When I was 8 years old, I flew on an airplane by myself to visit my grandparents. My mother walked me up to the gate, where a uniformed airline employee took me by the hand and led me onto the aircraft. I sat right up front near the flight attendant, who kept an eye on me and provided me with iced sodas, little packets of peanuts and “wings” to pin onto my dress. Flying solo was an adventure, and it gave me access to an independence I’d never experienced before. I was eager to do it again.
These days, there’s nothing I’d rather do less than tussle with dozens of strangers over a grimy plastic bin in which to deposit my shoes. The thrill of flying off to a new city has been ground out of me by baggage fees, security pat-downs, overpriced snacks and tense hours occupying the dreaded middle seat. I certainly don’t wish such discomfort on my children, especially by themselves.
But an airplane is the only way to get my 13-year-old across the country to visit his grandmother.
As I prepare him — and myself — for the big day, I asked experts for tips on how to make it a smooth ride for everyone. Here’s what they said.
Take stock of whether your child is ready.
“I would consider quite strongly what level of maturity they have, how well they are able to make decisions for themselves, how well they’re able to follow directions that might have multiple steps to them, how shy they may be, or how readily they’re able to ask adults for help,” said Dr. Cindy T. Graham, a child psychologist practicing in Maryland.
Graham noted that children are generally allowed to babysit at age 13, so it’s probably safe to assume that most — though not all — kids are ready to handle a solo journey by that time.
Airlines’ policies vary. Delta allows kids 5 and up to fly unaccompanied. Kids 8 and older can even take connecting flights. For a $150 fee, their program will provide your child with a trackable wristband, access to kids’ sky lounges and a personal Delta escort throughout their trip.
Whichever airline you choose, they will issue a gate pass to the adult who brings the child to their departing flight and the adult who picks them up upon arrival. Kids are not left on their own to pass through security.
Do a run-through.
For some kids, preparation too far in advance can increase anxiety, so it’s important to take your child’s individual needs into account. When you do introduce the concept, contact your airline to confirm what the process will entail for check-in, security and hand-off at the gate.
“Walk your child through the exact steps that will happen at drop off and at pick up,” said Natasha Daniels, a child therapist and licensed clinical social worker in Arizona. Hopefully this is not your child’s first time on an aircraft, so they will have some familiarity with the process.
Review basic in-flight protocol, such as not being able to use the bathroom during take-off and landing, how to use the call button to get the flight attendant’s attention and what to do in an emergency.
Ask open-ended questions.
When discussing the upcoming flight, don’t make assumptions about what your child is thinking or feeling.
“You want to give space for the child to talk about what their concerns are,” said Graham.
Daniels recommended asking them, “What’s the scariest part about flying alone?” and using their response as a guide to prepare them.
You can also ask children what they think would help them feel less nervous while on board. They might have ideas about what to pack in their carry on, for example.
If your child does express fear, Daniels suggested that you validate it by saying something like, “It’s normal to feel anxious when you are flying alone. Anyone would feel anxious and that’s okay.”
If your child is in distress, validate their feelings, but keep your own emotions in check. “If they see you’re upset, that makes it that much more difficult for them,” Graham said.
Pack a bag full of distractions, as well as something soothing.
Twenty-thousand feet in the air probably isn’t the right place to limit screen time. A tablet or phone loaded with pictures of family members can bring comfort, and new movies or shows to watch will make the time pass more quickly. If the airline has an app that enables access to in-flight entertainment, help your child download it before they board. Don’t forget to fully charge devices, and remember to pack chargers and headphones.
Younger children may want to bring a lovey or favorite stuffed animal. “For teens, even a favorite sweatshirt can bring comfort,” Daniels added.
Snacks are another favorite distraction. Pack plenty, perhaps including a usually-not-allowed treat that your child can look forward to eating. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants - CWA, which represents flight attendants who work for a number of major airlines, said snacks should be peanut-free, and that kids should also have a water bottle they can fill before boarding (the water bottle needs to be empty when you pass through security.)
In addition to the identification and paperwork they may need to meet the airline’s requirements, make sure that your child has the phone numbers of the person dropping them off and the person picking them up.
Identify helpful adults.
Introduce your child to the flight crew at the gate. A young child can also introduce the stuffed animal that will be traveling with them.
Nelson suggested that parents “book children on aisle seats so flight attendants can see them and they have access to get up and ask for help.”
She explained that flight attendants will brief your child before the flight, check on them throughout and remind them to wait for the designated employee who will see them off the plane.
Daniels suggested making a call to the person who is going to be picking them up so they can “hear directly from that person where they will be waiting when they get off the plane.”
Know when to pull the emergency brakes.
You want your child to know that you believe they can do this, but at the same time, you have to “know the point for your child to call it off,” said Graham. An impending tantrum could be a signal, as could physical symptoms such as fever, headache or vomiting.
“Sometimes the child is worried about disappointing the parent or disappointing the people they’re going to see,” Graham explained.
Particularly when custody issues are in play, it’s critical to “honor the child’s point of view,” said Graham.
Forcing a highly-distressed child onto a flight could have “significant implications,” Graham said, ranging from their sense of bodily autonomy to trusting their internal compass when it says that something is not right.
“One of our greatest obligations as parents is to teach our kids to be able to live without us,” Graham said.
We should look for safe opportunities to foster independent skills in our kids. Ordering their own food at a restaurant, for example, allows them to practice making decisions and speaking for themselves.
Prior to take-off, “praise and reaffirm their ability to do it on their own,” Graham advised.
Managing that first solo flight can give your child a sense of accomplishment and the confidence to tackle other challenges — plus, they’ll be pros the next time around.