So Your Teen Wants to Go Abroad: A Parent’s Guide for Foreign Travel
It’s hard enough to send your 16-year-old to the grocery store for the first solo drive. Sending your baby overseas – well now, that’s a little harder for the average parent to do. By now you’ve thought through the positive side of overseas travel for your teen – a broader world view, exposure to foreign languages, and a better perspective of the difficulties of his or her own life. Maybe you are still in the decision phase. What will a trip like this involve? What do you need to do next in order to prepare your teen, and yourself, for the adventure?
Who’s in Charge?
Investigate the organizers of the trip thoroughly. You’ll feel better if the supervisors are experienced and trustworthy, and even better if they have visited the destination country and know the language. A good organization will have orientation meetings and/or training classes to prepare travel members and parents.
Get a Passport
Not only will your teen need one, but so will each parent. You may never use it, but if for some reason you need to get to your teen immediately, it helps to have passport on hand, and not, say, appeal to the state department for an emergency rush job on the paperwork. A first-time passport requires a current passport photo (2”x2”), evidence of U.S. citizenship, another form of photo ID, applicable fees (ranging from $120 – $160, depending on age and previous passport ownership), and a filled-out form, in some cases in the presence of a passport agent. Find out all the details here
Even if you have the benefit of orientation, research the destination country with your teen via the Internet. Look for travel reviews of that country, newspapers in English, and ex-patriot forums. Information about popular tourist sites is nice to know, but what you are looking for are the little details that no American would even think to ask about, but would want to know before visiting. For instance:
- Do the public bathrooms provide toilet paper? Do the nationals even use toilet paper? You may be surprised to realize that many countries do not! In fact many countries do not have “toilets” they often have a drain in the floor where one must squat. This can be a shock if they aren’t prepared ahead of time!
- Do small appliances (like a hair dryer) need an adapter (to fit the shape of the outlet) or converter (to run on 220v instead of 110v)?
- Is tap water potable (safe to drink)? Your teen may need to carry water purification tablets.
- Which street foods or fresh produce are likely to make a visitor ill?
Discovering these and other relevant facts before the trip will help your teen feel more confident and prepared.
Schedule a Medical Checkup
Discuss the trip with his doctor. Your teen may need immunizations to enter the country, and an immunization record to submit at customs.
He may also need a written form for carrying medications, or a copy of x-rays for any existing metal in his body from reconstructive surgeries. If your teen needs corrective lenses, spring for a replacement pair of glasses.
Your teen should be well prepped in how to present medications at customs (pills in the original bottle with the label is always best), and even basic details like not carrying contact lens solution in his carry-on bag in anything larger than 3 ounces (fluids in containers greater than 3 ounces or one quart are confiscated).
Send copies of any prescriptions with him, and keep a copy at home.
Insure Against the Worst Case Scenario
Buy insurance for the very worst that can happen to your teen, as well as for the least. You’ll want a policy that covers a range of hazards from losing his camera, canceling his trip for any reason, or being life-flighted home for a medical emergency. This could be the best investment you make to keep your teen safe, and if it goes unused, that is the best case scenario.
Packing for the Trip
The contents of your teen’s suitcase will depend on his destination, the purpose of the trip, and any rules set by the trip organizers. You can expect specific advice for what to pack from team leaders, but in general he will probably need (in addition to the above recommendations):
1. Copies of all important documents, including but not limited to his passport, driver’s license, travel tickets, travel visa, and credit card number. These copies should be packed with carry-on luggage and guarded closely. Parents should keep one set of all important documents. As a safeguard, upload a PDF file of these documents to an email account your teen will have access to while abroad. You may want to use a self-encrypted file for these important numbers.
2. Inexpensive, casual clothing and accessories. In some countries, camouflage clothing is not appropriate. (Any form of camouflage is illegal in Barbados, for example!) Leave valuable jewelry at home – there’s no need to attract too much attention, especially from thieves. While traveling, avoid wearing clothing or accessories with metal. An inexpensive, waterproof wristwatch is recommended, even if your teen normally doesn’t wear one, in order to keep up with his travel itinerary. Many teens rely on their cell phones to keep tabs on the time, but a wristwatch is less likely to be lost or stolen.
3. A personal first aid kit, including pain relievers, bandages, topical ointments, an antihistamine for allergic reactions, and sunburn relief gel (like aloe). If the destination country is hot and humid, purchase waterproof or blister band-aids.
4. Extra batteries or chargers (check voltage rating on the charger) for cell phones, cameras, iPods, etc., if these are allowed by the group leaders.
5. A change of clothes and other bare necessities in the carry-on bag in the event of luggage loss.
To get through the screening process quickly, keep the 3-1-1 rule in mind for liquid personal products (water, shampoo, toothpaste, hair gel, etc.) in the carry-on. No containers greater than 3 ounces. Keep them in one quart-sized, zip-style, clear plastic bag. One bag per passenger. All other personal products should be packed in suitcases.
For those new to travel outside of the U.S., going through customs anywhere (U.S. or abroad) is a bit of a foreign experience. The following are general rules to follow, just to keep out of unintended trouble:
1. Don’t transport goods for strangers, period. Don’t carry anything in your bags for someone else you haven’t personally inspected. Sometimes, groups traveling with the purpose to aid people in the destination country also carry goods to help those people or the planned project. If that is the case, your teen may be asked to carry supplies. Nothing wrong with that, but at the airport, your teen should be prepared to answer the airport personnel’s questions truthfully without raising suspicions.
2. Don’t pack items considered contraband. Fresh fruit and meat usually fall under this category, along with plants. Group leaders will guide teens in what kinds of souvenirs can be transported. For instance, if your son wants to take the tribal knife he traded for in the Amazon, he should be able to pack it in his stowed bags with very little trouble. Fresh mushrooms will likely attract the sniffer dogs.
3. Declarations: When heading into the customs area, travelers must choose the right line, and one of those are for those who have things to declare. Generally this is for those carrying large sums of money, quantities of medications, antiques, food or agricultural goods, and other things your teen is unlikely to possess on this trip. On the airplane, travelers are asked to fill out a form detailing these items. If your teen is unsure, he can always ask for help from the airline personnel.
4. While traveling or in airports, avoid joking about safety matters. Security takes it very seriously when hearing certain trigger words, like “hijack” or “bomb” or other such inflammatory comments. It is never considered funny.
Most teen travel programs are planned out and pay in advance for airline tickets, meals, lodging, and other transportation. Ideally, your teen should only need money for souvenirs and snacks. The safest plan is to carry small amounts of cash, with additional money provided through a credit card with a limited amount available at one time. The advantage of a credit card in this format is that you can upload additional funds gradually as needed, and keep tabs of your teen’s purchases.
Travelers checks are also a viable option, but not as convenient. Look into obtaining the destination country’s local currency through your bank at home – if the exchange rate is more favorable, it will save money and time.
Keeping in Touch
A few decades ago, anxious parents had to wait for weeks to hear from teens traveling overseas – if the teen wrote at all. The sudden loss of constant contact is disconcerting to the twenty-first century parent and teen. Now communication depends more on the travel program’s rules. If it’s allowed, look into your cell phone provider’s international rates for a temporary plan, or your teen can buy a cheap international phone and prepaid calling card after arrival. Your teen may prefer to keep in touch by email or Facebook, if available. Whatever you choose, let your teen contact you. He’ll feel more independent if you’re not electronically hovering over him. On the other hand, your teen might want to set up a blog just to update family, friends and supporters on the progress of preparations, events during the trip, and then a recap when he returns home.
Personal Conduct in a Foreign Country
Many countries have cultural dress codes. Some, like Saudi Arabia, make them mandatory upon entry. It’s more likely your teen will visit a country where the dress code is flexible, but it helps to know what the locals see as modest wear, especially for women who may be surprised to learn that having bare knees or shoulders is frequently frowned upon!
Respect for understood dress codes will keep your teen less conspicuous, and less vulnerable to catcalls and other unwelcome advances. In a foreign country, it is not always cool, or wise, to stand out in the crowd. Places of worship or religious sites may require a stricter dress code for entry.
Other codes of conduct are nice to know prior to the trip. Are certain gestures considered offensive? You might be surprised that the smallest of postures or hand gestures that we Americans think nothing about can carry very negative connotations in other parts of the world.
In the Middle East, pointing the sole of one’s foot at another person, which easily happens when crossing one’s legs in a sitting position, is the highest insult one can give another. Another taboo in the Middle East- the Thumbs Up. It might mean “Like” on facebook, but in the middle east it’s the equivalent of saying, UP Yours! (Quite literally).
In Greece, extending your hand, palm outward is known as the moutza – it’s about the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger whilst throwing excrement at their Mother. Whereas in the states, extending a palm outward might be your way of saying, “Oh, no thank you, I couldn’t possibly take another piece, I’m all set, thank you so much!”
While dining in Thailand, The Philippines or China one should never clean their plate in it’s entirety. Your teen may have been taught at home to eat what was put before them, as that was the polite thing to do, he or she needs to keep in mind that in some countries it’s more important that the host provides you with enough food. Eating every morsel implies the host wasn’t gracious enough and you are still hungry.
When in doubt about local customs, do as the locals do, Learning to be respectful in a way that feels foreign is all part of the experience.
In general, your teen should:
Never wander off alone unless given specific permission.
Keep alert in large crowds and stay in a group.
Keep watch of personal possessions at all times while traveling.
Keep money, phones, cameras, etc. in a zipped bag or backpack, clutched rather than hanging loosely. Keep a small amount of money in your pocket or wallet and the remainder in an inaccessible area such as in under the clothing money belts. Avoid retrieving money from these in public, instead, advise your teen to wait until he/she is in a restroom stall and take out a small amount at a time, as needed.