GET READY! Choose your program

Define “Youth”

  • If you are younger than fifteen – you might want to consider playing it safe.
  • Go with people you trust with your life and future. Could your family take you?

The United Nations International Youth defines ‘”youth” as 15-24 years of age.


  • Chaperones, leaders, guides, teachers, etc. on abroad programs should be first responder certified through an accredited course, such as the American Red Cross, or Wilderness first responder certification by EverGreen.

“You really do have the power to move mountains but you have to be careful who sells you the equipment.”
~ Jocelyn Brady, Associated Content, Yahoo 2007

Program Background Checks

  • Research the travel program in which you’re interested in both the state you live in and in the state from which the program operates before you sign up.
  • Ask your state’s attorney general for complaints against the program.
  • Check the Better Business Bureau rating for the program and the parent company operating the program.
  • Universities are required to conform with the Clery Act, Student Right to Know Security Policy and Crime Statistics on Campus. Ask for it.
  • Other programs do not have to disclose their safety record or statistics with you. The noteworthy ones do, especially in secondary education.
  • If your program won’t report the number of accidents, deaths, rapes, illnesses – in entirety – caution! Be aware that no one authenticates the data. Programs can cleanse the reports if they want.
  • Google the name of your program with “lawsuit, injured, death, died, rape, fire, fraud…’ You get the idea.

“When we looked at 7,000 applicants, we didn’t think it would uncover 700 people that have criminal histories.”
~ Jim Samuels, Senior Official, The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 2011

Qualifications & Background Checks

  • Ask the individuals chaperoning and instructing about their safety record, first responder (CPR, Wilderness, Red Cross, et. al.) training and qualifications to teach course topics you’ve signed up for. It’s good to have it in writing.
  • Home stay families should also be fingerprint background checked.
  • Require background checks of every chaperone and a history of their safety and driving record.
  • Sad to say, but trafficking is very much a reality in America and abroad.
  • Know if you are being handed off to third parties abroad in advance.
  • The FBI Identification Record/Criminal Background Check is available for Americans. The International Criminal Police Organization- INTERPOL is also an option. Names can change – fingerprints can’t.

“It is very common for us to desire most what we are least qualified to attain.”
~ Samuel Johnson

Third Parties

  • Many programs outsource to third party companies abroad.
  • Ask if this is the case for your program. Ask what your program does to investigate the safety reputation and practices of the third party company contracted.

“It is better to be alone than in bad company.”
~ George Washington


  • How many students to each chaperone or instructor are ideal? Study and exchange programs integrate students into schools and colleges. Voluntourism and travel abroad programs are different. Low student ratios help the chaperone instructor enforce good behavior and stay on schedule.
  • Small groups have closer intimate interactions with locals. It also provides for downtime to give the chaperone instructor a chance to take a break and regroup.
  • Combining tour groups in a summer camp like experience will diminish your opportunity to experience the culture more intimately.

“One instructor for every four students is solid, one for every six is risky, and one for every 10 is dangerous and irresponsible.”
~ Matador Network

Bad Behavior

  • Does your program have a code of conduct? If chaperones or teachers are making poor choices do you know what to do? There are poor leaders out there who just want a trip abroad and don’t really want to be bothered with issues from children or students.
  • If students or kids in a group are doing illegal drugs, becoming intoxicated, bullying, hazing or worse, what is the program’s policy? Do they ground them and let them stay to work out a second chance? Do they notify authorities? Do they expel them and send them back? Do you know what to do if the code of conduct is not enforced?
  • What might be considered sexual abuse in America may not be considered the same in a foreign country. Inappropriate sexual advances should be dealt with promptly.
  • Don’t ever leave foreign soil without your humanitarian right to police protection, healthcare, legal counsel, embassy consular and access to your emergency contact. Once feet leave foreign soil there is no jurisdiction.
  • The FBI may be a resource in countries where police protection and healthcare are sketchy.

“Programs have blamed the victim, demonized the whistleblower, and protected the perpetrator.”
~ Danielle Grijalva, Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Student


  • The FBI advises students to authenticate transferable credit before they enroll in study abroad programs.
  • You may get a pitch for course credits. You can spend a semester or weeks abroad, study, achieve and walk away poorer without progress because your earned credits are not accepted at your high school or college.
  • If your travel or volunteer abroad program is pitching your trip as a placeholder to get into the college of your choice – phone the university and ask if they care.

“…going abroad could be a four month bender with a few field trips on the side.”
~ The Yale Herald, April 21, 2011

Safety Reputation

  • The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act mandates that secondary education publicly report crime statistics on campuses.
  • You might check out your university’s reputation at home before you trust them with your future, health and life abroad.
  • Colleges and Universities do not have to report crime statistics of campuses they do not own or control, although the best programs will provide their safety statistics to keep you informed and protected abroad.

“College life can be dangerous. It shouldn’t be, but it can be.”
~ Security on Campus 2011

Safety Nets

  • Depart Smart advisor Dr. Stephen Ferst recommends, “Programs that employ risk managers, provide multiple layers of insurance coverage and invest in health and safety training for on-site staff.”
  • You might want to check out the quality of the safety training – Internet CPR or skills based requirements?
  • You can read a book about how to fly a plane, but that doesn’t make you a pilot.

“Every society, all government, and every kind of civil compact therefore, is or ought to be, calculated for the general good and safety of the community.”
~ George Mason, American Patriot

GET SET! – Prepare yourself.

Your Personal Info

  • The US Department of State is reviewing the risk of personal profile pictures and age
    on foreign student exchange profiles.
  • Foreign exchange and travel abroad students have been placed in the homes of known felons inside America. It happens abroad, too.
  • Your cute photo and age on a student profile is not necessary.
  • Does your travel abroad program do criminal background checks of your homestay hosts and chaperones? Unknown felons should not be given a pick list of beautiful young ones to select from.

“More than 2,000 children have been victims of systematic grooming for sex but many agencies are not doing enough to tackle the problem…” ~GMA News 2012.


  • Don’t assume your health insurance is enough.
  • Purchase international health care, medical assistance, security and repatriation services from a reputable provider. It’s a relatively low cost investment to safeguard your health and minimize security risks abroad.
  • Some offer international hotline and emergency evacuation during natural disasters or other threats. (Please check with your medical provider before going abroad. You might consider supplementing with HX Global)
  • You’ll need to read the fine print and check the reputation of your insurer. Berkeley Care would not pay an accidental death insurance benefit for a student death abroad – by their definition, because the death was not an accident. ISIC – a very popular student insurance promoted by universities would only pay $1000 repatriation of remains for several ClearCause families.
  • You can be guilty until proven innocent while abroad. Review the case of Amanda Knox’s murder trial. Some programs also recommend kidnap and ransom insurance.
  • Read the fine print of all policies.

“A student from New York would pay about $160 for $1 million worth of ISOS coverage for a four month trip to Japan.” ~New York Times, April 15, 2013.

Health Care

  • Check your vaccinations – don’t be a victim of meningitis! Go to then enter your destination.
  • Many students trust their programs to advocate for them and get them health care when they are ill. It doesn’t always happen.
  • Be aware that bacterial infections and serious illnesses are higher risks in densely populated areas – H1N1, community bacterial pneumonia, etc.
  • If you get sick, get appropriate help, and notify your emergency contact.
  • Be cautious of health care in third world countries – rely on your US Consulate or insurer for advice.
  • Double check your insurance – many global travelers are shocked to learn they have no health coverage for illness or injuries abroad.
  • Dental hygiene, eye care, physicals and immunizations are recommended prior to departure.

“Health insurance should be portable.” ~John Mackey, Cofounder Whole Foods.


  • If you take medications, have a prescription in the foreign language and your physician’s contact information.
  • Translators may be necessary.
  • Keep your prescriptions in the official containers.
  • Travel with your prescriptions and medications in separate locations in case a bag is lost or stolen.
  • A letter from your doctor explaining why you take medication or carry sharps (needles) can help you avoid problems entering customs.
  • Some medications are illegal in foreign countries. You’ll need to find out.
  • It is always a good idea to check into a travel clinic for Travax outbreak reports, recommnedations for vaccinations, and other healthcare concerns.

“Travelers never think that they are the foreigners. ~Mason Cooley


  • Deposit copies of your passport, bank card, insurance card, driver’s license and emergency contacts online in a repository like Dropbox or with your trip insurer. If your wallet or identification is lost or stolen you can retrieve them electronically.
  • Guard your credit card and personal info at all times.
  • If any of your important documents are lost, contact your embassy or consular immediately. Do not wait!
    Replacing a passport can cost $80-150. A temporary passport to get you home is free.

According to the Privacy Rights Center, up to 10 million Americans are victims of ID theft each year.

Emergency Contact

  • An emergency contact card in your wallet or on your person is valuable. Be sure you and your emergency contact follow these guidelines:
  • The emergency contact on your passport must be current and valid. They may also need ‘legal’ approval to advocate for you in case of severe illness or injury.
  • An active passport for your emergency contact is a must in case they need to get to you.
  • They should have a contingency plan in case they have to leave abruptly to reach you, e.g., how to handle work, home, pets, daycare, etc.
  • You might consider using or modifying the US Department of Homeland Security’s Family Emergency Plan developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA.)
  • You have the right to phone home. Don’t be discouraged from contacting your loved ones. Set up a schedule to stay in touch. Skype is a great option to let your loved ones see your healthy self.
  • There are low cost Wi-Fi finder apps that will help you connect back home. Or, you can purchase a wireless internet device from a carrier in the country you are visiting to stay connected.
  • You should know how to dial your emergency contact abroad without third party help – international dialing plans are different. Disposable phones are generally not hard to find or overly expensive. Phones purchased in America may or may not work abroad. If they don’t, a disposable phone is an easy option.
  • Your emergency contacts should be in your one-button speed dial. Test it to make certain it works.

“Being prepared can reduce fear, anxiety and losses that accompany disasters.” website

Emergency Services

  • You and your chaperones/teachers should have contact numbers for the US embassy / consular abroad.
  • Chaperones have been known to break the law and have criminal histories.
  • You may not be able to count on your chaperone, teacher, guide, etc. during bad times. If not, what is your plan B?
  • Check with the US Department of State for the US Embassy nearest you. Keep your US Embassy consular’s name, address and phone number with you at all times.
  • You should also know how to dial emergency services abroad. It’s different almost everywhere else. (119 in Japan for example.)
  • Know how to ask for help in the local language.
  • Always keep a personal health history with you, preferably in the local language.
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) does not advise dialing emergency services in some third world countries.

“Be Prepared!” ~Boy Scouts of America

Contingency Plan

  • Be aware that in countries that harbor anti-USA sentiment, the local US Embassy may not be the safest place to get to.
  • Talk with your loved ones to have a contingency or emergency plan and repatriation assistance plan identified to help you if needed.
  • In times of natural disaster or international unrest, rely on the US Department of State for guidance. Trust your safety to the experts.
  • Register your trip at

“Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time.” ~Arnold Glasgow


  • Families should check that their homeowners insurance covers liable and slander.
  • When children and students are harmed abroad, families need to speak out. Having liable and slander insurance protects your right to do that by providing legal counsel and insurance against potential lawsuits.
  • Lawsuits have to be defended, even when there is no merit.
  • Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) define defamation suits that are often meritless and abused.
  • Beware of being intimidated by organizations that are attempting to prevent you from speaking out against their actions or policies.

“We must remain vigilant to ensure that there remains a proper balance between libel law and the First Amendment.” ~Freedom Forum


  • Consider purchasing small, affordable products to help keep you and your stuff safe. These products are inexpensive and easy to pack:
  • Smart home door stop
  • Vibration-sensing window alarm
  • Portable smoke alarm
  • Portable ladder
  • Portable siren
  • GPS
  • Shoulder bag with anti-theft zipper locks
  • Computer cable lock
  • Money pouch or belt

GO! – Prepare for your stay.


  • Don’t assume your housing will have fire extinguishers, escapes or alarms – check it out,
    especially in youth hostels. (Many students died in a 2011 Paris fire, tragically – from
    jumping to escape.)
  • Protect your room keys or access codes. Break-ins occur more often on ground floors than rooms higher up.
  • Don’t open the door for someone you don’t know. Home invasion criminals gain entry by pretending to be a distressed person.

GapYear reports that 1000 fires abroad claim the lives of 50-100 victims who run into smoke. Two breaths is all it takes.


  • Students can be housed in over-crowded rooms. Find out your room arrangements and get the information in writing.
  • Too often, trips for youth and students are overpriced and underperformed. Know the rating of the place where you are going to stay before you go. Don’t stay in low grade housing or hotels. (Justin Johnston was shot and killed in a low grade Costa Rica hotel by a security guard who was an illegal alien with an illegal weapon.)
  • Do you get to choose your roommate? Can you change if things don’t work out?
  • So many students are hurt falling from balconies – don’t lean on or over balcony rails. Safety standards in other countries are often vastly different than safety standards in the U.S..
  • Bring your own portable smoke detectors. They are not required in hotel rooms or homes as they are in the U.S..

“Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing.” ~Albert Einstein


  • Don’t leave your electronic equipment up for grabs. It’s like leaving a few hundred dollars on the table. A smartphone, camera, computer, iPad or Kindle can be easily stolen.
  • You may want to ‘cleanse’ your electronics of financial information, passwords, and purchase histories while you are abroad.
  • A safe storage area where you can lock things up is important. Engrave your name and passport number, city and state on all valuables.
  • Walking about wearing a camera makes you look like a tourist. Use a shoulder bag.

“See the world and keep your stuff.” ~Jeff Brandt

Nutrition, Health & Anxiety

  • Students who undergo high anxiety may lose excessive body weight rapidly. Rapid weight loss is very dangerous and can cause severe damage to multiple organs.
  • Communicate and protect your health with proper nutrition and stress management.
  • Take dehydration seriously, vomiting for hours or severe diarrhea may rapidly progress to life-threatening severe illness. Get help.
  • Program homestays have withheld food from students abroad causing malnourishment and organ damage.
  • Skype with your family so that they can see your healthy self.

“12.7% of students abroad diagnosed with anxiety disorder & 17 .5% with depression.” Over-stressed, Overwhelmed, and Over Here: Resident Directors and the Challenges of Student Mental Health Abroad ~John Lucas, IES Abroad


  • Don’t take money out of cash machines in isolated places, especially at night.
  • Corners create blind spots. Don’t use a corner ATM, or one that is obstructed by walls or plants. You can become a target for robbery.
  • Stay in groups; carry the smallest amount of money possible or a debit card requiring a pin number that you can replenish online.
  • Guard your credits cards and information at all times – information can be easily pirated.
  • Blend in, don’t be conspicuous. Don’t carry all your monetary assets in one place – like a wallet. Use a money belt or neck stash, or put stash funds in a shoe.
  • Don’t wear expensive watches or jewelry to the ATM.

“96% of ATM crimes are committed when there is only one person at the ATM; 71% of crimes happen between midnight and 6 a.m.” ~ATM Crime & Prevention, Thomas Rzycki

Road Safety

  • Know the conditions of the roads where you travel. Tragically, loads of people and students have died in unsafe vehicles on unsafe roadways in India, Turkey, New Zealand, and other locations.
  • International Transport Forum provides an annual report on road fatalities in 33 countries.
  • Bus road trips are cheap entertainment. Find out how many hours ‘on the road’ your tour is setting you up for.
  • You may find that for the money, a family vacation would offer more interactive touring and a better overall experience.

“ASIRT collects, analyzes and distributes comprehensive road safety information for travelers in the form of country-specific Road Travel Reports for more than 150 countries.”

Stranger Danger

  • No matter how nice someone you meet seems abroad, do not get in a car or stay with them.
  • Students have been molested, robbed, raped and murdered trusting foreign criminals they recently met and often when they’ve known them awhile.
  • Stay in groups and stick together. Don’t be persuaded. Use the buddy system from your group to stay safe.
  • Two-thirds of all sexual assaults are made by a familiar person.
  • The FBI alerts students to a scam of dropped money. If you bend down to return it they yell robbery. Having a buddy protects you.

“Americans with kidnap and ransom insurance are four times more likely to survive kidnapping than non-insured travelers.” Thomas Harvey, President & CEO Assurex International

Tattoo & Piercing

  • Body art may be cool but hepatitis, staph, HIV and other blood borne diseases are not.
  • Some practices are better done by licensed professionals at home.

“When you tattoo someone everything becomes contaminated, the ink, the machine, the needle, the tube, the gloves, the person.” Licensed Tattoo Artist

Alcohol and Drugs

  • Drinking ages are often nonexistent or much lower in foreign countries.
  • Alcohol is the primary contributor to date rape.
  • Many students on abroad programs under the age of 18 are not allowed to drink.
  • You must follow the rules of your program and parental direction.
  • Many programs have a zero tolerance policy that will expel you if you experiment with alcohol or drugs.
  • If you are of legal age, please drink responsibly.
  • Keep an eye on your drinks so that no one can add substances. If you suspect tampering – get to a trusted medical facility to be tested.

The Forum on Education Abroad reported that the top influencers in ‘incidents’ abroad are alcohol, poor judgment and failure to follow procedures.

Third-Party Investigation

  • If the unspeakable happens, and a student is killed or severely injured, be aware that the program he or she was traveling on may already be building a defense for themselves and the organization.
  • Get police and medical reports or hire a third party investigator.
  • Obtain legal counsel and take photos.
  • Timely statements are critically important.
  • The legal counsel or insurer of the program may prohibit them from providing the information you want and need.

NOTE: New York’s attorney general is investigating fifteen universities, including ivy leagues, for allegedly participating in illegal practices that resulted in the colleges receiving additional financial compensation from students participating in study abroad. (May 2011)

“These agencies investigate themselves…” US Senator Robert Casey (PA) to CNN