I Let My Son Fly By Himself Internationally & Why You Should Consider It

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child flying alone international
Taken as he boarded the train for Hamburg Airport. Don’t worry about the face. That is how he always poses for photos.

The Independence of Youth

When I was growing up in the distant past of the 1980’s, we treated children differently. To put it simply, they (I) had a lot more freedom. The debate over this cultural change is beyond the scope of this blog, but it is one that is noticeable and one that I have found is taken to ridiculous levels at times.

Has anyone heard of the term “free range parenting”? It sprung up because a select group of parents decided they would allow their children to go out add play by themselves. One couple even got themselves in trouble multiple times and had to deal with Child Protective Services because their children were found at the park alone.

That story was distressing for me. For 3rd & 4th grades, we lived about a mile from my son’s elementary school. The first week or so he walked to school by himself while I tailed him in my car. (He didn’t know.) Once we knew he was capable of it, he walked to and from school everyday along with about 100 other kids. It was normal. I just don’t get the whole sheltering thing beyond the normal scope of common sense.

Travel & Independence

Which bring me to the topic of travel. I believe that travel is one of the most empowering things you can do for your children. Thus, if I travel and show my kids the world, why would I then not let them use that empowerment to better prepare themselves for when I am not there? One argument of course is safety. Thankfully in this day and age, the safety issue has all but been eliminated when it comes to flying. Airports are about the safest places in the world to leave a child.

A few months ago I held a poll asking whether or not people would allow their child to fly in coach while they were in Business Class. About 40% of all respondents said they wouldn’t. This was a shock to me. About half of you wouldn’t even let your kids sit in a different section of the same plane let alone fly on a different plane altogether. This was surprising to me. I am not judging, since I recognize everyone’s situation is different, however that doesn’t change my overall surprise.

After seeing your responses, I thought deeply about the subject and concluded that I simply disagree. The truth is that thousands of children fly by themselves every year because they have to. Sure most of them are unaccompanied minors and there is some sort of a safety net, but they still fly alone for the most part.

Teaching Independence

child flying alone international
He has come a long way since his first flight.

Have you ever been in a foreign country and seen a traveler (Unfortunately it is usually an American) just completely overwhelmed? They don’t know how to find their gate or how to get money. They don’t where to look to get their train platform and they simply are about to have a melt down in the middle of a public space. You have probably been in that situation. (I know I have.) I want my children to avoid that.

So now to the point I have been avoiding thus far. My son successfully made his way from Germany home to Las Vegas by himself yesterday. Not only that, but I put him on the train to the airport in Hamburg and he did the rest. Since I was leaving for Berlin, I waited to confirm he was through security before boarding my bus, but he did it ALL BY HIMSELF.

Just like when I drove my car behind him during that first part of 3rd grade, I could have jumped in if he needed help, but he didn’t. Through his extensive travels and careful explanation from me, he was confident enough to fly from Hamburg, Germany to Las Vegas, Nevada. That is pretty damn cool.

For the record his route home was HAM-FRA-SFO-LAS. Global Entry made things easier for him when entering the U.S. and flying in Business Class no doubt made things a little nicer along the way, but the kid did it. He handled everything he needed to and he got a huge dose of empowerment. I don’t see much stopping him now other than a bit of jetlag as was evidenced by the fact that he was texting me at 4am Vegas time this morning!

What if Something Went Wrong

I know the worriers among you are ready to tell me to consider what would have happened if there was a problem. Well, the kid is 15. He will be on his own in a few years and I have confidence he would be able to handle it. If something serious were to happen, I was in the same general area and I could have traveled within a few hours to be with him.

In other words, he was on his own, but not hung out to dry. If a flight had been cancelled or something else strange had happened I could have been there relatively quickly to help him through it. He was all on his own, however if he needed help (which he didn’t), then help would have been there. His cell phone with international data and texting didn’t hurt either.

This Is Me & Me Is Different

This post isn’t meant to be proactive or meant to accuse you of being wrong if your opinions differ from mine. The blog is called Miles to Memories, because I am a traveler. Sure I am very good with miles & points and I am very good with manufactured spending, however I am also very good and experienced with traveling. My way of doing things may be different than yours, but it works for me and thus is worth sharing.

Don’t ask me why it makes perfect sense for me to send my 15 year old son halfway around the world by himself, but it does. Shawn Reece has of course been globetrotting since he was 6, so perhaps that is part of it, however I felt he was ready for this challenge and he proved that I was right. As someone with a deep passion for travel, creating another generation of capable travelers is something that is meaningful to me.

Conclusion

I really struggled whether to share this on the blog, since I know a lot of you will utterly disagree with this. The truth is that just about every major airline allows kids 15 years and older to travel by themselves internationally. While I agree that children shouldn’t have to travel alone as a matter of habit, having that one amazing trip where they navigated the process from beginning to end is a priceless experience. I am very proud of my son. Where have the years gone?


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29 COMMENTS

  1. I remember that poll. I’d be totally ok flying in business class and leaving my kids in economy class. Heck even the parents in HOME ALONE did it when the adults flew in AA biz and the kids/cousins flew in economy! 😉
    I grew up in Hong Kong and I thought it was common for teenagers to travel on their own (I went through the ESF school system in the 90s pre-1997. True, it’s a different culture from the USA but I thought it was beneficial to travel on my own in order to ‘learn’ how to travel, if that makes any sense.
    One thing I recall my parents always teaching me is upon arrival to always look for the tourist information desk (I’d say most major airports have one) and to always kindly ask if the person speaks English, and if so, ask for a free map, ask the best way to get to the hotel using public transport, and ask if the areas I’ll be passing by is safe.
    Looking back I’m grateful for those experiences and I, too, think it’s ok for teenagers to travel on their own. 🙂

    • Love the Home Alone reference. I totally forgot about that! Good point about the tourist desk as well. My son had a semi-tight connection in Frankfurt yesterday, so I emphasized that he should ask an employee about exactly how to make his connection so he didn’t waste time. Unless you are somewhere completely off the radar, there are many people willing to help, especially if you are a kid. Thanks Joey!

  2. I don’t have children but I agree that at 15 your son is old enough to fly on his own especially since he has so much travel experience anyway. If someone is not able to handle a flight solo at 15 how will they deal with being away from home just 3 years later? Besides flying is much safer than driving which kids start doing at 16.

    My first kinda solo international flight was when I was 4. I was not completely unsupervised though as my parents’ acquaintances were on the flight and my relatives were waiting for me at the airport. It obviously went well as I love to travel.

  3. Strangely enough, I thought your poll about riding in different airplane classes had to do with the “ethics” of you being first class and your son being coach. In essence, ageism of sorts! Never dawned on me you were asking about it from a safety level. Haha! In both cases, my vote is yes!

    • It really was more about ethics, but a few people made it about safety. Looking back perhaps I shouldn’t have assumed or grouped all of the answers together in the context of this post. Glad your vote is the same either way!

  4. At 15 (back in the mid 2000’s), my son flew by himself to Germany to take part in a year-long exchange program. At 16, he flew back by himself, and the only help I gave him was to make a hotel reservation when his connection was cancelled. I’ve never understood parents that don’t teach their kids that this world’s a marvellous place; that while there are risks, for the most part they’re overblown; and that they can, and should be, perfectly competent to take care of themselves.

    Like @Jan W, it never occurred to me that your poll was related to safety – my kids haven’t wanted to sit with me since they were 10 (they like windows, I like aisles), and they preferred their independence.

    • JEM – Would you mind sharing what exchange program you went through. I just started researching these options over the weekend and it was rather overwhelming.
      Thanks
      Kadence

  5. Like the others, it did not even occur to me that the poll had factors of safety in it. I thought it was more of a “who should suffer” question when one of the family members would inevitably need to suffer and the others get preferential treatment.

    Shawn, it’s funny that my dad used to tail me exactly the same way you did your son (I had not the slightest clue). He sent me to a local fish market to get fish (and followed me ) when I was five. When he told me the story years later we had a big laugh.

    • The poll really was meant as that, however a lot of people seemed to take into account safety and morality. I probably shouldn’t have grouped all of the answers together in this way though. Thanks for sharing your story Alex. I still vividly remember driving slowly down the street while my son jovially made his way to and from school. He had no clue my wife and I were watching, but he did exactly what he was supposed to!

  6. I did this several times during my teens to visit my grandparents in Germany during the summer in the late 1970s early 1980s. Once I just about gave the LH minder a heart attack when I ended up sitting outside on the ramp at ORD watching the jets when they left a door open from the room they allocated to unaccompanied minors in transit! Always first on/off and got extra meals from other pax in Y and got to check out the cockpit of the 747 at 36K feet!

    • Ah the old unaccompanied minors room! It sounds like your flights were quite the experience. As someone whose parents never flew me anywhere as a kid, I sort of wish I had done that myself. At least I can give that sense of freedom to my son. Thanks Stephan.

  7. Good for you for giving your son empowerment and confidence.
    In the mid-eighties when I was 12, I flew from DFW to Eugene with a 3 hour layover in Portland that turned into a 5 hour layover by myself. I didn’t really think I was that big of a deal. However, when I tell my friends that story they flip out. They say they’d NEVER let their (older) kids do anything like that. I don’t understand helicopter parenting and I don’t plan on raising my babies like that.

    • Thanks Lindy. Kids have to spread their “wings” at some point. Doing it within the controlled environment of an airport isn’t nearly as dangerous as people would think. I just don’t get that line of thinking, although I am far from the typical person I guess when it comes to matters such as these.

  8. It depends. My nephew is 13 years old and lives in South America and was in the US this summer to study English in Chicago. My brother brought him to the school but let him fly by himself back. The school dropped him off at ORD and he checked in on a UA flight. Well, after 3 hours inside the plane the flight was cancelled due to weather. They deplaned the entire plane and said they would not provide food or accommodation since the cancellation was not their fault. Now what???? It was over 1AM and now there was a 13 year old kid with poor English by himself at ORD with no clue on what to do. He was able to call my brother in the middle of the night who then was able to call the director of the school which my nephew attended and he arranged for him to be picked up and taken back to the school. Problem is the airlines don’t consider a 13 year old an unaccompanied minor and since the cancelation wasn’t their fault they couldn’t care less for the kid.

    • I would argue that they had a safety net in place. Your nephew was able to call his father and he was taken care of. The airline definitely failed here, but the kid turned out ok and he learned how to handle himself in a crisis. So many people lack that particular skill set, although I know it must have been overwhelming for him at the time. I’m sure he probably now feels he can handle just about anything.

  9. I flew alone from CLT-JFK-FRA-STR when I was 14. This was back in 74. We went to Europe every other year and from the time I could read Mom had me navigate the family through the airports.

  10. I thought the poll had to do with ethics and not safety, too. I agree that your son is capable of flying alone since you have trained him. If he never flew internationally before, that could be too much for him to navigate on his own.

    We are blended family with 5 kids – all grown now, between the ages of 24 and 29. Their first international trips without us were with tour groups, with a friend’s family or exchange program, when they were teenagers. Each kid’s experience was different, but we encouraged international travel and independence. We thought semi-independent trips were a good transition.

    Having a semi-independent experience in high school made them feel more comfortable being completely independent abroad in college. Four of the five studied abroad in college and traveled while away. The fifth spent a summer during college backpacking around Europe.

    The youngest went to college in Montreal, which isn’t that exotic – but she didn’t speak French and thought it would be “badass” to have to get a visa to go to school and carry her passport with her everyday (until it was a PITA). She got a job in Japan right after graduation and is still there. Getting a visa to live in another country was not too overwhelming because she already did it for college.

    Since they were young teens, they had a credit card on my account with plenty of credit limit in case of emergency (which of course had no foreign transaction fees). It made me feel less anxious that they had a safety net to get medical care, a meal, transportation, or lodging. We trained them to manage money, so I never worried they would abuse it and they didn’t.

    So, I agree whole-heartedly with teaching kids independence – in many aspects of life.

  11. I can totally relate to this post. My daughter has been traveling with us since the age of 6, she has been to 45 countries and never alone. However, this summer, we let her traveled by herself from California to NYC to Paris and finally meeting up with us in Madrid. Although, she’s now 17, I was still worried about irropps and such. Luckily, it went without a hitch roundtrip. Now I can comfortably let her travel alone anywhere in the world.

  12. I flew NY to Sydney when I was 14 by myself, and I’m better for it. Thanks for sharing, Shawn. The current state of helicopter parenting is incredibly detrimental to children’s development. Yes, there are inherent risks in being “free range.” But sheltering your kids is a sure ticket for them to a miserable life.

    I see so many 20-somethings nowadays that are totally incapable of being independent, and they will suffer for it their entire life. It’s really sad to see.

  13. I think this is great. Though we never flew internationally as a kid my father always made sure I would do things on my own so I could deal with him. He was always close by or a phone call away but I remember running into issues and calling him and he would walk me through how to deal with them but wouldn’t actually do it himself(these were never life-threatening, I remember missing a bus and having a panic attack but he walked me through how to get the next one-a seemingly simple thing that was difficult for me to understand at that age). This was important because when I travel now things go wrong but I feel like I am more than capable of dealing with any issues that arise on my own. I don’t have kids but I think it was a great way to parent and made me a better person in addition to making me feel capable and extremely able.

  14. The way I see it is, if we can let a 16 year old drive a car by themselves (in Canada), why not fly solo at 15? I mean airports and airlines have numerous people around that can assist you if needed. I’d be more hesitant if the kid had never flown before and suddenly they were expected to do an overseas flight with connections and ground transportation, but perhaps if the kid seemed confident enough I’d consider it. I’ve been flying internationally and overseas since I was 3, but surprisingly only just recently flew solo for the first time. Mostly because I’m don’t like travelling alone as much. I think it would also matter if the kid was recently competent with speaking English, as that could make a big difference with the outcome should something go arise.

  15. Great idea! Well done to you and your son. Sounds like a great step on the road to independence.
    We’ve got a 6 and an 8 year old, which means they are just approaching the age where they can do things independently. They just asked me if “some day” they could walk to school themselves. I said, “of course”. Maybe later this year or next year. We live less than 1/2 mile from our school, so the main concern is a slightly busy, slightly windy road that the school is on.
    I, too, am very much dismayed by the fact that parents are subject to legal action for letting their children play alone. There are many examples, but one that really bothered me was a woman who got arrested for letting her 9 year old play at a playground while she was at a job interview around the corner. It’s hard to even count the ways in which that was the wrong response.
    Oh, also, I think that flying in business and having your kids fly in economy is perfectly fine from a safety and ethical point of view. I know that my kids would be disappointed to have to walk past the big seats, but maybe when they’re older, they would prefer the independence of sitting on their own to the lie flat seats. ?? From a child rearing standpoint, I think that doing things like letting your kids sit separated from you on the plane is a great way to let them take steps towards independence in a very safe environment.

  16. YES! Absolutely. I would let my 16 year old travel alone internationally in a heartbeat — provided that she was up to it. Unfortunately, my daughter loves travelling, but HATES the transportation aspect of it. Make a plane connection by herself? Make a bus/train transfer by herself? Nope. Not gonna happen.

    She’s stuck to me like velco the entire time, and even though I try to teach her the how’s and why’s of what we’re doing, she’s too nervous to retain anything. I spend the entire time keeping her from having a panic attack. Planes, trains, buses — if she’s in transit, she’s one mistake from a meltdown.

    It’s crazy because once we’re checked in at the hotel, she’s back to her wonderful, friendly, curious self. 7 countries visited and 10 more on HER wishlist. She loves BEING there, but GETTING there is a nightmare for her. In her defense, she only travels two to three times a year, and it’s always through busy airports.

    At this point, she’s already turned down a nonstop BWI-LAX ticket to visit her uncle this Xmas. Unless somebody accompanies her, she won’t go. We’re hoping she’ll outgrow this.

  17. Only a loving parent knows and can gauge what their individual child(ren) are capable of and ready for including going abroad. Some children mature faster in various aspects that may differ from child to child due to life experiences.

    Great for the child that can travel alone internationally. That is to be commended for that teenager. However, that same child might not do well at home in an inner city with homeless and poverty navigation. Many would not have skills in there own country depending on the challenge.

    Cultural, ethnic, social, and economic influences play a factor. It is not fair to say every kid needs this experience to become independent and successful. It would be an ideal perfect world if every child could and we’re ready to handle all circumstances.

    The world is less kind than in the 80s and 90s. There is a reason helicopter parents evolved. I agree parents should not paralyze their offspring. Everyone must grow up into independence. That process is best evaluated by parents who see them as they grow and mature ongoing day to day and year to year. I’m not a helicopter or free range, but I parent for the uniqueness of the child to be the best parent as I’m sure your strived to do as well.

    Thanks for sharing.

  18. I am understanding that your son flew internationally by himself. But has he also traveled within the US and/or Europe alone or with friends – all under the age of 18? I ask because my almost 17yo would like to travel to Iceland with two similar aged friends – no adults. I would like him to go, but also wonder about logistics – doing things without an adult present. Any feedback for me? Thanks!

    • I think that is really dependent on how responsible the kids are plus the rules/laws in the country they are visiting. For example in the U.S. they might have trouble getting a hotel without an adult. I don’t know how it would be in Iceland, but Europe in general is a bit more lax. I would contact some local properties to see what their policies are and sort of go from there.

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