Sending your kid on a teen service trip

This July, my 15-year-old son, Nate, will take his first trip out of the country without me. He’ll be flying solo to San Jose, Costa Rica, where he’ll meet up with a small group of like-minded teens and adult leaders to embark upon a two week teen service trip with Adventures Cross Country.

During the trip, Nate will be reporting for Pit Stops for Kids, taking video and recording his experiences. His first-hand impressions of his trip will be published here for other teens and parents to read. In the meantime, I’m experiencing the Adventures Cross Country process for parents: including questions to ask, paper work to fill out, and what to expect from the trip leadership.


All parents feel some trepidation before sending their child on a trip without them, and I’m no exception. Nate won’t know anyone before he goes, will need to make an airline connection and navigate customs on his own, and will be relying on two years of high school Spanish. But I’m not worried about him–just jealous, really!–because I trust in the program and people we’ve selected for this adventure. On the Costa Rica Classic trip, Nate will help build structures in a mountain village, teach Costa Rican school kids English, and explore the country by way of a river rafting expedition and surf camp.

Nate’s trip departs in two months, and I’ve learned the following about selecting a teen service trip and the pre-trip process at Adventures Cross Country:

1. Shop around before you select a program.

Teen service trips are expensive and require a serious investment of time, too. There are many companies offering trips these days, and Adventures Cross Country encourages parents to shop around. What we looked for:

  • Proven safety track record
  • Long history working with kids
  • Well trained staff
  • Meaningful service
  • Good communication with the home office

We absolutely found all of the above with Adventures Cross Country. Before we’d selected which trip to send Nate on, we were able to join a live webinar with the president of Adventures Cross Country, Scott von Eschen, during which each type of trip offered was described in detail. After we’d selected the Costa Rica Classic trip, we were immediately assigned a regional director. Ours is Bridget Reynolds, and we’ve experienced frequent, consistent communication from her. Bridget makes sure we understand (and turn in) all our paperwork, is on-hand for any destination-specific questions, and basically holds our hand. She also orchestrates an additional webinar just for the families of our particular trip. Thank you, Bridget! Adventures Cross Country has one of the best safety records in the business and their leaders are carefully selected and highly trained. Of course, we’ll have first-hand knowledge of the latter after Nate returns.

2. Budget time and money.

We recommend making a plan at least one year in advance of a teen service trip in order to save money and allow your teen to earn money for the experience. Kids are encouraged to fund raise locally; the upside of a program that brings kids together from all parts of the US is that there’s no local competition for fund raising. Kids can also write letters to friends and family members explaining the trip and asking for donations.

The paperwork involved in applying for a service trip isn’t terrifying, but it is extensive. The good news: Adventures Cross Country makes it easy by giving parents (and teens) their own portal, where all paperwork lives. In the portal, you can upload documents, print them, and see which are still due. Here’s what ours looks like:


Kids will need to plan ahead to get letters of recommendation and a physical from their doctor. Depending on the destination of the trip, immunizations may be required. What I love about Adventures Cross Country: kids are required to write a short essay (within a form) explaining why they want to go on the trip. This process, sometimes combined with a phone call from an Adventures Cross Country leader, eliminates kids who are only applying because their parents want them to attend.

3. Study up before your child goes!

The preparation process is part of the fun and excitement: Nate and I have had a good time purchasing the clothes he’ll need, selecting what backpack to take, and making sure he has a good camera to use. But just as important are the books on Costa Rica that have been recommended to him by Bridget. During the first few weeks of summer, Nate’s Kindle will be loaded with guides on Costa Rica to add to his excitement and knowledge base.

4. Secure airfare based on your location and your child’s comfort levels.

With Adventures Cross Country, the trip officially starts when kids arrive at the destination airport. However, a chaperoned flight is offered from the US for those who want it. While we would have rather Nate take this accompanied flight, it departs from Miami, and doesn’t make sense for us from the West Coast. Instead, he’ll be flying to San Jose unaccompanied. Nate is well-traveled, and feels comfortable flying solo. However, we downloaded a map of the airports he’ll be in to help orient him before he goes, and we’ll be checking gate information more than usual to help him from afar. He’s never navigated customs in a foreign country on his own, so that gives me pause, but I know it will be part of this great adventure, and will boost his confidence in later travel.

A basic timeline for preparing for an Adventures Cross Country trip:

To use as a general guide, here’s the timeline we’ve experienced from first signing up with Adventures Cross Country to putting Nate (in a few short weeks!) onto the plane:

7-9 months out:

  • Select a program
  • apply
  • ‘meet’ your regional director via email
  • fund raise if you haven’t already
  • first payment will be due

4-6 months out:

  • get all paperwork in
  • order your child’s passport if he or she doesn’t have one
  • remaining payments will be due
  • join a live webinar on your destination
  • secure your child’s airfare

No more than 1 month out:

  • final call for paperwork
  • shop for packing list items
  • read up on the destination

1-2 weeks out:

  • double-check airline connections, prepare teen for any layovers, gate changes, etc
  • pack
  • make sure the passport arrived!

Disclosure: Nate will be attending this trip as a guest of Adventures Cross Country, for the purpose of review. He’ll be writing about his experiences for other kids at Pit Stops for Kids and