When Ann Kahn was growing up, her family took the same summer vacation every year - a trip to Yosemite. But things are different for her daughter, Ashley.
At 19, Ashley has already set foot on every continent - including Antarctica. And all but one of her journeys abroad were taken without her parents, on trips with other teenagers. She started when she was just 13, visiting Europe with a youth travel organization called People to People Student Ambassadors - http://www.studentambassadors.org/.
"It's definitely changed my life," said Ashley, who is from Green Valley, Calif., and is now a freshman at Sonoma State University. When she was younger, she thought she'd like to be a nurse someday. But now, "I'm a French major. I'd like to work in an embassy. Living and working abroad is definitely something I would like to do."
Thousands of teenagers like Ashley are seeing more far-flung corners of the world, and at younger ages, than any previous generation of Americans. High schools now routinely organize student trips that require passports. Middle-schoolers hike the rainforest in Costa Rica instead of attending lakeside summer camps with color wars and marshmallow roasts. And older teenagers use the community service they did in Africa as fodder for college essays.
A recent survey of 75 tour operators that belong to the Student Youth Travel Association - http://www.syta.org - found that the top 10 international destinations for youth travel includes China, Peru, Brazil and Australia - along with the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Greece. More than half the survey respondents identified middle school as the biggest segment for growth.
"We still have the traditional tours - an eighth grade trip to Washington or a high school trip to New York," said SYTA spokeswoman Debbie Gibb. "But we're seeing growth in places like China that you never would have thought of 10 or 15 years ago. The world is shrinking and the students who take these trips are getting younger."
Gibb said there are no reliable statistics on how many teens travel abroad compared to the past. But the travel bug is definitely going around. Teenagers today "want that notch on the belt," she said. "They want to say, 'I've been to Ghana.'"
Typically these trips cost thousands of dollars. But the pricetags seem more palatable now that many U.S. sleep-away camps charge $4,000 for three weeks in a bunkhouse. A 32-day trip to Europe offered by Westcoast Connection/360 Student Travel - http://www.westcoastconnection.com - is $9,399. A six-week program in Senegal sponsored by an outfit called Where There Be Dragons - http://www.wheretherebedragons.com/ - runs $7,300. Closer to home, the June 27-Aug. 14 session at Camp Mataponi - http://www.campmataponi.com/ - for girls on Sebago Lake in Maine is $9,300.
Often parents write checks for the trips, but some students raise money - especially with school-sponsored trips where kids work together on community fundraising events. (Teachers who agree to chaperone typically travel free.) Sometimes travel organizations offer scholarships for low-income students; others provide advice on finding sponsors - everything from asking local merchants for donations to sending a form letter to everyone you know with a request for $25.