Travel is the ultimate education, and believe it or not, striking out “on your own” as a teenager offers some incredible benefits emotionally, mentally, and socially for teens. However, international travel, under the age of 18, poses some serious questions about safety and logistics. Aspects of maturity and legality cloud the waters, and any parent would rightly be concerned about the security of their child so far from home. Thankfully, some time-honored teen travel programs specialize in under-18 travel, and they can handle all those hard-to-navigate waters. Most of the trips provided by these programs are service trips of some sort, focusing on community development, volunteer projects, or environmental sustainability. Let’s take a closer look at what benefits student travel offers young adults, and find the absolute best service trips for teens!
Treat your teens to an adventure of a lifetime!
From feeding the poor to helping elephants and hiking across volcanos, service trips are the perfect way to help teens see the world and develop their character and skills. But before they go, consider investing in some gold-quality family time with our Adventures From Scratch: Family Edition! This scatch adventure book has heaps of creative challenges for you and your teens that will bring your family together and might even help prepare them for the big beautiful world that awaits them.
Benefits of Travel as a Teen
1. Encourages Global Citizenship
Travel, in general, offers humans the chance for cultural immersion, the ability to jump full-in into someone else’s world, learn new perspectives, and gather a greater understanding of our fellow man. Teens are beginning to form their worldviews and prepare for a life outside the umbrella of their parents. This stage of their development allows them to fully engage with a new culture and ways of doing things. Travel during the teenage years often ignites a love for learning about the people and traditions that make our world so interesting and produces global citizens that are aware of and interact with world events.
2. Teaches the Value of Hard Work
Volunteer opportunities are often tough days, but the hands-on aspect is a great teaching element. It provides a realization of how difficult life is for the working class, all over the world, and often breeds respect for those who toil to make ends meet. It sounds a bit cliche, but a summer program in a Vietnam rice field can certainly change your perspective and produce sincere gratitude.
3. Allow Teens to Give Back
Most of our teenagers would probably serve and give more than adults if they had the opportunity to do so regularly. They aren’t as jaded as we become in our older years, and their motives are pure. They see a problem, and they want to fix it, and they have the strength and energy to do so! That makes it the perfect time in their lives to introduce them, conservatively, to the earth’s ailments, and what we as global citizens can do about them.
4. Personal Growth
Going out on their own for the first time is a monumental step for teens. If they pull it off and can do some good in the process, it can produce immense feelings of pride in their abilities to make the right decisions and take care of themselves and others. Don’t be surprised if your teen comes back from a summer service project more confident, capable, and ready to take on adulthood.
5. Expands Their Friend Group
Living and traveling with someone is the fastest way to create deep bonds. Eating, sleeping, working, and solving problems together can create more intimate relationships in a week than years of going to school together. A volunteer experience away from home allows them to meet like-minded people who may go on to become some of their lifelong friends.
6. Language Learning
The fastest way to learn a new tongue is language immersion. When you’re living in an environment where you must speak the language, you learn it. These opportunities are diminishing by the day, as the world turns to English as the international language of education and business. It’s hard to go anywhere where people don’t speak a bit of English at this point, but immersing oneself in the culture is still the best way to pick up new language skills.
7. Brownie Points
Along with test scores and grades, volunteer work is probably the single most important brownie point for college applications. Community service hours at home are great, but adding to that, knowledge of international economics, language, and cultural sensitivity singles out your teen when it comes to the application process. Plus, it gives them something worth discussing in an entrance interview.
What Options Are Out There for Teens?
From short mission trips to summer internships, the opportunities for teens to volunteer abroad are immense. As you might imagine, travel for those under the voting age can be a bit tricky. That is why most parents and teens choose to arrange their experience through an organization that specializes in teen travel.
These programs know all the ins and out of their destination. They handle the research for documentation and vaccinations and provide all the logistics once your teen is on the ground, which makes the whole process much easier for parents. The itinerary, transportation, health and safety, etc will be managed by the group. They will help you arrange travel insurance for your teenager and answer all questions you have before travel.
The Best Service Trips for Teens
In this section, we have found all the best options for teen travel. Each company varies, specializing in certain destinations, and has different age requirements. Some will allow for middle schoolers, others only for older teens. You and your teen need to read all the reviews, call and ask questions, and diligently research which organization lines up with your goals for the trip.
1. Go with someone you know.
Many parents and high school students feel better about their first trip away from home if they are going with someone or some group that feels familiar. For instance, many local churches send students on mission trips in the summer. While these trips certainly have a spiritual aspect that may or may not appeal to you, if your belief system lines up with that of the group, they can be a wonderful first experience for teens, especially middle school-age students.
These trips allow them to travel with like-minded friends, in a group that feels comfortable. They generally have a service project within a host community. The host helps manage safety, food, and transportation, and supplies the workload for the group. Traveling with a local group gives you the ability for in-person meetings before the trip and generally helps families feel more comfortable. Latin America and the Caribbean are the most popular destination for these groups, with volunteer trips taking place in Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and Peru.
2. Island Health Expedition—Global Leadership Adventures
Global Leadership Adventures is one of the leaders in the teen travel world. They provide travel with a purpose exclusively for teens aged 14-18. GLA focuses on teaching student travelers leadership skills while on the service trip that they can take home and incorporate into their local communities. Their program list is massive, and families can choose a service learning trip by destination or by theme. They have programs specializing in wildlife conservation, teaching English, environmental stewardship, public health, and social justice. Choose something that your teen is passionate about, and you can’t go wrong! Popular
Community Health in Bali
If your teen is thinking about nursing or medical school, then pad their application with a community health service adventure. GLA’s Island Health Expedition focuses on integrating proper healthcare into indigenous areas. It’s an education in the blending of conventional Western medicine and indigenous eastern wisdom. Teen volunteers will experience a natural birth clinic, design and present health education to local youth, and spend their off time exploring the paradise of Bali. The trip includes learning to scuba dive in Bali’s incredible coral reef, surfing lessons, and white water rafting. It’s part service, part adventure, part cultural immersion, and 100% amazing!
This trip is available in 14-day and 21-day options for teenagers 14-18 years old.
3. Costa Rica Adventure & Volunteer—Travel for Teens
Travel for Teens is a wonderful organization that focuses on hands-on community service programs to encourage teens to “be a traveler, not a tourist.” Travel for Teens is about to celebrate its 20th year of producing award-winning trips for teens. Their program has expanded from a small family-owned company running tours in Paris to offering over 100 experiences in 46 different countries. Their philosophy is total culture immersion, encouraging teens to eat, travel, and live like a local.
The Costa Rica Adventure & Volunteer Trip
This trip is a Travel for Teens favorite! Student travelers will rack up 20 hours of community service in two Costa Rican communities. The work focuses on supplemental education for children in rural beach communities. The program varies by trip but often included teaching English, art and recreation projects with local children and maintenance work on the school property. Travelers will also get the Pura Vida experience with opportunities to zipline through the jungle, white water raft, sea kayak, and explore the stunning jungles and volcanoes of Costa Rica.
This is an 11-day trip for students who have just completed the 9th or 10th grade.
4. Plight of the Elephants—GoBeyond Travel
GoBeyond is the high school service learning branch of the highly acclaimed Global Expeditions Group. It’s one of the leaders in teen travel programs and boasts over forty years of experience. Like most teen service projects, they combine community service projects with a little adventure! Some of their projects are heavy on adventure. Others provide up to 50 hours of community service!
Plight of the Elephants
Sri Lanka is a magnificent wonder and a world hub for elephant research and conservation. Wasgamuwa National Park is leading the way, and teens have the opportunity to work alongside the experts to conserve and improve the lives of our largest land mammals. Explore ancient ruins, modern cities, and gorgeous landscapes while earning 50 hours of community service.
Plight of the Elephants is a small group trip, accepting only 10 students. It’s for ages 14-18 and is a 15-day trip.
5. Volunteer Shark Conservation High School Special—Projects Abroad
Formed in 1992, Projects Abroad is well-versed in teen service travel. They send over 10,000 students a year into service projects in developing countries! Their projects focus on important aspects like childcare, sports coaching, healthcare, human rights, and wildlife conservation.
What could be more of an adventure than diving with sharks in the remote paradise of Fiji? The Shark Conservation High School Special combines working closely with leading shark researchers on population surveys of endangered animals and training with PADI diving specialists to earn your Advanced Open Water Scuba Certification.
The 2-week trip occurs during summer and winter break. It’s specifically for teens aged 15-18.
6. Plastic Education and Recycling—Projects Abroad
Another thing we love about Projects Abroad is their unique “Ethical Consumerism Trips.” The Plastic Education and Recycling volunteer program takes us back to beautiful Sri Lanka to take in the uglier side of our vast global consumption. Dealing with plastics is probably the number one environmental aspect that our world is dealing with at this point, and education is so important!
The trip takes place in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. Teens will work hand-in-hand with devoted environmentalists and live with a local host family, affording them the most authentic experience. The trip focuses on learning the global statistics for recycling, educating local communities on proper plastic use, and practical ways to combat the problem.
The trip runs throughout the year with varying lengths. It’s only for teens above the age of 18.
7. Kilimanjaro Expedition—Overland Summers
Overland Summers has a strong drive to develop teens. Their missions focus on teamwork, student ownership, and putting the group first. Their trips are small group trips led by intensely devoted counselors that are focused on your teen’s personal growth, and with almost forty summers under their belt, they must be doing something right!
The Kilimanjaro Expedition is a combination of hiking and service expeditions in the wildlife mecca of Tanzania. This combo trip includes a hiking expedition to the Ngorongoro Crater, viewing the wildlife of the Serengeti, and off-the-beaten-path camping, all led by a local Maasai guide. Travelers will then volunteer at an orphanage in Arusha, teaching English and recreation to young children. They will study Swahili with a native instructor and learn the culture and history of Tanzania. Then, they will take on the weeklong summit of Mount Kilimanjaro!
The Kilimanjaro Expedition is a three-week trip for teens in the 9-12th grades.
8. Nepal Children’s Education—Shoulder-to-Shoulder
We love the concept of Shoulder-to-Shoulder. They provide teens with the opportunity to serve side by side with successful NGO leaders all over the world. Their purpose is to better the world by creating “ethical leaders.”
The Nepal Children’s Education trip is an intense one to several remote Himalayan villages. Students will be working with The Small World, a local NGO determined to improve rural education through community development projects. Teens will spend most of the trip in the SOlukhumbu region working with community members to improve girls’ education. Students will trek through Sherpa villages and experience the traditional guesthouses along the routes. There is an online curriculum that must be completed before traveling.
The trip is a 19-day journey with 2023 details still to come!
9. Wildlife Rehabilitation—GoEco
GoEco specializes in eco-tourism with a host of affordable and environmentally ethical volunteer trips. They are facilitators that connect teens with over 150 local environmental service organizations that are well-vetted and trustworthy.
The Wildlife Rehabilitation Trip to South Africa is a life-changing opportunity! Teens will gain valuable experience in endangered animal care. Eagles, vultures, hyenas, and leopards will be their company as they provide care to orphaned babies, rehabilitate injured animals, and participate in the release of recovered subjects.
The trip ranges from 2-8 weeks and is focused in Hoedspruit, Limpopo Province. Students must be 18 to participate.
10. Montana Blackfeet—VISIONS Service Adventures
VISIONS Service Adventures specializes in meaningful service projects for teens, and they have over 30 years of experience. Teen volunteers are immersed in a host community, living alongside residents and working within the community to produce visible change through social service and construction projects.
For a stateside trip, you can’t get more immersive than this adventure with the Montana Blackfeet. The local partners are Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary and the Blackfeet Nation. You’ll be serving on a sanctuary ranch helping to repair fences, renovate buildings, and do general maintenance. The American Indian tribes have the highest rates of poverty in the United States. Many lack adequate housing, and this trip aims to tackle some of those difficulties and provide resources to the population. Teens will get out in the community working in the homes of disadvantaged locals and serving meals to local children.
Travelers also learn about the history and culture of the Blackfeet, the importance of sacred land conservation, and able to experience a traditional ceremony. There is also plenty of time to enjoy the nature of Montana with a trail ride or wild swimming.
Trips range from 9-21 days, providing between 30-80 community service hours.
11. The Galapagos—Walking Tree Travel
The mission of Walking Tree is to create global citizens that have a passion for the world around them. Their trips are safe, authentic, and engaging, focusing on sustainable change. They partner with schools around the world to provide small group trips, revolving around long-term relationships. Walking Tree specializes in trips for teachers and their students. They can help you plan a trip itinerary for your group of students and pair you with a trusted community host.
The Galapagos is a stunning destination where students get an education in wildlife that few other destinations can offer. Off the West Coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are home to several unique species of flora and fauna such as giant tortoises, sea turtles, Blue-footed Boobies, etc. Students are their adult escorts will partner with local leaders in wildlife conservation and learn what they can do to contribute to the sustainable travel and preservation of our delicate ecosystem.
12. Childcare Volunteering—Love Volunteers
Love Volunteers was formed by a brother and sister from New Zealand who wanted to volunteer abroad, but were shocked at the high price tags on these trips. They set out in 2009 to create a better way. Their trips generally cost between $40-100/ day, which is strikingly lower than some other organizations. Although, their overall price does not include airfare. While they have excellent trips all over the world, one of the best is their childcare service trip to Thailand.
Centered in exotic Chiang Mai, this childcare volunteering trip focuses on at-risk children in ethnic minority villages. The area is flooded with refugees due to the long-standing internal war in neighboring Myanmar. The Childcare Centers work to improve the physical health and education of these vulnerable children. Volunteers help to create educational and recreational activities for the children and expose them to native English speaking.
The trip is for teens 18 and older and requires a minimum commitment of two weeks.
Travel with Purpose
International service trips do offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for teens. Do your research. Thoroughly investigate each trip and make sure it aligns with your intent and trip goals for your teen, and with their passions. Make a list of your goals. Make a list of your must-have parental guidelines and all your questions, and be aggressive about getting them answered. There is no harm in asking!
With all that said, don’t be afraid to bite the bullet on a service trip! They are worth every penny, and these time-tested organizations care about teens and have given their lives to provide opportunities to help them grow, give back, and learn in a safe and educational environment.
Parenting teens isn’t easy. It’s often a battle of conflicting interests. For a few helpful hints, check out “How to Parent Teens Without Conflict and Drama” and “A Parent’s Guide to Connecting With Kids of Any Age.”
Frequently Asked Questions
The best way for teens to get an international experience is to join a group service trip. These programs are put together by organizations that specialize in all aspects of underage travel.
Service trips are organized group programs that provide community service such as improving human habitat, working with underserved areas, or participating in wildlife conservation efforts.
Start by getting a great travel journal! Make a list of goals and questions for prospective organizations. Research several opportunities until you find the one that aligns with your passion!