I think a basic safety guideline for any parent traveling with young or adolescent children is this; multiply what you know by ten, then you may have what you need to know. Vulnerabilities, risks and potential dangers are magnified ten-fold or greater when anyone leaves the comfort and familiarity of home (and their home country) to explore foreign territories. Add to this equation a parent, or parents, traveling with more than one child and the need to research and prepare adequately may increase as well. Where to start?
First off, of course, is where are you going? To another First World country like Sweden, France or Japan where health concerns are minimal if non-existent and safety issues similar to back home. Or are you planning an adventure in a Third World country such as Mexico, Zimbabwe or Nicaragua where basic levels of sanitation may be considered unsafe for drinking water, eating out in a restaurant, eating fresh fruits or raw shellfish, etc. and that may be the least of your concerns. Personal safety issues such as prevention of armed robbery and potential for kidnapping or abduction could be risks as well, greater than what you may have taken precautionary measures against back home.
Take a deep breath and don’t throw away the suitcases! A sound mind and sound travel planning is all you need to assure your vacation or extended stay abroad is enjoyable for the whole family and worth the time and money you spent. When it comes to life experience and education for children, the value of a trip abroad is difficult to calculate.
HOW TO PREPARE
When I travel to a new country or destination with my child I ask myself these basic questions:
1) Health, Food and Water Safety
Is the water safe to drink? Are we likely to become ill from eating in a restaurant (such as in India)? Are vaccinations needed for travel (such as Yellow Fever shots for travel to Ecuador or Peru)? Is there a Dengue Fever or Malaria risk in the area? Other health risks?
2) Personal Safety for Adults and Children
Have there been incidences of aggression against tourists such as armed robbery, sexual assault or other? What is the risk of abduction or kidnapping for foreigners?
3) Relative Safety of the Country or Location
Is the country in a state of civil unrest (such as currently in Nicaragua) or relatively peaceful? Is there infrastructure already in place for visitors such as tourist police, hotels, restaurants and basic medical care? Or is the location remote and off the beaten track and therefore potentially more dangerous and hostile to outsiders?
Researching Your Chosen Destination
In researching the answers to the above questions the most important consideration is to ensure the information is as up-to-date as is possible. Situations can change in a country seemingly overnight.
As an example, we traveled through Nicaragua approximately three months ago. I researched thoroughly online and chose three destinations to visit and a stay of approximately a month. Personally, I would not have felt comfortable with a more extended visit or time in the country due to safety concerns for my child. As Americans I felt we were vulnerable.
We had a pleasant experience with no major mishaps. A month or so after we left the country to head further south, a bus strike was initiated and news reports flooded the Web with photos of University students in Managua burning public buses in protest of raised fares. Taxis drivers also went on strike. If that had been the situation prior to our entering the country I would have traveled differently, for less time or possibly avoided the country altogether.
Guidebooks are a great first step in researching an area, as they offer background information about the country and addresses of hotels for you to have on-hand when arriving in a city or town. I’ve had many taxi drivers take advantage of my ‘not knowing where I was going’ when landing somewhere new without a sound game plan intact, being driven around the city (or in circles) in lieu of an available hotel unnecessarily so as to be charged an over-priced fare.
Three popular brands of travel guides that list high-end hotels as well as low-cost backpacker hostals are: ROUGH GUIDES www.roughguides.com MOON HANDBOOKS www.moon.com LONELY PLANET www.lonelyplanet.com. All three have information about countries on their websites free of charge for you to review before purchasing a book.
Lonely Planet and Rough Guides have eBooks available online. Rough Guide eBooks are the full-text of a guidebook, minus maps and photographs that you can download to a PDA or your computer. Lonely Planet eBooks are similar, yet include maps and photos and you have the option of purchasing a section of a book such as ‘Honduras’ in the Lonely Planet guide to Central America. The cost for a chapter or section of a Lonely Planet guidebook is around $2-$3 USD, and is sent to you via email as a PDF file after ordering online at http://shop.lonelyplanet.com
You would also want to do an online search specific to the country such as ‘Costa Rica and Crime’ entered into Google. A quick way to get current information is to do a search for newspapers for the area. When writing an article on Costa Rica, it was the information I read in the Tico Times online that informed me of the serious increase in violent crimes (murder, sexual assault, armed robbery during the night in expatriate homes) in Limon province on the Caribbean coast. We had traveled through the area a week earlier unknowingly. I knew they had a problem with drugs and theft, but had no idea about the level of violent crime that was going on in the area until I read the article: www.ticotimes.net/topstory.htm - “Fear and Loafing in Puerto Viejo – Residents say town suffers from rampant crime as cops just sit around. That information you will not get from a guidebook.
If planning an extended stay, I would check to see what listservs or newsgroups were available and post a few questions as well. Expatriates who have relocated to an area are an excellent source of information. An example of one for Panama would be the Yahoo group http://groups.yahoo.com/group/americans_in_panama/ -Americans in Panama.
Here are some websites I would use to research the below concerns online. These are general resources. Again, a location should be researched independently and thoroughly online. Relying solely on the information from a guidebook is not an adequate way to prepare for a trip abroad when traveling with children.
Health, Food and Water Safety
1. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention located at: http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/. Enter in the country you are researching and you will find information such as Travel Notices in Effect, vaccinations that may be needed, and much more. They have general sections on all aspects of travel and safety such as http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/yellowBookCh8-SafeInfantsChildren.aspx International Travel with Infants and Young Children
2. MD Travel Health located at: http://www.mdtravelhealth.com/. Again, enter in your destination and you have a wealth of information at your computer-laden fingertips such as: Recent outbreaks, pregnancy and travel, medical facilities for the country, food and water prevention, etc. They have a ‘Special Needs’ section that covers topics such as diabetic travelers, kidney patients and http://www.mdtravelhealth.com/index.php?sub=5&special=children - Traveling with Infants and Children.
3. Lastly, conduct an independent search using the name of your country and key words such as ‘health risks’, ‘travel alerts’, ‘traveling with infants and children’, ‘health risks for children’, and others relevant to your trip and familial circumstances.
Personal Safety for Adults and Children
1. U.S. Department of State website located here: http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/safety/safety_1180.html. Has general information as well as country specific information. Many topics covered in their section Tips for Traveling Abroad - http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/tips_1232.html
2. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada website located here: http://www.voyage.gc.ca/dest/ctry/reportpage-en.asp. Travel warnings, country profiles and much more.
3. Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) website located here: http://www.asirt.org/. For families planning on driving on their trip, gives road conditions and risks for over 150 countries.
4. Do a web search for online newspapers covering your destination. Conduct an independent search also using the name of your destination and key words such as ‘crime’, ‘armed robberies’, ‘kidnapping of foreigners’. Kidnapping and abductions are rare, but for some destinations may be a risk. As an example, the border city of Tijuana on The Baja California Peninsula has experienced a surge of violent crime against foreigners including kidnappings and armed robberies.
Relative Safety of the Country or Location
1. Check the U.S. Department of State and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada websites listed above. Another similar resource for Britains traveling abroad is the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) website located here: www.fco.gov.uk/en/travelling-and-living-overseas/travel-advice-by-country/.
2. One World – Nations Online website World Travel Warnings located here: www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/travel_warning.htm.
Advice from an Eleven-year-old
My son has traveled extensively. He has lived in Spain, Mexico and Guatemala for extended periods of time and recently visited Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. He is eleven years old. He offers this safety advice for children, and for parents traveling with young children.
“ When I eat at a restaurant that is low-cost and maybe the workers do not wash their hands when cooking I prefer to not eat salad. I don’t accept food or a soda from any stranger.”
“If I sit outside in late afternoon or at nighttime I try to keep a blanket or long sleeved shirt and pants on so mosquitoes don’t bite me.”
“When I meet a new kid, before I go to their house or play with them somewhere far away from my home I always have my Mom meet them and their parents first.”
“If an adult walks up to me and starts asking me questions like where am I from and what is my name I do one of two things. I either say ‘that’s personal’ and walk away. Or if the stranger keeps bothering me I walk into a store or any public place. P.S. for kids – don’t be afraid to ask for help.“
He adds, “Sometimes in Third World countries small buses look very alike. When we are in a big bus station it is easy to mix-up buses. If we have our luggage on the bus and I want a snack I always try to memorize where the bus is, just in case I get confused which bus is which.”
Advice for Moms or Dads
“Try to know where your kids are going at all times whether it is playing with a friend or going to play video games, especially in a town you are not familiar with. Have cell phones so you can call them and they can call you anytime.”