Losing track of a student during travel is every tour operator's nightmare.
If you are providing the tour guides for the tour and the school is providing the tour leader and chaperones, there are many actions your guide can encourage the school leadership to take to prevent a student from becoming separated. Once a student is separated from the group, corrective actions are limited. Preventive steps must take place, so a student doesn't become separated.
Suggestions to prevent a lost student situation or minimize the separation period.
- Prior to the travel program's start: The tour leader should collect the phone numbers of all group participants, including chaperones.
- Exchange phone contacts. The tour leader should provide their phone number and those of the chaperones and tour guide to every student, whether or not they have a phone. Students are not the only tour participants who may become separated.
- If name badges and lanyards are used: List the emergency contact numbers on the back of the badge.
- Utilize the buddy system. Assign each traveler a partner and explain that the two must stay together at all times. It is less likely that both partners would become distracted and separated from the group.
- Use the count-off system. Assign a number to each student. The tour leader should conduct a count-off when the group assembles to depart on their daily activities, before leaving the restaurant after each meal, after boarding transportation and prior to departure, when traveling through crowded areas, and—to remind students how important their safety is—randomly throughout the day.
- Identify a meeting point. Always identify a meeting point at each location or attraction, in case a student becomes separated.
- If separated, stay put. Explain to all travelers that they should stay where they are if they become separated and if the area is safe for doing so. This improves the leadership team's chance of recovery when they backtrack.
- Set time limits. Explain how long a separated student should wait in their location before moving to the established meeting point.
- Clarify who takes the lead. Determine with the tour leader who will take the lead in the recovery effort. The school may have its own protocol or need the tour guide to ensure the following steps are taken.
When you discover a student is missing.
- Talk with the group leader, chaperons and student travelers, to determine when and where the missing student was last seen.
- Call the student on their cellphone. If contact is made, have them stay where there are unless the area appears unsafe. In such a case, agree on a meeting place. Update the tour leader.
- If no contact is made, at least one chaperone should retrace the group's steps to look for the missing student. The tour leader and remaining chaperons stay with the group in a safe area. If it is believed the student is in immediate danger, notify law enforcement.
- If the student is not found within 30 minutes, contact law enforcement. Then, contact the parents. The student may have called home.
- If local authorities are aiding in the search, cooperate with them fully. They'll likely want to speak with the student's roommates or close friends. A chaperone should be present when students are being questioned.
- If the student has not been found, work with law enforcement to check area medical facilities. Position a chaperone back at the hotel, in the event the student goes there.
Once the student has been found, contact the parents immediately to explain the situation and the steps taken to find the student.
Here's wishing you all safe and healthy travels!
Written by Michael Bowers, Student Travel Safety Consultant, Center for Student Travel Safety.