Traveling Safely in Mexico and the Islands

See recent posts by Erika Kotite

Traveling families love beautiful the white-sand beaches and warm sunshine in the tropics, but the recent news in Mexico has raised questions about safety for visiting tourists and parents are pausing before booking a resort or purchasing airfare to certain questionable destinations. Yet, at the same time some are wringing their hands and staying home, many families are continuing with their trip plans. “The fact is, more travelers are having amazing and safe vacations than ever before,” says Dan Austin, owner of Austin-Lehman Adventures. According to the Costa Rica Tourism Board, tourism in Costa Rica rose by 4.6 percent in 2011. In Puerto Rico, tourism officials expect a 3 to 4 percent rise in visitors this year (the first increase in five years). Although some of the increase is due to an economic uptick, it’s mostly due to the reluctance of families to give up their vacations unless there’s a very, very good reason.

“We are not afraid to take our children anywhere,” declares Andrea Fellman, founder of SavvySassyMoms and mother of two. She has taken her family to Costa Rica, Mexico and many other resort destinations. “No place is really off limits to us so the Caribbean, Jamaica and Puerto Rico are all possibilities.” Families are naturally attracted to warm, sunny relaxing destinations like Bermuda, the Caribbean Islands, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and of course, Mexico. And in general, says Irene Lane of Greenloons, an eco-travel services company specializing in family vacations, “they are terrific places to go. These destinations enjoy good reputations as family-friendly regions with lots of fun and educational activities, including heritage tours, biking, camping, snorkeling, swimming and eco-certified hotels.”

So, regardless of the “safe versus not safe” debate on travel, parents continue to look forward to their resort vacations and want to do everything they can to assure that their trip goes well, their children are safe and healthy, and their possessions are protected. And while nothing can guarantee a problem-free vacation, taking a few practical steps beforehand and exercising caution during your trip can prevent most troubles.

How Safe is the Country I’m Visiting
When planning a trip to Mexico or the islands, parents anxiously watch the news for any kind of unrest; if they see a country placed on the “danger list,” they cancel plans or at the very least, stay on resort property at all times. But travelers are unreasonable when they do this, says Dan Austin. “In my opinion, it’s a disservice to blindly put some countries on the danger list because of a few incidents in isolated regions or cities. Travelers need to do their own research.”

A good way to check for safety and travel issues internationally is by using the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisory service. In addition to maintaining important information about each country’s U.S. Embassy location, the site explains what to do, where to go and/or who to call in case of emergency. (At press time, Mexico was not listed under “Travel Warnings.”) You can also sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which emails you up-to-the-minute travel and safety information for any country or region. In the event you encounter an emergency in a foreign country, it will help if you are registered with the Embassy through STEP.

Safety Issues to Consider
Depending on where you travel, safety issues can run from the very minor (e.g., different ideas of “personal space,” language difficulties) or the unlikely (e.g., abductions, physical harm, etc.) to issues deserving serious consideration. Veteran parent travelers and travel experts consider the safety concerns detailed below when traveling to Mexico and the islands.

Stings and Bites. Kim-Marie Evans is a veteran traveler; as travel writer and founder of Luxury Travel Mom, she has explored many countries and regions with her four children, including Jamaica, Haiti and Rwanda. On her last trip to Jamaica, Evans was stung by sea urchins. The attendant on the private beach did not know what to do; he applied rum on her ankle and tried to remove the spines on her heel with the pin of his nametag. “I had to go to the hospital and get several shots when I returned home,” Evans recalls. “It was a horrible experience.”

Painful encounters with the natural world are virtually inevitable; nearly every family who vacations in humid, tropical places, in and around the ocean and playing in the outdoors, has a harrowing tale to tell of jellyfish stings, bee stings or mosquito bites. In Costa Rica, the threat of mosquitoes — and mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue and malaria — is ever present. “Costa Rica is working really hard to address the mosquito issue by spraying and reducing areas where mosquitoes can lay eggs,” Jenny Jensen, owner of Global Family Adventures, shares. “But you should try to avoid getting bitten in the first place.” She advises families to stay covered by wearing long sleeves, hats and insect repellant.

Lost Children. Another important safety consideration, especially for very young children, is preventing kids from wandering off. Andrea recalls the afternoon in Costa Rica when her 7-year-old son wandered off, kicking his beach ball until he disappeared from sight. “I thought [my husband] had my son, he thought I had him,” she recounts. “It was really scary.” Children get excited by the novelty and attractions of a new place and are even less inclined to stay close by. Still, Andrea believes that she and her husband should have communicated better, and doesn’t feel the resort was responsible for constant surveillance of her children.

Pool and Ocean Safety. The training and number of staff members stationed at pools and on the beach varies from resort to resort. It’s a good idea to ask about lifeguards in advance; some resorts have dangerous surf where swimming isn’t even allowed, so don’t assume anything when vacationing at a resort for the first time.

Exploring Off Property. When you are exploring towns and cities, however, you are on your own. Jenny Jensen advises parents to teach their children mom and dad’s cell phone numbers — or to write their phone number on the upper arm of young children. Other tricks include dressing your children in brightly colored clothing, telling kids to ask for help only from another mother with children, and deciding on a well-known, easy-to-identify spot for convening if someone gets lost.

Illness from Water and Food. Avoiding illness from drinking water or eating certain foods is a common concern for family travelers going to resorts outside of the U.S. Even if local residents can safely drink tap water, it does not necessarily mean you or your children can, too. Most hotels and resorts offer bottled water to their guests, just in case. Deciding what kinds of foods are safe for your family will be a personal call, although you can certainly request special dietary items from hotels in advance, and even in some restaurants. Evans recommends carrying Cipro Oral (Ciprofloxacin), an antibiotic that can help remedy illnesses caused by food- or water-borne bacteria; discuss with your family doctor before traveling.

Theft. Whether it’s petty theft, pickpocketing or just the plain awful realization that “oh no, I left Joey’s backpack in the taxi,” nearly every traveler loses something on a trip at one time or another. This usually doesn’t pose a safety threat, unless it is essential medication (in which case, be prepared with a photocopy of your doctor’s prescription and by always keeping extra in another safe place). But it can be a real hassle and stressful for parents who all of a sudden find themselves without their passports, money or credit cards. Some things, like special jewelry, clothing, cameras (with precious photos already taken) and your child’s “can’t sleep without it” battered teddy, cannot be replaced.

Most veteran travelers leave as much as possible at home. “Beachfront condos,” says Jenny Burrows, “are vulnerable to thieves who slit the screens, grab your stuff, and go. People really shouldn’t travel with nice jewelry and I always reduce my wallet before traveling.” In the event of theft, always file a police report, and obtain a copy for your own records and possible travel insurance reimbursement.

To lessen anxiety about losing your passport, make two copies of the page with your name, photo and passport number. Carry one copy with you and leave one back home. If your passport is lost or stolen, go immediately to the U.S. Embassy and report it; you will be asked to fill out forms to receive a temporary replacement. If you are traveling alone with children, make sure you have copies of their passports, as well as a notarized form from your spouse.

Should You Hire a Guide?
Private or Group. Hiring a knowledgeable guide can provide peace of mind for families wanting to venture off hotel grounds but uncertain where it’s safe to go. You can hire an individual guide to drive you around in a private vehicle, or you can opt for a guided tour through a travel service, which usually also provides trip planning assistance, a custom or group itinerary, lodging, and transportation to and from your resort.

What to Look for in a Guide. Hiring a guide provides a sense of security that you are with someone who knows the region, speaks the language and can shield you and your family from aggressive salespeople, street vendors, panhandlers and unlicensed taxi drivers. Also, a good guide will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of the place you are visiting. “The most impactful guides are those who have originated from the area or have lived there for at least 10 years,” says Lane. “Additionally, they should speak excellent English and be certified by a regional authority as having knowledge of the area’s history, nature and culture.”

How to Find a Good Guide. Many travelers begin by inquiring at their chosen hotel. The concierge can often provide a list of private and group tour guides; Evans always works through the resorts where she is booked. But there are a number of other ways to find a good guide. Many travel guides, in print and online, provide lists of local guides and guide groups. An online directory called Tours by Locals has bios and photos of guides from all over the world. Some are experienced, and some are just starting out, so it’s a good idea to read the reviews carefully and correspond with your chosen guide in advance before booking. If possible, ask for references from families who are familiar with the guide or guide agency. “It’s good if they have experience guiding families with children so the pace [of the tour] can be adjusted to their needs,” suggests Jenny Jensen.

Travel Insurance on the Rise
More and more travelers are investing in travel insurance; according to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, insurance sales rose to $1.6 billion in 2011, a 13 percent jump in two years. Part of growth is due to more choices: a blanket policy covering everything or specific coverage for cancelled flights, lost luggage or illness.

Like many options in travel, insurance has an equal number of advocates and critics. Evans always invests in a policy, and recommends choosing one that allows the hospital of your choice. Other travelers more concerned about natural disasters or potential outbreaks of violence recommend a policy reimbursing for weather and events that either make it impossible to reach your destination or make the destination uninhabitable for tourists. And there are still those who don’t think it’s necessary: “We’ve never bought insurance and have never needed a refund,” says Fellman. Travel insurance can cost anywhere from 4 to 8 percent of your total trip cost, but the bottom line: it’s worth it if you ever have to use it.

All-Inclusives: Safer or Not?
“Inclusives are great for safety, lousy for actually experiencing a country,” says Evans. An inclusive resort provides everything a family needs for relaxing and having fun: all meals and snacks, entertainment and even some onsite shopping. It is never necessary to set foot outside the resort property, and sometimes it is not advised. Ellen Creager, a travel writer for the Detroit Free Press, points out the limitations of inclusives. “I am not a huge fan of some of the [Caribbean] islands, including St. Lucia, Dominican Republic and Jamaica, where they warn you to stay on the property,” she says. “I like the ones where you can drive around and see things on your own.”

If you do opt for the convenience and relaxation an inclusive property provides, be careful about leaving your valuables in plain sight and never let your children out of sight. “I consider myself the first line of defense in taking care of my children on a trip,” says Jenny Burrows.

Trip Preparation Checklist
A little organization and preparedness go a long way toward easing worries about traveling with your children. Here is a list of things you should do before the first pair of swim trunks gets thrown into the suitcase:

1. Passports. Make two copies of your passports. Leave one set at home, and keep one set with you, separate from your original passports. (Have passports notarized by your spouse if he or she is not traveling with you.)

2. Important Places and Phone Numbers. Make a list of important places and phone numbers at your destination such as The U.S. Embassy, the nearest hospital and your hotel information.

3. Medical Information. List all medications and dosages for you and%2For your children. Obtain necessary prescriptions and if possible, carry extra in a separate location.

4. Pocketbook. Pare down your pocketbook to the barest essentials. Leave all extra cash, credit cards, photos and personal information at home.

5. Travel Insurance. Review your travel insurance information and take a copy with you.

6. ICE (In Case of Emergency). Create an ICE contact in your cell phone — not your spouse if he/she is with you. This contact should be someone in your family who is not on the trip with you.

7. Itinerary. Don’t forget to bring your itinerary, which should list your flight, hotel, tour guide and car rental information. And leave a copy with a family member or good friend at home.

8. Laptop. If you are bringing your laptop, back up all of your files onto a portable hard drive to be left at home.

Traveling outside your own familiar part of the world always involves some level of discomfort and uncertainty. And yet, the potential payoff in excitement, adventure and sheer pleasure is limitless. Says Lane, “In this day and age, travelers need to be consistently cognizant of their surroundings and heed warnings, whether they are traveling through the U.S., Central America, Europe or the Middle East.”

For more tips on family vacations, check out:

  • Surviving Travel Emergencies
  • 10 Best All-Inclusive Family Resorts in the Caribbean
  • How to Prevent and Survive Lost Luggage
  • Enjoyed a vacation in Mexico? Share in our Family Vacation Planning and Tips Forum
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