Useful tips from a foreign service mom
For those families contemplating a trip abroad, or have who have to travel for work or study, an attack on a big national airport like Brussels can set nerves on edge. Parents worry whether to change plans. Children might hear of the news and get anxious.
Most of the time, international travel is extremely safe, and for those who can afford it, a wonderful shared experience for families. And, as Donna Scaramastra Gorman wrote for TIME.com after the Paris attacks, never going anywhere is the most dangerous choice of all. Gorman, whose husband works for the State Department in Moscow and whose book Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse gleans from her 16 years as a mostly expatriate parent, recommends families take a few simple precautions when traveling. Here are some of her tips:
Do your research. Before you go overseas, go to the State Department’s website and look up what it has to say about your intended destination. If the State Department advises you not to go, don’t go. And don’t let your children go, either. Those warnings are serious business.
Connect with the Embassy. Before you get on the plane, register for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. In the event of a threat, the Embassy will be able to alert you. In the aftermath of a terrorist event or a natural disaster, you’ll want the Embassy to know you’re in-country so they can provide aid or help you get out if necessary.
Get local. Watch the local news in-country, or find an English language local source. Monitor Twitter and other social media sites. They won’t always have accurate information, but they’ll alert you to activity in areas you need to avoid. And you do need to avoid large crowds, political gatherings, protests and riots. This should be obvious, no? But all too often, curious onlookers are injured because they followed a crowd and found themselves in a dangerous situation.
Prep the kids. My family practices for specific scenarios—everything from a fire or a bomb (follow police evacuation instructions) to a missed metro stop (go one more stop, get off and don’t move; we’ll come to you). We can’t know what scenario, if any, they’ll face, but we want our children to know that they need to avoid large crowds, pay attention to their surroundings and trust their instincts—if they see something or someone that seems strange, they need to tell an adult and get away from the situation. Will all of this talk scare them? Probably, yes. But do it anyway. You don’t want your child to freeze in an emergency.
Test the kids. When you’re out in the city, have one of your children lead you back to your hotel or house. They need to know how to get back where they started if they lose sight of you.
Keep your phones charged. You and your children should have fully-charged cell phones with all important numbers plugged in. By all means, invest in some portable chargers. But you need to remember that the phone system could be overloaded in a true emergency. They need to have your phone number and address memorized, and they need to know what to do if the phones stop working. (Older kids can find their way home without; younger kids can look for a mom with a baby or a policeman and ask for help.)
Consider what’s in your wallet. You and your children should each carry identification and cash in the local currency at all times. Tuck a hotel card in each child’s pocket when you go out, or print up cards with your home address. Make sure your credit card has a low balance, in case you need to buy a plane ticket, or several, out of the country in an emergency.
Snap a photo. Take a picture of each child on your phone before you go out touring in a crowded location—it will be a lot easier for local police to find your child if they have a current picture that shows what they were wearing when you saw them last.
Forewarned is forearmed. Thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong can be overwhelming. But knowing that you have thought ahead and prepared as best as you could will give you and your children a sense of power. Talking to your children in an age-appropriate way about the plans you’ve made, will help the whole family sleep better at night.
Don’t forget the big things. These days, everyone worries about terrorists and bombs on planes. But, despite what you may think after reading the news, those aren’t the real threats to families overseas. If you really want to keep your family safe, you’re better off worrying about whether you have the required vaccinations for your destination. Make sure your medical insurance includes medical evacuation insurance. Buckle your seatbelts. Pay attention to your surroundings. And don’t drink the water unless you’re absolutely certain it’s safe.