Traveling While Black: 11 Tips to Stay Safe in 2024

Kendra Pierson Avatar

What does a Black family need to know to be safe? What are the telltale signs that help a Black family know whether a destination welcomes multicultural visitors? Is there a way to know whether that gas station or restaurant off the highway will be happy to serve you? Here, a veteran SheBuysTravel contributor shares her tips for traveling while Black with her family.

Author’s Update: While a few years have passed since this article was first written, not much has changed on this list. Many of the things I shared in 2020 are still valid in 2024. The creation of Juneteenth as a Federal Holiday hasn’t changed a culture of more than 400 years of discrimination.

The worst part is I’m not surprised by the cultural climate of America. It’s not a new thing.

However, I am more concerned than ever about traveling because my favorite guys aren’t as little as they used to be. As they grow older, I worry about how the world will see them as they travel without me. These 11 tips can help keep them — and you — safe traveling while Black.

Safe vs. Welcoming: 11 Things Families Traveling While Black Need to Know

We are travelers at heart. We want to see the world and show it to our children. But traveling while Black means we can’t just jump in the car and go.

We won’t let fear stop us. But before we head out the door, we have to carefully consider two things:

  • Will the destination be safe for us?
  • Will we be welcomed there?

There can be a marked difference between safe and welcoming. When I look for safe places, those are places where we don’t have to fear that we might actually be harmed.

In contrast, a welcoming place is a destination where we will have no worries about our safety and we can expect to meet new friends and have friendly interactions with other guests and staff.

When visiting a new location, we usually determine very quickly if it’s safe and welcoming, or just safe. I will visit locations that aren’t necessarily welcoming but are safe. If we visit those destinations again, we might invite another family to travel with us so we have a built-in social group. Or we head there to spend quality family time together with no expectations we will meet new people or make new friends.

Here are 11 things Black families need to consider before heading off on a family vacation.

African American woman and her son
The author with her son. Photo credit: Kendra Pierson

1. Will We Be Safe?

It’s a question we always have to consider: Will we be physically safe there? If it’s a place we really want to see, we won’t let fear stop us from visiting. But we go in with our eyes wide open and protect ourselves as much as possible.

For example, if we have to pass through a destination with a reputation for violence against Blacks or an area where residents and businesses proudly display the Confederate flag, we wouldn’t drive at night. We’re afraid that if we break down at night we may not be helped by passersby who would see my husband as a threat. A friend says her family always carries a paper map in case the GPS doesn’t work so they don’t have to stop to ask for directions in certain places.

And these concerns are not limited to families traveling while Black in the South. Tomika Bryant, a Philadelphia-based lifestyle/travel expert, wife and mom of teens, says: “I always research the destination for stories about racism and crimes against Black men. Ever since Trayvon Martin, I have worried about my son and what could happen.”

Eva Greene Wilson, who writes at SocaMom, says she had expected “the South would be the place where we would be most likely to experience racism. However, on a trip to Toronto, we found out that upstate NY was where my kids would learn what it meant to travel while black.”

They had stopped at a gas station. “While my husband was pumping gas, I took my 8-year-old daughter inside holding her hand. We weren’t fully in the door before the cashier yelled that there was no bathroom. I said, ‘OK, do you know if there is a gas station or another place where she can use the restroom?’ She looked at me with so much hate. She said through her teeth, ‘Maybe a few towns over but there’s nothing here.’ We had seen so many HUGE Confederate flags, I’m not sure why I didn’t think that I wouldn’t meet the people who flew and accepted them once we stopped.”

2. What ‘Welcoming’ Means

When we feel welcomed, it means that the front desk clerk flashes the same bright smile to my family that she offered to the white family who checked in before us. It means that there is a multicultural group of guests so we aren’t the only Black family.

But how can you know before you go that a destination will be welcoming? There are several ways to get a sense of that:

  • Search the destination’s website and marketing materials for images of multicultural families. It demonstrates a commitment to welcoming a diverse group of visitors.
  • Stick with popular tourist destinations; they are more likely to draw large, multicultural crowds. That means local residents are more likely to be exposed to people of color.
  • And my tried-and-always-true recommendation: Ask friends who have visited and research reviews by families like yours.

Taking a Risk on a Destination

We live in Atlanta, Georgia, so there are lots of great options for road trips from Atlanta, both in-state and to neighboring states. However, we have not always felt as welcome in southern US states as we do in Atlanta.

Because it’s a quick road trip from Atlanta and there’s so much to explore in the Great Smoky Mountains, a visit to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, had been on our wish list for a while. It fits one of our criteria for a welcoming destination — it’s a popular tourist area — so we decided to take a chance.

It’s become one of our favorite road trips. From the history of Appalachia and the ruins of old homes and cars to the beauty and diversity of nature, we find plenty to do when we visit. Our family favorites include hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains and zip-lining through the mountains as the leaves change.

We have never felt threatened there.

When It’s Not Worth the Risk

I have never gone to the Wisconsin Dells in Wisconsin. And I have no plans to visit. But my sister visited in 2022.

Based on her recommendations, my family won’t put it on our must-visit because it’s just as unwelcoming as I imagined.

I grew up in Minneapolis, so the Dells were a quick road trip. But my family never visited. I always thought that I would take my children, but I now I know I won’t.

While it is a popular tourist destination, it doesn’t pass muster on the other two measures for a welcoming destination — none of my friends have recommended it and none of the promotional materials I’ve seen have shown a family that looks like mine.

The lure of the indoor waterparks is not enough to make us take the risk.

We haven’t visited Charleston, SC, or Palm Beach, FL, either. Friends have suggested we avoid those destinations and I haven’t seen anything to make me doubt their opinion.

Like Eva from SocaMom, I rely very heavily on the recommendations of friends and Black travel bloggers. I know that my friends are going to share the honest truth based on their experiences. I love my friends who are non-Black family travel bloggers but we’re not always going to have the same experience. (If you are surprised that Charleston is a place Black families tend to avoid, read this insightful piece.)

Instead, when we visit South Carolina, we spend time at Jekyll Island, which comes highly recommended by other Black families. It isn’t far from Charleston but it’s always been a welcoming place for Black families. Camp Jekyll is a 4-H Center located on the site of a historical Black beach. The history of the property is widely celebrated there, which makes us feel even more welcomed.

A Williamsburg White House Inn lit up at night. Photo by Deborah Keane, innkeeper of the Williamsburg White House Inn.

3. Be Ready to Answer Tough Questions

As Black parents, we research a destination to understand how our child might relate to the history of a place. We have to be prepared to answer questions such as “Why aren’t there any Black people as re-enactors?” and “Were Black Americans only slaves?”

Colonial Williamsburg is a great example. When I was homeschooling, Williamsburg was high on my list because, as one of the country’s first settlements, it showcases a key part of American history. However, it hasn’t always told the full African American experience. For example, half of the population was Black — Free Blacks as well as slaves. But the costumed interpreters only told the stories of the slaves.

In the last few years, the attraction has begun to tell a fuller story of the Black experience. For example, scholars have discovered that the first slaves came from Angola. Using that research, Colonial Williamsburg now includes the food and languages of Angola in its teaching. It also explores the cultural disconnect the slaves felt — in Angola the women tended the crops. In Virginia, the men were sent into the fields to do the women’s work.

Black Family at Disney World
The author with her favorite guys at one of their favorite places, EPCOT at Walt Disney World. Photo courtesy of Kendra Pierson

4. Be Careful Around Other Guests

When my boys were 4 and 8 years old, they were playing in the hotel pool and a little white girl kept splashing them. My boys asked her to stop and even moved to another part of the pool. She followed them. The boys were getting upset, so I stepped in and told her that splashing wasn’t nice. We moved again. This pattern continued until we finally left the pool altogether.

The kicker is that this happened at Disney, my happy place. Even at a place you love and feel comfortable visiting, you can’t let your guard down.

And, yes, I know this is how children play. But when you’re traveling while Black, you know that race can be weaponized. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that! Just ask Chris Cooper, the Black man who was bird-watching in Central Park, NYC, when a white woman called the police on him.

In the case of a disagreement over who was doing what to whom at the pool, I never trust that security will give my family the opportunity to share our story first. What bothered me most about our experience at Disney is that my children didn’t do anything wrong, but their fun was cut short. I didn’t tell them why we had to leave the pool, so their memory of Disney isn’t clouded. But mine is.

Still, I made the right choice. As a mom, I’m going to protect my children and make sure they stay safe. I was alone with my kids without any other adult support so to avoid a “Karen” experience, we left. It doesn’t mean that I felt good about it. A Black family recorded a similar experience at a Hampton Inn in 2020.

While on the North Shore in Hawaii, a friendly family took a picture for us. Photo credit: Kendra Pierson

5. Dress the Part

I think all Black travelers have at least one story about being mistaken for not belonging — in the first-class cabin of the airplane, the airport lounge, the resort pool. To help get around that, we’re more careful about what we wear when we travel and the clothes we pack to wear at our destination.

That applies to the kids, too. All teens like to be moody and hide under a hoodie wearing their earbuds. That doesn’t work for Black teens, especially boys. We don’t feel free to let our kids wear hoodies. We leave at home the progressive message t-shirts that we wear freely in our safe spaces. And we monitor their toys because of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. I don’t think I’d ever let them buy fun souvenirs, like the six-shooters you can purchase at an Old West museum.

I am absolutely most concerned about when my boys become young men and want to take Spring Break road trips with their friends. When I travel with them, I can remind them of all the unspecified rules and how people will look at them even when they’ve dressed the part. I’m afraid all people will see is a big Black man, even if he’s just my 15-year-old teddy bear of a son.

6. Stick to What You Know

We always stop at the same locations on road trips. On our family road trips to Disney, it’s a generic gas station. I’ve found it to be clean, safe and welcoming. (By the way, we never let the gas tank fall below a quarter tank. We never want to be desperately in search of a gas station just when we hit a dicey location.)

What if it’s unfamiliar territory? Here are the clues we look for to pick the place we think will be more welcoming to a family traveling while Black:

  • Is it a heavily visited location? Are there restaurants attached that families will visit? Truck stops tend to have lots of people around and feel more welcoming. We park as close to the entrance as we can.
  • Is it well-lit with lots of customers? Often that means the gas station and restaurants closest to the highway exit. We aren’t going to drive two miles off the freeway to get gas.
  • Are there any Confederate flags flying or posted in windows? These are locations we avoid if we can.

Growing up, we always stopped at the Boondocks gas station in Iowa on trips from Minneapolis to Kansas to visit family. I don’t remember stopping anywhere else on those trips. Looking back, I’m sure that my parents’ experiences traveling during the Jim Crow era influenced their decisions on what was a safe location. During that era, there was a guidebook, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” that listed safe places for Black travelers to stop — hotels, restaurants, night clubs, even “beauty parlors.”

7. Rely on Extended Networks

I don’t recall my parents using the Green Book. Instead, networks and personal recommendations played a huge role for them, just like it does for us.

We often visited their fraternal clubs — the fraternities and sororities of African American Greek organizations. This is how we expand beyond our friends for recommendations from a wider group of Black travelers. I can get recommendations and I know that if I am ever in trouble, I could reach out to members, share my family name and hometown for help.

Today, my children have the Internet and social media, but they also know that they can look for members of our extended network. If they find a Morehouse or Spelman College graduate, Mocha Moms, Inc or Jack and Jill of America, Inc family, they’ll be just fine, no matter where they are in the world.

Black Family Travelers
Hanging with your daddy means the best seat in the house and not worrying about who you play with, no matter where you go. Photo credit: DepositPhotos.com

8. Know Your Travel Goals

Why do you want to visit that destination?

Do you want to relax and enjoy family time? Then figure out how to keep your family safe during the visit and go ahead. You’ll be spending time together, so it won’t matter as much if the other guests and locals aren’t welcoming.

Do you and your significant other want some alone time while the kids have fun? That’s when we focus on finding resorts that are welcoming to people of color. I wouldn’t be able to relax and enjoy time with my husband if I was worried my boys were not being treated well at the kids’ club.

Do you want to immerse your family in local culture? If so, it may not make sense to visit a place where you don’t think the locals would be welcoming to a Black family.

Is your goal to meet other families? Accept that it may not happen. I say this from experience. We were on an island tour sitting very close to a few other groups on the tour bus. None of the groups knew each other previously, but the conversation turned to college football. I made a comment and the wife told me that it wasn’t my conversation.

It stung at the time. If it happens now, I figure it’s their loss.

And it doesn’t keep me from trying. On one of our last cruises, we met an absolutely wonderful couple on a tour of St. Maartin. They offered to take a family picture and we began a conversation that we continued all the way to the ship and whenever we crossed paths again.

The exhibits at Pearl Harbor told the story of ALL the Americans impacted — not just the white experience. It’s one of my favorite exhibits. Photo credit: Kendra Pierson

9. Be Open to New Experiences

While there are lots of potential barriers to traveling while Black, most Black family travelers know that for every poor experience, there are rich and multi-layered experiences waiting. Oftentimes, Black family vacation experiences are a fine line balanced between exploring without a care and being overly cautious. We’re willing to visit those places and leave if they’re not a good fit.

When my family visited the Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Hawaii, I was prepared to explain that there were lots of people impacted by the bombing, not just the White US soldiers. But I didn’t have to! The exhibits were multicultural and shared insights into the diverse lives of people impacted by the bombing. If we hadn’t been willing to make that visit, we would have missed a wonderful learning experience for my family. We learned not only about American history but also how the Asian-American and indigenous Hawaiian citizens were impacted by World War II.

11. Don’t Let ‘Em Keep You Away

One of the key points I hope to leave you with is that while our family does a little more to prepare for a trip, we’re still going to travel to satisfy our wanderlust. We reject any suggestion that our movement can be restricted. I hope that you will do that for your family, too.

The world is awaiting your exploration. Do what you need to do to make sure your family will be safe and then go!

My boys can’t wait to visit Japan for the 2021 Olympics and cheer for Team USA. I can’t wait for a girls trip to Disney or shopping in New York with my friends. Sharing a chili dog at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, DC (it’s a landmark you have to try!). South Africa, Thailand and New Zealand are all on our family travel bucket list.

Kendra Pierson has been the family-designated travel researcher since she was 16 and now shares that title with her husband and two boys. As a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP), she used to spend 50% of her time planning meetings for clients around the US and was lucky enough to bring her boys along for most of that ride. She is a pro at maximizing travel to include business and personal, most often including a long weekend. When she’s not traveling, she’s homeschooling her sons as they explore the Atlanta area and can be found blogging at KendraPierson – Love. Learn.Travel..
Read full bio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *