3 Survival Trips: Organizing an International Trip
During my time as an undergraduate, I received the amazing opportunity to plan two eco-service trips in South America. Both of these experiences turned out to be amazing, however the entire process of organizing them from the start were entirely different. These opportunities have taught me so much, as both a leader and a volunteer, and I hope that my advice given below can help future trip planners in their efforts as well:
Tip #1: Be flexible
This is my first piece of advice because it is without a doubt the most important. When partaking in any opportunity abroad, it is very necessary to understand that everything is not set in stone. Because of this, planning a trip with an international component takes a very adaptable person to organize it. For example, two years ago I planned my first trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. I presented the trip to my club, and there seemed to be a TON of interest in people signing up. I set a time and date for when I would begin to take $100 deposits. The Monday I arrived at the designated location, I already had a line of 10 students waiting for me! Over the next three days, that number quickly rose to 30, and I had to discuss the possibility of splitting the trip up into two. I was very torn about this because on the one hand, the more students going meant that much more good work could be accomplished. On another note, creating two mini-trips would add a lot more work in terms of deciding which students would go where, when we would move from the mainland to the Galapagos Islands, who would lead the other trip, etc. Thank goodness I had SH/ETA to handle all of these details! I decided that I would stay flexible, keep both options a possibility, and see how many students ended up signing up. Luckily, the amount of newcomers dwindled, a few people that had originally signed up backed out, and I ended up having a total group number of 24 going for the one big trip.
This past winter, I decided to go through a different club at school and create another service trip in Peru. Now, based on the success of my last trip, I thought finding students for this one would also be a breeze. I mean, we were going to Machu Picchu! I presented the trip to both the sponsoring club and my community service organization before I went campus wide with it. I immediately had three definite students sign up (two from the previous year). I thought this was a great start; however it stayed at just those three for almost a month. I couldn’t understand why this was happening, and tried everything to change it. I set a final due date for the deposit, set extended due dates, lightly “threatened” that it was everyone’s last chance to sign up, stated again two weeks later that it was really their last chance. Nothing seemed to work. Sure, I had about 15 people interested who I would spam with emails every other day, but I could not get people to commit, and I was really stressed for a while that I might have to cancel the trip.
I decided to again be flexible and cut the trip back from three weeks to two, shifted the dates so we weren’t going over Christmas, and cut out some activities so the prices dropped a bit. Slowly, I worked on getting 10 students locked in before the price of plane tickets got too high. Finally, we had our numbers and planning was a success.
The success to my leadership and planning was to start as early as possible, have a positive attitude, have patience, and most importantly, flexibility.
Tip #2: Expect the Unexpected
Like I said before, traveling abroad comes with its own set of rules. As the person organizing the trip, there are some things that you just cannot see coming, no matter how much you mentally prepare yourself. I have seen it all over the past five years: upset stomachs, bites, scratches, bot flies, work injuries, twisted ankles, etc. Be mentally prepared for these things to happen, but know that the Program Leaders that SH/ETA provide will be there by your side to assist in any of these situations. The Program Leaders we have had were outstanding and available to help every sick or injured student to a quick recovery so they can enjoy the rest of their trip.
Flight delays are another unexpected and uncontrollable issue you may run into. My recommendation is to allow SH/ETA to handle all your flights as one group. This way they can handle any issues that may arise during your travels.
Lastly, it is important to stress to the entire group, prior to even leaving, the awareness they must have while traveling abroad. Although I have never felt even the slightest bit unsafe during my trips with SH/ETA, it is necessary for everyone to understand that it is still a foreign country, with rules of their own. While traveling, the group is representing their school and their native country, and it is appropriate to maintain that ideal throughout the whole trip. I approached this by using a buddy system, and repeating over and over again that we were a family, so everyone needed to look out for each other. For many young high school and college students traveling for the first time, this seemed to help them feel more secure. By instilling this sense of protection in the group, I think that the trip organizer can greatly help limit and overcome any unexpected scenarios that might occur while traveling.
Tip #3: Have fun, and keep the end goal in sight!
One thing that is very important to keep in mind is why you are doing this in the first place! Remember that you are going to be traveling to an amazing new place, and may be doing service work that benefits underprivileged people and communities for years to come. Express this to your group and take time to reflect on your experience during the trip. Similarly, your trip will be changing not only your life, but the lives of every student involved. Speaking from experience, I remember talks in the middle of every trip about how it was worth every penny. So, have fun every step along the way, and remember one of my favorite travel quotes: “It’s all part of the experience!!”