks dumb, but the contents are safe.”

It’s always good to get a second opinion. See what the Canadians and Brits say about a specific country on their travel -related websites and compare.

Keep Copies of Passport in Separate Location – Sign it and Fill in the Emergency Information

Stolen wallets and backpacks are a good reason why experts say students should always carry a spare copy of their passport in a separate location. Better yet, keep another copy back in the U.S. with friends and family. When a passport is stolen, having the number will expedite procedures for a replacement at the Consulate.

Also, it’s a good idea to leave a copy of itineraries, identification documents, like a driver’s license and credit cards at home too.

Register Online with the U.S. Embassy in the Country You Will Visit

Many Americans don’t register, according to former State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. Registration works both ways. If a political protest or natural disaster is looming, the Embassy can contact travelers via the registration data for evacuation and emergency notification, and if travelers need Embassy services to assist with an ill or injured child, Embassy workers can help faster and communicate with loved ones at home when the traveler is already in the system. Haiti was a tough lesson for many leaders. The State Department did not know where to look for many volunteers, because the student groups had not registered.

Assemble U.S. and Overseas Phone Numbers Before Travel

If tragedy strikes, know who to call – both in the destination country, and here at home for concerned relatives. The Country Specific Information sheet will include the local number for the U.S. Embassy and family members in the U.S. can call, (202) 647-5225, in case of emergency involving a U.S. citizen.

Ensure at Least Two Alternate Forms of Communication and Financial Access

Some cell phone will work while traveling abroad. Check with the provider before departure to verify the international calling plan. Then make sure to purchase an international calling card for back up. The same goes for credit cards and cash access. Traveler’s checks are still useful worldwide, but credit cards and debit cards are important contingency items. Children should not carry large amounts of money and should be allowed to use an ATM for cash withdrawals if needed. A new trend for parents is to open a joint bank account with the child before travel. Both account holders may be issued a debit card which works like a credit card, even in overseas locations. This setup allows parents to track expenses online and provides the opportunity to add funds quickly in case of emergency.

Learn Basic Language Phrases and Think Globally but Act Locally for Safety Contacts

Saying “please” and “thank you” go a long way no matter where kids visit, but being able to ask for directions if lost, and communicating “help” to emergency workers really can make a difference. Learn basic language phrases. That’s the best advice from the Peace Corps. They should know. They believe proficiency of language and connecting to the local community are what help most when on an extended stay to another country. Exchange students, work and study abroad, gap year travelers, and volunteer workers are better prepared for emergencies when they have integrated into the community. When cell phone lines are jammed and every road is blocked, local friends know the lay of the land and can help find medical assistance and transportation options faster.

The Center for Global Education provides a Safety Abroad First Education Travel Information (SAFETI) Clearinghouse, and they partnered with Peace Corps to produce an adapted resource for crisis management, rape and personal security abroad.

Mental Health Matters – Know the Phases of Culture Shock

What to do if kids bump into culture shock? “If kids stay squarely in the tourist realm as they travel, it may not hit them. But if they get into the new culture, even just a bit, they may encounter reactions that surprise and confuse them,” says Dr. Anne Copeland, of The Interchange Institute. She explains, this “culture shock” happens to adults and kids alike, usually after a period of enjoying the novelty of the new culture. After a while, it’s common to (a) want to go home, (b) become critical of the culture or the reasons they are there in the first place, and © feel all the things they feel when they are stressed – fatigue, eating too much or too little, general crankiness. “Leaders can help by understanding that this is a sign that the kids have gone beneath the surface of the new culture which, by itself, usually means they will have some insightful rewards. Second, know that it’s almost always a transitory phase – as they learn more about the culture – what they do and don’t like there – the edges wear down and they will find a way to feel comfortable again. Finally, help the children relieve stress by: eating sensibly, getting enough sleep, exercising, and getting information through a host national who can talk about the cultural differences they are seeing.”

Sign a Student Conduct Contract and Get Oriented

There is often an invincibility factor at play when traveling with students. Even the most well-behaved, quiet kid can sometimes loose all inhibition in a foreign environment without parents, and that results in risky behavior. “Having a thorough orientation with students concerning what is expected from them, and getting detailed documents like a signed behavior contract, have helped ensure that although we always have unexpected situations, we can deal with them,” says Linda Johnsen. She adds “One thing I have learned in my many years of traveling with students is that something will always go wrong, usually several things on any given trip, but that being prepared will help you deal with them, and not let that spoil the trip.”

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