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Raising them up to let them FLY..... literally

Letting your young adult teen fly alone on commercial flight ✈️

We raise them up to let them fly……. For us this week, that was more literal than the phrase was intended. I am sharing our experience to answer questions you might have about letting your teen fly alone. Because, travel is one of the beautiful and wonderful experiences in life that broadens our perspective, teaches us, brings joy and relaxation, and exposes us to different cultures and people.

We have a unique situation where work and family take us on planes often. So, our son has been traveling on planes several times a year since he was three months old. He is familiar with the sights, sounds, and nuances of planes and airports. Now he is fifteen years old and a pretty awesome kid. And, the idea of sending him alone on a plane became a reality. He has traveled without us….. but always in a group or with others adults. This time - it’s just him. ALONE.

However, as a parent, you still have apprehensions…did I teach them enough? Are they aware enough? Will they be polite and not cause trouble? Can they problem solve? Are the even LISTENING? It really all comes back to me questioning myself as to whether I did enough as a parent, did I cover enough, teach them to troubleshoot and be creative thinkers? Be self aware and aware of others? Be considerate and well mannered? Be on time and on point and safe? Be responsible? Make good decisions? Read a map - find his way? These are all the questions that flood my mind EVERYDAY as he gets ready to venture into the world without us…not just on a plane, but soon in a car….with friends….at school… a job.

But - It is time. So, he flew on his own to start summer break by surprising his best friend with a much needed visit. We often fly Southwest, and he is most familiar with their processes, so this is the airline we selected. I had a pretty specific schedule we needed to adhere to for his trip, and it involved a layover. More questions… In my mind I am always planning for the unexpected as much as possible. You know… it’s why we buy insurance and have AAA. So, when I think about the layover - I consider things like what if he gets stuck there? He is not old enough to rent a car or get a hotel room….. So I walk through all the scenarios about how to handle changes and the unexpected.

In my research, I have found that young adults age 15-17 can travel without using the “unaccompanied minor” services and be treated as an adult provided they have proper identification. This is also true for airlines such as American and Delta as well. This saves a significant amount of money in the service fees charged for younger travelers using the unaccompanied minor service. The caveat is - if they do have a cancelled flight or miss a connection, they are treated as an adult, not a child. And, per my questions above, they will generally not be allowed to check in to a hotel if they are stranded. The booking process was straightforward with Southwest, and I would highly recommend it. You do have to read the “Young Traveler” policy and agree to the terms. The process also requires input of parent contact information. If the young adult has a driver license, or driving learner permit as a photo government ID - this is sufficient to pass through security. A valid Passport will also work. If your child does not have either of these, you can get a State ID card for anyone at the DMV with proper documentation. We got a State ID for our son at the age of six for traveling, because it was easier than traveling with his birth certificate. Our son also has Global Entry, so he is TSA Pre-check, which made the process even easier.

Valid forms of ID per the TSA website:

  • Driver's licenses or other state photo identity cards issued by Department of Motor Vehicles (or equivalent) ...

  • U.S. passport.

  • U.S. passport card.

  • DHS trusted traveler cards (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)

  • U.S. Department of Defense ID, including IDs issued to dependents.

In my mind, I had a rough plan if he got stuck at one of the connecting airports. I leaned into my network and knew I had someone within my “six degrees of separation” in both cities in the crazy event he was stuck. So, we booked the ticket and his first solo flight is in the books.

While preparing for the trip, we decided carry on luggage was the best bet. We have found for him traveling, the best luggage that is durable, versatile, flexible and lightweight is Patagonia. These are his two favorite bags that conform for carry on requirements; backpack and rolling bag. We also dowloaded the Southwest app and had him log in to learn how to use the electronic boarding passes and get gate information via the app. We did print paper copies of the boarding pass and itinerary as backup.

I did go the the ticket counter for Southwest upon arrival at the airport and asked for a pass to go to the gate with him. They will allow you to pass through security with a temporary pass if you are accompanying someone that requires assistance or is a minor. I wanted to take the time to talk through some different scenarios and the little details that we normally handle when traveling. He clearly told me I was “annoying” with a smile on his face, but he played along with a little sarcasm. Fitting for the situation. In reality, I just needed the reassurance more than he did. That’s what we do as MOMMAS - we guide them as much as we can, we reinforce some “piece of mind” and then we let them go.

A few things I wanted to remind him:

  1. Always be mindful and courteous to others, use good manners and be helpful

  2. Be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye on your belongings

  3. Act responsibly

  4. LISTEN to the overhead announcements for last minute changes (i.e…. Don’t have both earbuds in)

  5. Read signs and be sure you are at the right gate - changes happen quickly

  6. Pay attention - (you know…teens can be a little aloof at times)

  7. Buy a bottle of water 💧 - you never know when they won’t be able to serve on the plane or you just need a drink. This enforces the idea of being prepared.

  8. Wash your hands often

  9. Communicate with us so we know you are okay

  10. We reviewed a contingency plan in the event he got stuck

  11. HAVE FUN

  12. And… of course “I Love you” 😘

And off he went…….. The picture of the surprise upon arrival was WORTH IT! Real genuine smiles of JOY - not one of those “cheesy teenager smiles because someone told me to smile for a picture”. 🤪 And, he has another life lesson under his belt. Step by step…. We give them wings and let them fly.

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