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Free Time and Free Travel

How to Reap the Rewards of Leading Summer Educational Tours

Summer vacation for many teachers is one of life’s great ironies: all that free time, but no money to travel. Three years ago, inspired by a colleague, who traveled to Ecuador with her Spanish students, I happened upon a solution to this problem. I enrolled as a tour leader with a student travel company and I took 16 students to Ireland.

Since many tour operators focus upon high school groups, working with a company that understood the needs of older travelers was crucial. My class of college students in Celtic Literature ranged in age from 17 to 68.

Once I found a company (see below) I had to find the minimum number of students required for a free trip. Most tour operators offer one free place for every six paying students. College students I assumed like to travel through Europe while lugging big backpacks and sleeping in hostels. But what about students who cannot or don’t want to travel in the rough? Take for example my 17-year old student. She should not have wandered Europe on her own, but she wanted to travel abroad. Her mother wanted the security of a group, with a responsible adult in charge. My trip to Ireland suited them both.

Another student wanted to travel to Europe but could find no one with enough money to join him. He signed on for a single room, and on the bus he had 20 travel companions.

In Ireland my students saw first hand the places they had read about and studied. Their appreciation of Yeats deepened as they stood at his grave in Sligo, under the shadows of Ben Bulben. In Dublin we walked the James Joyce Trail reading passages from Ulysses. The myths of ancient CuChulain came to life as we drove through the vast empty spaces of the Burren. We recalled Zora Neale Hurston’s famous words: “You got to go there to know there.”

Friendships were made during the bouncy bus rides and over pints in the pubs. Some of my students opted out of the day excursions to places like the Giant’s Causeway and the Ring of Kerry and instead rented bikes, hiked, and shopped. These first-time travelers were free to explore a corner of Europe without the hassles of finding a place to sleep, locating the right train, and all the other requirements of travel abroad.

I teach at a community college and many of my students are young and live at home. A group tour is the best of both worlds for them: they travel to a foreign place with their friends and a faculty member. Most tour packages include the services of a driver and a bilingual tour guide. Itineraries are created, hotels are booked, and plans are made all for my group. And as a faculty member, I travel for free and often enjoy many perks as well: free phone cards, travel insurance, and even cash stipends. The benefits vary by tour operator, but most companies offer some incentives beyond the free trip.

Granted, there is a lot of work to do on my part to prepare for any group tour: I organize meetings, conduct orientations, mail forms, place posters, collect information, and process paperwork. To travel at the cheaper shoulder-season rate and to avoid sharing a bus with a high school group I plan trips for late May, the worst time of my academic year. However, when one considers that I have received free vacations to Ireland, France, England, and Scotland, the hours sacrificed on my weekends are well worth it.

To be honest, I have had some trouble as a tour leader. I have had students who were mugged in Paris, groped in Dublin, and lost in London. Our 2003 trip to Madrid was canceled in the airport, because of a blizzard. However, the etymology of travel is travail: to trouble, to work, or to torment. I work for my trips, but the benefits outweigh the efforts.

My first year, in addition to our tour, I offered my students a 3-credit class: “Celtic Literature.” On year, I offered “Introduction to British and French Literature.” This year we are off to Scotland, and I will offer “Celtic Literature” once again. Most colleges and universities offer study abroad programs for a semester or a year, but few offer course related-tours of seven to ten days.

Educators may want to think of where could they take a small group of students to enhance the academic learning experience while fulfilling their own travel dreams. Free time and free travel do go hand in hand.

The following companies offer trips to college-age groups. See their sites on the Web or ask a colleague for a reference.

Student Tour Companies

Georgia Hardy Tours, Inc. (

AESU World Wide Tour Operators (

Passports Educational Institute (

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