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Some family members have invited my two older kids to visit for a week next summer. The plan is that the children would fly there, and then we (and the youngest sibling) would drive up a week later to pick them up, visit a few days, and then drive home again. While they've been on vacations without us before (the same relatives drove them to Disneyworld a year ago), neither one has flown on a plane.

We are (happily) not being pressured to send the children if anybody is uncomfortable with the idea. I've spent the last few months going back and forth in my mind. I think this could be a fun adventure and positive experience for them, and a way to help them both feel responsible and mature. On the other hand, I'm freaking out about plane crashes, kidnappers, what happens if they get in a fight -- mostly things that my logical side considers to be overprotective and dramatic, but my emotional side can't stop fretting over.

My daughter will be 11, and generally responsible and conscientious. Her younger brother will be 8. He's terribly forgetful and doesn't like being in unfamiliar situations, although with his sister along he'll probably cope. I am assuming that parents will be able to escort them to the gate and other relatives will allowed to the gate to meet them, so really the only alone time will be on the plane itself.

I realize that there's no "right age" at which kids are old enough to fly on their own. What are some things I should be considering as we come to a decision? Since neither has ever flown before, how can I help prepare them for the experience -- particularly the younger who might freak out about pressure changes, thumps as the landing gear deploys, turbulence...?

  • For me the ages or maturity of the children are much less relevant here than the fact they have never flown before. They won't be familiar with where to go, what to look out for, how to read the departures board and everything else about getting safely through an airport to board the plane, and then the things at the other end like remembering to pick up their luggage and where to do that (rather than getting over excited and running out the departure gates to their waiting family). These are the things you would need to try and teach them before the day, and hope they could get it right. – AdamV Oct 30 '14 at 9:04
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    travel.stackexchange.com may have other interesting answers about letting unaccompagnied minors travel – Danny T. Oct 30 '14 at 18:39
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First off check that it is possible, I know some airplanes have rules about minimum ages for unaccompanied minors, so you may want to check.

Also, don't assume you can take them to and pick them up from the gate - I know some airports do not issue gate passes any more. Check with the airports. If you can't you may have to purchase an unaccompanied minor service to bring them to the gate. (or do as a friend did, and purchase a cheap ticket for her mom so she could pick up her grandchild at the gate, never intending to use the ticket, but just to get through security).

Preparing your children:

I would say that if at all possible, fly with them once before you go. I don't think being on a plane is that strange, and you can't go anywhere, but it might still be a little strange. If you can't fly with them, consider getting them used to public transportation in general - sitting next to strangers, letting someone take you to your destination.

Another idea would be to have them watch videos of people flying on planes (just not movies with crashes, terrorists, snakes...). Just show that it is normal.

Reassure that the safety instructions that it is just a precaution, they can be a little intimidating. Just like putting on a seatbelt in the car, you want to know where the emergency exits are.

Consider looking at the user satisfaction of the airline. Choosing one with nice stewards/stewardesses might help. Also make sure your children know they should follow their instructions, and that they can always ask them for help.

Explain the basics of air flight: You enter, taxi, ascent, fly at cruising altitude, decent, exit. Explain that there can be turbulence. Explain that there will be a big 'thonk' when the landing wheels fold down in most planes.

Explain basic behavior on planes: you have to use your seat belt, you have to stow your hand luggage, you don't use tray tables or recline you seat until you are at cruising altitude, you don't kick the back of the seat in front of you, you politely request a person next to you let you get to the bathroom, you have to stay in your seat if there is turbulence, and so forth.

Role play the entire journey if you can, 'play airplane trip'.

  • I'm curious what the ratio "normal flight" to "disaster flight" is in movies... probably completely out of proportion! These are all excellent tips. And I'm noticing that helping them prepare for the experience will help me prepare (and chill out) :) – Acire Oct 29 '14 at 18:50
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    +1 - excellent answer! I would only add three things: packs of gum for takeoff and landing, a ride on a slightly bumpy road if possible just to let them know what turbulence feels like, and be ready to explain aerodynamics if the youngest needs to know how planes fly (and why they might experience turbulence). Maybe the last two won't be necessary. – anongoodnurse Oct 29 '14 at 21:09
  • @Erica - it's not exactly a children's movie but in Up in the Air, the lead flies (I don't know exactly, maybe) 10 million miles with nary a scratch. Here is a list of films which feature aviation. What an adventure! – anongoodnurse Oct 29 '14 at 21:14
  • In addition reassure them that various clunks, thuds and whirr's are very normal, as are the beeps etc. and that yes, it really does climb that sharply, and yes it really does bank quite a lot. It's the 'wait, is it meant to be doing that' most people don't like – Jon Story Oct 30 '14 at 12:42
  • From someone who travelled alone lots as a kid, the first flight with my sister (who is 7 years older, I was 8 the first time) put my mind at ease, and made me enjoy flying. I've only flown with family 3 times ever since, almost 20 years later. – Canadian Luke Oct 30 '14 at 19:21
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I think your children may be too young to fly unaccompanied so it is best to check that first.

I flew several times unaccompanied as a child, but generally before security restrictions prevented people going to the gate. My experience as a younger child was that I was always escorted (walked, driven on a cart, or a series of carts / cars if changing concourses) to my gate. At the gate, I was left to my own devices in the waiting area until the plane started boarding. I was called by name to board first. When getting off the plane, I was asked to wait in my seat and they came and got me after everyone else had gotten off the plane to take me to the next gate. If there was a long layover and the next gate was not yet ready, then I was taken to a special children's waiting area that is a closed room with constant supervision. When I was older (16?), I was able to go on my own from gate to gate.

The experience was fairly well controlled, but I was not being constantly monitored while waiting at the gate. That said, airports are pretty safe places behind security and I never felt unsafe or scared. However, it may be an adventure if your children have not spent much time on their own or flown before.

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Check with the airline if it's permissible at all, but also whether they have a process to handle it - typically non-low-cost airlines will provide a staff member to take them from the check in desk to the gate, to ensure they get to the right place. They can then be met on the other end

A lot for me would depend on the airport. If they're flying to a small regional airport, it's practically a big bus station with a single waiting area, you can walk them to the security gate, ensure they get through and then leave them with instructions to ask directions once through.... Departures is usually just one big room with several gates.

If the airport is larger, or they have to transfer somewhere larger, I'd be less keen - Atlanta or similar are daunting enough as a seasoned traveller adult, never mind a child.

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How do your children do with unexpected situations? If bad weather causes the flight to be diverted to an airport 50 miles away, how well would they deal with it?

For that matter, how well would the person meeting them at the destination handle it?

  • That's a very good point. I'm confident the relatives meeting them would be both willing and able to drive to a different airport once they knew that was required. A different relative would not handle a diversion well, and in fact would take the weather personally and blame it on me, but that drama is a whole different Question... and the point is that it's clearly an important consideration! :) – Acire Oct 30 '14 at 11:54

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