Tips for Safe Overseas Travel for Students

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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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