Anne Jacobson didn't know whether to be frantic or furious.
Her 13-year-old son arrived on time with his friends at the base of the mountain where he and his younger sister were supposed to meet their parents. But his 9-year-old sister wasn't with him, and he had no idea where she was.
"They got tired of waiting for her, so they'd gone on ahead," Jacobson said. "They couldn't even understand why I was so upset." Emma arrived a few minutes later to her parents' enormous relief.
"Our strategy now is to stay together on vacation, unless it's a very controlled environment," said Jacobson, who lives in suburban Chicago.
Most families have at least one vacation story like this one or like the tale of the young college student who had met a girl and forgot to call his mom at the hotel to say he'd be late.
"After I got done calling all the bars, I started calling the hospitals," said Candyce Stapen, who has traveled all over the world with her two kids. "I was sure something terrible had happened. He came back at 5:30 a.m. He just hadn't thought to call because he was used to living on his own."
Stapen is the author of the two-volume "50 Great Family Vacations for Western North America and Eastern North America" (Globe Pequot, $18.95). Her advice: If teen-agers and young adults want to go off by themselves on family vacations, make sure they check in frequently and know exactly where to find you. And no matter what their ages, be sure they understand the curfew rules--and that you mean them.
"That gives them some freedom but you some control," she said. "It's a safety check."
These days, that's particularly important for families on vacation. Every schoolchild has heard more than one lecture on stranger danger. And every parent has experienced at least momentary panic when a son or daughter is late.
While abductions are extremely rare, law enforcement officials say, getting a pocket picked or getting lost are not. And it's important to be on guard, even in what might be thought of as protected places.
"People forget that hotels are public places, like malls or stadiums. We can't police everyone who goes in and out," said Chuck Timanis, a spokesman for the American Hotel & Motel Assn., which represents about 10,000 hotels across the country.
Whatever their ages, it's important to teach kids to be safety-wise on vacation.
Rule 1: "They should always have a buddy and never go anywhere alone," said Los Angeles police officer Frank Ramirez, a specialist in crime prevention who frequently speaks to schoolchildren.
Rule 2: Review the rules that every '90s kid knows about stranger danger--not to go near a car or go anywhere with a stranger. "Explain to the kids that an adult shouldn't be asking a kid for help," Ramirez said. Make up a family code word that is to be used in an emergency.
Rule 3: Tell the kids to carry their money in a front pocket or a belly pack. Stash a card with the hotel phone number and address, as well as your cellular or beeper numbers if you have one. That's a great way to keep in touch in a theme park, when kids might be waiting in line longer than they expected. Should the kids get lost or need help, Ramirez said, teach them to head straight for the nearest person they can find who is working behind a counter. "That way you know they're really working there," Ramirez said.
Rule 4: Make sure the kids know how to spell their last names and their parents' first names. "You'd be surprised how many don't," he said.
Rule 5: Hold on tight to young children in any crowded situation. Never let them out of your sight.
When her 6-year-old started going on school field trips, Kim McCulloch worried what would happen if he was separated from his group. She realized her dog had more identification than her child, so she developed "KID:ID," a simple Velcro bracelet with space to write your name and address. (To order, specify the child's age and sex and send $4.95 plus 50 cents postage and handling to: 607 Elmire Road, No. 333, Vacaville, CA 95687.)
A few simple precautions will not only keep everyone safer, but enable parents to relax, knowing exactly where the kids are and what they're doing, even if they can't see them every moment.
If they're alone in the hotel room, for example, tell them not to answer the door . . . even the housekeeping staff can return later.
For a free copy of the Traveler Safety Tips, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the American Hotel and Motel Assn., 1201 New York Avenue NW, Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005.
And for a copy of the new Family Safety Check that tells families how to keep everyone safe from injuries, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the National Safe Kids Campaign-FSC, 111 Michigan Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20010-2970.
"Err on the side of caution," said Pennsylvania State University pediatrics professor Mark Windome, a spokesman for the Academy of Pediatrics. And no matter how much they beg, don't give them any more vacation freedom or responsibility for a younger sibling than your think they can handle.
You won't be sorry.
\o7 Taking the Kids appears weekly. \f7