International Pilgrimage Safety

Follow-up/companion piece to an earlier article on pilgrimage safety.

World Youth Day is just around the corner again. In 2016, the huge international event will be held in Poland. Without a doubt, there are people from your parishes or schools planning to attend.

There may also be groups planning trips to Marian shrines and other religious sites overseas.

International pilgrimages require even more careful planning than overnight trips within the diocese or the continental United States. In addition to the safety guidelines described for local trips, these are some of the critical issues you need to consider.

Plan carefully

This is not a do-it-yourself project. Begin by identifying tour operators known to your peers. Ask around. Other youth ministers and group leaders will be happy to share their experiences. 

Consider only the vendors who can provide suitable, current references and proof of insurance coverage.  Look for vendors that have experience in booking trips to the destination you are choosing.  Some travel agencies may also have personnel that can accompany your group which can greatly enhance the entire experience.

Make sure you understand the vendor’s cancellation policies and know exactly what is included in the price that is quoted.

Interview several vendors. Get all the details and prices in writing before you commit.

Check the website of the US Department of State, Updated information and travel alerts and warnings will help you assess whether the planned trip is a safe idea. 

The same website will give you entry and exit requirements, including visa and immunization information. Be sure to account for the time it will take for students and chaperones to obtain passports and, if necessary, visas and immunizations. Find out whether potential participants who are not US citizens have special requirements. 

Check the insurance 

For international travel, always include supplemental group health and accidental insurance for all participants.  Advise parents and adult participants to review their health insurance policy to see if it applies overseas, and if it covers emergency expenses, such as a medical evacuation.  If the group is making a mission trip through an international program, such as Habitat for Humanity, such insurance may already be included in the program fee.  

Know the money

Review currency and understand the exchange rate between the US dollar and the local currency. This rate will fluctuate. Exchange enough currency in advance to cover initial transportation and food expenses. This can be done through a local bank or commercial currency exchange. Note that airport kiosks generally charge a larger fee than other options. 

While traveling, use travelers checks or a credit card that does not impose an international surcharge. 

Know the chaperones

A chaperone’s primary responsibility is to help ensure the safety of participants. Please maintain an adequate ratio of chaperones to youth. 

All chaperones accompanying minors, including parents and guardians, must undergo a criminal background screening and complete Virtus’ Protecting God’s Children program. For the safety of all participants, at least one chaperone/staff member should be certified in CPR and First Aid. 

Keep in touch

For ease of communication during the trip and in the event of an emergency, chaperones should carry cell phones. US cell phones may not work internationally, or the charges imposed by US service providers may be prohibitive. Check with the local service provider to learn if the chaperones’ phones will work abroad.  If so, ask about usage fees. Other options include renting an international phone from a US company or buying a SIM card to insert into an existing phone to allow lower rates and a local number. International text messaging and free apps may allow you to use your phone to text inexpensively or access the Internet.

Be prepared

Emergency planning is critical. The organizer must carry copies of these documents and leave copies with the school or parish administrator:

  • Trip itinerary with exact details of each day’s events, including flights, transportation, lodging, restaurants
  • Names and cell phones of all chaperones and their relationship to the travelers
  • Names and home phone numbers of all travelers, including emergency contact information and medical insurance provider details
  • Copies of the passport data page and visa for each participant
  • Copies of all permission slips
  • Directory of addresses and telephone numbers for US embassies and consulates in each country visited. A chaperone must contact the embassy or consulate if a passport is lost or stolen.
  • Directory of medical facilities in each country visited, annotated in advance with information about which regularly treat expatriates. Use the State Department website for this.

Determine what you will do if a traveler becomes ill, or must return home before the end of the trip because of a disciplinary issue. 

Sign up for the US government free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which enables the Department of State to assist you in an emergency. 

Do your homework

Know the rules and customs of the place you are visiting. Understand and respect dress codes. Make sure parents and travelers know that a breach of discipline will lead to an expensive and embarrassing expulsion.

Drugs of all kind

Although drinking laws in the country you are visiting may be more permissive than the laws in the US, always follow US law; no one under the age of 21 should be allowed to consume alcohol. Any person using illegal drugs will be subject to the criminal laws and penalties of the countries where they are apprehended.

No drugs of any kind, prescription or non-prescription, may be administered to a traveler unless specified in advance on a signed permission form. Prescription medications for all travelers should be carried in the original prescription bottle. 

Trust, but verify

Chaperones must conduct room inspections every evening to ensure that travelers are in their assigned rooms, are not entertaining guests, and are not using alcohol or illegal substances. 

Participants must not leave their lodgings alone or without permission for any reason. They should not use any lodging facilities, such as pool or fitness center. There must be no deviation from the list of activities specified on the parental consent form. 

Participants may not operate or ride on any motorized vehicle, such as a car, scooter, motorbike, or boat, regardless of the consent or approval of a chaperone.

In an emergency

If there is an incident or an injury, 

  • Contact local authorities
  • If indicated, contact US embassy or consulate
  • Contact your organization’s administrator
  • Contact parent/guardian/emergency contact
  • Contact the Office of Risk Management

Planning as much as possible in advance and following these guidelines will help make sure your international pilgrimage is a resounding success.