Ready or not, Olivia Shears is traveling again.
Shears, a junior at Florida International University in Miami, plans to meet up with her friend, Shelby Spinosa, in Alabama next month and then embark on a 10-day road trip across the American West.
“We’re going to drive through Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas,” says Shears. “Because of COVID, we are planning all of our stops ahead of time and investigating hotels that we feel would be safest options and have good safety protocols in place. We are visiting open-air sites, like parks. And we’re planning our meals.”
Students want to travel now
Students are more than ready to travel. Almost two-thirds of millennials and Gen Z want to go somewhere this year, according to a recent survey by Contiki. More than half are comfortable traveling right now, even if it means having to pay for quarantine when they return home. And 71% would take the COVID vaccine, which, as they put it to the pollsters at Contiki, is a “no-brainer.”
Students like Shears had planned more ambitious trips before the pandemic. But as with other travelers, the virus rerouted her to a domestic destination.
That may not be enough for worried parents. The Centers for Disease Control still recommends that Americans avoid all travel. But high school and college students are rarin’ to go. And it’s not just on spring break, but on summer vacations, fall semesters abroad and other exchange programs, too.
“After a difficult year, many Americans are looking forward to the possibility of international travel returning in summer and fall of 2021,” says Daniel Durazo, a spokesman for Allianz Travel.
Disclosure: I’m one of those worried parents. Two of my boys are seniors at the University of Arizona. They’ve been begging me to go somewhere — anywhere — while we’ve been locked down in Sedona for the last six months. Their sister, a freshman at our local community college, already has one foot out the door.
So how do students stay out of trouble when they hit the road again? For starters, they’re getting a talkin’-to from their parents. (Have I already mentioned how nervous we grown-ups are? I may have.) The precautions, particularly for semesters abroad, are fairly elaborate. And travel insurance is now front and center in any travel decision. Flexibility — and the basics of travel safety — is more important than ever.
Student travel safety was a concern even before the pandemic. In late 2019, travel insurance company AIG Travel launched an educational program to help students travel more safely. “Given the increased risks they face while traveling, more can be done to enhance their safety and well-being,” Jeff Rutledge, AIG Travel’s CEO, said at the time.
The initiative included a student travel safety microsite and a webcast with practical advice for students, their parents, study abroad organizations and universities. The program was ahead of its time.
What concerned parents are doing about their traveling kids
Travel insiders say parents are more worried than usual.
“Parents are naturally nervous,” says John Gobbels, the chief operating officer of Medjet. Many of his members have upgraded to 24/7 security and crisis response coverage because of the situation.
“The pandemic has really stressed economies around the world, particularly in destinations heavily reliant on travel and tourism, and there has been a noticeable uptick in crime in many locations,” he says.
Gobbels says the U.S. Department of State’s website has reported elevated advisories in places that used to be considered safe. He’s been telling nervous parents to use a little extra caution — no matter where their kids are going.
“Have a serious talk with your kids,” he adds. “Letting your guard down for two seconds can have serious consequences.”
Extreme precautions for semester abroad students
But how are schools coping with COVID? I asked Warren Jaferian, the dean of international education at Endicott College. The school has continued its semester abroad programs throughout the pandemic, although the participation rate dropped by 70% in 2020. Jaferian says interest in fall 2021 programs is “very strong,” though.
“Fall applications are back to 80% of pre-pandemic levels after only one month into our application cycle,” he says. “We anticipate that the spring 2022 semester abroad will have rebounded to our pre-pandemic levels.”
This semester, students spending a semester abroad will receive a COVID test no more than four hours before departure. They get tested within 72 hours of arrival in their host country. Then they’re quarantined for up to 14 days in some countries or are tested again after five days of quarantine and released, depending on the country.
Students are buying travel insurance
Travel insurance is a high priority for any student trip, say experts. “Having a travel insurance policy is more beneficial than ever, with changing restrictions, testing requirements, and international market conditions,” says Jeremy Murchland, president of Seven Corners, a global travel insurance company.
Young people, in particular, tend to have an “I am invincible” mindset, says Christina Tunnah, general manager of the Americas for World Nomads. “That can lead them to take on more risks because they don’t necessarily know their boundaries in the way that more experienced travelers do,” she says.
But students and parents are turning to travel insurance to address some of the risks, she says.
“Travel insurance — particularly the emergency medical benefits — is essential for any trip, whether a student is traveling domestically or abroad,” she says. “Besides COVID 19, anything could happen. You could twist your ankle, get hurt in a scooter accident, or catch some tropical disease that could send you to the hospital.”
For students studying abroad, Tunnah recommends using their regular health care plan for preventative and routine care. But she also recommends a travel insurance policy to cover other aspects of travel that health insurance doesn’t address, such as a trip interruption or lost luggage.
There’s also an app for that. Many, actually. Most of the major travel insurance companies have adopted their products to the phone, so there’s no need to pack a lot of paperwork. Allianz’s TravelSmart app lets students contact a 24/7 assistance team in case something goes wrong. And if a mandatory COVID-19 test comes back positive and students need help with quarantine accommodations or other arrangements, the app can fix a lot. The app can help with finding alternate accommodations, local delivery services for food and supplies. It can also assist with rebooking travel arrangements and can notify any tour guides once the student is cleared to travel again.
Students are making lots of adjustments to their travel itineraries
For students like Jacob Shropshire, a freshman at the American University of Paris, travel during the pandemic has meant making countless adjustments. For example, he’s had to travel from Oklahoma City to Houston to get his paperwork taken care of at the French consulate. Once in France, he decided to return home in the fall before the country went on a month-long mandatory lockdown.
“The biggest precaution I took when traveling was staying relatively isolated when arriving at my destination,” he says. “When I arrived in Paris in the fall and spring, and when I went back home in November, I isolated myself for two weeks, only making contact with other people to get essentials.”
Shropshire says hand sanitizer became “my best friend.” He was afraid of having to go to a hospital in France because he heard authorities were turning away patients. And he’s grateful that his parents bought travel insurance. They wanted to visit him but had to cancel after the outbreak. They received a partial refund for their nonrefundable travel expenses.
Advice for students who are starting to travel again — and their parents
Gretchen Young, who heads up the study abroad programs at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., has some advice for students who intend to travel soon: adaptability is critical. That’s true whether you’re traveling somewhere for spring break or going abroad for a semester.
“Students should set their expectations realistically and recognize that they may need to take courses remotely, quarantine, abide by curfews or navigate any number of unforeseen circumstances,” she says. “They will need to keep their cool and adapt accordingly.”
Still, the basics of a safe trip haven’t changed as much as travel itself. True, parents have to pay extra close attention to the COVID risks, both in planning the trip and at the destination.
But proper planning still involves a lot of basics. Make sure you know the itinerary. Know who will be looking out for your student. Understand what insurance does — and doesn’t — cover. At least that’s the assessment of Connor Fitzgerald, a global program advisor at Rustic Pathways Student Travel.
“The general advice for student traveling has not changed,” he adds. “Only the stakes have.”