The decision to let your child travel without you is a highly personal one and not something that anyone else can determine for you or for your child. That said, every parent wonders how best to protect their children when they travel alone.
There are a number of trips that kids of varying ages across the country regularly take on their own, including:
- Traveling to visit a non-custodial parent or grandparents
- Studying abroad
Then, of course, there are the trips that your child may take without you, but not necessarily alone:
- Traveling with other families as a child’s friend
- Traveling as part of an educational group
- Traveling with their grandparents or other family members
So, as a parent or guardian, how do you protect your child when they travel without you? We’ve researched the issue and found 5 important tips (not including telling them how to behave, avoid creepy situations, be cautious what you tell strangers … that’s the parenting stuff we won’t cover here).
1. Know the transportation regulations
There are no Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations concerning children traveling alone, but the the airlines have adopted all kinds of regulations and procedures. General airline policies indicate that kids under 5 have to travel with an adult, those 5-11 can travel as an ‘unaccompanied minor’ according to the airline’s rules. Of course, there are all kind of rules about through flights versus direct flights, and more. See the U.S. DOT publication When Kids Fly Alone for more details.
The age at which a child can travel alone varies and depends in large part on the capabilities of the child and the airline policies. For example, most airlines require that an adult must be available at check-in. Further, an adult must be designated to pick up a minor traveling alone and that adult must present valid identification to claim the child.
Most airlines will escort minors under a certain age, but there’s a fee for the service.
2. Respect the need for documentation
If your child is traveling with another family, with their grandparents, or other family members and gets sick or injured, their medical treatment may be delayed for consent. After all, while you gave your permission for those adults to travel with your child, they are not your child’s legal guardian.
Provide those adults traveling with your child a notarized consent form giving them permission to travel with your child and the ability to authorize medical treatment if necessary. This is true even if your child is traveling with your parents or other close family members.
You can find an example of a parental consent form here. To be safe, make sure that all adults traveling with your child have a copy and tuck a copy into your child’s suitcase or backpack just in case.
3. Even more important if the parents are divorced
In the case of parents who are divorced, things can get a little more complicated. The border officials around the world have begun paying closer attention to children traveling alone or with one parent or with adults who are not parents in an attempt to stop runaways, block kidnappings, and stop abductions by non-custodial parents and grandparents. The U.S. State Department devotes an entire section of their website to international parental child abduction issues and help.
If the parents of a young traveler are divorced, you’ll need to check with the tourist office or embassy to find out the local rules and regulations, but in general you’ll need these things:
- Proper identification for the adult picking up the child and for the child (think birth certificate or passport)
- A notarized document from the other parent giving permission for the trip
You can see some examples of the potential problems single parents may face and get a sample form for single parent/guardian approval for minor travel here.
4. Pay attention to passport requirements
Many countries require outside visitors to have a passport that’s valid for at least six months after the date of entry or a certain number of months after the passport holder leaves the country. Every country makes its own rules, so it’s important to know before you go.
If your child is headed abroad, check the passport requirements by going to the travel.state.gov’s international travel page, choose the country and look at the entry and exit requirements and/or navigate to the embassy’s website. Get an updated passport if it’s even close to the expiration requirements.
5. Understand how travel insurance helps if your child is sick or injured
If your child is traveling with another family or with an educational tour, look into the insurance before they leave. The coverage that the school or guide will have is all about their own liability and it isn’t to cover your child’s medical bills or bring you to their side if they need you. Study abroad insurance plans offered by the school are usually inadequate if your child is participating in sports or has a pre-existing medical condition for example. Again, they’re covering their liability and not necessarily your child’s health.
The same is true of travel insurance when your child is traveling with another family. No matter whether that family has a travel insurance plan or not, your child won’t be covered by their plan because you’re not related. There are family travel insurance plans that cover kids traveling with family members, however.
If your own health insurance plan doesn’t extend to where your child is going – most domestic health insurance plans don’t cover medical care abroad, then it’s important to get travel medical. Not only will it protect you from a huge medical bill if your child is in an accident or gets stick, most plans also include coverage to fly one person to the insured’s bedside if they’re hospitalized. Travel medical insurance is extremely cost-effective (read cheap!), especially for younger people, so there’s really no excuse.
See our Student Travel Insurance Tutorial for more information on buying travel insurance for your child headed abroad to study.