Participation in summer programs, exchange trips, immersion experiences or even college visits often requires domestic or international air travel, which for some students means handling all the aspects of flying — alone.
“I went on an exchange trip last summer to Sydney, Australia,” junior Julia Alvarez said. “I flew there alone because I wasn’t going at the same time as my exchange person, and because Australia is an 11-hour flight, it didn’t make sense for my parents to go with me.”
Despite having traveled extensively, Alvarez had never flown alone internationally before, so she and her parents planned her itinerary far in advance, deciding things like who was going to pick her up and what to do if she got lost.
“On the actual trip, my parents made sure I got through security okay, but that was pretty much it,” Alvarez said. “I had the United app on my phone, so I could figure out all my flights and destinations and my baggage claims, which was really helpful.”
The Transportation Security Administration does not have any official policies on unaccompanied minors, so rules may vary slightly between airlines, but most publish rules and regulations on their websites.
“As flight attendants, we pay particular attention when a young girl is traveling by herself,” United flight attendant Maria Brady said. “We ask if she is comfortable where she is seated, and sometimes — if possible — we change the seat ahead of time so no one is made to feel awkward.”
Travelers under the age of 16 are generally required to adhere to special policies regarding unaccompanied minors, including special identification and regulations on the types of travel allowed, according to Brady.
“When we seat them, no matter the minor’s age, we introduce ourselves, review the safety card, and go over with them where their nearest exit is,” Brady said. “We want them to know they can call on us if they need anything or have concerns.”
Some airlines allow minors ages 16-17 to fly as “young adults” without any restrictions.
“Since she was 16, she didn’t have a person specifically assigned to her like a younger child flying intercontinentally might,” Anne Alvarez, Julia’s mother, said, “but we thought it was really good for her to do it by herself, learn to navigate and travel.”
Traveling alone requires minors to keep track of their own luggage, and keeping personal documents such as passports and trip itineraries on hand all the time is essential for a smooth trip, according to Brady.
While lost luggage is frustrating, lost passports pose a serious threat to personal identity. The replacement process is several steps, and requires the passport holder to immediately to report to the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Flying alone internationally is not too different from flying domestically except for the flight length and going through customs, according to Brady, who regularly flies to Beijing, Shanghai and Frankfurt, Germany.
“Besides the distance, the obvious difference is being able to feel secure alone for a longer period of time,” Brady said. “We always come around periodically and make sure the minor is doing okay, especially on the longer flights.”
Booking nonstop or direct flights to the final destination makes travel simpler for anyone, but especially minors, according to Brady.
“I had no stops on my flight to Australia, which makes sense, but was also really nice,” Alvarez said. “The flight wasn’t full, so I had a whole row of seats to myself to stretch out in.”
The sense of direction, willingness to go up and ask people for help, and “street smarts” which kids learn when growing up in cities like San Francisco are applicable to international air travel, according to Alvarez’s mother.
“When you’re flying with your family it sometimes seems like this crazy complicated thing and like there’s no way you’d be able to navigate without your parents,” Alvarez said. “But it’s nice to learn that it’s not that scary and confusing.”
Flying alone fostered independence and courage in her daughter, and the trip to Australia went very smoothly, according to Alvarez’s mother.
“But I wish I knew where to get the right [customs declaration],” Alvarez said. “I accidentally grabbed one in Chinese, but I didn’t want to get out of line again so I had to ask the people in line with me what it meant in English. It was pretty rough.”