March 5, 2020

Make Lasting International Friendships and Personal Connections with Friends Across Borders

Thomson traveler Jillian Bowdring met her pen pal in the Eastern Serengeti.

Travel is all about connection. This is especially true for children, because every new person they meet on their adventures can create lasting change for a positive, down-to-earth worldview.

That’s why we created Friends Across Borders, our flagship international friendship program. Hang out, play games, share life stories – we make it easy to connect with kids in your favorite destination.

What is Friends Across Borders?

Friends Across Borders is our international friendship and cultural exchange program. On select trips, we’ll set up time where your family can meet, play and laugh with local kids. It’s a memorable chance to learn about the authentic, everyday people in your destination.

On certain trips, you can even write to your very own pen pal ahead of time! An international pen pal is an amazing gift for a child learning about different world cultures.

[Here’s a pen pal story that spans Minnesota to Cuzco, Peru.]


What Do Kids Do When They Meet?

The Casey family in Costa Rica.

Games, arts and crafts, dance – it’s different everywhere you go!

In South Africa, sit down for a braai (barbecue) meal with local families and play soccer. In Scotland, play the unique Scottish game of shinty.

Traveler Pamela Wear took her granddaughters to Japan, where they met their pen pals for a fun afternoon of learning new skills, performing music and playing sports together.

“They loved doing calligraphy and origami, working side-by-side with the children, and making mistakes, all laughing and working through each project to completion,” Pamela said.

[Read about the Wear family’s experience meeting their Japanese pen pals for the first time.]

Whatever form it takes, the chance to meet, giggle and make memories with children from around the world is a fun and unforgettable experience.

What are the Local Kids Like?

Playing jump rope with children in Tanzania.

The kids who participate in Friends Across Borders are eager to share the world they live in. They might be active in their community programs or leaders in peer groups. They might be kids who love making new friends.

Still, some kids can be shy at first. That’s okay! Your trip guides are always there to help everyone get comfortable with cultural and linguistic differences.

When traveler Steven Friedlander and his daughter visited a school in Tanzania, they overcame these barriers with – you guessed it – juggling.

Steven Friedlander and his daughter in Tanzania.

“I had brought my juggling balls for fun, and I brought them out onto the soccer field and started juggling,” Steven said. “In seconds, we were surrounded by scores of kids all watching with mouths agape, asking to try. We spent probably 30 minutes connecting by playing.”

No matter the case, we’ve found children love sharing what’s special about their hometown and their country. They’re usually just as excited to learn about where you live, too!

Sometimes, families exchange phone numbers and email addresses with their children’s pen pal so they can keep in touch after the trip ends. These are the kinds of friendships that last a lifetime.

What about the Language Barrier?

The Meyer family’s daughter met a colorful new friend during her Friends Across Borders meetup in Peru.

You’d be surprised how little this matters – kids are creative and find inventive ways to communicate. We regularly see children use hand gestures, claps, giggles and smiles to talk, and it doesn’t deter from the delight of hanging out with new people.

When Steven Friedlander and his daughter went to Ecuador, his daughter met her pen pal for the first time. The two girls were six years old and didn’t share a common language.

“Within five minutes, they were best friends, playing with some chalk, giggling and laughing and communicating with hand motions and smiles,” Steven said.

What Ages are the Kids?

We do our best to ensure the kids you meet are similarly aged to your own. But if your Friends Across Borders meetup is for a soccer game or a community center visit, expect kids of every age to come hang out. The more, the merrier!

When you’re writing to a pen pal, we do our best to match your kids with a child of the same age, too. That way, you’ll have a common connection before even meeting – it’s like seeing into another world through a window. It’s one of the easiest ways to learn about people from another country without leaving the house!

Should I Bring Any Gifts?

Friends Across Borders meet for some popsicles in Costa Rica. Photo: Chris Gamel.

Gifts are welcome, but not required. The local kids just love meeting others and hanging out. If you do want to bring gifts, we encourage you to buy them in your destination – that way, you’re supporting the local economy.

Common gift ideas include school and sports supplies (nothing big!). You can always ask your Trip Manager for ideas. They can tell you about the community you’ll visit on your trip and help you come up with ideas.

How Does the Pen Pal Process Work?

Two young pen pals in Tanzania.

First, your children will write a letter introducing themselves. They can talk about anything: their favorite foods, school, hobbies, pets. We match you with a local kid of the same gender and similar age, who will write back and introduce themselves in the same way. After that, you can write back and forth as many times as you want before the trip begins. All communication pre-travel is sent by email through your dedicated Trip Manager.

How Many Letters Will the Kids Exchange?

This depends on how far in advance your child and their pen pal start writing, and how long it takes for each child to respond. Sometimes language barriers and access to remote communities become a factor. In these cases, it might take a little while for your international pen pal to write back. Generally, the sooner you start writing, the more exchanges you’ll have!

Why Participate in Friends Across Borders?

Families gather at a takraw camp in Chang Mai, Thailand.

For the kids, it’s fun, pure and simple.

What’s more, very few children on Earth have the opportunity to casually meet, play and hang out with kids in international communities. This makes it an extremely profound moment in a child’s life. It can’t be qualified or quantified. It’s the chance to establish a sincere human connection despite cultural, linguistic and geopolitical boundaries, making it the kind of experience that bonds families together.

Whether you’re meeting for a soccer game or Irish step dancing, your Friends Across Borders meetup may only last one afternoon. But the positive impact is something your children will carry with them for the rest of their lives.