Some teachers and school administrators relish the chance to plan a trip for their students—mapping out details, booking rooms and tickets, arranging meals, etc.—while others simply want to teach. Wherever you land on that sliding scale, you can take comfort in knowing that there are professional tour operators who specialize in student travel.
We asked three operators to outline the services they provide—and explain how they can work with you to provide fantastic learning experiences for your students.
- Gordon Stearns | Washington, D.C. | Tour Designs Inc.
- Laura Welsh | Anchorage, Alaska | Premier Alaska Tours
- Charmaine Edwards | Sydney, Australia | Great Tour Experiences
Why use a tour operator to plan a school trip?
Stearns: Working with a tour operator provides the best of both worlds. The teacher is free to concentrate on the learning part of the trip: topics, pre- and post-trip curricular details, etc. Meanwhile, the logistics of the trip are handled by knowledgeable travel professionals, relieving the teacher or the school of planning the myriad elements of a group tour. This saves the teacher and school administrators from having to worry about handling funds and payments, providing travel insurance for group members and assuming the risks of taking on the unfamiliar role of travel agent.
Welsh: Schools are fantastic at doing what they do. Planning trips is what we do, and there are a hundred small details we work on every day that just aren’t on the radar of teachers and administrators at schools. We know how many services are needed every single day for a group, from the overnight hotel and breakfast to the attraction, guide and transportation to the next meal and the next event. We are the experts who organize it all, so that everyone can make the most of their visit to Alaska.
Edwards: Tour operators are there to support and guide you through each stage of organizing a successful tour. We will coordinate and arrange your airfares, land arrangements and insurance and get the risk assessments and waiver forms. You will have a single contact for all booking aspects, as we have the access to ensure bookings are confirmed and guaranteed. We have relationships with most service providers to ensure the quality and reliability of accommodations, amenities, meals, coach transport and attractions.
How do you use your connections and experience to provide a better deal?
Edwards: We have been working with our suppliers for many years—and my family did for 30 years before that—so I have good rates for my groups. You will have a tour guide accompany you for the whole tour, even if you do a tour of New Zealand and Australia together. They will be with you all the way to coordinate all matters and address any issues that arise (such as bad weather or delays). You will have the best motorcoach companies and the same coach captain with you for your tour (unless you do both islands, then you will have two coach captains).
Welsh: Premier Alaska Tours’ years of experience means that we have the knowledge and relationships to offer experiences that are outside the traditional cruise-based programs. We understand that everything from hotels to meals to once-in-a-lifetime adventures can be looked at with a different focus. We are fortunate to live and work in Alaska year-round, which means we are always talking to new vendors and keeping track of any updates that groups will need to know.
Stearns: Our access to preferential air and hotel [rates] is passed along to the group, as are our connections to top-quality guides. Combining Tour Designs’ 39 years of travel experience with our partners’ on-the-scene expertise leads to a smooth-running program, with potential schedule issues foreseen and resolved in the planning process. While those quality elements may not mean a “deal” in the sense of a less expensive trip, they are critical to a successful, trouble-free and, thus, valuable tour.
What’s your process for working with a group to develop an itinerary?
Welsh: The first step is always to just listen. We’ll get as much information as we can about what the group wants, how much time they have, their budget and their expectations. From there we create an outline with overnight stays and trip highlights, and we can be creative on adding unique inclusions into the programs. We have the ability to add special touches that really makes it all worthwhile. Often it is a hidden extra that we throw in that ends up being the highlight of the trip for one of the kids.
Stearns: We start with the destinations and the teacher’s goals for the trip. All of our programs are custom-designed, from middle school performing groups to university study programs. We work with the teacher to arrange a comprehensive tour that fulfills and enhances the educational or extra-curricular goals, then we present to schools and parents a safe, well-planned and exciting program. We are equally adept at arranging programs that complement other school connections, such as student exchanges.
Edwards: As a receptive tour operator (or agent), I work with overseas agents or schools that come to me. They can use one of my regular itineraries, or I can customize or write one to suit their needs. A key to a successful tour is ensuring that the timing is workable each day and having a backup plan should the need arise. We provide a pre-tour informative DVD to show students and parents where they will go, along with key activities. If parents wish to travel Down Under with the group, we can do a different or “shadow” itinerary for them and have them turn up for dinner, concerts and certain activities.
Finally, what can a teacher do to be the best possible group leader?
Stearns: Our best student group leaders show their teaching talents before the trip and use them on the road. It’s important to share the group’s goals with our staff and work cooperatively to plan the perfect program. Once the tour begins, the best teachers share their respect for the destination and an excitement for learning as part of the travel experience. They hold their students to a high standard of behavior and participation. While we are grateful for the praise we receive for our arrangements, we know that an excellent trip can become life-changing because of extraordinary teachers who excel in leading their group.
Edwards: Make sure all participants are informed well ahead of time. Convey all dietary needs, any food and animal allergies, and medical considerations to your tour operator so we can cater accordingly and provide necessary assistance. Have group members help with daily tasks, such as wake-ups, securing travel documents, pairing up with buddies and, most important, capturing experiences in photos and videos. And the group leader should work closely with the tour guide to make sure the trip runs smoothly. The guide is there to address needs that may come up, and they always check the next day’s itinerary—and weather.
Welsh: It is great when teachers have done their homework and know about the destination before they arrive, and when teachers know the students who are traveling with them; that makes for a great travel experience. We want the teachers to be as engaged and awed by the spectacular scenery, wildlife and experiences of Alaska as the students. When the teachers and chaperones are out front taking pictures of Denali, a glacier or a moose, then the kids know that they are seeing something exceptional. And when even our professional tour managers grab a few shots for his or her personal photo album, it reinforces that Alaska is truly a special destination.
Top photo ©Monkey Business/Adobe Stock