EF is a massive educational tour company offering global group travel to students of all ages. "EF" stands for "Education First," and EF's accreditation efforts live up to the marketing. And market domination does not mean impersonality -- EF delivers not-to-be-forgotten travel that can be tailored to you and your group.
EF's Been Around
EF has been in the tour biz since 1965 when Swedish founder Bertil Hult took a group of students to Britain for English study. Its closest competitor in the longevity department is CHA Tours, on the scene since 1969. Explorica was founded in 2000 by a former EF prexy and operates along the same lines as does EF but on a smaller scale.
EF Gets Around
EF travel options circle the globe, with educational tours to Europe ranking high on the popularity scale; guided travel can also be had to Africa, Asia (Japan and China) and the South Pacific, Australia and Latin America (Brazil, Caribbean, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Peru). EF travel arm EF America offers US and Canada trips.
EF Is Around
EF has offices in over 50 countries worldwide, meaning staff personally check out local hotels and restaurants before booking travelers, and staff help is not far away should a need or emergency arise. And bilingual tour directors can help handle most of what might come up during a trip abroad, like losing a passport. The company's central office overlooks Switzerland's Lake Lucerne; US headquarters are in Cambridge, Mass. (Contact info below.)
"EF Is People"
One EF employee says of educational travel, "The people side of it is what makes a difference." Many EF higher-ups, even the head honcho herself, started EF life as tour directors, and tour directors could be seen as the street-level lifeblood of any group travel company. EF's posse of hundreds get a decent amount of training and are likely to be local to your destination. And these tour directors do what they do because they love it. From the pavement up, EF really is built on a caring crew.
Applause-worthy Accreditation Efforts
EF puts the education in student travel by supplying high school accreditation (contingent on your school's okay) for trips. Earn a semester's worth of credit post-trip by reading and writing before you go, snapping photos and journaling while you're there and completing assignments, like answering essay questions, when you return. According to EF, about 100 hours of work equal a semester's credit through EF. Cost: $100 after 2006.
Student safety is paramount -- one oft-heard EF tale has London-office staffers hoofing it around town to reassure travelers all was well within minutes of London's 2005 tube bombings. Tour directors receive emergency preparedness training, and a trip with EF showed me that hotels are safe and in quiet neighborhoods. Post 9/11, EF developed a "Peace of Mind" policy enabling penalty-free cancellation should traveler doubts of any kind arise pre-trip.
How to Get Started
Trips are instigated by teachers or interested adults, who become "group leaders" and sign up participants. Ask at your counseling office or call EF to learn whether a teacher at your school is planning a trip, or ask your favorite educator (how about TA's?) to consider planning some group student travel.
How Much it Costs
EF brass say they lead with their people and price the product in the market, and prices are indeed in line with other educational group travel companies. Expect to pay a one-time $95 "enrollment" fee. And read, read, read -- circumstances exist under which you can't get money back or may have to pay more (airport security fees may suddenly rise, for instance).
Each group leader is given the opportunity to evaluate his/her group's tour director and travel experience post-trip. These evaluations form the basis of quality control at EF; in fact, it's fair to say the company lives and breathes by evaluations, which help EF determine whether tour directors are excelling, which hotels are slipping and what travelers are looking for in general. Tour directors also assemble annually with honchos in EF's Lucerne HQ to give input and feedback from the road.
EF Educational Tours has two new tech trip helpers cooking for 2006, both aimed at integrating international experience, via student travel, and technology. If you're one of the many student travelers who'd rather carry earbuds than guidebooks, you'll find EF Educational Tours's new EF on iTunes, or TourCasts, handy personal trip guides via iPod.
And EF is also introducing iStory Tours, a partnership with Apple providing teachers and students on tour with an Apple tech expert who tags along to help the traveling gang create cool vids and multimedia presentations.
EF Tours stands out. I took a trip with EF in the spring of 2006 and spent seven easy days seeing several European cities and sights with a gang of Texas high school students and one extraordinary teacher, on her eighth trip with EF. I was exceedingly impressed with EF's global goings-on and extreme efficiency -- considering the numbers of students and companions the company jaunts around the world, almost nothing is left to chance. Remember to read before you go and your expectations should be exceeded. I'd travel with them again.