Thousands of children travel alone each year to visit a parent in another city or to spend time with family friends or grandparents. It's not an uncommon venture. But even if the trip is mini-size, solid preparation is needed when kids travel solo. ``Most unaccompanied children travel by plane,'' says Joel Rus, national executive director of the Traveler's Aid Association of America. ``Not only because it's faster, but because the airlines are able to provide a degree of personal supervision that buses and trains cannot.''
Whether a child will be flying cross-country or traveling by bus or train to a neighboring town, Mr. Rus says, ``it is important that a child know what to expect and that he not be made to feel alarmed.''
Airlines will accept children over five years old on a direct flight and children at least eight years old on connecting flights. Whenever possible, choose a direct flight. If a connection cannot be avoided, try to schedule both flights on the same airline. Travel involving an airport change should be ruled out, even for young teens.
Bus companies will accept children 5 through 11 on direct routes, but only on trips under five hours.
For train travel, an unaccompanied child must be at least 8 and travel must be approved by the station manager at the departure city. In most cases, approval will be granted only for direct routes, where no change of trains is involved, and only for travel during daylight hours.
Unaccompanied children are charged the full adult fare for bus, train, and air travel.
When making reservations, advise the agent that the passenger is a child. It will be necessary to provide the airline, bus, or rail line with your name, address, and phone number, as well as that of the person who will be meeting the child. Also, discuss any other information you feel is important, such as whether the child is extremely active or possibly apprehensive about traveling alone.
Children 12 and over are considered ``adults'' as far as travel is concerned. But it's still best to mention the youngster's age, unless you feel he's experienced enough not to need additional assistance.
If travel is by air, you should arrive at the airport early. Unaccompanied children are boarded first. They are introduced to the flight attendants, given a name tag, and assigned a window seat in the nonsmoking section. From that point on, the airline assumes responsibility for the child. When the flight arrives, a flight attendant will accompany the child to the person meeting him or to a connecting flight.
If travel is by bus, stay with the child until the bus leaves. Tell the driver the child is alone. If possible, have her sit near the front of the bus, where the driver can see her. Though bus drivers are not responsible for passengers during rest stops, most will keep an eye out for children to make sure they reboard the bus after a lunch stop or snack break.
If travel is by train, introduce the child to the conductor and ask him to make sure your child gets off at the proper stop. If the train has several stops scheduled en route, make sure the child understands that not everyone will be getting off at the same place. It will help if she knows which stop is just before hers so she can be ready to go when the conductor comes for her.
Every child should be prepared for unusual situations when things don't go as planned. Airports and bus and train stations are particularly crowded during holiday times. A train conductor might be busy assisting a passenger in another car, or a flight attendant might not notice a child walking off an airplane amid a group of people. Bus drivers sometimes change shifts en route and the new driver may not be aware of an unaccompanied child on board. Here are a few hints to follow:
Teach your child how to use a coin telephone and how to make a long-distance call. He should always have phone numbers written down in his pocket and coins for telephone calls. In the event he does wander off, he'll be able to call you or the person meeting him.
Tell your child if he should get lost to go to a ticket desk in the airport, bus, or train station. Major airports also have in-house police and security guards. Point these people out to him at your home airport before leaving. If travel is by bus or train, there will be a ``Dispatch Office'' or ``Manager's Office'' where he can also go for assistance. Help him memorize this information.
Instruct your child never to wander outside of the security area at the airport or beyond the boarding and ticket area at bus and train terminals. Even if the person meeting him has been unexpectedly delayed, he should not leave the building.
Have your child carry a shoulder-strap travel bag or purse. Lost tickets and lost money can create problems. It's best to have a bag large enough for a few books or games to help pass the time on long trips or in the event of delays. He should also have money for soft drinks and a meal, in case of flight and train delays or when a lunch stop is scheduled on a bus trip.
Reassure your child -- several times before the trip -- that even though hitches rarely occur, you'll be waiting for his call should anything go amiss.
Children should always have identification with them. The name, address, and phone number of a parent and the person meeting him should be attached to his clothing and his luggage.
Stay with a child until he leaves and be absolutely certain that someone will be there to meet him when he arrives.
Send him off with a happy grin and the assurance of a ``fun adventure.''