I followed a pristine white motor coach down a narrow road this morning. I slowed as the driver negotiated a tight corner into a narrow school lane. High season for class trips has begun.
As I walked down the hill past the schoolyard, the rumble of a diesel engine and the rhythmic beep, beep of the back-up alert awakened memories of early mornings waiting anxiously for a coach to take 50 youngsters, 4 teachers and me somewhere on the continent: Manhattan for theatre and opportunities to perform; Quebec City for sugar shack meals and the battle of the Plains of Abraham; or Ottawa for a tour of Parliament Hill and the Diefenbaker Bunker.
Each trip begins with anxiety, especially for first-time travelers in elementary school. Parents are terrified if their child has never traveled without them. The youngsters are afraid no one will like them; the food will be horrible; or they will get left behind somewhere. For the youngsters, every fear, however, is heightened with anticipation, because they have money in their pocket to spend as they like and plans to stay up all night in the room they share with 3 others.
Getting to departure day takes a lot of planning, fund raising and justification. School Boards, principals, parents and students have expectations that must be met; some of which are in opposition to each other. Teachers – the leaders and chaperones of the class trip – have expectations too, many of which are informed by those of the Board and their principal.
Expectations are at the crux of the class trip. They influence costs, choice of supplier – that is to say educational tour operator – duration and destination. A parent must understand the expectations that shape the class trip, before giving permission for a child to participate. To investigate ask questions, but first do research. Do not assume that your child is getting the best value for your travel dollar, just because it is a class trip.
Ontario regulates who can arrange overnight journeys for which a fee is paid and from which a profit is made. School teachers are permitted to act as travel arrangers for day trips. Overnight trips are different, with the exception of school board based facilities like an ecocamp. In Ontario, tour operators must be licensed. Make sure the company your teachers hire is. There are fly-by-nighters out there.
To avoid the possibility of hiring an unethical, illegal tour operator, some School Boards provide teachers with a lost of “approved” tour operators, companies that have presented their credentials and proved their professionalism. This restricts the opportunity for teachers to shop for the best per person price, but ensures that things such as insurance are in place.
A hidden cost of which most parents are unaware is the chaperones. They travel for free. The cost of their meals and transportation absorbed by the students travelling. This is standard behaviour, but can impact the per student cost greatly. Especially when it comes to overseas travel with large airfare costs. Free travel for chaperones is the norm. After all, they will get little sleep, have to be on alert 24/7 and are legally responsible for the well-being of the children in their care. There would be no class trip without them.
A free trip is one thing, chaperones receiving a stipend – a fee paid by the tour operator for hiring their services – that is a different matter all together. Most School Boards do not allow it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Read the fine print on some of the websites arranging international tours – they are very upfront about the per head bounty they pay to group leader’s who put together a class trip.
Tour Operators earn a per student fee for the work they do. EARN is the operative word. Long hours making reservations, reconfirming reservations, creating itineraries, paying bills, training guides, attending parent presentations…tour operators earn their bread and butter. There is much more to it than opening up Expedia and pushing buttons. Much more. The smaller the company, the less likely there is staff enough to handle problems should they arise.
Most trips are flawlessly executed. Inevitably something will go wrong…a bus may break down…one person falls ill, infecting everyone in her room; someone trips and falls while climbing the stairs in Quebec City. The reliable companies have back up plans, have provided their guides with emergency checklists of hospitals etc..
Ask questions before you sign on the dotted line. If you are satisfied, I encourage you to sign that permission sheet. A class trip is an indelible memory and a rite of passage. Remember yours?