Summer. It’s the time of year for travel. But some of us can’t travel all summer long (why oh why didn’t I become a teacher?). So what do we do with our kids?
At some point local camps just aren’t good enough and away camps come calling. Or we have family who live in a great place to visit and are willing to have the kids hang out for a time. Or clubs and teams travel to far away places. It comes time for your child to travel solo (or with a sibling).
Back in the day when I was a child traveling solo, OK with my brother, there were fewer requirements. Airport security, well, was not what it is today. I don’t recall any age limits for a child flying solo but if there were some, they were lower. On our first solo flight, my brother was 8 and I was 6. We flew to Michigan for a summer with our grandparents at the lake. The coolest part of the flight was the airline pin we got.
Now how old is old enough? That’s going to depend on the parent, the child and the circumstances of what’s required. Is it travel by plane? By bus? By local public transportation around town? (We just started letting our 12-year-old take the train to gymnastics practice by himself. Wow, the freedom for both us and him is a little mind blowing.)
At whatever age it is you decide to let your child(ren) travel solo, you want to make sure your child is prepared and kept safe.
So how can you prepare for your child traveling solo?
The First Question: Can My Child Travel Solo?
The first question is probably more for the parent than about what is allowed. But we’ll look at both.
So parent, are you ready for your child to travel solo? Even if your child is mature and comfortable traveling solo, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are. Some parents just aren’t comfortable letting their child out of their sight. Since you are here, we’ll assume you are thinking you’ll be OK and move on.
Is your child ready? Let’s face it some 9-year-olds are more mature and trustworthy than 15-year-olds so it’s not just about age. Is your child mature, responsible, resourceful, willing to ask for help, aware of what’s going on around him, able to follow instructions?
Secondly, if your child is traveling to see family or to an out-of-state camp, a flight will likely be involved. Different airlines have different age requirements for what they term unaccompanied minors (or UMs). So check your particular airline for their specific rules.
For instance Southwest Airlines says:
- Young children under 5 must be accompanied by an adult.
- Children ages five through 11 can travel as an unaccompanied minors with a $50 fee each way for unaccompanied minor service OR with an accompanying passenger age 12 or older.
Whereas American Airlines policy is:
- Children under 5 years of age may not travel alone under any circumstances.
- Unaccompanied minor service is mandatory for children ages 5-14 traveling without an adult who is at least 16 years old and costs $150 each way; ages 5-7 must be direct flights.
- Children ages 15-17 years are not required to travel as unaccompanied minors, but the service is optional for this age group as well.
On a Greyhound bus the policy is:
- Children under the age of 12 can’t travel unless accompanied by someone 17 years of age or older.
- Children ages 12-16 are allowed to travel unaccompanied but with certain restrictions.
And on a Amtrak train:
- Children age 12 and under must travel with another person who is at least 18 years old.
- Children 13, 14 and 15 years old may travel unaccompanied in accordance with their policy.
Assuming we’ve determine your child is ready and able to go, here are a few tips to make sure your child is ready and comfortable to travel solo and have a safe journey.
“Because it was Southwest, I made sure I bought early bird so they would get a seat up front, got there early enough so I could get my pass to walk them to the gate, and waited for them to get on. I just instructed my kids to sit in the aisle so they could flag down a flight attendant should they need anything.”Heather F., Denver mom
1. Prepare your Child (and yourself)
We’ve already determine you are ready to let your child go. But you may still be nervous. Preparing your child may help you feel more calm about the journey as well.
Remember as excited as your child may be, he may be nervous too. Talk with them about what is going to happen and what is expected of them during the trip. If they are traveling with unaccompanied service, explain what that means. Who is it that will be keeping an eye on them. Make sure they are comfortable as well as excited.
It’s also important to walk through different scenarios so your child know how they should respond. In their excitement, what if they get lost in a crowd of people getting off the plane? What if he needs to use the restroom during the flight? What if he feels sick? If he is traveling without an unaccompanied service, what if he can’t figure out where his connection is? What if he loses his group of people he’s traveling with?
Depending on your child’s age, he may or may not have a phone to communicate with you if something should go awry.
What other kinds of scenarios do you think your child needs to be prepared for?
2. Prepare the plans
As the parent and the one paying, you probably made all the arrangements. It’s important to write all this information down for your child also, just in case.
- Flight itinerary, including flight number and times and gates, if available.
- Phone numbers for you and whoever is picking the child up on the other end.
- If the child is flying the family member or friend on the other end will be able to get a pass to go to the gate to pick up your child.
If the child is traveling as an Unaccompanied Minor, whoever is in charge will have all this information too. But it’s still good for the child to know. Make sure your child understands the schedule: when we’re arriving at the airport, what time we need to go through security, how early we need to be at the gate, etc.
3. Prepare Your Travel Insurance
Do parents need to look at catastrophic events (hurricanes)? sickness? What if their child just gets freaked out at the last minute and refuses to go? Is there insurance for that?
Travel insurance policies for children traveling solo will vary in the same way a standard travel insurance policy will vary. The coverage you need depends on the trip itself. For instance if it’s just to Grandma’s house you’ll need different coverage than if your child is going on a class trip and even more so if it’s a sports team trip. You’ll need to make sure the insurance covers what you might need.
Check the level of coverage available for standard elements of the policy that you would usually look for, such as lost luggage, personal accident, medical treatment, and money and valuables getting lost.
4. Prepare for Medical Situations
When your minor child is traveling alone without a parent or legal guardian, the adult in charge should have a medical consent form. This will grant temporary medical power of attorney to the adult in charge in case there is a medical emergency so there is no delay in treatment. If it is a school trip or an away camp, they will likely have these forms on hand during the registration process or prior to leaving the child in their care.
However, even if it’s a visit to family, someone who is there should have a medical consent form. I’ve left a signed letter when I’ve left my children with family while I went away for a weekend. But it is probably best to have a signed, and usually notarized, medical consent form.
The document should include:
- Minor’s name and birth place.
- Authorized medical treatments
- Health information about the child
- Identity of the person being granted responsibility
- Health insurance information
5. Prepare for the trip
It’s finally time. The trip is just a day or two away. Time for final preparations. Here are some tips for kids traveling by plane:
- If they have a phone, make sure it’s fully charged (and put the charger in the carryon) so they can call when they arrive.
- Have activities to keep them occupied on the trip, whether that is a book, electronics, book of puzzles, or travel games.
- Have snacks. Airlines don’t feed passengers like they used to when I was a child. Be sure to have snacks and maybe a sandwich or something substantial (kid sized) for them to eat.
“Nonstop, technology with no limits, plus soda—they did amazingly well. They’re going again this summer and CANNOT wait. When we went to Europe this winter I could see a marked improvement in their travel confidence.”Nicole G., Denver mom
Extra: Prepare for Foreign travel
1. Research Visas and Passport Regulations
This may seem obvious but make sure the child’s passport is current. You need to make sure that your child traveling solo has his passport, has a travel visa, if required, and understands the regulations in place with having a visa.
You can find more detailed information about international travel, passports and visas from US Department of State.
2. Learning Foreign Phrases
If your child is traveling internationally on their own or with a school group, there’s always a chance they will find themselves lost. Make sure you talk to your child about sticking with their group and being safe. It’s a good idea to know at least some basic foreign phrases in case of emergency. A book or cheat sheet of commonly needed phrases is helpful.
It’s a whole new world when your child begins traveling alone. Whether it’s their first trip or their fifth, these tips will help make sure your child feels comfortable and safe while having a grand adventure.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
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