Alex in Wanderland's recent post about her group tour experience of the Greek islands had me thinking about the group trips I've been on. While church trips and studying abroad qualify as group travel, I've technically only been on one package tour - the summer I graduated from high school, I went on a school trip to Europe. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) The trip was coordinated by a teacher at my high school and run by EF Tours. We landed in Frankfurt and met up with the rest of our tour group - a dozen kids from another school, plus a smattering of pairs or solo students - and our bilingual guide, Melanie. For the next two and a half weeks, we traveled through Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France, and England by bus.
People tend to turn this type of tour into a joke. Buses full of young, annoying Americans, descending upon the splendors of Europe and preferring the clubbing and drinking, are a pretty easy target. But honestly, when better to try a tour than when you're in high school? Here are ten reasons I'd encourage any high school student to go on a package trip of Europe (or any foreign country, really) through their school...
1. Expand your worldview
Let's get the obvious one out of the way first. Whether you go on to become an eternal backpacker, a corporate jet-setter, or someone who rarely touches their passport, travel in high school can change your life. Why? First hand knowledge tends to stick with you longer than facts you've memorized - it's much easier to remember that Switzerland borders Italy and France when you've driven between them. More importantly, exploring new places and meeting the people who live there gives you an immediate connection to the rest of the world and helps you realize how different, and yet, similar we really are.
2. Travel with friends
I was never, EVER going to be one of those people for whom high school is the best time of their lives. But over ten years later, I still miss seeing my best friends every day. The group I traveled to Europe with was an interesting mix - there were a few people I was really close to, a few more who I considered friends as well as classmates, and then a few who I never would have hung out with outside this tour. Thanks to our two and a half weeks driving around Europe, I got to spend a little extra time with some of my best friends and was pleasantly surprised as I got to know people I'd barely spoken to in high school. In addition to this, our tour group was made up of a few schools from around the country, so we made some totally new friends as well. After 15 years living in the same small town, it was a great segue into college and all the new people I'd meet there.
Looking back, I'm amazed at the freedom my classmates and I were allowed. After a morning of tours, we would typically break off into groups of five or six to walk around whatever city we were visiting that day. I often ended up wandering around on my own. In Paris, Venice, and Florence, I ditched my friends to go see what I wanted to see. Sometimes breaking away from the group was worthwhile and sometimes it wasn't, but overall, my little forays into freedom taught me that I could walk around a foreign city alone and not feel lonely, in danger, or totally bored.
4. Get a feel for planning your own trips
Of course I can visit the Uffizi and Brunelleschi's dome in our three-hour free time! Because of my poor planning, I ended up getting to do neither, but it was a good lesson in having realistic expectations and budgeting my time. On the positive side, I had done a little research before the trip and was able to drag a few friends along to see a building featured in one of my all-time favorite movies, 'Roman Holiday'. We snuck into Via Margutta 51 and I took pictures of the spot where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck said goodbye for the first time. Later, a few of the girls from another school on our tour heard about our side-trip, and borrowed me for a nighttime jaunt out to the Mouth of Truth, also featured in the movie.
Things I would never do as an adult - feed a pigeon. Ew.
5. Do things that your jaded, hard-working self won't do
Gondola ride? Check. When I returned to Venice as a college student, all my classmates were too cool or too poor to do one. I was so glad it had been included in my high school trip. And though I've been back to London, the weather has never been as nice as the afternoon my school group sat on the grass in St. James Park, waiting for the changing of the guard. This can include entire countries as well - Switzerland is expensive and doesn't really catch my fancy as far as destinations go. Without going on a package tour with it included, I probably never would have visited the ridiculously picturesque city of Lucerne.
Hurrah for signage.
Not the gelato in question.
6. Use your language skills in a practical setting
Not gonna lie, I felt a little smug when I ordered the small cup of gelato that I wanted and my friends were left with giant, melting cones. Most American high schoolers have the opportunity to study a second language, but few actually get to use it. But here's the fun part - the language you end up speaking doesn't even have to be the language you studied! The skills you use in recognizing patterns and using context clues stay the same in just about any language. And the younger you are when you study a language, the easier it will be to learn. A few years later, I took an Italian language course in Italy. I was able to get by because I'd studied Spanish, my classmates who took French in high school were set, but the people who'd never taken a language before had *no idea* what was going on. Start early!
These fine, upstanding citizens were not the drunks in question, either.7. Drink legally while you're still underage
Let's be real, this is a huge selling point for most teenagers. There were actually two teachers at my high school who organized summer trips - and of course, all my friends wanted to go with the cool teacher who would let us drink (our parents signed permission slips). When we arrived in Germany, we discovered that the other schools on our tour had not been afforded the same opportunity. The ice-breaker between the groups ended up being the night that our students went to the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. Several of my classmates got back on the bus hilariously drunk and everyone became friends pretty quickly after that. Our final night in London, I skipped a live performance at the Globe to hang out with my classmates at a pub. Don't regret it for a second.
Don't lose your head, like Saint-Denis.
8. Make mistakes in a relatively safe environment
You only get to be young for a few years of your life - dumb is another story. Coming back into the US, I messed up my customs form. While crying after being interrogated because I pissed off a customs officer was no way to end my trip, I learned 1) the right way to make a declaration and 2) that I should shut up and smile when faced with grumpy airport workers. (This was a year or two before the TSA was formed, so, good timing...) I was technically an adult at the time - we left a couple days after my 18th birthday - but I had the excuse of being young and inexperienced. When I lost my entry & exit card to Brazil this past summer, I just felt stupid.
Things to avoid: massively dry tour guides holding flags and boredom
9. Learn what you don't like
There are, of course, things about a group tour that are not great. You whiz through countries at breakneck speed. You eat at cheap restaurants that cater to tourists. (Every. single. dinner. in Italy was overcooked pasta with marinara sauce.) The quality and location of your hotels may vary - the places we stayed tended to be either nice and far from the city center, or a downtown dump. Venice somehow managed to be both, as we stayed in Mestre. Some of your tour-mates may be there for all the wrong reasons (see point seven). You may even discover you don't like traveling... though lbr, if you're seeking out travel blogs, that's probably not your speed.
Ensuring my return to Rome. In a Pokemon shirt. Oh, year 2000.
10. Learn what you do like
The things you don't like, oddly, help you to pinpoint the things you do. Running through six countries in less than three weeks helped me discover my own priorities. I ended up falling for Italy, so much so, that I did a semester abroad there three years later. When I returned to London, I knew I wanted to see the Tower of London, the Globe Theater, and King's Cross Station (things I'd missed out on before). I learned that while I'd love to go back to Paris, it can wait, and that Germany doesn't tempt me in the way Portugal or Greece does. Crappy cafeteria dinners gave me the freedom to seek out lunches I wanted, whether that was a coffee and panini in Italy or wine and a box of merengues in France. High school is such a vital time, where kids really start forming their adult selves. Traveling at this age not only gives you a window to the world, but to yourself and to the person you're going to become.