While most 14-year-olds were perfecting their cannonball technique, sitting around campfires or hitting the beach, Upper Dublin’s Zach Gellman was heading overseas to Germany and Switzerland, then France. Now 18 and a freshman at Vanderbilt University, Gellman credits his maturity, cultural awareness and gratitude for the little things in life to the four summers he spent bouncing around the globe—all thanks to what’s fast becoming a local travel-industry juggernaut.
Founded in 2003, the Wayne-based Travel for Teens has grown at warp speed since its inaugural trip to Paris. Its initial client base was fewer than 25 students. Now, 700 teens find their way to 28 different countries on five continents each year.
And there’s nothing typical about the Travel for Teens experience. “The industry is mostly dominated by teen tours, where you go to Paris, and then you get on your American minibus and go somewhere else,” says the company’s founder and president, Patricia Maloney. “That’s not meaningful travel. How do you get to know what makes the French French?”
Maloney has found that her clients are more interested in the behind-the-scenes pass. That’s why cultural coaching and language preparation are musts before any TFT trip. Landmarks and museums are also part of the experience, but that’s hardly all of it.
True, English is spoken almost everywhere, and Starbucks and McDonald’s are among the countless popular U.S. exports. But, as products of a fairly young nation and culture, American students are often shocked and fascinated by how different the world really is.
“You don’t realize what you take for granted in America, like the availability of inexpensive goods on the street,” says Ned Clark, TFT’s vice president and program director. “Europe isn’t filled with Wawas.”
And TFT’s programs aren’t filled with Main Liners, either. Of the hundreds of teens traveling under the watchful eyes of its trip advisors, no more than 20 percent are from the area. “Main Line teens love it because they know there might only be one or two other locals on their trip,” Clark says. “They get the chance to become friends with someone from Texas, Seattle or even Indonesia. We get teens from 38 states and 15 countries across all of our trips. There’s a real cross-cultural pollination among the teens before they even embark.”
Travel for Teens also organizes international excursions for schools across the country. The first was a trip to Paris and Normandy for Germantown Academy, where students stayed in a château that was once occupied by Nazi officers. They placed handmade flags on the gravestones of fallen soldiers at Omaha Beach.
TFT will even arrange trips for adults. “It emerged out of the parents being so impressed with the program’s thoroughness, and their kids having so much insider access,” says Clark. “You really can’t plan one of these trips yourself, unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time, effort and money. We arrange it for them, and they have accessibility under every circumstance.”
In a typical summer, thousands of flights carry Travel for Teens participants between international hubs for its 13- to 20-day sessions. All are on a mission that is uniquely theirs. Aside from cultural exploration, students may also opt for community service, language or photography trips like the one Zach Gellman took to South Africa. “Being 10 feet away from wild animals in beautiful surroundings was the coolest experience,” he says. “I’ve always had an interest in photography, but this was the perfect way to combine it with my love for travel to develop my skills.”
TFT’s community-service jaunts find young travelers addressing immediate issues in developing areas. Aside from the philanthropic benefits, the trips are popular with the college admissions crowd. Other trips combine a daily classroom setting with cultural immersion to develop an authentic understanding of the country’s language and dialects.
Once teens arrive at their destination, communication with a trip leader has already been set—and the adventure begins. The ratio of teens to trip leaders is never more than 7 to 1, and TFT strives to keep it as low as possible. Leaders are often natives of the countries the company covers. “We look for their grasp of the language and their experience with kids,” says Maloney. “They go through an exhaustive background check prior to doing trips with us as counselors. They often will have 35 lives in their hands, so it’s a very competitive process.”
Home stays with host families are a typical aspect of college study-abroad programs. TFT opts for company-approved facilities that provide a suitable and safe environment for minors while still allowing for an authentic travel experience—private hotels in smaller towns that afford the security and safety Americans are accustomed to.
Though certain physical conditions may restrict a teen from many of the trips offered, TFT can often find a solution. “Americans are so inward-looking, and it’s such a small world that kids who aren’t able to travel with their peers are really at a disadvantage,” Maloney says. “Part of the experience of traveling abroad is to learn to be kind to, and accepting of, kids who may not be exactly like you.”
For most teens, culture shock is to be expected, as anyone who has encountered a Turkish toilet or the Italian public transit system will tell you. But even more surprising is the reverse culture shock many experience once they get home—a sign that the trip was a success.
“I want a teen to say, ‘I didn’t just see this place. I got to know it,’” Maloney says.
To learn more about Travel for Teens, visit travelforteens.com.
1. The protocol for greetings in public falls just short of a bow. The process requires more than simply saying “hello.” “When greeting someone, ‘Bonjour, madame’ or ‘Bonjour, monsieur’ is the standard practice.”
2. The “elbows off the table” rule applies, but keeping your left hand in your lap does not. “To this day, it’s still considered incredibly rude to not have both hands on the table.”
3. If your child is causing a ruckus in public, expect disapproval. “In Europe, everybody raises everybody’s children, and they won’t be shy about correcting a child who’s acting out.”
4. If your child isn’t allowed to be boisterous in public, neither are you. And don’t even think about leaving your phone on the table if it’s going to be ringing.
5. Wait for an invitation, especially in a retail setting. “When entering a store, wait until you’re greeted to begin shopping.”
To learn more about Travel for Teens, visit travelforteens.com.