Taking the Family to a Hot Spot Abroad? Stay Safe by Planning Ahead
Thinking of trading Toronto for Thailand or skipping Madrid for Mumbai on your next family vacation? As the recession eases, more families are making travel plans -- many of which include trips to places off the beaten path where extra care and preparations may be needed.
Just remember: A little safety planning now can avoid a lot of headaches later.
The U.S. Commerce Department reports fewer Americans were going to Canada and Mexico in 2009, but a growing number were off to the Middle East (up 41.4 percent from 2008) and Africa (up 25.2 percent). And a study from the Institute of International Education finds more U.S. students traveling abroad are picking developing countries -- the number of American kids who took study trips to the Middle East jumped 22 percent last year.
Some families may be traveling to countries where the U.S. government is warning folks about security conditions -- and it's not just Iran and North Korea. Organizing a bar mitzvah in Israel? The U.S. State Department has issued a warning covering the country. Planning a day trip to Mexico on your visit to Arizona? There's also a warning in place along the U.S. border due to drug-related violence.
This doesn't mean you should cancel your trip, but experts say you should plan ahead and talk to the State Department officers located in your destination cities.
Take these steps to ease your mind and head off trouble:
Know Before You Go
Read up on the country you are visiting, so you know what to expect. Find out about the political situation, transportation, medical facilities and other information.
"The parents need to know where they're going, they need to research it. Even if they're from there, because things change," says Neil Huotari, author of "Securing Smiles: A Guide To Family Security."
Experts recommend the State Department travel website, which lists soup-to-nuts information by country, from the practical (road and medical care conditions) to updates on street crime and security.
"It's the one-stop shop," says John Echard, spokesman for the department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
"When traveling with children it's particularly important to remember certain countries have specific requirements for minors," Echard tells ParentDish, adding that many countries require parental consent forms or letters from one or both parents authorizing the child's trip. For example, Echard says, Mexican law requires any minors under 18 leaving the country with one parent to carry a notarized approval from the other parent. And this applies to everyone, not just Mexican nationals.
The U.S. State Department counsels travelers with advisories that range from travel warnings that are open-ended and due to overall conditions in a country, to travel alerts pegged to more specific events or threats. Right now, there are warnings in place for countries including the Philippines and Colombia; the department issued an alert May 24 covering Kingston, Jamaica because of drug-related violence.
You also can e-mail the local consulate or embassy at your destination to ask for more information about conditions there, says Huotari, a security expert and blogger. Find a link to the embassy's website or an e-mail address in the country information section on the State Department site. You may need to give it a few days, but officials will get back to you, Huotari tells ParentDish.
"They don't get a lot of e-mails from actual people," he says. "So you always get a good response."
Work Out a Plan
Even if your kids have all their shots, it's a good idea to get a pre-trip checkup, says Kate Goggin, author of "Backpack Kids," a new iPhone app for children's travel. A study published recently in the journal Pediatrics found children are more vulnerable to getting sick while traveling than adults, Goggin tells ParentDish.
If your kid has a condition that requires medication, such as diabetes, ask a medical professional what to do if it's not available in an emergency. Huotari recommends carrying a first-aid kit packed with common over-the-counter remedies. Echard warns that some drugs may be banned in some countries, so you may need to carry a doctor's note.
And check your health insurance coverage; it may not cover emergencies abroad. Goggin recommends buying medical evacuation insurance, which pays for flying a sick patient home.
Goggin speaks from experience. In 2007, her son was was injured in a car accident in South Korea and didn't have evacuation insurance. Luckily, the driver of the rented car he was riding in was insured.
"It was really a terrible time and I felt doubly bad that I hadn't purchased that policy," says Goggin, a former State Department staffer.
Travel insurance to protect against delays and cancellations is also a good idea if traveling with children. Being stranded in an airport is much worse when you have the family along, as evidenced when European flights were snarled for a week after an Icelandic volcano erupted, Goggin says.
"People who were not believers in travel insurance have become believers," she says.
Also, make sure to pack copies of all your travel and identification documents, and a recent picture of your children, Huotari recommends. Keep copies, next-of-kin contact information and local State Department emergency numbers in a safe place, the experts add.
"Crime, pick-pocketing is rampant in most big cities of the world," says Goggin, whose iPhone app, also available as a PDF, has a checklist for overseas travel planning. "The bottom line is as soon as that purse is stolen or that backpack is taken, the next call needs to be to the embassy."
Call a Family Meeting
Before you leave on your trip, give your kids a safety briefing. Tell them what to expect where they're going and how to behave. Remind them not to wander off and not to flaunt expensive gadgetry that may attract thieves. Try to talk them out of bringing along mp3 players or handheld video games.
You don't need to scare them, experts say, but warn them that while customs may be different, the same safety rules that apply back home apply abroad. Give them the rundown about hotel security and don't let your guard down, Huotari warns. Parents may feel comfortable in a hotel, but they should know where the kids are at all times, he says.
"Talk to them about going off on their own, talk to them about not giving out their room number," he adds.
You also want to give them a plan for what to do in an emergency. Have a rally point if you get separated and make sure the kids remember where they're staying.
Register with the local embassy or consulate, and let them know where you are, down to your hotel room number and cell phone, if you have one that works locally. All travelers should do this everywhere they go, especially if they're staying a while, Echard says.
The State Department will help U.S. citizens in emergencies, but they can't help if they can't find you, says Echard, who was on duty during January's earthquake in Haiti. During that disaster, parents of a group of Florida college students had trouble finding their children because they didn't register with the embassy.
Evacuating children from a disaster area has its own complications, so it helps if the local U.S. representatives know how many people are in your party and their ages.
Even if you have taken every precaution, stuff happens. When it does, tell your kids to lay low and find safety in numbers.
Stick together, in case you get separated, designate a rendevous point. Warn your kids to stay away from unruly crowds and to not take pictures of disturbances.
"Get away to a hotel, hospital or office location and band together with other tourists," Huotari says. "Especially if they're also families -- they have the same worries you have."
And resist the temptation to relocate, Huotari says. State Department representatives need to know where to find you, so let them know if your family switches hotels.
It's become so easy to make reservations online that it's easy to skimp on the emergency planning, Goggin says, and some parents have become a bit too confident.
"If people have traveled previously and haven't had a problem they have that sense of 'It can't happen to me,' " she says.
Related: Travel Documents -- Prudent or Overkill?
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