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How to take your group abroad

You’ve stood on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, remembered the Alamo in San Antonio and seen the best shows in Branson. Although you have many more American cities to visit, it’s time to start thinking about taking your church group abroad.

For some people, traveling outside of the United States is as comfortable as taking a walk down the block; for many others, though, the idea of trying to arrange a trip to an international destination can be intimidating — there are a lot of new elements to consider when planning international travel. But there are also a host of opportunities to enjoy once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Fortunately, for every challenge posed by trips abroad, there is a clear and accessible solution. Doing good preparation before you leave — and working with trustworthy partners — will help make your international tour run as smoothly as a domestic weekend getaway. Here’s our how-to guide for taking your church group abroad.

1) Build a consensus. Like any good group travel, a trip abroad has to start with a consensus among your travelers. If your group members are nervous about going abroad, you may have to spend some time gently encouraging them. And remember that you don’t have to convince everybody — just enough to make a small group.

One of the most important decisions at this stage is picking a destination that is appealing and accessible. Although a Holy Land pilgrimage might sound like the trip of your dreams, it might seem too exotic to travelers who haven’t spent much time abroad. So begin with places that are easy to reach, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, or English-speaking countries like Ireland or the United Kingdom, where your travelers will feel comfortable and at ease.

This is also the stage to think about how you’ll get there. Can you go on a motorcoach, or will you need to fly? Cruising offers a safe and convenient way to visit foreign countries, so you might consider a cruise as a good introduction. Once you pick some attractive destinations, you’ll find your travelers showing interest in the ones they like the most.

2) Plan 12 to 24 months in advance
. Since international travel often involves flight or cruise schedules, as well as more preparation time and higher price tags, it’s important to begin your planning well in advance of the trip. If you’d like to go abroad in the fall of 2012, begin to talk to your group about it now; and it’s not even too early to start looking at 2013.

At popular destinations, hotel inventory and tour bus seats can fill up quickly, so planning early will ensure that your group isn’t disappointed by limited availability. And since some international trips are longer and more expensive than domestic tours, spreading the word early will give potential travelers plenty of time to plan and save for the travel.

3) Research times, places and prices.
Before you can begin shopping travel providers, you need to have a good idea of where you want to go and when you want to go there. With groups, it’s best to try to avoid the busy travel seasons, when hotel room rates are highest, so do some research and find the ideal times to visit your destination. Remember that some places might pose a particular appeal during certain times, such as December Christmas markets in Germany and Austria.

As a general rule, fall and spring make good times for international travel, as weather is mild and seasonal rates are lower. Europe is often busiest during the summer, when school is out; in the Caribbean, snowbirds drive up lodging prices during the winter.

4) Select a reliable tour operator. This may be the single most important part of your preparations, as tour operators can make or break a trip, especially a trip abroad. A good, professional tour operator will be your best partner in an international trip, handling every logistical aspect from airfare to lodging and itinerary planning. Tour operators will also provide expert guides on the ground who will make sure that your group sees the best sights and that your people feel safe and well cared for during the trip.

Since you’ll be investing so much money in one company, make sure to pick a reliable tour operator with a long track record of service in the destination you’re visiting. Feel free to have conversations with multiple companies, and ask them for references. Look for companies that are members of reputable professional organizations. And although price might be important, don’t take risks just to save a few dollars.

5) Market the trip. Once you’ve picked a destination, travel dates and a tour provider, you can begin to market the trip. Of course, you’ll use many of the same methods you use for a domestic tour: word of mouth, flyers, newsletters and the like. But for an international trip, you might also have a “preview party,” where you invite potential travelers to meet for refreshments and a presentation about the tour.

Many tour operators will provide photo slides and information for your preview party, and some will even come to your church and give the presentation themselves. Travel planners who host regular preview parties report that most people who attend the gathering will decide to join the tour.

6) Passport, passport, passport! In the world of international travel, one rule stands inviolate above all others: You must have a passport! Current regulations require passports for all international travel, including trips to Canada and Mexico. And these rules are serious; airline representatives and customs officials will not let you pass without a valid passport, no matter what excuse you give.

As soon as someone expresses interest in your trip, encourage them to get a passport. The application process can take six weeks or more, so the sooner they get started, the better. Have travelers give you photocopies of their passports when they submit their paperwork. That way you can be sure they have a passport, and you can have a backup copy in case they lose the passport during the trip.

Once the trip is under way, do frequent “passport checks” to make sure everyone in the group has their credentials on hand. The first one should take place in your hometown, before your motorcoach or plane departs; you should also check for passports after getting off a plane, before entering customs and before departing a hotel. Nothing puts a damper on an international trip like a lost passport.

7) Make final preparations.
Your final preparations for an international tour may seem tedious, but they can be very helpful. First, prepare yourself: Make sure you have everyone’s documents in order and you have emergency contact information for each traveler. Set up a way to conveniently call home (Skype, an Internet-based telephone service, is a cost-effective option), and make sure you have hotel confirmations, flight numbers and any other relevant information with you. And see to it that you can use your credit card and ATM card on purchases abroad.

You can also help ensure a smooth trip by preparing your travelers, especially if they don’t often fly or travel internationally. Explain luggage limits and rules (often one checked bag per person), and make sure passports, medications and any other essentials go in hand luggage. Prepare your travelers for what to expect at security checkpoints and border crossings. Finally, make sure they have a copy of the itinerary and hotel contact information to leave for loved ones at home.

8) Relax and have fun. Once the trip is under way, relax and enjoy it. You’ve done all the legwork ahead of time, and you’re prepared for any hiccups that may occur. At this point, all you have left to do is be a gracious host and look for opportunities to serve and minister as you go.

By the end of the tour, you’ll have a group full of happy travelers, some of whom have just fulfilled lifelong dreams. These people will be your best marketers, and many of them will want to venture abroad again. Finishing one international trip successfully is the first step in taking another.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.