Travel tips

Japan Student Tour: 99 Days to Departure

Japan 2007 - Gail Ingram with students

Via Gail


January 6th is my 99th day prior to departure leading a student trip to Japan. I can’t believe this number is finally under 100 days. It feels as if I have been preparing for this tour for ages. I began my recruitment in the spring of 2009. I have been communicating with my tour participants through monthly letters ever since they registered for this tour. In fact, my first letter to registered tour participants, dated June 4, 2009, had “665 days prior to departure” at the top. This roughly equals the gestation period for an elephant. That’s a long time!

You should see my tour notebook right now. I keep copies of all of my tour letters, announcements, memos, and every e-mail and letter I receive from EF and my tour consultant in plastic sheet protectors. I have copies of all of the correspondence from my school and district that are related to the tour. I also have a file for each tour participant, including their personal information and address labels for all of the letters I mail to them. If I ever lose this notebook, I’m done for and I might as well stay at home.

According to the advice for teachers on the EF website, “You can meet with your group as many times as necessary before your tour, and the more you communicate with them as a group, the better.” I couldn’t say this better myself.  I had my first of four pre-departure meetings on my 101th day prior to departure. EF advises group leaders to “generate enthusiasm for tour” at the beginning of the pre-departure meetings and provides several suggestions on how to do this. Just getting together as a tour group is exciting.

As my students and parents arrived for the meeting, I played a slideshow of photos I took during my 2007 Japan tour accompanied by my favorite Japanese language song, “Sukiyaki.”

This song, performed by Kyu Sakamoto, reached the top of the sales charts in 1963, an unusual feat for a song sung entirely in Japanese. Cover versions of the song have been performed by A Taste of Honey and 4 p.m.

I thought about wearing one of my kimonos, but I really need another person (like my mother) to help me put on all of the belts, cords, sashes, pads, and other accessories. Instead, I showed everyone a group photo of my students from the 2007 tour dressed for dinner in yukatas (casual cotton kimonos) and jackets during our stay in a traditional ryokan. The photo caption was “Japan will rock your world—not to mention your wardrobe!”

Both our tour and our travel dates have been confirmed at this time. We will be on the “Japan: Land of the Rising Sun” tour from April 15-April 25. All of my tour participants have their passports or their applications sent to the U.S. Department of State. All of my tour letters have this repetitive nagging refrain: “no passport, no tour, and no refund!” I still remember one student who waited until the last minute to apply for her passport. It finally arrived the day before our departure.

Even though sending e-mails to all of my tour participants would save me a small fortune in postage stamps, I like the permanence and reliability of “snail mail.” Even though my letters are addressed to both the students and the parents, the parents are my focus before I hold my pre-departure meetings. Instead of holding meetings way in advance, I prepare my parents in monthly letters that cover topics such as insurance, optional excursions, passports, payment plans and deadlines, tipping, and tour and date flexibility. I am able to stay on top of all the deadlines and the multitude of tour planning details in this way. I write everything down and spell it all out for my parents. They send me e-mails or they call me if they have any questions or concerns.

My first pre-departure meeting is always scheduled right after the final payment deadline (for those tour participants not on the automatic payment plan).  This deadline was our 110th day prior to departure which landed on Christmas Day, a perfect date considering the fact that the tour is (or should be) the students’ main gift.

Predeparture Meeting with Gail Ingram

Via Gail

I schedule three to four pre-departure meetings for every tour, which are held in the meeting room of the public library, and I limit the meetings to just one hour. For all of the meetings, I prepare file folders of handouts, articles, forms,  and copies of the PowerPoint slides for each tour participant.  The students are my focus at the meetings. I also hand out 3X5 cards to everyone so they can write down any question that comes up during the meeting.

EF’s planning guide, “Countdown to Travel,” and EF’s “Planning for Your Tour” and “Preparing for Departure” links for teachers on the website are invaluable resources for both the first-time and experienced group leaders. I keep a calendar in my tour notebook with all of the deadlines jotted down.  I like the way EF keeps me organized and on top of everything.

Here are some tips for your pre-departure meetings:

  • Make a “bullet list” of all the topics you want to cover during the meetings. Use the EF resources and the information you get from the international training conventions if you are a first-time group leader to generate the list of topics. Don’t feel as if you have to cover everything from A to Z.
  • Decide when you want to cover the topics. Group the topics in a way that makes sense to you and your group.
  • Schedule all of your meetings at the same time and place.

My first meeting this week covered the tour guidelines and regulations (both EF’s and my own), and tons of practical information. I also covered some essential rules of Japanese etiquette (don’t blow your nose in public, remove your shoes before going into a home, inn, or temple, don’t use soap inside a communal bathtub, and make noise when you slurp your noodles-really!).

My third pre-departure meeting will be devoted to our tour itinerary, especially Day 2. I do not want any “whine-and-cheese parties” about how tired they are!  Let the students know what to expect and they will rise up to the challenge of dealing with jet lag.  I hope to have my flight itineraries and hotel information by this meeting. We can look up the hotels together on the Internet at the library.

At my fourth and final meeting, which will be held ten days before we depart, I will discuss the transportation arrangements to the airport, the TSA regulations, and tie up any loose ends. I plan to distribute the EF backpacks, luggage tags, telephone chain charts, extra copies of passport pages, flight itineraries, and hotel information sheets. I will also collect any forms and of course, the tip money.

For my second pre-departure meeting next month, I’m going to   play the song, “Love Letter to Japan” by the Bird and the Bee.

My main  topic will be “the packing list” and I will bring a suitcase to show everyone  how to pack. I have several first-time fliers in my group and I want to make  certain that they pack correctly for the tour. I will offer at the airport on  our departure day a twenty-dollar bill to the student who ends up packing  the lightest suitcase. I wonder if anyone in my group can travel for an 11- day tour with just a carry-on?

(Editor’s note: Add Gail on Google+ If you have a question about for EF Group Leader Gail Ingram, or an idea for a blog post topic, you can email Gail here, and she will answer readers’ questions in future blog posts.)
Topics: Travel tips, Japan

Gail I.

Gail is a former longtime EF Group Leader, who was also a frequent mentor to new group leaders and a regular presenter on EF’s Free International Training Tours.

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