Help your child fly solo with organized planning

Just last weekend, I put my daughter, 10, on an airplane in Boston which was bound for Philadelphia. Neither her mother nor I traveled with her. My heart went with her, however, as the butterflies in my stomach had forced it out of my chest.

What kept me from succumbing to my nerves entirely was thorough preparation. There wasn’t a lot to do, but attending to every detail ahead of time helped ensure a successful experience for my daughter and for me. Here’s how I prepped my 10-year-old to fly as an unaccompanied minor for the first time.

  1. Give the traveler a thorough briefing. This goes without saying, but don’t over look it. Talk about what will happen, yes, but don’t stop once you’re at the airport. Allow the child to be an active participant. Go over the boarding pass and explain the gate, departure time, boarding procedure, etc. Point out members of the crew and what their uniforms looks like. Greet the gate agents. Have her listen to announcements. In other words, help her be a traveler, not a child taking orders from mom or dad. This training can be done each time you fly with your children, even before they go on their own.
  2. Try not to freak out. I cannot overstate this enough. If you’re calm, there is a great chance your child will be calm, too.
  3. Pre-pay for on-board Wi-Fi. If your child will be traveling with a connected device (iPod, phone, iPad, etc.) you can probably pre-pay for on-board Wi-Fi online. Visit the airline’s website for information on this. It saves your child the hassle of trying to do it (my Grace would not have figured it out), and a flight attendant will gladly get her up and running. I wrote my account’s username and password on an index card that my daughter could show an attendant, who gladly got her connected.
  4. Decide well in advance if she will check baggage. Based on your child’s physical size, checked baggage may be beneficial. Walking to and from gates, even when accompanied by an airline representative or parent, can be a challenge with a lot of stuff. A simple, manageable backpack should be all your child has to worry about inside the terminals. The person meeting your child at the destination can help her retrieve her luggage.
  5. Provide DIY entertainment for the flight. Depending on the age of your traveler, the plane’s entertainment system might be difficult to operate. I prepared a small bag full of her favorite things, like those insufferable teeny-bopper magazines and a couple episodes of her favorite TV shows on the iPad mini.
  6. Snacks. Forget the overpriced, unhealthy airport food. I placed a few of her favorite, most portable choices into that same carry-on bag. Skip drinks, though.
  7. Book flights that depart early in the day. Morning flights statistically are less likely to be cancelled or delayed.
  8. Easily identify medical concerns. Pin a print-out of any medical/dietary concerns on your child’s shirt if the child is younger or have instructions in his/her carry-on bag. Point both out the gate agent.
  9. Give your kid a few bucks. Chances are she won’t need it, but I felt better giving Grace a five before leaving her.
  10. Grab some great apps. Grace has a few favorite games, but I also put FlightTrack Pro on her iPad. It lets her track her flight’s progress in real time and has one-tap, pre-written text messages like “I’ve taken off” and “I’ve arrived,” which make communication easy for everyone involved. Some airlines even have baggage tracking apps and/or websites so you can be sure your child’s bags are on the same flight.
  11. Confirm your airline’s policies for unaccompanied minors. My daughter flew on US Airways, which required me to call ahead of time and confirm specific information about the adult dropping her off as well as the adult picking her up. Also, confirm that the gate agent is aware of this information. Plan some extra time into your day as you will not be allowed to leave the gate area until Jr’s plane is physically in the air. If there’s a taxi delay on the runway, you’ll be delayed, too, even though you’re not the one flying.

Our careful preparation helped our daughter’s unaccompanied flights go off without a hitch and the planning was a big part of that. Lastly, let me tell you this: nothing feels better than that phone call from the destination that says, “Safe and sound.”

And for the record, I still had a little trouble with not freaking out.

6 Comments for “Help your child fly solo with organized planning”

  1. posted by Kimberly Herbert on

    A suggestion from Air Canada saved me – If traveling with an Epipen or other injectable medication, have a note from your doctor on his/her Rx pad stating why it must be in your carryon luggage.

    A few years ago a TSA agent tried to force me to go back and put my epipen in checked luggage, because there are no bees on planes. I don’t carry my epi for insect stings. I have the deadliest version of the peanut allergy. If I touch something with traces of peanuts, I land in the ER unable to breath. The TSA agent insisted only diabetics were allowed to bring injectable medications on the plane, but because of the note called her supervisor over.

    The supervisor, thankfully was familiar with my type of allergy. He not only allowed me to continue to my plane, he strongly suggested that I put the epi in my money belt instead of the carryon in case the carryon had to be stored away from my seat.

  2. posted by Barbara on

    I put my 18 year old son on his first solo flight to Madrid where he had a long layover before the flight to his final destination in Spain to stay with the exchange student we previously hosted. While I suspect he had an easier time navigating we did use TextMe app to let me know he had arrived and to answer any questions. All of your steps were on my list as well. I totally freaked out but only after he passed through security. This is a very helpful post.

  3. posted by Sue G. on

    Excellent post, thank you! As an adult that was trained to travel as a kid (in general and solo), I agree with the tips above.

    I would add–ANY time you travel, try to include your children in the steps involved: point out security or information kiosks in airports so they know where to find help when lost; narrate security check points or when boarding, so they understand the process; and explain why some topics of conversation are not appropriate in airports (jokes about bombs, etc., which should be common sense, but I see things like this happen too often and if TSA become involved your whole day changes).

    When you arrive, make a game out of finding the rental car desk or baggage carousel for your flight by following airport signage.

    If you’re sight-seeing at your destination, occasionally hand a tourist map to your child, orient them to your location and ask them how to get to a destination (subway station, museum, park, etc.). Have them lead the way (with your help as needed).

    Throughout my travels as a child, whether in Minneapolis or foreign locales, my mother (a former flight attendant) used all of these opportunities to teach me travel and it gave me the confidence to travel anywhere in the world throughout my life.

  4. posted by Jane on

    I sent my daughter to Japan for a week at age 10 and we did pretty well but she had a few tips for me when she got back. 1. Remind kids about time changes, especially if they have a layover in the states. Their phone will update but if they have a watch, it won’t. 2. Remind them to keep hydrated, since airplanes are dry. 3. Whatever they buy, they have to bring or ship back. 4. And as you mentioned, there is no need for the parent to panic, even when sending a 10 year old to a foreign country by herself. It will all be fine and the memories will last a lifetime!

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    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Frank — (In reference to the comment I deleted.) Interesting thoughts. However, they are not directly applicable to the content of this post. Please see our comment page and leave general site-wide comments there. I will look at your suggestions and ideas as they arrive in my inbox.

  6. posted by Georgina on

    Thank you very much for all the posts. These are great tips. They also apply if you have an adult who is going overseas for the first time. The first time I was a passenger on a plane, was also the first time I left my country. I was alone and I had to leave my husband and three children to study abroad for a year. I was so scared that only after I was safely at the uni that I could exhale. I am grateful that I got the opportunity but I wish I had had some of this practical advice.

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