Tips for 15 year-old negotiating long haul international travel alone
April 13, 2013 3:26 AM   Subscribe

Yay! Our 15 year old nephew Sam is coming to visit us in Italy for three weeks during the school holidays. From Australia. Via Dubai, it's a 22 hour flight. Although he has to disembark and changes flights in Dubai, there is a relatively short hour and a half layover. He has only travelled internationally once before to Vietnam, and then not on his own. He is a great guy, however I want to ensure that he finds the whole experience as easy as possible. Any hints? Dubai is a wonderfully eclectic airport which will be an eye opener. As someone reasonably blasè about international travel and airport transfers, I am hoping to mine the hind mind for special hints that might help Sam in negotiating the flights, transfer and the clearing of customs and arrival in Rome? Thanks!
posted by Flashduck to Travel & Transportation around Rome, Italy (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Remind him, as an Austrailan it will go against all his greater instincts, no jokes about anything with anyone at any airport.
posted by taff at 3:34 AM on April 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

When I travelled internationally by myself for the first time at that age, I lost my passport during the layover. I was trapped between security checkpoints and sure I was in a ton of trouble. I had no way of contacting friends or family. Security people were very nice to me (when they found me sobbing in a corner) and the passport turned up (stuck in an x-ray machine, having fallen out of my bag during security checks) but it was a HORRIBLE hour of my life.

I was almost as freaked out during the next layover when my flight was delayed by 8 hours and I had no idea how to tell the people who would be picking me up at the other end (and didn't realise they would automatically be notified).

So give him ways to contact you or someone else in an emergency, and make sure he has spare cash in local currencies.
posted by lollusc at 3:55 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Could you write up a little walkthrough for him that he can print out and keep in his carryon? Going by your question I'm assuming you're familiar with the three airports that he's traveling through; can you put together a basic step by step list of the things he must accomplish and the places he'll have to go, in order? Simple stuff, like "Go to counter for airline, check in and check luggage, proceed through security, find terminal" and include things like "fill out customs form" and "be sure to have your passport ready here!" Even if it seems like it's all really straightforward, it isn't to someone who has never done it before and will be gawking left and right, and it's comforting to be able to cross things off a list during a loooong day of travel. If you're really familiar with the airports, you could indicate landmarks to help him find his way, too. It might seem like overkill, but it's better to give him a guide that he can choose to ignore, rather than depend on eclectic airport signage entirely.
posted by Mizu at 4:41 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Get him to look on the website to see the maps of the terminal he'll be arriving at and departing from. (I would check that an hour and a half will be enough) Hopefully he won't have to change terminals at all but if he does, find out if he'll need to get a bus or how that works and talk him through it. Also explain how you can look on the arrival and departure screens to see flights coming in and going out so he can see any changes to the flight, and check what gates he needs to depart at. (They usually tell you, but just in case he forgets)

I'm pretty sure they will have signage in English and staff who speak English entirely along his route (most of them do) so you can reassure him of that, if that helps. Certainly tell him to always ask for help if he needs it.

You could ask the airline staff to keep an eye out for him along the way. They might be able to point out another passenger who is travelling the same route.

Explain a bit about jet lag - it is the worst on long-haul flights but he may have expereienced some on the way to Vietnam. etc.

I presume he doesn't need to collect any bags - just keep hand luggage on him at all times - but might be worth checking that out and making sure whoever puts him on the plane tells him to get the bags checked right through to Italy if you can.

I also presume he's not needing to clear immigration til he gets to Italy so maybe explain to him the difference betweeen transit (where you spend a short time in the airport only waiting for your next flight) and immigration (where you go out of the airport and spend some time in Dubai the city.)

Anyway, those are some ideas. Probably a lot for a 15 year old but if you travel a lot yourself you can work out what does and doesn't apply to his case.
posted by EatMyHat at 4:47 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

The airline should have someone escort him as an unaccomapnied minor. But I would also download a map for him of the dubai airport and make an emergency kit for him consisting of: money, phone (international that will work) and that has wifi in case it doesn't, maps of airport, flight itinerary, credit card. I would get the escort and arrange that if there are delays he can wait in a lounge (you have to pay a small fee).

And he should be coached to ask for help if he needs it.
posted by zia at 5:04 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think airports only accompany minors under 12. Agree that going through the airport map and customs procedures with him beforehand is a good idea. Maybe via Skype (I think those kinds of conversations are best conducted visually and not just over the phone or via email).
posted by devinemissk at 5:07 AM on April 13, 2013

Do his flights share a terminal? If he has to switch terminals he might have to do double the security checks and cover a lot of ground so the hour and a half might not be enough. He should check the time and the big screen with flight info when he lands better to get to the gate a bit early than miss the connection.

22 hours is a long time to spend cramped in airplane seats, he'll need entertainment and snacks. And if he can manage to fall asleep in the flight that's a great way to stave off the boredom and not be completely exhausted upon arrival. Oh and headphones, definitely.

Can he choose his seat? An exit seat or an aisle seat with more legroom, if he can't do that when checking in online then be extra friendly at the checkin counter (and a bit early) to try and snag one.

Phone numbers and addresses that he'll need in Italy, on paper - you don't want to be in a strange country at the mercy of your phone's battery.

There should be an information desk at the airport if he needs help being pointed towards his gate and knowing how much time he has. Airport staff are usually friendly enough, and use common sense when talking to strangers in strange places (obligatory don't lose sight of your bags and don't accept any bags from anyone else).

On preview: I think the escort might be overkill? He's 15, this will be a fun adventure.
posted by xqwzts at 5:16 AM on April 13, 2013

If there's a landing card and/or customs form in either Dubai or Italy, see if you can find him a copy of it online and, whether you can or not, talk him through the questions. Sometimes the questions are obvious and sometimes they seem kind of confusing after a long flight. (For example, Japan asks if you have any 'drugs', but if you don't read Japanese, it's not clear if 'drugs' includes medication (or medication legal in Japan, anyway). The US customs form wants you to declare food, but is worded in a way that makes you think you're not allowed to bring any food in to the US, which is not the case and could be anxiety-inducing if you're a kid with some chocolate.)

My grandad sent my aunt (who was about 40) and my cousin (was 18) with four pages of single spaced A4 about 'how you visit the United States'. It included a turn-by-turn account of Manchester Airport, how to fill in the landing card and customs form, my mother's address for the forms, immigration at O'Hare, how you pick up your bags at O'Hare, customs at O'Hare, at what point you see the person meeting you, the fact that you drive on the right in the US, the fact that Americans call toilets 'restrooms', etc. You probably don't have to go into such excruciating detail, but, at the same time, they weren't insulted him having given them so much detail. (It was kind of amusing that he'd written them four pages when I got told 'Pick up your ticket on the train, I'll meet you in Hull.' But I'd been to Britain in the last 20 years.)

He'll definitely want a piece of paper with your phone number and address (with country code and dialling instructions from Australia and Dubai) and his parents' phone number and address (with same instructions; if he something goes wrong and he freaks out, he could well forget his own phone number), plus some mechanism for making a phone call (or knowing how to get a calling card in the Dubai airport). Tell him if you're not there within X minutes of him exiting customs, to go to some specific point in the airport and wait. (Some airports have a designated 'meeting point'. My friend and I used it to meet in Frankfurt, as we weren't sure whose plane would arrive first and had never been there before. It did entail walking through what felt like half the Frankfurt airport, though.)
posted by hoyland at 5:25 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been to many airports around the world, and dubai is among the easiest and interesting. Your nephew will happily be preoccupied with discovery while there.

Keep in mind outside of airline regulations governing minors, for the most part, at age 15 he will treated and respected as an adult as he gallivants throughout the airport in Dubai.
posted by Kruger5 at 6:05 AM on April 13, 2013

If there's a landing card and/or customs form in either Dubai or Italy, see if you can find him a copy of it online and, whether you can or not, talk him through the questions.

Yes, this.

I remember traveling internationally somewhat unaccompanied around that same age (minimally supervised on a large school trip), and the customs forms really threw me. As an adult I've also seen one or two that are not in English at all, though I think with his countries that should be fine.

I also pulled out a camera in the customs line because OOH COOL WE'RE IN EUROPE NOW. Was immediately accosted by Italian security guards brandishing machine guns and barking at me in a language I didn't speak. So, yeah, nthing no jokes, no instagram, serious business, etc. all the way through all security and immigration procedures.

You might also want to hammer home the importance of being on time, and that airplanes will not wait for you.

If feasible, it might be good to have him check in with you somehow before he physically boards the second plane. Even just a text message or a foursquare check-in: "I'm at the gate, we board in five minutes," that sort of thing.
posted by Sara C. at 7:32 AM on April 13, 2013

So give him ways to contact you or someone else in an emergency, and make sure he has spare cash in local currencies.

Seconded! Back in the day, a friend and I traveled to Austria to visit some family. Only, they had the days completely mixed up, so here were two teenagers stranded in the Vienna airport with no way to get a hold of our hosts. Ended up having to call his parents collect. Life would have been a lot easier with some phone numbers and a calling card. Though nowadays, a phone enabled with international calling for emergency use only might be a good idea. That way, if anything does happen or he starts to worry, he can call.
posted by jmd82 at 7:45 AM on April 13, 2013

Give the kid an extra hundred bucks and a calling card. All he has to do is figure out where things are in the airport on time. Any fuck-ups are covered by the hundred bucks or the calling card.

I flew alone probably once a year between ages 9 and 12. He'll be fine.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:46 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have him wait until the other passengers all disembark, at which point he will not feel so flustered, and will be able to ask someone at the terminal to help him figure out where he's going. The extra few minutes waiting for the other people to clear the area will also give him a chance to find all of his important documents, which should all be ready for him in his backpack or luggage.

Some cash and a calling card is also a very good idea. Although most likely everything will be perfectly fine, you want to prepare for the "just in case" moments.

At 15 he will think he's an adult, and this is an opportunity to let him feel that way. Help in any way you can, but make sure he understands that he is responsible for himself, and if he does anything other than what he's supposed to do and misses his flight, he is going to have to deal with the consequences.
posted by markblasco at 7:52 AM on April 13, 2013

If he is flying Emirates, they offer a "Young Passengers" service which allows for early/separate check-in, seating/meal preferences, and a walk-through of arrival formalities by staff! This sounds totally perfect and would make everyone feel, perhaps, a lot more relaxed. This is a bit different from the "Unaccompanied Minors" service they offer for kids from 5 to 12.

Additionally, he may end up getting to use the crew/fast-track immigration lines, saving a lot of time on your end so you can get him to your place in Rome faster!
posted by mdonley at 8:12 AM on April 13, 2013

Also, travel insurance!
posted by mdonley at 8:12 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lollusc's comment reminds me of an awful flight I had from Portland->Bangalore. After a 10 hour flight from SFO to Frankfurt, I lost my passport. I had it on the plane and after getting off the plane and taking the bus to the terminal, I patted my pockets and it was gone. I immediately went to Lufthansa's passenger services and told them my story. About 2 hours later, they told me my passport and someone else's passport had been found. For that 2 hours, I was a wreck and I'm way older than 15.

Now, even though I think they look dorky, I carry my passport in one of those "around the neck" holders. I have not lost it again :).

I don't know if you can get a 15 year old to use something like that, but IMHO, it is worth it.
posted by elmay at 8:24 AM on April 13, 2013

I just had a memory resurface from my younger days of flying unaccompanied.

Boarding passes.

They are hard to decipher.

I'm not sure how experienced a traveler your nephew is, but it might help to have an adult circle the important bits, especially the teensy weensy little bit in 10-point font that says what time your flight boards as opposed to what time it leaves.

If it's impossible to print boarding passes at home, he could probably get a walkthrough on a sample boarding pass, or at least a warning to look at the WHOLE THING, not just the departure time in large print.
posted by Sara C. at 9:08 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might have thought about that already, but make sure you have a document from the parents stating that you are his guardian during his stay in Italy. Might be useful in case of medical emergency.
posted by bluefrog at 9:19 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ensure that his cell phone is activated for international roaming even if there is no intention to use it in Italy.

Ask him to text once when landed to Dubai, once he is at connecting gate and once when boarding. Worth the few bucks it costs.
posted by zeikka at 9:54 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sure that he will be fine, and that it will be a great learning experience / point of pride to do it on his own.

However, if you or his parents are nervous about it, is there any way you could meet him in Dubai? It's a reasonably cheap / quick flight, you could do a fun day trip or quick overnight, and then, surprise! Aunt/Uncle Flashduck is waiting for him at his arrivals terminal, ready to accompany him through the last flight and Italian customs! Whee!
posted by charmcityblues at 12:55 PM on April 13, 2013

Talk to his parents to find out what they are already doing. I'm assuming they will also be thinking about these kinds of things. If they are already making sure he has printouts of airports, organising travel insurance, passport, visas, any vaccinations he might need, changing money in Australia ahead of time so he can prepare, etc, having you go over the same stuff could well be overkill. If his parents are covering all of this stuff, you have the opportunity to be the cool auntie who has the "yeah, whatever, she'll be right" attitude.

Probably would be cool if you can tell him "These are some phrases I found were really useful when travelling" and then tell him things in the appropriate languages. Like please, thank you, where is the toilet, etc. If he hasn't already studied Italian, that is, and assuming you know any useful phrases in Arabic.

If he's going to have roaming mobile access while he's away, make sure he has your number(s) stored in his phone, as well as home numbers, and that you have his roaming number. You can even text him before he arrives in Dubai so when he switches his phone on, he's got a text from you already waiting. I'd make it something like "hey you are in DUBAI SO COOL" rather than "just checking to make sure you got there ok".

What airline is he flying? Qantas is a completely different experience from other airlines and having familiar Aussie accents helps enormously when dealing with these kinds of things. I find this as a grownup who has been negotiating foreign airports solo for years - there is something about a little bit of home after mind-numbing (and bum-numbing), sleep-deprived hours on a plane that just makes me feel a little better. (I have been known to get slightly moist in the ocular department when Qantas starts blaring "I still call Australia home", but I completely blame the 30+ hours of travel.)

And yes, definitely make sure his parents (if they are being protective cop and you are being cool cop) drum it in to him about the no joking thing.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:08 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

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