Our Kid’s First Solo International Flight

Our Kid’s First Solo International Flight

As you may have already noticed, my family gets pretty excited about travel. My husband and I traipsed all over the globe together in our dating and just-married days, and now we’re very comfortable dragging the kids around the world with us. We’ve already started to nudge our oldest out of the Family Travel Nest.

C did his first flights without us 3 years ago, right after his 10th birthday – across the country and back to visit his amazing and very patient grandparents. He did the same thing last summer, but on the back-to-us flight met us in a different city instead of our home airport.

This year, as a newly-minted teen, he flew out alone to visit his grandparents for a couple of weeks, and he then took a 5-hour international flight to meet us in Canada. He did all of this after having already spent 2+ weeks away from home at various summer camps.

And I’m happy to say he rocked it.

The Logistics

Here’s what we learned about this whole process:

Not all airlines allow this. Some have age cut-offs as high as 16 for minors traveling alone abroad. Some allow it, but only on non-stop flights. Some allow it, but you have to pay a fee to have the flight attendants monitor the situation from the departure gate at the origin airport through passport control and customs at the destination. Some allow it and make the flight attendant monitoring optional.

Air Canada’s rules are the less-strict variety, and so we booked our son on a flight with them.

Tickets and Other Documents

The ticket purchase was easily done online, which I appreciated (this is not always the case for minors traveling alone or minors traveling internationally).

They did tell us to have C travel with a notarized letter signed by us giving him permission to take the planned flight without us and detailing our contact information. I’m not sure anyone ever looked at said letter, but it made sense for him to have one since neither of us would be with him at check-in or customs.

Obviously he had to have his passport with him, so we got him one of those nerdy travel document purses with strict instructions to keep the strap around his neck no matter what.

Travel Day!

C’s flight was from O’Hare International to Vancouver International.

For whatever reason, Air Canada told me at booking that the “attendant fee” was included in the ticket price, and day-of they told us it was separate and we hadn’t paid it.

What this amounted to was that C had to go from security to his departure gate without his grandmother and through customs all alone, but it worked out fine. He reported that everyone was really nice (especially the TSA agent on the departure end who walked with him to his gate after he got anxious in security).

He said he was nervous in customs/passport control when they started asking him questions, but we could tell once he met us at international arrivals area that he was really proud of himself.

13 year-old boys are typically useless for reporting details about an experience, but from what I could gather C did have in-flight entertainment and snacks/drinks provided in coach class. He reported that there were loud children next to him and that he “watched Aquaman and How to Train your Dragon and ate a lot of Swedish Fish.” So there you go.

The Air Canada customer service reps at Vancouver International were super awesome. The “international arrivals” waiting area is very close to an abundance of food options, shops, and the public observation area where your toddler can shout incoherently at the airplanes.

How to Know When They’re Ready to Fly Solo

This post is NOT meant to be a “look how responsible my kid is” bragfest. C is plenty irresponsible in many areas, as evidenced by how much of the past academic year he spent in detention. But for some reason unbeknownst to us, he really levels up when it’s time to travel.

Different kids are good at different things, and they become ready to take on adult challenges at different times. That’s okay. I didn’t have the occasion to fly anywhere without my parents until I was 20, and I didn’t cross any international boarders alone until I was in residency. But the world is more mobile now than it was 10 years ago, and naturally more and more kids are flying to more places unaccompanied.

If you’re feeling like your kid is ready, you’re probably right. If they’ve asked to travel alone, they are more than ready. My advice is to start small, and keep it positive. Give your kid nothing but affirmative feedback about the whole process (do not project any of your fears or frustrations about this new experience or about flying in general onto them).

If your kid is younger or otherwise not quite ready to handle all the details of the airport shuffle, consider paying the extra dollars to have an attendant accompany them as much as possible on their travel day.

I think solo air travel is a very empowering milestone for kids. And honestly, if C can do it, your kid probably can too.

Letting kids do things that are just a little bit out of the family comfort zone is good for everyone. I think it’s especially good for us as parents.

Watching your child walk smiling and confident through an “international arrivals” gate is weird… but really cool. It makes you let go – just for a second – of the fact that this is the same child who claims to need help with things like finding his toothbrush and who usually doesn’t know what month it is.

And it gives you a momentary glimpse of the awesome travel possibilities in their future.

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