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Keeping Your Teenager--and Your Money--Safe on Spring Break

Geoff Williams

Having to wire bail money to your teenager in a Mexican prison. Discovering your daughter begged for bus fare on a street corner to get back home. Seeing embarrassing, career-ruining pictures on Facebook of your son chugging beer while judging a wet T-shirt contest.

Over the decades, the specific fears may evolve, but worrying about teenagers on spring break is a rite of passage for some parents.

Whether you've allowed your teen to sell you on the idea that they deserve their own vacation (what, and you don't?) or you came up with the idea because you have fond memories of your own spring breaks, you have every right to worry. After all, you're a parent, and it's a dangerous world out there.

"Most teens and young adults don't go crazy over spring break, and a lot are enjoying it responsibly or maybe indulging in it a little bit--but it's not just your own kid you have to be concerned about. You also have to worry about the other students out there," says Pat Seaman, a mother of two teenage girls and the senior director at the Denver-based National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), a nonprofit that aims to educate Americans about personal finance.

[Read: 11 Ways Parents Can Help Kids Cut College Debt Now.]

So if your teen is about to head out on spring break, you may want to consider the following:

Do plenty of pre-trip planning. It sounds logical, but not for the reasons you might expect (i.e., wanting to find a hotel with a vacancy). You'd be wise to call ahead and ask about a hotel's specific policy in admitting as solo guests teenagers and even early twentysomethings, especially when it's spring break, says Tracy Line, the owner of Noblesville Travel, a travel agency in Noblesville, Ind.

Hotels in popular spring-break areas such as Panama City, Fla., or South Padre Island, Texas, often have age restrictions in place during the spring-break period, according to Line. "Most hotels in these destinations require someone in the party to be 25, and they will be required to show ID upon check-in," Line says, noting that anyone under 18 may need an adult with them. The bottom line: "Those between 18 and 25 may need to be flexible about their destination choice. Most hotels are pretty strict with age and spring," she says.

If hotels are strict, rental car services are even more so. "I don't know of any car rental agency that will rent to anyone under the age of 18, and most will not rent to anyone under the age of 21," says Line, adding that exceptions are in New York and Michigan; both states are legally required to rent to 18-year-olds and up.

That may be just as well, especially if there's any chance your teenager and their friends will be drinking, and odds are, they won't need a car anyway. As Seaman says, "Many spring-break cities probably have shuttles or other kinds of buses or transportation for spring breakers, and if they're within walking distance of the beach, they're not going to need a car."

Warn your kids about theft. It isn't just con artists at the airport or on the boardwalk who want to lift your kid's wallet or iPhone. If your 19-year-old college freshman or sophomore is heading out on spring break, remind them that every crook in town knows exactly when college students are leaving their homes.

"You should make sure they've secured the valuables in their dorm room or apartment before they leave," Seaman advises.

How exactly your offspring does this depends on their situation, of course. But this may be the time to teach them about the benefits of a safety deposit box at the bank, or if they have expensive electronics that can't be easily moved, to make sure they're insured. Speaking of which...

Travelers insurance. If your teenager is making tracks out of the country, perhaps to Mexico or the Caribbean, you should consider getting travelers insurance.

It may seem ludicrous given how high premiums are, but many private insurers don't cover emergency treatment outside of the country. Check with your insurer first to get the ins and outs on your coverage, but if your teen isn't covered, travel insurance will help get your son or daughter to a decent, and hopefully a very good, hospital or doctor. You can find a list of reputable companies offering travelers insurance at the U.S. Department of State website.

Travelers insurance typically costs about 5 to 7 percent of the entire trip, according to Carol Mueller, vice president of Travel Guard, one of the companies listed on the U.S. Department of State's website. Travelers insurance also covers expenses such as an overnight hotel stay if your teen's flight is cancelled and he or she can't fly out of the country the same day.

Don't give your kids too much money. This may seem counterintuitive since you don't want your teen or young adult to be stranded in a city without any money or resources, but remember, we live in an era of mobile and Internet banking. With banks offering more ways to transfer cash, as long as you have a quick and convenient way to get money to your son or daughter, it's becoming less important to stuff a teenager's wallet with cash and credit cards, either of which could be stolen or misused.

[Read: A Guide for Credit Card Newbies.]

Meanwhile, Seaman advises: "Don't lend your kid your credit card. Just don't."

If you want your teen to have some sort of plastic, you could consider a prepaid card, says Seaman, although she cautions that you need to do your research since many come with fees.

And yet another downside of most prepaid cards is that if your teenager loses it or it's stolen, it's like losing cash--you and your teen won't get your money back.

But there are some exceptions. For instance, both Visa and Mastercard offer prepaid travel cards that are refundable if stolen. Or you could go with old-fashioned travelers checks, which also will be replaced if they're taken or lost.

Still, another reason you may want to be careful about loading up a teenager with too much money on spring break is that money equals freedom, and while you want your teenager to be independent and have freedom, you may not want them to have too much. When Julie Talenfeld, president of Boardroom Communications, a public relations and marketing firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., financed most of her daughter Jackie Zobel's share of a two-night hotel stay over spring break in Key West, Fla., last year with her three best friends, she gave her $80 in spending money.

It was enough to have fun, but perhaps not enough to have the kind of wild night that is the stuff of parents' spring-break nightmares.

[See Dilly-Dally on These Financial Duties and It Will Cost You.]

Talenfeld, who worked out the hotel payment arrangements with her daughter's friends' parents beforehand and paid for the stay on her credit card, also made sure management was fine with the arrangement and worked it out so the young guests couldn't get incidentals beyond the two-night visit. There would be no ordering room service, for instance.

Of course, keeping your teenagers safe over spring break goes far beyond making sure the financials are in order. It's also about offering those priceless pearls of parental wisdom to ensure everyone comes home happy, which was the case for Zobel and her friends.

"I made sure to tell her to make sure everyone buckled their seatbelts and not to blast the radio and dance while driving," says Talenfeld, who managed to work in everything from stranger-danger to Ted Bundy into her mini-lecture. "Just because someone is in college," she says, "it doesn't mean he or she is a good guy or girl."

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