Travelling alone between boarding school and home can be a daunting prospect for your children – and you – especially if it’s abroad. But as AFF’s Regional Manager Overseas Esther Thomas discovered, many families see it as a positive experience…
1. Pre-flight nerves
Joanne, based in Italy, said: “The first time I waved goodbye to my girls was very emotional, especially watching them go through security until I couldn’t see them. They were much happier about it than I was.”
It was the same for mum Helena, living in Kenya, who admitted being very worried about her teenage children getting from Dover, across London, and flying by themselves: “Once I’d done a little research and talked to the school, I was relieved to book school transport to the airport at a reasonable cost, minimising the need for public transport connections.”
Liz in Canada soon quashed her initial concerns about her children’s two-hour taxi ride to the airport: “The drivers are DBS checked, and – as I know from tracking every mile on my mobile phone – they drive with the utmost care and even fulfil requests to stop at McDonalds,” she explained. “The only unpleasant surprise is the extortionate cost.”
Parents should be aware that anyone dropping off an unaccompanied minor (UNMIN) must wait until after the flight has departed, so you could be liable for a taxi driver’s time and the parking fee.
Lynda in the USA added: “Getting the UNMIN paperwork sorted was a bit time-consuming, involving repeated calls to the airline.”
- Pick up spare UNMIN forms at drop off, send a signed one to school with your child for the return flight and keep a spare at home.
- If your school doesn’t offer a drop-off service, consider asking friends/guardians to help with airport runs to keep costs down.
2. Check in
Luggage allowance is always a problem around exam time as youngsters have to bring back so much study material. Although unit travel cells can book extra bags (up to 8kg), children often find it difficult to distribute and manage the weight. Joanne in Italy recalled: “My girls had to purchase a new bag at Heathrow at great expense and repacked at the check-in desk, which was quite fraught.”
Damian (16) felt the pressure of looking after his younger sister on long journeys to begin with, but a year on he finds it much less daunting and even his sibling has stopped persistently checking for her passport or boarding pass. He said: “There are always airport staff around and I check my phone for flight info.”
- It might not look trendy, but it’s worth having a small wallet for all the paperwork.
- Four-wheel suitcases make it easier for children to manage their luggage.
- Invest in luggage scales to keep at school so they can weigh their bags beforehand.
- Allow plenty of time for check-in to minimise stress.
3. Detours and delays
Many parents have expressed concerns about things not going to plan.
The key is to ensure that both you and your child are emotionally prepared. Talk through what would happen in advance and make sure they have means of contacting you and enough money.
Lynda obtains a code from the airline in advance, which she shares with her daughter and the school travel co-ordinator, so that either can sort out an issue.
4. In-flight experience
Jennifer (15) had such mixed feelings on her first journey that she was shaking and crying: “I was so excited to be going home but dreading the flight as I have a fear of flying and find it difficult to sleep.”
In contrast Romilly (13), who travels to New York, had a luxury experience on her first flight as she was moved to first class. She admitted that she couldn’t have managed when she first started boarding but would now recommend it to other teenagers: “I’m still not ready to ‘fly solo’ but I’m happy flying with an UNMIN service. I love the independence and I’m learning to be more organised.”
- Remember your phone charger in your hand luggage.
- Keep some emergency funds in case of delays.
- To ease parental nerves, ask your children to send you photo updates on their journey.
5. Touching down
Joanne’s two girls Lydia (15) and Emily (17) have been questioned by passport control on return to the UK which did fluster them, but they had all the correct paperwork including parental consent letters.
On one occasion they left their passports in the luggage trolley, resulting in a stressful 24 hours while they were retrieved.
“Hopefully they’ll never make the same mistake again,” said Joanne. “I felt completely responsible and sometimes I feel like we ask too much of our military children, having to cope with travelling independently during exam periods when their mind is elsewhere.”
- Most airlines have standard parental consent forms – you can have them translated into the language of the destination country.
6. Home safe and happy
Liz was almost overwhelmed about the enormity of her children Georgina (11) and Alfie (9) making the 4,000-mile journey to Canada alone.
“After meeting two relaxed, happy children at Calgary airport who had been spoilt rotten by the UNMIN staff I was much happier,” she said. “They get treated like royalty.”
- Don’t panic. Technology enables you to track every mile of your child’s journey.
7. Alternative routes
It’s possible to reverse the School Children’s Visits allowance so that you can make the journey instead of your children, something that Helena now does for shorter school holidays: “It’s fantastic for me to do the legwork whilst also connecting the children to family and friends in the UK, although it costs more for onward transport and accommodation, and does mean that they don’t get to see their dad so often.”
Anna Hall, whose family have been overseas for the last ten years, now lives in Belgium and mostly travels by car through the tunnel back to the UK.
Her son William (12) likes it better than flying: “I prefer going in the car because once we’re picked up, we don’t have to worry about anything else and can just sit back and relax.”
Weighing up the two, his sister Olly (13) said: “I don’t have to think about getting somewhere on time, but I do miss the fun of airports.”
8. Not so scary
As a UK-based boarding parent hearing all these positive stories, I decided to trial flying my own children home from one regional airport to another for half term, writes Esther Thomas. It cost the same and saved me a 16-hour drive, overnight stay and time away from work. All went well and our girls bounced through the door full of confidence.
With the recent reduction in airlines offering UNMIN services, many parents have contacted AFF about managing the logistics of an overseas assignment, but it seems that our fears are greater than our children’s and overall their experiences are life-enriching.