Anne Jacobson didn't know whether to be more frantic or furious.
Her 13-year-old son and his two friends arrived on time at the spot where he and his younger sister were supposed to meet their parents. But his 9-year-old sister wasn't with him. He had no idea where she was.
"They'd gotten tired of waiting for her, so they'd gone on ahead," explains Ms. Jacobson. "They couldn't understand why I was so upset." Emma arrived a few minutes later, to her parents' enormous relief. Annoyed at being left behind by the boys, she was none the worse for the experience.
"Our strategy now is to stay together on vacation, unless it's a very controlled environment," says Ms. Jacobson, who lives in suburban Chicago.
Every family has at least one vacation story like this one: the toddler who wandered down the beach in the second his mother looked away to grab a towel; the 12-year-old who got lost at the theme park; the young college student who 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," says 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."
Ms. 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 explains. "It's a safety check."
These days, that's important for every family on vacation. Every school child has heard more than one lecture about "stranger danger." Certainly every parent has experienced momentary panic when a son or daughter is late.
Abductions are extremely rare, law enforcement officials say. But HTC getting a pocket picked or getting lost is not.
"People forget that hotels are public places, like malls or stadiums." says Chuck Timanis, a spokesman for the American Hotel and Motel Association, which represents some 10,000 hotels across the country. "We can't police everyone who goes in and out."
Whatever their ages, it's important to teach kids to be safety-wise on vacation. Los Angeles police officer Frank Ramirez, a specialist in crime prevention who frequently speaks to school kids, offers some rules.
* Always have a buddy and never go anywhere alone.
* Review the rules that every '90s kid knows about stranger danger -- don't go near a car and don't go anywhere with a stranger. "Explain that an adult shouldn't be asking a kid for help," says Mr. Ramirez. Make up a family code word that is to be used in an emergency.
* 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 number, 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, 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," explains Mr. Ramirez.
* 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 says.
* Hold on tight to young children in any crowded situation. Never let them out of your sight.
Once her 6-year-old started going on school field trips, Kim McCulloch worried about what would happen if he got separated from his group. She realized her dog had more identification than her child, so she came up with "KID:ID," a touch-fastener bracelet with space for your name and address. (To order, specify child's age and gender and send $4.95 plus 50 cents postage and handling to 607 Elmire Road, Suite 333, Vacaville, Calif. 95687.)
I know, everyone wants to relax on vacation and not worry about kids getting lost. However, 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 a hotel room, for example, tell them not to answer the door -- the maid can always return later.
For a free copy of the Association's Traveler Safety Tips, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the American Hotel and Motel Association, 1201 New York Ave., N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005-3931.
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., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20010-2970.
"Err on the side of caution," says Pennsylvania State University pediatrics professor Mark Windome, a spokesman for the Academy of Pediatrics on Safety Issues. The bottom line: No matter how much they beg, don't give them any more freedom on vacation or responsibility for a younger sibling than your gut tells you they can handle.