Travel Tips

Parents told us they needed some ideas for keeping kids occupied during the (sometimes) long car rides to and from clinical trials. Here's what we've found so far:

Pipe cleaners are fun—make different shapes and animals. You can build a barn and all the animals that live in it. Get these at craft stores or stores selling teaching supplies.

Bob Cerullo, author of What’s Wrong With My Car?, suggests the following: count state license plates or truck names; buy a pack of cards called 52 Fun Things To Do in the Car, by Lynn Gordon —each card has a different activity on it; bring a songbook or cassette and sing along—one such tape is called: Are We There Yet?, Travelin’ Sing A longs; bring old radio mystery programs on cassette or CD, or the old comedy programs like The Jack Benny Show; the whole family can learn a language using Learn in the Car or get audio books from the library or most any store that sells books—get the Mobile Player, a digital device that can play almost any kind of spoken material—books and other material are downloaded online to your home PC for a fee; you can now get rear-seat TV/VCRs for your minivan, although you need to check with your state’s dept. of motor vehicles to make sure it’s legal in your area; and don't forget to stop and let the kids run around.

Bob has some very good ideas. If you have other suggestions, please take a moment to send them to us. We'll pass them along to parents.

Kids Going Solo

by Siobhan Loughran

Ed. Note: The Oregonian ran a piece by Siobhan Loughran on kids traveling alone. We thought the information worth sharing and with Ms. Loughran's permission, are reprinting the piece here. Double check the following with whatever airline, busline or train service you’re using—they’re not all the same.

Your ex, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., has offered to take your 11-year-old to Puerto Vallarta for spring break. All you have to do is drop her off at the airport gate, right? Wrong. When a child is traveling alone—by plane, train or bus—or leaving the country with only one parent, there are some things you need to know about well in advance of departure.

Leaving the Country

If your child is going to travel out of the country with only one custodial parent, make sure he has a notarized letter from the other parent giving permission to leave the country.

This is a requirement to enter Mexico because of concern about abduction by a noncustodial parent.

Ticket agents should advise you of this before issuing the ticket. But whether you were warned in advance or not, the child will not be allowed on the plane without it. If your child is going to a foreign country other than Mexico, it’s a good idea to call that nation’s embassy to find out precisely what, if anything, is required or recommended.

Traveling by Air

Each airline has its own rules and regulations regarding children traveling alone, but there are some similarities. In general, airlines allow children who are at least 5 years old to travel alone. A child 5 to 12 traveling alone is called an Unaccompanied Minor. A child age 13 or older is considered an adult for ticketing and traveling purposes.

Generally, children ages 5 to 7 can fly unaccompanied only if they’re on a nonstop flight. Children ages 8 to 11 generally will be allowed to make a connection to another airline (although it’s still best to try to find a nonstop flight).

When you book the ticket, make sure you let the reservation agent know your child will be traveling alone. Give the agent all the pertinent facts about your child. That means name, age, home address and phone number, your own relationship, name, address and a number you can be reached at all times – including your cell phone or pager number.

Most airlines will have you fill out a form called an Unaccompanied Minor form, which includes your name, address and phone number and that of the person who will be meeting your child. In most cases, this information is entered into the airline’s computer so that agents along the way are fully informed about the situation.

You probably will be given a button or pin to be worn on the outside of your child’s clothes to make him or her easily identifiable to airline personnel. Airline staff will assist your child in deplaning and handing him over to a specified adult at the other end for a small fee, usually around $30 each way (or $60 round trip). If you’re putting more than one child on the plane, you’ll only be assessed one service fee for all of them.

If your child must change planes en route, paying this extra fee is crucial. What if weather causes a delay at the connecting airport? You want the airline to take responsibility for your child during that delay—which could include being stranded overnight because of weather. Most airlines will not allow Unaccompanied Minors on the last connecting flight of the day, to guard against just such a situation. Even on direct flights, the fee is worth it. What if your ex is late getting to the airport? Do you want your 5-yearold—or your 12-year-old—standing alone in an airport terminal?

While en route, a child must be able to take whatever medication he needs on his own; flight attendants cannot administer medication.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends that parents should not leave the gate until the plane has actually taken off, not simply left the gate. What if there’s an unexpected delay or mechanical difficulty and the plane returns to the gate and passengers are asked to deplane? Your presence will reassure your child and keep them that much safer until they’re airborne.

The person who is meeting your child—father, grandparent or favorite uncle—will need to produce photo identification to claim their young visitor. Just because a child recognizes the adult doesn’t mean the airline will release the child.

Have a backup plan in case the person who’s supposed to meet your child is delayed for some reason. Although the ticket agent should have passed along all pertinent information to the flight attendants via computer, your child should carry a copy of the names and phone numbers of both the expected adult and the backup adult. Don’t expect your child to remember phone numbers. And you should hand the flight attendant a duplicate of what your child is carrying.

Traveling by Train

Because of the stop-and-go nature of train travel, rules for unaccompanied children on trains differ from rules used by airlines. Amtrak has a long list of rules. The key restrictions are:

  • Children ages 8 to 11 can travel unaccompanied as long as the travel takes place during daylight hours and they are on a train only (as opposed to train-bus connections).

  • Unaccompanied children may not make transfers.

  • The departing and arriving station must be staffed by Amtrak personnel at the departure and arrival times.

  • Your child will be interviewed by the station agent before boarding to determine his or her maturity at the time of travel. If the agent decides your child is not mature enough to travel alone, his ticket is fully refundable. Although Amtrak offers discounted rates to children traveling with adults, full fare is charged for unaccompanied children.

Traveling by Bus

Putting a young child on a bus opens a real can of worms because buses make numerous stops. What if your child gets off at a 10-minute stop and fails to get back on? Greyhound has some basic guidelines you can get from a reservation agent. Here are a few rough pointers:

  • Children must be at least 8 years of age.

  • A child may travel alone only on daylight bus runs.

  • There is a form for you to fill out that gives information about you, your child and the person meeting them at their destination.

  • And the child’s trip must be limited to less than five hours.

Talk It Through

Practice makes perfect. Talk to your child about the trip. Tell them what to expect—from food to bathroom procedures to turbulence on airplanes to delays on trains to breakdowns on buses.

Make sure your child has spare change and spending money. And make sure they know how to use a pay phone in case of emergency.

Dress your child in comfortable clothing that is washable and can be removed easily if he or she gets too warm.

Children should have a carry-on bag or backpack that holds necessary stuff, such as identification, medicine if needed, snacks, small toys, games, books or other diversions—and maybe even that beloved tattered old blanket or stuffed animal.


“Flying Alone”: This brochure (subtitled “Handy Advice for Kids Traveling Solo”) for members of the American Automobile Association spells out the basics of airline travel for unaccompanied children, details age restrictions and has helpful tips for preparing your child for a solo flight, including tips on packing and coping. The last page of the brochure is a form for information that will fit neatly into your child’s ticket jacket. Available at local AAA offices or by calling 800-222-4357.

Specific airline rules: Call the airline you will be using and ask a ticket agent for specific information about unaccompanied minors. Most agents will be extremely thorough and helpful. Ask them for a printout or brochure that explains their guidelines for children traveling alone. Also check the airline’s website; most have detailed information regarding children traveling alone.

Traveling by train: Good information is available when you have the specifics about the days and times of travel and call a booking agent at 800-872-7245. You also can write to Amtrak Customer Relations, 60 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002. Amtrak’s website, www.amtrak.com, offers some info.

Greyhound: Your best bet is to call the reservation number (800-231-2222). When I asked for specific information about getting a child from one specific destination to another, the agent was extremely helpful. Or call your local customer relations representative at the Greyhound station nearest you. The subject is not addressed on the Greyhound website.

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: Don’t think of this organization only as a “last resort” when the worst has happened. The center has an extremely useful and informative website, with well-written, thorough tips for safe travel: www.ncmec.org. You can also call 800-843-5678 or write to them at 699 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314


In the final analysis, the question of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened.

Harold S. Kushner