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International Summer Travel Programs for Teenagers

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

What’s Your Teenager Doing This Summer?

Parents of teenagers face a decision at the end of every school year.

What am I going to do with my teen over the summer months?

It’s not a simple question. While it’s true that students do need a break from the rigor of day-to-day academics, it’s also true that backsliding—the loss of academic knowledge over the summer—can be a real problem. In which case, some sort of summer academic program can be a great idea. However, for most teens, the problem of backsliding is not so pronounced. Schoolwork over the first couple of weeks brings them back up to speed.

So for those teens, what’s the answer?

Most parents would agree that given the option, their teen would love nothing more than to spend the summer hanging out with their friends and doing anything that doesn’t remotely resemble school. They want to go to the pool or the mall. They want to play video games, or just enjoy the chill downtime. Most parents would also agree that too much free and unstructured time on a teenager’s hands can spell disaster. There are just too many ways to get into trouble. Many teens take summer jobs, such as life-guarding, working in a movie theater, at an ice cream shop, or in a parent’s office. However, there is one option out there that many parents, school guidance counselors, and teenagers themselves don’t realize exists: international summer travel programs.

What Are International Summer Travel Programs?

International summer travel programs for teenagers have been around since the early 1960s. The first programs were run by summer camps and private schools. Teachers and administrators realized that some of their teenage students needed neither another year at summer camp nor another summer of typical classroom academics. What they really needed was something completely different. In the early days, programs ranged from simple tourist-type visits to countries like England, Ireland, and Scotland to hands-on academic immersion programs in collaboration with universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Since the 1960s, however, international travel for teenagers has changed dramatically. Currently it’s possible to find programs on every continent on earth (except Antarctica!), with programming options that appeal to the interests of almost any teen and meet the summer goals of almost any family.

It’s important to note that international summer programs are not financially out of reach for economically disadvantaged families and students. In fact, most student travel organizations offer generous scholarships for families who qualify. There are also a number of active scholarship foundations in the U.S. who regularly send high school students in need of assistance on international programs. Programs such as REACH Prep, Summer Search and StreetSquash offer tuition assistance for families who qualify.

International Travel for Teens: What are the Options?

It’s possible to find a wide variety of summer programs for teenagers. While these types of programs were confined to the United Kingdom and Western Europe for decades, over the past 20 years, the student travel industry has spread all over the world.

Summer Options for Teens: A Summary
Language Immersion

Language programs in Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, German, Russian, and Arabic are all available to teens. Students can learn Chinese in Beijing, Japanese in Tokyo, French in Paris, Spanish in Spain, Peru, Ecuador, and, Costa Rica, Guatemala. Some companies even send students to previously off-limits countries like Nicaragua.

Community Service Learning

Community service learning program options are available all over the world. Families can find programs in Central America, South America, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Service options range from teaching English to school-age children to infrastructure projects like building health care clinics, schools, or community centers.

Teen Tours

Companies design teen tours for students interested in seeing the “big ticket” sights. Europe is the most common destinationl, and programs like these generally involve visiting the capital cities of major Western European countries and taking tours of the most popular destinations.

Academic Immersion

For students who want to up the ante in any area of academics, these programs are a great choice. Programs such as international business in Beijing, Marine Biology in the Bahamas, Rainforest Ecology/Biology in Central or South America, and Economics in London are all possible options.

Homestays/Cultural Immersion

Perhaps the best way to get a true understanding of a different culture is to spend time living with a family in that culture. Programs like these used to be limited to European countries like France, Germany, and Spain, but in recent years, options have opened up in Central America, South America, China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Japan.

Adventure Travel

Adventure Travel includes activities such as trekking, mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, backpacking, and rainforest exploration. Destinations can be found on every continent on earth (except Antarctica!).

Benefits of International Travel for Teenagers

International travel bestows rewards that last for a lifetime. At face value, the benefits of meeting new people, seeing new places and experiencing new ways of life are at the top of the list.

Additional Benefits of International Travel

Most international summer travel programs include some sort of small-group dynamics component. When living and traveling with a small group, students learn to get along with people from different backgrounds. It’s not only the culture of the country they visit that has an impact. The culture of their group of travelers can also positively affect their level of maturity.


Most international summer travel programs last longer than two weeks. For students who have never been away from home for that long, travel programs give them the opportunity to learn about themselves. They encounter their strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities. All without the safety net of their immediate family or regular peer group.

Personal Responsibility

Hand-in-hand with maturity and differentiation comes personal responsibility. On sumer travel programs, students typically do a group job and keep track of their personal belongings. In contrast to home life, teenagers on travel programs handle these details themselves. The personal lessons learned on a travel program can be significant.

Life Skills

Students on international travel programs often learn to accomplish real-world tasks for the first time. Student may learn to keep track of important papers like passports and other identification. They may buy subway/train/bus tickets, or exchange money for this first time. During community homestays, some students have their first experiences with regular household chores such as cooking, laundry, or even small-scale gardening or farm work.

Perspective and Appreciation

Almost without fail, students who participate in international travel programs gain perspective on their home lives. They learn to appreciate what they have. They begin to fully understand things about life in the U.S. that they may take for granted. From the most economically advantaged to the most economically disadvantaged international traveler, everyone can learn. Visiting a village in Africa where the school has a dirt floor can open a teenager’s eyes very quickly. So can spending time in a farming community in Ecuador where everyone treks to the well for water every day. Even trying to find a store in Spain that’s open between 12:00 and 3:00 pm can give a teen a fresh perspective.

Resources for International Travel Programs

The most comprehensive resource for parents, students, and education professionals is the website hosted by Transitions Abroad, which provides a complete list of both for-profit and non-profit organizations specializing in international travel opportunities for teenagers.

For parents and students who have decided against the typical summer choices, an international travel program may be the perfect option. Travel can be a life-changing experience, and teenagers are at an age where a trip outside their comfort zone might just be exactly what they need.

In the words of St. Augustine,

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

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