Going abroad is a big deal and you want to make the right decision when choosing your travel program. After all, this international experience could shape who you are personally, professionally, and spiritually for years to come! But no pressure, right?
If you’re wondering how to get a real feel for the (literally) thousands of travel programs that are out there in order to pick the perfect one, then you’re in the right place! Whether you are looking for volunteer abroad program reviews, teach abroad program reviews, TEFL reviews, study abroad reviews — we’re your guys. We’re here to give you the skinny on how to use program reviews and other sources of information to get the inside scoop on all those travel programs.
Why travel program reviews matter
Some of your best resources for information on programs abroad – whether it be study abroad, volunteer abroad, teach abroad, or just plain old travel abroad – are program reviews. Not sure what program reviews entail? Students, volunteers, and travelers can go to GoAbroad’s vast directory of listed programs and leave a review (like Yelp, but without the unflattering food photos!) of their experience while on the program.
Program reviews give you a different — not necessarily better, but certainly different (and still important) — insight into the realities of traveling abroad with any given organization. Leave it up to the people who've done it before to give you the REAL low-down on their day-to-day life abroad, the support, the accommodations, or the itinerary.
For meaningful travelers, travel program reviews matter because they help them make a more educated purchase and pay it forward to future adventurers.
For companies, organizations, and providers, travel program reviews matter because they are a huge source of information for their target market.
HOW to read program reviews
It’s one thing to read program reviews, it’s another thing to extract something of value from those reviews. You have to train yourself to understand the underlying thing being said (AKA sharpen your B.S. meter). You want to make sure your needs and goals are similar to that of the reviewer, take a step back to make sure the incident (if there is one!) isn’t entirely situational, and pay close attention to how international travel programs respond to reviews — especially the “less than sunshiney” ones. This says a lot the character of any given organization/company. Here are some more pro-tips to use program reviews on international travel programs to your benefit.
Read Between the Lines
When reading reviews from previous participants, look for those that give you an honest and authentic glimpse into the daily life of someone on the program. Obviously, you want to go for a program that has great reviews, but don’t shy away from reviews that admit that a program is challenging, or not what the participant expected. You want your experience abroad to be challenging and beyond what you expected!
Look for the Following in Program Reviews
Don’t forget, program reviews will give you everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly. But, just like a restaurant review, you have to remember that many program reviews will give you the two extremes of either really good or really bad. You have to read between the lines — understand when someone is voicing a valid concern versus when they’re exaggerating. After all, traveling abroad is challenging! It can push people to their limits, and not all reviews might be entirely accurate or fair.
Draw Your Own Conclusions
Now it’s time for you to make sense of all this information and ultimately make a decision. Take the good reviews, the not-so-good-reviews, and the organization’s response (or lack of response), and put it into context with your own understanding of the travel program and your goals for going abroad.
Do a serious gut-check. If you’re reading reviews and things seem a little too picture perfect, you might want to do some more digging— travel is tough, people. Don’t shy away from the gritty stuff! But, with that in mind, if the reviews are all pointedly negative with specific concerns (nothing too petty or shallow), seriously take that into consideration. Program reviews are very important, and an excellent resource of information, but always trust your gut and your own instincts. This is your decision, so don’t let anyone else make it for you.
7 other excellent resources for information on travel programs
1. Conduct Basic Research
Before considering any program, you’re going to want to do your basic research on the program or company you’ll be going abroad with. First of all: is it a legitimate organization? There are a lot of really talented scam artists out there, and the last thing you want is to arrive in your new home in Thailand, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for adventure, only to find out that the volunteer “program” you applied to and paid money to was actually a scam.
Check out the program’s website, call the phone numbers listed on the site, ask your friends and family if they’ve ever heard of the program, and just do a basic online search to see if anything suspicious pops up. Once you’ve determined this is a real program, great! Now you can investigate to see just how good of a program it is.
For example, check to see how long the company has been in business. Has it been listed on any study abroad or travel abroad websites or blogs, like GoAbroad? See if they have any certifications, are a part of any professional organizations, or are verified on websites such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or NAFSA.
Your program doesn’t have to have all of these qualifications and fancy gold stars for it to be a good program, but they certainly help. After all, the more positive reviews, the better!
Want to start with a good list of organizations? Our online advisors are here to help match you to a great travel program!
2. Utilize On Campus Support (if you’re a student)
If you are a student pursuing a travel abroad program, you’re lucky enough to have on-campus support! Your college or university will most likely have a study abroad office, or a career office, that can assist you in choosing a program. Not only will they have plenty of information on each of the programs you’re applying to, they also will have first-hand experience in helping other students like yourself pick the perfect program. They may even recall stories or feedback from past students, to help guide you in your decision.
Better yet, your university’s study abroad office will also be able to assist you after you’ve settled on your dream program, and will help you through the process of applying and jetting off to your next adventure!
3. Reach Out to Program Staff
Don’t be afraid to reach out to the staff of programs you are considering! After all, they know their program inside and out, and should be able to answer any questions you have. Aside from any basic concerns you might have (Will my program have safe, reliable housing? Do you provide vegetarian options in the meal plan?), you can also ask the big questions: What makes this program different from the rest? How will this program help me grow in my future academic and professional goals? Why should I choose you?
It’s the program staff’s job to be able to answer these kinds of questions! They know why their program is an incredible experience, and they’re excited to share all the details with you, so be bold and ask the tough questions that matter.
4. Use GoAbroad (← Hey, that’s us! We love y'all!)
Aside from GoAbroad’s massive program directory with thousands of reviews from previous students and travelers, you can also utilize MyGoAbroad, which allows you to compare programs side-by-side, making your decision-making process way smoother (and with a lot fewer Venn diagrams).
Still not convinced? Contact GoAbroad directly with your questions. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t even know where to start in your search, our Online Advisors are here to help match you with your perfect travel program! You can even tweet @ us to get feedback and advice! We’re always happy to help fellow travelers find their way abroad (it’s literally our job).
And let’s not forget what brought you here— we have tons of expert articles to help you decide on a program, prepare and pack for that program, make the most of your time abroad, and help you go abroad again once you’re back home (but only for a little while, right?). We’re your one-stop shop for deciding where, when, why, and how to go abroad.
5. Talk to Program Alumni
If you have a chance to speak to program alumni in-person, always jump at the chance. Oftentimes, if you are a student, your campus’ study abroad office can arrange meetings with past program alumni. You can also reach out to the program itself, and ask if they have any alumni networks in your area. If a travel abroad program has a strong alumni group that is eager to talk to prospective program participants, this is a good sign! Most (if not all) official program alumni positions are volunteer positions, which means that these travelers had such an incredible experience abroad that they’re happy to use their free time to help out their program and encourage other young travelers to go as well.
So pick your favorite coffee shop, bring some paper and a pen, and get ready to take notes. Program alumni can be one of your best resources when trying to get a feel for what a program is actually like because they were actually there. They’ve walked the streets you’ll walk, they’ve taken the classes you’ll be adding to your transcript, they’ve met the local communities you’d be volunteering with. Not sure where to start when asking questions? Here are a few examples:
Recommended Questions to Ask Travel Program Alumni
- What made you choose this program?
- What did you think of your professors/program staff/team leaders? (depending on the type of program you’ll be going on)
- What was your favorite part of the program?
- What was the most challenging part of the program?
- Can you tell me a little bit your day-to-day life while you were abroad?
- What do you wish you had known before participating in the program?
- What was your favorite place to eat? (Trust us - this is an important question)
- What advice do you have for someone to go on the program?
If you have any concerns the program or going abroad, don’t hesitate to voice them to the program alumni! They can give you a true, unfiltered glimpse into the life of someone on the program, and that is incredibly valuable when choosing where you’d like to go!
6. Click Around on Social Media
“It’s on the internet, so it must be true!” - said no one, ever. We know social media can be a conflicting source of information when trying to dig up the truth on a program. After all, your favorite Instagrammers aren’t going to post a picture of the horrible meal they just had, or the bus they just missed, or the class that they’re failing. However, if you’re trying to get a real-life peek into the daily adventures of someone currently on the program, investigating on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and every other social media platform you can think of will give you a fairly good idea.
This may sound like “creeping” on strangers you’ve never met and uh...it kind of is. But it’s all in the name of research! First and foremost, look up the official social media accounts of the program itself. Are the platforms active? Does the program post regularly? What sort of message do they portray the program and its students? Do their students interact with their social media platforms? (a.k.a. Do they have any likes or followers?)
From there, you can typically go even deeper in your creeping and find the individual accounts of some of the students on the program. Of course, always respect an individual’s privacy. However, if their Instagram accounts are public, and they’re using their program’s official hashtags, it’s free game! Creeping on current program participants’ social media gives you a glimpse into what people are doing on a day-to-day basis: where they’re eating, what classes they’re taking, what their homestay neighborhood looks like. You can get a better sense of what your life would be like abroad with study abroad reviews and other program reviews, and that can help you determine if you’d like it.
7. Browse Threads, Online Travel Forums, etc.
Just like social media, online travel forums can be tricky. You can’t be sure who’s actually posting and commenting on the forums, or if they’re being completely truthful. You also don’t know the type of people who are chatting on there - what if they’re complaining a program because they happen to have a really negative outlook on life, or (unbeknownst to their online community) they were just having a really horrible time with homesickness and culture shock on the day they wrote their review? Always take their advice with a grain of salt.
However, for the most part, online travel forums are a place of community rather than specifically reviews of study abroad programs or volunteer abroad reviews. They allow fellow travelers to chat, trade tips, share stories, and help each other out, just as if you were sitting in the common area of your hostel abroad and making friends. Get as much helpful advice out of them as you can, but don’t trust everything that’s said, completely. You can make up your own mind a program, or a country, based off all the other research you’ve done, and not just off one comment thread on an online forum!
Example online forums to reference include:
Suss out the “truth” travel programs
Here’s a short-list of questions for you to reference as you do your due diligence before signing up for that too-good-to-be-true travel program:
- How long has the company been in business?
- Are their social media accounts active and what kind of message do they portray?
- Are they a part of any professional organizations, certifications, etc. (such as BBB?)
- Click around on the company’s hashtags. How engaged are their participants?
- Are they a verified program on GoAbroad?
- Do they answer your phone calls professionally and courteously?
- Will they put you in touch with program alumni for more information?
Program reviews — your partner in crime. We mean, uh, travel.
Choosing a travel abroad program can be a tricky, overwhelming process. Luckily, there are an endless amount of resources out there (like your friends here at GoAbroad!) to help you narrow down your options and do extensive research on all the programs you’re considering. Whatever program you choose, you’ll be embarking on an incredible adventure that will change the way you see the world forever. And once you’ve returned home, don’t forget to write a program review – you can help the next generation of travelers find their perfect adventure!