What are the best summer abroad programs for high school students (Reviews/Ratings)?

How to Choose a Summer Abroad Program

There are a lot of summer abroad programs for high school students. Teens have never had as many options for a summer abroad experience. From one-week service-oriented programs to months-long cultural immersion experiences, there are literally thousands of different possibilities. Just for teens. In the summer. Abroad.

So, how do you choose from all of the different summer abroad programs out there?

If you’re a teen or the parent of a teen looking for a summer abroad program, you’re probably considering a number of factors such as:

  • destination
  • length
  • group size and composition
  • programmatic focus
  • price
  • and, of course, safety and the reputation of the organization.

However, there are several other important, often overlooked considerations. This post identifies five popular summer abroad programs and also includes several tips for choosing a program. Note, we’re only discussing summer programs offering travel experiences to South America, Africa, Asia, and other developing regions of the world in this post. (Europe is kind of passé, isn’t it?)

Bargaining for souvenir, a typical summer abroad ritual

Overview and Background

There are many great summer abroad programs that emphasize experiential learning as the foundational element of the travel experience. Sustainable Summer specializes in teaching high school students about environmental sustainability in this way, and we think that students intent on enhancing their understanding of this important subject will be hard-pressed to find a better option. However, there are plenty of high school students who may be looking at other summer abroad programs with a different programmatic focus, often either service learning, language immersion, adventure travel, or some combination.

We want to share our knowledge about some of the options you might consider (in no particular order). These aren’t necessarily reviews of summer abroad programs for high school students – a search on collegeconfidential.com will typically yield a thread or two about students’ experiences on these programs (take those with a grain of salt). However, I can attest to the reputation of these organizations as experienced operators in the high school summer abroad market.

Popular Summer Abroad Programs for High School Students

Rustic Pathways: Certainly one of the largest companies in the field. Rustic operates all over the world and offers more departures than just about anyone else. They have community service, adventure programs, and programs that combine both. They notably offer a lot of shorter-duration programs that can be “interconnected” together and require that participants have their airfare coordinated by Rustic Pathways (at a pretty significant premium, it should be noted – it’s definitely recommended that you use their “Travel Desk” feature to calculate the estimated flight cost before signing on with them). Oh, and they have really beautiful printed promotional materials, reportedly printed in Thailand and shipped over the US on a container ship, and a veritable army of sales reps that travel around the country in the winter months getting those glossy brochures into the hands of students, parents, and educators.

Where There Be Dragons:  This company emphasizes “rugged travel.” More than any other, they have a reputation for getting off the grid, not following a set itinerary, and traveling to destinations that sometimes lack the more developed tourism infrastructure that you find on many of the itineraries of summer abroad programs for high school students. Their groups even utilize local transport as part of the effort to acquire authentic experiences. I’m not intending to be at all derogatory. That’s just what you’re signing on for with “Dragons” and I think it’s a commendable approach that I personally seek out when traveling independently. I’ve had former Dragons participants on programs that I’ve run and they have had a lot of really positive things to say about their experiences. They have a great reputation among educators, too. Dragons is also a leader on the risk management front and attends NOLS annual risk management conference. I have a lot of respect for this company.

Experiment in International Living: The only one of the group that is a non-profit (so is Sustainable Summer). EIL is the high school summer abroad division of World Learning, which is quite a large non-profit that principally offers study abroad programs for college and graduate students, in addition to international exchange and development programs. EIL/World Learning (aka “the Experiment”) is also one of the most tenured organizations in the field and was founded in 1932. They are known for their homestay experience and for building cross-cultural communication skills. Somewhat paradoxically, “the Experiment” was among the very first programs to be run by World Learning, but the size of the EIL high school study abroad division of World Learning is dwarfed by their college study abroad and other divisions.

Putney Student Travel: Putney has also been around for quite some time – over 60 years. They are based out of a refurbished barn in Vermont, which is a pretty cool, and one of their owners, Peter Shumlin, was formerly Vermont’s Governor, which is very definitely cool. Putney has a multitude of offerings ranging from community service to pre-college to language learning in a many different destinations. They also have a newish partnership with National Geographic to run “expedition” programs for high school students.

Visions Service Adventures: Visions proudly offers only community service programs. No home stays. No “teen tours.” Service learning is at the forefront of all of their programs, and they are certainly worth a close look if you are looking for a dedicated community service program.

Hiking on a summer abroad program

Tips on Choosing A Program

Choosing a summer abroad program for high school students is an important decision. There is no “best” summer abroad program out there and I’m not going to pretend that I can speak knowledgeably about the hundreds of options available. Here are four tips to help you with your choice:

Specialization: If you’re looking for something really specific, like a wilderness photojournalism program or a program that explores Eastern religious practices, you can probably find it from one of the providers listed above, but that doesn’t mean they are the only options to consider. With so many providers out there, my advice is to look into organizations that specialize in a certain type of experience and consider programs that emphasize a specific subject of inquiry or focus. Obviously, there is an art and expertise to running an effective summer abroad program, and organizations that put all their efforts into a specific type of program are going to deliver a tighter experience. But narrowly-focused programs are also going to attract like-minded students (note, “like-minded” does NOT equate to demographically or economically alike), which is a really critical component to the overall experience.

Marketing and Programmatic Integrity: I was attending an event at an elite private boarding school a few weeks ago and having a great conversation with a parent about our program. She had insightful questions and clearly was interested in the topic of sustainability. After about 10 minutes of conversation, she told me that she really liked what we do, but that she was especially interested in a different program that offered language immersion, community service, and leadership – all during a 2-week program! Unless this company has somehow figured out a way to actually slow the progress of time and magically transform 2 weeks in Costa Rica into the equivalent of 8, there is simply no way that they can deliver on all three of these objectives in any meaningful way. Don’t be fooled by companies that pack a whole bunch of desirable features into a single “super” program and make bold claims about “making a difference.” If you’re looking into a language immersion program, 2 weeks is woefully insufficient. If you’re interested in community service, do you really think a couple of days painting a school is going to dramatically alter the trajectory of a community where decades of assistance has failed. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. If you are interested in volunteer work abroad, it is imperative that you do your homework on the organization and are aware of the challenges and criticisms associated with service learning. Be an informed consumer, ask the hard questions, and consider working with a not-for-profit organization instead of a for-profit business to facilitate your volunteer experience.

Staff & Program Composition: Lastly, keep an eye on the size of the group, the student:staff ratio, and the caliber of the trip leaders. For travel programs to developing countries, small groups are best. 18 should be the ceiling on group size (even smaller is preferable for most destinations), and at that size, 3 trip leaders is necessary. A 6:1 student:staff ratio is as broad as I would go for most “developing country” itineraries. Anything over 8:1 is probably getting a bit reckless, in my opinion. And the quality of the trip leader team matters a lot. Look for age and experience in staff. Are these sophomores in college or graduate students? What certifications and training are required? What is the average tenure of field staff?

Local Partners and Operators:Finally, inquire about the organization’s relationship with local partners and operators. This is important for both safety and programmatic reasons. A great local guide adds so much more overall value to the travel experience than more “tangible” factors like food and accommodations. And strong local partners are essential when sorting through unexpected issues. Good local operators develop risk management and emergency protocols, and unique or customized experiences, in partnership with their clients. Shoddy operators cut corners to save money (no seat belts or worn-down car tires, improper food sanitation practices, unmaintained facilities, etc.) and sell generic package student tours to the masses. Many providers choose to work with a Destination Management Company, a single contractor that subcontracts services from other local operators (transportation, housing, tours, etc). This can significantly streamline operations for the program organizer, but it also creates a lot of “distance” between the program’s administration and the providers that ultimately deliver services to students. A lot of the travel industry is organized this way, with US tour operators buying a package of services from a single local aggregator, but programs structured around more “intimate” interactions with local populations, whether for language immersion, service work, or similar, are going to deliver higher quality and generally be more responsible operators. This is especially relevant when there is a service component to the program. This blog post on how to choose a high school service trip has some additional insights on in-country partners and other important aspects specific to selecting service learning programs.

A Summer Program Alternative

If you’re looking for a program that is an alternative to the numerous “service learning” or “adventure travel” programs, we hope you’ll consider Sustainable Summer. Any high school student interested in environmental issues, ecology, food and agriculture, renewable energy, natural resource management, biodiversity and wildlife conservation, development economics, social justice, and global issues will probably find Sustainable Summer to be a strong fit. Give us a call or contact us to discuss your goals and interests.

About Sustainable Summer

Sustainable Summer is an environmental study abroad and leadership program for high school students. The program is run by Sustainable Learning, a Brooklyn-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit. Sustainable Summer runs global learning programs in a variety of international destinations and pre-college programs on college campuses in the US.

Note, this article was initially written in March 2013, but was updated in February 2014 with photos and some new content. Some additional small edits were made in March 2015 and again in February 2019. If you liked this article, you may enjoy these other posts on high school study abroad.