Kids traveling solo is a big step to take, yet traveling is such an important part of childhood, whether it’s around your local surroundings or to places further afield. School kids have far more holidays than their parents and sometimes it’s a lot more convenient to “ship” them to their grandparents house or to visit friends during their holidays. For expats in Beijing, a trip to see the grandparents will likely involve a long flight, so the decision whether to let your kids fly solo may seem a rather daunting one. The kids, on the other hand, probably can’t wait to embark on a solo adventure. While it is considered perfectly safe to let them fly on their own, there are a few things you need to consider before you drop your little darlings off at the departures gate.
The starting point is that you need to request the airlines unaccompanied minor services at booking. Since the rules vary by age and by airline, check carefully with the carrier’s website to make sure you fully understand the rules for minors traveling alone. Better yet, call a travel agent who can check all of the rules and secure the best flight for your child’s travel. An airline’s travel companion service always comes with a (sometimes significant) surcharge, added to a standard adult fare. Policies vary, but in general children aged five to 12 are considered unaccompanied minors by airlines. With some airlines, kids over 12 do not need the travel companion service and they will be treated in the same way as a middle aged businessman or back-packing graduate. There are often stipulations, such as only allowing minors to fly alone on non-stop or direct flights.
If you think they’re ready to fly solo, and have booked the tickets, there are a few things to consider for departure day. Arrive at least two hours prior to flight time, since you will be required to sign various forms and get a gate pass to get you through security. You are required, in almost every case, to accompany your child to the gate and you can’t leave until your child has boarded the aircraft. This is a comfort to many parents and their children, as the airlines want to limit their liability by having parents with their kids as long as possible. In some cases the airline might not be able to have you go through to the gate, so airline staff will chaperone your child through security and boarding.
Children will be first to board, and in most cases they will be required to sit in the same area on the plane where flight attendants can keep an eye on them, typically near the galley. This policy adds an extra level of security and really makes it much safer for kids to travel alone. Airlines also require a designated person, complete with identification, on the other end of the flight to meet your child; they will not release them without that person being on hand. The person picking up the child should also have identification that exactly matches the information that you supplied the airline. It’s a good idea to include with your child a copy of all of the contact information that you supplied the airline. If the child is able to use the telephone, you should provide them the means to contact someone (change, phone card, cell phone, etc.) in case there is a problem.
On our flight back to the UK this summer, there were a few unaccompanied minors, and in one case an older brother flying with his two younger siblings. Letting my kids fly solo is not something I’ve considered as yet, although it would have been great when my daughter was at the toddler stage and refused to sit still for a whole flight! I asked a few of my friends whether they would let their children fly alone, with mixed responses:
I’ve traveled all over the world and seen loads of kids on flights alone. The flight attendants keep a good watch on these children. I would happily put my child on escorted flights, no problem.
I think it is perfectly safe for children to fly solo. My parents would send me off to Germany every year by myself to visit my grandparents. This started when I was 6 years old. The airlines were always attentive and made sure I got on the correct flight.
I would never put my child on a plane unaccompanied. The flight attendants’ responsibility is the safety and care of all the passengers, and they do not have the time to console, safeguard, and attend to unaccompanied children. No parent should abdicate their child’s physical safety and emotional well-being for the convenience of not accompanying their child on the plane.
I will not let my children travel, using any mode of transportation, alone. There are too many potential problems that could happen. Cabin crews attend 100+ persons on most flights and could not possibly have the time to watch my children close enough.
Before MH370 and MH17 I may well have let them fly alone. Now, I just couldn’t do it.
So while airlines do allow children as young as five to travel unaccompanied, there are a lot of things to consider before you book that ticket for them. For one thing, your child may actually not be ready or willing to be in the presence of strangers for several hours, and may not be able to handle unusual situations that they may encounter. It’s one thing letting them walk to school on their own, another thing entirely to fly half way across the world.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.