Going Overseas on Schoolies? Read this first – and stay safe

After losing her sister in a motorbike accident overseas, Kate Fitzsimons has talked to more than 30,000 students about travel safety. Here she gives her top tips for heading abroad during Schoolies.

I’ll never forget the feeling of hearing ‘pens down’ on my final exam at school. You know it’s a turning point in your life. I clearly remember sitting in my seat and being hit with a tidal wave of excitement that after 13 years of study, Schoolies celebrations were finally at my fingertips.

I’ll also never forget the feeling of hearing my phone buzzing at 3.37am on 20 October 2012. This was another turning point in my life – but one that I never saw coming. And this one didn’t just hit me with a tidal wave, but a full-force tsunami that turned my world upside down in an instant.

This is me (left, centre) celebrating my Schoolies over on Plantation Island in Fiji, and as you can see from the photo, I had one amazing time over there! It is such a thrilling experience being on your first holiday overseas, not only without your parents but with all of your friends. After all the hard work you’ve put in, you certainly deserve the chance to celebrate this big milestone of finishing school together. But I also know how split second decisions can change lives forever. So I am writing this blog to give you a much-needed wake– up call so your family doesn’t ever have to wake up to the call that my family did.

I’ll shamefully admit that I always thought tragedy would never touch my family. Yet when I awoke on 20 October 2012 to the news that my beautiful sister Nicole had been killed in a motorbike accident while holidaying in Thailand, suddenly the ‘unthinkable’ became my new reality. At first I didn’t believe it, ‘No, not my sister! My smart, sensible sister would never get on a motorbike without helmet in Sydney, let alone in a foreign country where road rules do not exist.’

But the reality is, she did. She did because, just like so many other Aussies taking off overseas, she relaxed her safety standards while traveling overseas. Holidays do tend to have a ‘care free’ spirit and we like to think nothing could go wrong in such beautiful tropical destinations. But the truth is, it does. Far too often.

So before I share some of my tips to best prepare for your first parent-free holiday overseas, the number one thing I want to remind you is that you are not invincible – no matter where you are.

I am sure many of you know it is not a ‘smart idea’ to hang off a balcony, to get on a motorbike without a helmet or experiment with illicit drugs. But when we’re young we tend to believe that the worst case scenario ‘won’t happen to me’.

That’s why I’ve spent the last five years devoting myself to shattering this invincibility in an eye-opening presentation to Year 11 and 12 students that shares my sister’s story and the consequences you and your loved ones can suffer if you compromise your safety – especially over in foreign countries.

Because what scares me most is that it is this ‘nothing is off limits’ fantasy that attracts so many of us to these ‘carefree’ destinations such as South East Asia. We lose ourselves in this irresistible myth that this is a tropical paradise where ‘there are no rules’. And while you may be without rules there, you are also without any protection.

We are so lucky to live in an age where overseas travel is cheaper and easier for us than ever before, but please realise that when we leave Australia, we leave behind the ‘safety net of protection’ we have at home, including all our support systems, emergency services and medical facilities – so when something goes wrong, it’s a lot more difficult (and expensive) to seek and receive help as a foreigner.

There are also many cultural differences in foreign countries that can put us at a greater risk if we don’t make ourselves aware of these and adjust our behaviour accordingly.  For example, Thailand actually has the second deadliest roads in the world – had my sister known this she never would have gotten on the bike that day. That’s why I am a huge advocate for properly researching your destination before you arrive there so you know how to safeguard yourself from unfamiliar dangers over there. As foreign countries really are called foreign countries for a reason!

One thing my sister did do right was take out comprehensive travel insurance, which covered the all the costs associated with her accident and provided my family with some much needed guidance during our darkest hours. Without that insurance, our tragedy would have financially crippled my family because the cost of medical bills overseas can be astronomical.

Even something as simple as getting stitches for a cut in the emergency room over in New York can set you back $7000 and having to get airlifted back home can easily cost your family over $100,000. On top of all that, travel insurance can also cover the cost of lost, damaged or stolen luggage – for example, my camera was smashed out of my hands during my Schoolies, but thanks to travel insurance, I had the costs of having it replaced all covered.

So amongst the excitement of packing the bikinis, the selfie stick and looking up the best place to get an awesome Instagram photo on your holiday, jump online and do two things for me. Buy yourself travel insurance properly tailored to your needs and activities, and research your destination using the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website. This website is full of clear and valuable travel advice for over 160 countries around the world. You simply have to type in where you’re traveling to and it’ll take you to a page highlighting the different dangers to be aware of there and useful tips on how to best avoid them so you can have that safe and happy holiday just like you deserve.

Below are some more of my top tips to ensure you’re taking off overseas for your Schoolies celebrations, fully prepared and ready to have the best time as possible:

  • Subscribe to Smartraveller’s free Travel Advice updates for latest safety and security info of your destination.
  • Make copies of all important travel documents (e.g. passport, itinerary, insurance policy, driver’s license etc) and leave a copy at home with someone you can contact quickly in case of emergency.
  • Ensure you have all relevant visas and travel documents (even countries sharing a border can have different visa entry requirements).
  • Visit a doctor to check for vaccinations and obtain letter explaining any medication you need to take overseas with you.
  • Make sure your passport has at least six months’ validity from the date you leave Australia.
  • Always keep your passport locked in your hotel safe and never hand it over as a form of deposit when hiring equipment.
  • Check with your bank about the best ATM card options for travellers – many major banks offer debit/credit cards with lower ATM fees and exchange rate surcharges than their standard cards.
  • Notify your bank of when and where you’re traveling overseas so they don’t suspect fraud and freeze your debit card.
  • Make plans to keep in contact with loved ones and let them know how often they’re likely to hear from you (e.g. once a day, once a week).
  • Be aware of differences in local laws and respect cultural standards of each country you visit – pleading ignorance is no legal defence.
  • Transport safety standards are different overseas, so you should never use vehicles, trains or boats that are overcrowded or look unsafe (this is where common sense needs to prevail).
  • When travelling alone with a driver, act as if someone is expecting you and will raise an alarm if you don’t arrive (make a phone call or mention in passing to your driver that your partner is waiting for you) and where possible, sit with your belongings within arm’s length. 
  • Inspect equipment for any damage prior to hiring it (mainly relating to the fact there’s been reports of ‘jet ski scams’ where hirers extort money from innocent tourists, particularly throughout South East Asia).

I’d like to finish this post by saying that during Schoolies and beyond, I do hope you explore our beautiful world and travel your little hearts out – but please be mindful as a tourist that every foreign country comes with differences in culture we need to be mindful of. If you’re feeling pressured by your mates or think that you’re a ‘loser’ for not joining in something you don’t feel comfortable with, please just think of me and know that I think you are THE coolest person on the planet for being brave and standing up for your own safety.

In fact, please reach out and share your story with me – I’d love to hear about a time when you walked away from a dangerous situation and how you hopefully convinced a few of your friends to do the same. That’s my definition of a hero. I am proud of you for doing so – and I bet your family is too. Remember, my sister doesn’t get a second chance – but you do, so please, think twice.

You can find out more about the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation and Kate’s work in getting the message out to young people here.

Kate, who also presents to students on resilience, has been widely recognised for her work. She was named in Westpac’s Top 100 Women of Influence in the Young Leader category for 2016.

She has received support from Understand Insurance, an education and awareness campaign of the Insurance Council of Australia.

You can read our interview with Kate from last year.

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