Earlier this summer, police arrested a woman at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for allegedly attempting to kidnap two young children. They said she tried to push a stroller away from a mother and also grab the young child who was walking next to the stroller. While the incident was thwarted, it served as an important safety reminder for parents who travel with kids about the need to be vigilant.
The risk of attempted kidnapping or human trafficking is certainly remote, but there are so many other possible dangers. How can you balance a desire to experience adventures with your family with keeping your kids safe? Here are several tried-and-true tips.
Be Alert in Public Places
There’s something about traveling that can cause even the most street-smart person to have lapses in judgment. Whether it’s just the thrill of being on vacation or the distraction of juggling a cranky kid and a lot of luggage, traveling can cause all of us to let our guard down. This can make families vulnerable.
Be vigilant in unfamiliar locations. Hold a younger child’s hand in busy public places. Don’t have your head in a guidebook or a map that distracts you from supervising your kids. And don’t allow your kids to display any expensive items like electronics that might make them targets of crime. In short, be as smart as you would back home while on the road — and much more so in some destinations.
Keep Your Kids Close
You know that it only takes a second for a child, especially one with a mind of their own, to get away from you. A mother found that out the hard way recently at the Atlanta airport. She looked away for a moment and that’s when her 2-year-old decided to hop a ride on a baggage carousel. His five-minute adventure included a trip through a baggage X-ray machine into a luggage staging area. The child ended up breaking his hand. (While video footage of his escapade went viral, TPG has chosen not to link or embed this video to protect the child’s privacy and because some may find the video disturbing.)
Whenever or wherever your family travels, keep your eyes on the kids and institute a buddy system so no one can get too far without someone noticing and speaking up.
Have a Plan for a Lost Child
Losing a child is a common fear. I lost my daughter in Disneyland when she was five for a minute or two, and it felt like an eternity. Discuss this danger beforehand with your child. Make a plan to help minimize the risk and speed your reunification if you are separated.
As soon as your children are old enough, have them memorize your cellphone number. With younger kids who might not be able to remember a phone number, label them somewhere with your contact information. There are a number of products, from temporary tattoos to ID bracelets, that can get the job done.
In new places, show all kids what “safe” people look like who can help them if they are lost. Point out people like police officers, airline staff, national park rangers or theme-park employees when you arrive at a new destination.
Consider putting very young but mobile kids in a carrier or stroller when visiting places you think they might be too easily separated, like boarding public transit or at a crowded theme park. There are also times and places where a leash backpack might be a good idea. I definitely don’t judge!
Travel With Car Seats
Car accidents are the leading cause of childhood death in the United States, so keeping your child properly restrained in cars during travel is a must. The problem is that this can be easier said than done in many travel situations. What if you need to take an Uber or Lyft ride, but have nowhere to store the car seat upon arrival? What if you are traveling solo as a parent with multiple kids of car-seat age and can’t possibly carry that much gear? What if you are traveling in a country where vehicles don’t even have belts to secure a car seat?
We all do the best we can under unusual circumstances, but at the very least, think through these logistics to find the safest transportation method for your family where children can be restrained if at all possible. Sometimes my family takes public transit or a bus transfer to avoid the car-seat dilemma. MommyPoints swears by Silvercar and its free car seat rental.
Luckily, the baby- and child-gear market also has stepped up in a big way to make improved compact child-restraint products that work for traveling families. The Doona Infant Car Seat and Stroller is incredibly versatile for infant travel. For older kids of booster seat age, the BubbleBum or MiFold boosters are both compact enough to put in a purse or backpack. A new foldable car seat, the WayB Pico, is pretty game-changing for parents who travel with kids ages 2–5.
And what about car seats on airplanes? The FAA, NTSB and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend that infants and young children be restrained in aircraft. While I will admit that I’ve flown with a lap child quite a few times, I also know that the choice comes with some risk. If you want the safest air travel experience for your family, that means using a car seat (or CARES harness) for your children on planes. While often inconvenient, bringing your car seat on board has one additional benefit: It means the seat won’t be subject to rough baggage handling that might cause unseen damage.
Find Safe Food and Water
In so many travel destinations, the biggest travel risk is getting sick from unclean water or improperly prepared food. Kids have been exposed to fewer pathogens in their lifetimes than adults, and often fall victim to travel bugs more easily. Getting a stomach ailment can be more dangerous for young children due to a greater risk of dehydration.
When traveling to countries where water and food can be a risk, be vigilant. Do your research in advance about food and water safety. Always have bottled water on hand, even for brushing your teeth or washing vegetables. Eat at places where food safety is traditionally better, even if that sometimes may mean you have to miss out on a meal from a delicious street vendor and eat at the hotel restaurant.
Take Natural Dangers Seriously
Many families travel regularly to very safe and controlled travel destinations. This can sometimes make them complacent about the real dangers in many other places. While a Disney park is going to have railings around a dangerous drop-off or a lifeguard at the pool, you aren’t necessarily going to find the same in a national park. In fact, multiple travelers die in US national parks like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon every year.
When your travels take you out into Mother Nature, prepare yourself and your children. Talk about not approaching animals and looking out for natural dangers. Wear good hiking shoes, obey all posted signs and warnings, and set a good example for your kids with your own behavior.
Be especially vigilant around water, particularly if it’s moving. Most destinations (even many family-friendly hotels and resorts with pools) won’t have life jackets. My 5-year-old is still not competent enough to swim alone, so we travel with a US Coast Guard-approved Puddle Jumper life jacket when we visit any destination where we’ll be in the water.
Book Child-Safe Accommodations
When traveling with younger kids, some of the biggest safety risks can be right in your hotel room or vacation rental. Open outlets, unprotected stairs and railings, sharp corners or even outdated or recalled cribs can present real dangers. For quite a few years, I traveled with at least a few basic childproofing supplies in my luggage like outlet covers and blue painter’s tape to make our hotel rooms a little safer. Some luxury hotels will even make these kinds of supplies available if you ask or if they notice a young child booked on your reservation. Here’s what you need to know about babyproofing hotel rooms.
Scope out vacation rentals carefully for potential dangers before you book. A pool might seem like a great amenity, but not if it’s unfenced and you have a curious and mobile toddler. Just last year, I rented a Tahoe ski cabin with an open loft with bars so far apart a small child could easily have fallen through. Consider booking accommodations where you can count on the room and common areas to be up to code.
Last but certainly not least, make sure you and your children are up to date on all immunizations required for the destination you are visiting. This may mean you have to schedule extra shots if you are going to countries that have diseases that are not regularly vaccinated for in the United States. Remember also that younger children are not able to be fully immunized against many diseases. Consider carefully your choice of destination when you travel with babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
This story was originally published on The Points Guy. Sign up for the TPG daily newsletter and wake up to unbeatable flight deals, travel industry news, and credit card bonuses that let you travel first-class to some of the world’s most incredible destinations at a fraction of the price.