Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: Spring Break

Mar 03, 2011

Excited for spring break? Learn how to have fun safely with Jenna Johnson and student legal service attorney Thomas Betz, live at 1 p.m. on Thursday, March 3.

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson introduces you to ambitious student leaders, journalists, activists, interns and newsmakers from colleges across the country in her blog daily. In her live chat, she'll be answering your questions about college life, on and off campus.

Hey everyone! Happy Thursday.

Today we have a really fun topic -- spring break.

Some college students will head to beaches or exotic spots, others will just chill at home or catch up on school work. And a growing number of students are participating in alternative service-oriented trips. (I'm actually headed out tomorrow for a ski trip with a big group of friends.)

No matter what the plans, how do you plan to stay safe -- and out of a hospital room or jail cell? How about handling drama that sometimes sneaks up on group trips? And how do you make sure not to go too far in debt?

I have two guests joining me today...

Nancy Trejos is a travel writer here at the Post and is constantly on the road for stories. Recently, she wrote about a technology-free trip to Chicago, the popularity of voluntourism, fancy camping and financing most of a trip to Kansas City with Groupons. Nancy can also answer a lot of your finance-related questions, having written a book about pulling herself out of debt that started in college, "Hot (broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too."

My other guest is Thomas E. Betz, an attorney and director of Student Legal Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Tom wrote a guest column for Campus Overload last year about staying out of trouble on spring break. He wrote that each year lots of college students are arrested while vacationing, "thus providing attorneys at student legal service offices a decent level of job security."

Okay -- we are ready for your questions!

Having attended, researched, and taught at a number of universities, I've found that Spring Break expectations and activities vary widely with the location and culture of the school. The classic "get drunk and party on a beach" Spring Break promoted by MTV is, in my experience, only dominant in big fraternity dominated schools. At the small liberal arts school where I went, the big activity for the spring was to do peace corps type work or go backpacking. And of course, many students work over spring break. With that in mind, I worry that there is a lot of peer pressure for students to do the MTV-style break, especially in schools with a dominant Greek system. What do you think Jenna?

Earlier today I was talking about this chat with a couple co-workers -- and none of us ever did a wild spring break trip. We were usually working or chilling at home (although one guy ventured to the Epcot Center with a relative). I think a small percentage of college students actually indulge in the  wild, boozy, sex-filled spring breaks we see on MTV.

And, yeah, I think greek life plays a big part in a student having elaborate spring break plans or not -- many sororities or fraternities have a spring break committee to plan big group trips.

Nancy, I feel like you are always, always on the road... so you must be a whiz at packing for your trips. Any tips on what to never forget and what to leave at home?

Okay, this is easier said than done but pack light! It's especially important now that airlines are charging for checked bags (and even one, Spirit, charges for carry-ons.) I always carry one backpack and one roller suitcase that can fit in the overhead compartment. I personally don't like checking in bags not so much because of the fee but because I've had too many bags get lost. If you are the type who checks in baggage, I strongly recommend that you keep a few emergency items in your carry-on: Your keys, wallet, medication, an extra pair of underwear, an extra shirt, basically anything you need to get you through a day. As for what to pack, I generally do a shirt per day and a pair of pants or a skirt for every two days and underwear for every day. And I try to choose a central color to pack around, like black. Anything will match with that and you can bring accessories like scarves to snazz it up a bit. I also wear my heaviest clothing on the plane with me so I don't have to pack it. And I try not to do more than two pairs of shoes.  One thing I always tell myself when I am on the verge of overpacking is this: If there's something you need, you're almost always going to be able to buy it wherever you go. 

Nancy, do you have any experience with staying at hostels? Quality, safety and pricing at these places can really run the gamut, so what are some tricks for finding the best ones?

I have to admit that I have never stayed at a hostel. But it's funny you ask this because just this past Sunday, my colleague Tim Smith wrote a piece about hostels in New York for the Travel section. There's some good information about hostels in there even if you are not traveling to New York. Hostelling International seems to be a well-regarded place to search for good accomodations.

Tom, what should a student do if he or she is arrested while on spring break?

Depending on your University I would suggest that you contact your University Student Legal Service office.  That office can often help locate an attorney at your spring break location.  Many offenses are relatively minor such as underage drinking but they should NOT be ignored.  Failure to pay or appear in court can impact your record and your job opportunities in the future.  It is also worth noting that police in many spring break communities will report your infraction to your university discipline office and you thus may face additional consequences on arriving back at campus. 

This chat reminds me of a funny You Tube video that came out last year, "Spring Break It Down." Lyrics include this one: "Spring breaking it down! And pumping our fists! I should probably see a doctor when I get home from this trip."


I live in Illinois and have insurance on my car there. While on spring break in Florida I will rent a car. Do i need to purchase auto insurance for it?

First, you need to call your auto insurance company, tell them you are renting a car in Florida and ask if/how they will cover you. Will they cover damage to the rental car and loss of personal property? Next, call your credit card companies to find out if your contract includes rental car loss damage waiver. Use whichever card will cover that. That's not to say you should always decline the rental car company's insurance. In many states, insurance policies do not pay for the rental car company’s “loss of use,” which is the loss of fees they incur while the car is out of commission. Also, if you are planning to rent a car outside of the U.S., you have to check to see if your auto insurance meets that country's requirements. So there's a bit of research you need to do before you take your trip.

Tom, what should students do to secure their apartments or group houses before heading off on break?

Make sure you have renters insurance - it covers loss of your personal property.  It is fairly cheap as compared with what you might think and often covers the property when it isn't at your apartment as well.  If you have any valuable items, you may want to store those off site or at least be sure they are labeled so the police can identify them and you keep the record of the information.  Double check that everything, windows and doors, are locked - don't rely on one of your roommates doing it later unless you are absolutely sure.  You can also check with your campus police website or local community police department.  They often have specific tips based on your community.

Tom, police in vacation hot spots spend a majority of their time dealing with loud, drunk or lost tourists. Are these officers less strict than cops students deal with back home? Can you get away with more when you are on vacation?

It is often assumed that law enforcement is more relaxed at spring break destinations.  It depends on the nature of the infraction in most cases.  Alcohol use in public or on the beach may not result in an arrest or ticket but rather an order to cease.  On the other hand selling pot is not going to be ignored nor will its open use.  Traffic violations will generally be enforced to prevent accidents and danger to pedestrians and other is also a revenue source for local government. Any action that would normally be classified as a felony will result in strict law enforcement...assault and battery, sexual assault, theft etc.  Spring break does not mean there is a suspension of the rules of decent conduct or the obligation of enforcement by police. 


We are getting the hard sell for this entertainment. We said no but the pressure is on. I could really rant on my child "Do you think your DANG PARENTS WOULD LIKE TO GO AWAY FOR A WEEK!!!! The last time I saw a beach was on the travel section.

But, but, but... all of the other kids' parents are letting them do it! Why aren't you cool like them??

You aren't the only parent having this convo. Beach Week is a big deal for high school grads, especially here in the DC area. On top of the cost of the trip, there are also concerns about underaged drinking, sexual assaults and anything else that can happen when 18-year-olds are unsupervised. (Ocean City now hosts a bunch of fun, booze-free events.)

But... at the same time... it's a rite of passage. A lot of my 20something friends still talk about beach week memories. (I, unfortunately, grew up in the landlocked state of Nebraska and didn't get the opportunity.)

I think there's a way to do these trips on the cheap and in a way that ensures students are safe. Some parents opt for quieter, smaller towns or vacation houses owned by friends. Other parents book a hotel room nearby. Or send an older sibling along to supervise.

Or you could just leave your grad at home and do your own beach week? I say you deserve it :)

Hey Jenna-- Do you have any tips for Web sites or other services where I can find good deals on Spring Break trips? Obviously everyone knows about Expedia, but are there any more obscure sites out there that offer either good hotel rates or airfare?

I usually start with Expedia and the other big search engines, but then go directly to the airline, hotel or car rental company to book. I find that the companies themselves have the same good deals -- and it's easier to make changes or cancel when there's not a third-party involved.

I encourage you to book your spring break trip like you would any trip and avoid Web sites you haven't heard of that advertise super-amazing-spring-break-package-deals.

My dad swears by Bing. A few of my friends are big fans of Kayak.

I bet Nancy knows of some other good sites.

I'm one of those friends who likes Kayak! It's great for finding the cheapest air fares. Sidestep is also good. But I second Jenna's suggestion to always go back to the airline or the hotel to see if they can match the fare or rate or offer you an even better deal. Some of the airlines even have a price match guarantee. A friend of mine once successfully got an airline to lower a fare when she showed proof that one of the third party sites was offering a lower fare. If you can handle not knowing exactly what you are going to get, you can get some amazing deals on Priceline. You name your price and specify, for instance, that you will only take a three-star hotel  or higher, and usually you can get something good. TravelZoo offers special deals on airfare, cruises, lodging and more. If you are flexible with travel dates, Airfare Watchdog  is a great site. Also keep tabs on Farecast, which  predicts whether or not fares will go up or down using past trends.

What are some good cheap-but-fun spring break ideas for college students on a budget?

You might check with your campus about alternative spring break opportunities.  Many of these involve travel with a group of volunteers and they may have a way to help you finance the trip.  Parents might like you coming home to clean the yard or otherwise build up goodwill you can use later.

Why don't college students come to Lake Erie for spring break? Don't college students like ice fishing?

hahaha.... Why DON'T they go to Lake Erie!?!

In case anyone is interested, here's a vacation guide. Apparently, "you'll find it all on Lake Erie."


Dear Mr. Johnson and Mr. Betz, I am a college student headed to Cancun, Mexico with my fraternity brothers over spring break. I know that we will be doing drugs on this trip, but I want to be as safe as possible. And I don't want to develop an addiction! My question is: What are the best drugs to do over spring break without putting my health in serious risk. And how much of those drugs should I do (per day, per week, etc.) Any other tips you have would be very much appreciated! Best, Tom

Um, don't do drugs. Seriously.

Tom's original answer to this got erased. BUT, he did say to me to beware of the water in Mexico -- that is the "drug" that can sometimes be most dangerous.

Nancy, last year you took part in the "voluntourism" craze and traveled to Mexico to do service work. In your article about the experience, you write that the program didn't meet your expectations. What advice do you have for students looking to turn their spring break into a volunteer vacation?

Yes, I kind of had a disastrous voluntourism experience. Everyone was well-intentioned but the program was just too disorganized. There are many good programs out there, but you have to a) be very specific about the type of experience you want to have b) do a lot of research on potential programs and c) have realistic expectations. That research should include reading about the program, asking a lot of questions of the people running the program, and talking to past volunteers. In addition to my story, I listed a few decent  programs that I found. I also gave some tips on how to pick a program.


One word of warning for spring breakers, I live in the Conch Republic and the Monroe County Sheriffs Office (like many other jurisdictions) posts their mug shots online - lots of folks from South Caronlina learned that last year. You don't want the first thing to pop up on a Google/Bing search of your name to be a arrest record for drunk driving, drunk and disorderly, assault, etc. Have fun - but if you're gonna be dumb, be smart about it...

Oh, I had no idea. Thanks for the warning.

Here are the latest pics for anyone who is curious: Arrest log.

A question for Mr. Betz: What's your opinion regarding the vibrancy of free speech on college campuses? Have campuses become more or less welcoming of challenging or controversial views in the last decade or two? Thanks.

When I was in college in the early 70s there were fights over free speech....such fights are always taking place as there is always an inherent tension between free speech rights and those who are offended by speech content.  I side with protecting speech regardless of its content as does the U.S. Supreme Court.  In the most recent decision the court sided with protecting the offensive speech of an anti-gay group from Kansas who yelled bigoted epithets at funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is ugly but protected speech.  Conduct and speech are not always the same thing but can be mixed.  Universities, like all institutions should inculcate values that protect robust speech.  Civility is an ideal but it is not a requirement for purposes of the First Amendment. 

I saw a spokesman from Homeland Security on the news last night saying that hsi agency recommends spring breakers stay out of Mexico. Do you think popular destinations there will be impacted by that recommendation? Thanks.

Yup -- this week the Texas Department of Public Safety put out a media advisory telling spring breakers to skip Mexico because of on-going drug violence. From the release:

"[P]reliminary figures show as many as 65 Americans were killed in Mexico in 2010. Kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery and carjacking also are threats in parts of Mexico...Meanwhile, more than 30,000 Mexican citizens have died in drug-related violence since 2006, and the violence shows no signs of abating."

I am sure some college students (and their parents) are canceling Mexico plans because of this -- but I think a lot of people assume that as long as they stay at their resort, they will be fine.

Me and my friends are going to relax this spring break but want to save up for a cruise next break. We figured that we would get the best bang for our buck seeing as it includes food and boarding and the more people we have going the less money it will cost. Also, we figured that it is legal to drink at the age of 18 for most of the common cruise destinations. Nancy, Do you have any experience with cruises? Any suggestions on saving money or getting the best experience out of our break?

Believe it  or not, I have yet to do a story about a cruise. But I do have one coming up in the next year. Cruises are not for everyone. Some people don't like being stuck on a ship and having only a limited amount of time at each port of call. But others love them because they can be very cost-effective. Plus, even though you might only  have a day at each destination, you're still seeing a lot. A great resource for anyone considering a cruise is You can find some really good deals there. Booking at the last minute can also lead to great deals. Most cruises will still require you to book through a travel agency or web site. Referrals are key and it would be good if the agent is an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), Master Cruise Counselor (MCC), or Elite Cruise Counselor (ECC), designations doled out by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry group.

Great questions so far! Where else are people heading for spring break this year? Anyone doing an alternative spring break?

Re: spring break - Are you seeing what Orbitz and others are seeing: American students flocking to Florida this year?

I am hearing that Miami, Panama City (Florida not Panama the country, which I just returned from!), and even Orlando are popular this year. For good reason, as they are easy to get to and can be done on a budget. Another popular destination I'm  hearing about is South Padre Island in Texas. Mexico is getting a bad rap these days, but I wouldn't be surprised if Cancun still ends up in the top 10. The beaches are great and the exchange rate is very favorable for Americans.

Erika Spicer, a reporter at Penn State's Daily Collegian, wrote a column today about how she will spend her spring break at home:

"In my perfect world, I would love having the ability to fork over hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dollars to join in on the beach fun. But the reality is, I’m a jobless journalism student who is 100 percent fine with going back to my hometown–– I mean village."

You can read the full column, here. Anyone else chilling at home this year?

Nancy, traveling with a bunch of friends means constant bill-splitting -- sharing hotel rooms, divvying up dinner checks, paying for rental cars and gas, or stocking the cabin fridge. Is there an easy, fair way to share expenses so no one gets stuck paying more?

Pick your friends well!  Figure out how much total you are willing/able to spend.  Draft a quick agreement regarding who pays for what and each sign it and receive a copy.  RENTAL CARS is the issue that caught my attention.  Most companies require that the driver be 25.  Your group may have members who are below 25 and their names are not on the rental agreement as permitted drivers....the temptation is to let them share the driving.  NO! This is a breach of contract and will likely void the insurance policy in the case of an accident or any damage to the vehicle.  The non-listed driver does not have to be driving at the time of the accident is enough that the non-listed driver drove the vehicle at any time during the rental period.  Another issue regarding auto rentals....make sure that if you waive the rental car company insurance that you in fact have an insurance policy that covers you in a rental vehicle and that the permiums are up to cannot buy insurance after the accident.  I would also be careful about waiving rental car insurance if you come from a fault based auto insurance state such as Illinois but are renting in a no-fault state such as Florida.  There are serious battles and costs to you as a renter should there be an accident in the no-fault state.

Student loans from years ago that were to be canceled, never were. Did not hear for years. Now, defaulted...options? University refuses accountability. Was a non-traditional, first generation almost 20 years ago. Have talked with Dept of Ed, elected reps and University. Don't have the paperwork after all this time. Who can get the loans canceled?

I have no idea -- anyone out there have some advice?

Tom, what are some of the most common spring break problems students run into?

One of the most obvious problems is thinking the law doesn't apply in South Padre Island the same as your campus, especially if you are being the wild, life of the party in public.   Alcohol drinking by passengers while traveling in a car - this is illegal in most states and some is a serious violation.  Traffic tickets while traveling through states can be difficult to deal with especially if the speed is so high or the offense considered serious and you aren't allowed to "pay by mail".   Consumer problems with travel packages - always check out the provider for prior complaints and legitimate operators.  If the price is too low, it is a good sign there are add on costs in the fine print or some other problem.  Check these out.

I want my Spring Break to be like a Kesha song. Dirty, lots of drinking and of course glitter on me, the floor, etc (you get the idea). How can I make my SB be like Kesha with a little Charlie Sheen thrown in?

Hahaha -- well there's a description of spring break that definitely didn't exist a generation ago. Good luck with that. Please don't die.

I considered doing an alternative spring break but it cost more money than I could afford and I didn't have the time to fundraise through the school. But that reminds me of another question. So it is on my bucket list to travel to Africa and do service work there but what really worries me about it is if I go to another country like that would I be able to drink bottled water and prevent myself from losing my health?

Traveling is always a calculated risk, despite all our advances in medicine and technology. The best  you can do is prepare yourself for any emergency. Make sure you get any recommended shots for that particular country. Also see your doctor before you travel. Get a check-up and deal with any issues you might have BEFORE you travel. Make sure you have all the medications you need, and it wouldn't help to throw in some cipro in case you get really sick. I would keep a written record of all pertinent medical information on you all the time: the name and number of your doctor, your blood type, any allergies, etc. in the event that, heaven forbid, you are found somewhere unconscious. And if you do  have to end up at a foreign hospital or clinic, don't go alone. The buddy system when traveling abroad always helps.

What an interesting chat! Thanks, Nancy and Tom, for helping me answer questions.

I hope that we helped you plan the ultimate spring break. Good luck having fun -- and staying out of jail.


In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Thomas Betz
Thomas E. Betz is the directing attorney for the office, currently nearing his twenty-third year with the program. Betz is a 1981 graduate of Wayne State University Law School, a member of the Illinois Bar and formerly a member of the Michigan Bar. He is a member of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union Community Advisory Board. Mr. Betz is also an elected member of the Champaign County Board, since 1995, and serves as Vice Chairman of the Board; Chairman of the Policy, Appointments, and Procedures Committee; and is a member of the Facilities Committee and the Labor Negotiations Committee. Betz is also, for the fifth year, the Chair of the “Elizabeth Berg Streeter Community Service Award” committee of the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association -- Student Legal Services Section.
Nancy Trejos
Nancy Trejos is a staff writer for Travel.
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