Considering a Wellesley School-Organized Trip: Tips for Families

Leave the flip-flops, take the snow pants.

That’s what packing looked like for a group of Wellesley High School students who signed up to visit the Galapagos Islands for February vacation but went to Iceland instead due to political unrest in Ecuador.

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Posing in Iceland

The STEM-focused Iceland trip was still a trip-of-a-lifetime for my son and the other eight kids who went. But it caused headaches for a lot of parents who had already paid the $4,300 cost and could either join up for the Iceland trip or get a credit for a future trip.

So, what can parents do? We reached out to WHS teachers who regularly shuttle students around the world to get their tips for parents considering school-organized international trips.

 

1. Pay for the top-tier travel insurance.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t buy the more expensive insurance.

For Galapagos, EF Tours offered two tiers of insurance: $190 for Global Travel Protection and $590 for Global Travel Protection Plus. The trip was canceled on Jan. 15 after the president of Ecuador declared a state of emergency. However, because the U.S. State Department didn’t change its travel advisory for the country, the lower-tier EF insurance only offered trip credit.

With the lower-tier insurance, my son had the choice of Iceland – at the same cost as Galapagos – or a credit for future travel. My son is in 11th grade, so he could have used the credit next year (seniors who signed up who were not as lucky). Still, my son decided to go anyway—that the trip included no parents may have swayed him—and loved it.

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Wellesley High 11th grader Thatcher Bonniwell, son of the author, poses with a fisherman and the bounty from the group’s fishing trip in Akureyri, Iceland, during February school vacation.

Wellesley parent Tatiana Novobrantseva similarly was frustrated that the second-tier travel insurance from EF didn’t offer a refund. Rather than taking a travel credit, her 11th grade daughter decided to go to Iceland even though she had already been.

“Life happens, we all know this. What really makes it into a very complicated and unmanageable arrangement, we’re paying the money but it’s the school that actually interacts with EF Tours and has to be in the middle,” Novobrantseva said. “On top of all this, Iceland tours cannot cost the same as Galapagos. How can it cost this much?”

WHS science teacher Ken Bateman, who led the Galapagos-turned-Iceland trip, said he will spend more time discussing insurance with parents during the planning stages of future trips.

“Definitely buy the higher-end insurance in case something happens, like what happened here,” said Bateman, who has taught at WHS since 2006. “Or if you’re not willing to spend the extra money, be flexible and just know that your son or daughter will go on a trip but you’ll have to be flexible as to if something were to occur there might have to be a pivot.”

Wellesley Public Schools Director of Art Thom Carter, whose Peru school trip in 2022 was canceled, agreed.

“Some people are like, ‘Oh, it’s another couple hundred dollars.’ That’s better than losing $5,000,” said Carter, who has been teaching at WHS for 20 years and led school trips for 16 years to everywhere from Morocco and China to London, Spain and India. “We’ve had kids who got sick the day they leave. That’s what insurance is for.”

2. Be flexible (and patient).

On a WHS art department trip to Spain a few years ago, the group was on the bus and almost to Barcelona when they realized they left 10 passports in the hotel safe in Madrid.

“They were going to overnight them, but it was a huge book holiday, so there was no mail,” Carter said. So, the group pivoted and, yada-yada-yada, “We got two free days in Barcelona!”

Carter and Bateman both said it’s key for parents to be patient and flexible with the schedule. In addition to unexpected changes–like delays while waiting for new passports–school trips also can include unpopular flight times or layovers. For the Iceland trip, the students had 12-hour layovers in Baltimore both ways. (Bateman said that was due to the late change to Iceland; tickets for the big group were purchased three weeks before departure.)

Also, school trip operators often won’t release the exact dates of travel until 4-6 weeks before departure. Instead, parents are told students will miss several days of school—but you don’t find out which days until a month before the trip.

For art trips, Carter said students usually miss three days of school in the week before vacation starts. For the Iceland trip, the return flight arrived in the morning on the Monday after vacation, so the kids missed one school day.

“You’ve got to be flexible because you never know. Something is going to change or go wrong. Our itinerary is going to change. Something might be closed,” Carter said.

3. Make sure the passport doesn’t expire within 6 months.

On the Iceland trip, one of the Wellesley students flew to Baltimore with the group but was denied boarding on the international connecting flight to Reykjavik because her passport expired within six months. Ecuador doesn’t have the same requirement, so it seems like this was overlooked when the trip was changed.

This has happened on other trips too, when the itinerary changed and required  stopping in a different country, Carter said.

The best way to protect against it?

“Make sure the passport doesn’t expire for six months and a day,” he said.

4. What if my child is quiet or doesn’t know anyone on the trip?

Nervous about sending your student on a trip far, far away? That’s pretty normal, the teachers said. For many kids, this is their first international trip, or maybe it’s their first trip without family.

“I love the power of travel,” Carter said. “If your kid is shy and never traveled overseas, don’t be afraid to send them on one of our trips. It changes them and shows them how different life can be somewhere else. It just opens them up.”

For Bateman, school trips forge stronger connections between teachers and students.

“It’s all about connections when you’re teaching. Traveling together is a really great way to learn about them, what their goals in life are, and what gets them excited,” Bateman said. One of his favorite moments was during the 2023 Panama school trip, when one of the students so impressed the local tour guide that she offered the Wellesley student a job anytime in the future.

5. Leave the homework at home.

When a trip leaves before school vacation starts, Carter said he requires that students finish any homework that will be due. It’s a better experience for everyone if the kids don’t have any lingering schoolwork or deadlines.

But of course, there are always exceptions. Carter says on one trip, a student had a 12-page paper due a few days after the trip started. He didn’t bring his laptop–so that it wouldn’t get lost–but that meant he typed the whole thing on his phone.

“I couldn’t believe it, but he did the whole paper typing away with two fingers and turned it in on time,” Carter laughed. “He was so glad when it was done.”

6. Bring a travel umbrella. And two pairs of shoes.

These might be good tips for any travelers.

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