How Old Before He Can Travel On His Own?
November 25, 2013 2:39 PM   Subscribe

What's a nice round consensus on the minimum age for an unaccompanied boy to go from South Station to Midtown?

My young son lives in the Boston 'burbs and I'm just outside NYC. Visitation has involved a lot of driving, especially if I bring him back here for, e.g., Thanksgiving.

I'm looking forward to the day he can hop on a Bolt or Megabus (or heck, Amtrak'd even be cheaper than gas) as an unaccompanied minor. He's bright, intrepid and game, so I tend to think he's ready for stuff before other people think he is. For example, this Summer his camp was a five minute walk from home, and I personally had no issue with him making the walk on his own but none of the adults I sounded out agreed with me.

So, Hive Mind, what's a nice round consensus on a minimum age for an unaccompanied boy to go from South Station to Midtown? It's still years away, but I'd like a guess at how much longer I have to keep my faithful car running. Thank you.
posted by whuppy to Travel & Transportation (44 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I lived in the Boston 'burbs and was regularly put on a Greyhound bus to visit friends in Boston-proper when I was maybe ten? I think that may have been too young. I was unclear (and no one had told me) that there were multiple Boston stops and I got off in the wrong place and whatever. Strangers gave me candy. When I was a bit older (11? 12?) I was put on a bus to visit my grandmother in New Jersey and due to a series of mishaps wound up wandering around Port Authority on my own, a young girl with a suitcase. Not recommended.

That said, to me a lot depends on the maturity of the kid. I did fine in both instances (and this was in the days before cell phones) because everyone involved was sensible and handled things. I figure if you're doing bus-to-bus stuff (that is, you put the kid on the bus and the other parent picks the kid up at the bus) you can get away with 12-15, maybe younger if the kid is really with it and you're rigorous about drop-offs and pick-ups. Older than that, assuming an average mature kid, and you can probably even back that up a little since the kid could be driving himself within short measure. Greyhound has these guidelines for young children traveling solo, if that's helpful.

THAT said, the agreement of both parents is really the only data point that matters here. Havw you had this conversation with the other adults involved?
posted by jessamyn at 2:47 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is highly dependent on the kid, so I expect you'll be getting a ton of anecdotal information.

Personally, I was an extremely responsible, bright, independent kid. I was 12 the first time I flew an airplane alone (coming from a family that never ever flies anywhere, so my prior experience was nonexistent) and it was a breeze. I believe I would have had no problem navigating the process on my own probably starting when I was 9 or 10.

As a maturity reference point, I started babysitting (non-family, other people's children) when I was 11.
posted by phunniemee at 2:49 PM on November 25, 2013

In my experience this is a highly regional thing, but at sixteen I was given a car, pointed in the general direction of boarding school (located four hours away across the state), and told to get lost without even a cell phone or a "call every hour!" or a chaperone of any kind.

So I'm saying by sixteen, for sure.
posted by Sara C. at 2:50 PM on November 25, 2013

The first time I did a Boston to NYC trip alone I think I was 16. But I could have done it younger and been fine I think. And that was on the uber-sketchy Chinatown bus. I routinely saw kids on that bus probably as young as 11 or 12.

The Boltbus and Amtrack are much less sketchy than the Chinatown bus was. A confident, intrepid kid could certainly do it at like 12 or 13 I would think. But yeah, depends on the kid. The transport itself is not as worrisome as navigating the stations themselves, so if there is a parent there on both ends, I think he'd be fine.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:51 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I grew up in NYC and was taking public transit unaccompanied to and from school at age 10. I think I was around that age, or a little older, when I started traveling by plane unaccompanied. Inter-city travel by train or bus seems a little different to me, given that they're open systems where a kid could just disembark along the line (as you probably know, the Bolt/Mega buses often make a rest stop along the way, and I've seen adults get left behind).

I'd guess 12-15? At 15, I think pretty much any kid could get on the Bolt and be picked up on 34th Street (though I think they just moved the stop a couple blocks West to be a little sketchier). At 12, I think you need a precocious and self-possessed kid.

What's his mom say?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:51 PM on November 25, 2013

Am I right in gathering that you're asking about a child who lives with another custody-holding adult? Because I'd worry primarily about getting consensus with them. I hate to say it, but the opinion of random punters on the internet--and, for that matter, the kid's actual level of readiness--is not going to mean much if you can't obtain consensus.

(This was something that caused Major Issues in my parents' custody arrangement--there was a family emergency on one side of the family while I was visiting, and that parent left the country to deal with it, leaving me with a family friend for a few days. I was just fine--I was a teenager, doing a summer job, staying with a family friend I'd known since birth--but the other parent got extremely upset about it, and it opened up a major rift in what had previously been a fairly amicable co-parenting arrangement.)

But, to answer your question, in terms of when you should start bringing it up: what you really need to consider is whether your kid going to be mature enough to deal with a plausible worst-case situation. I say plausible because I'm not saying you should account for unlikely nonsense like "The train derails and he's lost in the wilderness by himself and needs to figure out a way to survive and signal rescuers like in Hatchet", but more along the lines of: what if the train breaks down and he's got to switch trains in an unfamiliar station, or if he has to spend a few hours by himself stuck out in the boonies? I'd say a smart and calm kid in middle school, maybe late elementary could do it--think about 10-11 or so--but I'd be wary of putting that responsibility on anyone much younger than that.
posted by kagredon at 2:55 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Baring official regulations, there is no official age. It depends on the capabilities of the child.

I believe Amtrak has a service where they'll assign someone to watch a child. Our daughter would make the train ride from Georgia to Baltimore, a 12 hour ride, with no issue. But she was independent, careful kid, who had her cellphone with her. She was 11-12 at the time. We did make a point of her only sending her during the day though.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:56 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I started riding commuter rail on my own or with my brother when I was 12 and he was 10. I think my brother went on a transatlantic flight as an unaccompanied minor at like age 9 (or younger? there must be a lower bound on unaccompanied minors on international flights). I know my mom went on the train with us the first time (we were going to a summer program), but I think the first time we went to my dad's on the train, we just got told "Follow everyone else at the last stop, dad'll be across from the chocolate store." (This seemed totally reasonable to me at 12, but I tried to use those directions for a friend in high school and she was like "You want me to meet you where? How am I going to find the chocolate shop at the top of the escalators?")

Amtrak requires unaccompanied minors be 13 and you certainly could have sent 13 year old me on Amtrak for the distance between Boston and New York. Greyhound will take younger kids, but is trickier because it is entirely possible to get left behind. When he seems like he might be getting old enough (10? 11? 12?) maybe phone Greyhound and ask to what degree they supervise kids. There was a kid alone (13? 14?) on a Greyhound from Montreal and the ticket checker person made sure the driver knew what he looked like and put him on the bus first at the front, so it's possible the driver is told 'Whatever you do, do not leave this kid behind.'
posted by hoyland at 3:03 PM on November 25, 2013

Response by poster: His mom and I don't see eye to eye on many things, but we share the same overwhelming parental pride that might distort our judgment here. Obviously we will be squarely on the same page, in writing, before he goes on his own.

If it could guarantee he'd turn out like jessamyn, I'd put him on the train today.
posted by whuppy at 3:06 PM on November 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Amtrak says 12 and has very specific unaccompanied minor policies which seem both thoughtful and reasonable to me. 12 seems fine for me for the train; I have less faith in buses.

Framing: I flew NYC > Toronto every other weekend as an unaccompanied minor from the age of six. This was well before security theatre when parents could walk you to the gate and pick you up immediately after security on landing.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:16 PM on November 25, 2013

The first time I walked to the grocery store by myself, I was 10 or 11. I was bright, intrepid, and game, but ran the last quarter mile home because I got so damn nervous. This is just to point out that while he may be gung-ho about it now, the reality of solo travel may wind up being a different story. If he tends toward anxiety, you might hold off until he's a bit older.
posted by coppermoss at 3:21 PM on November 25, 2013

I would go with 12, too. Dad puts him on the train, Mom picks him up, at an agreed meeting place. Kid has cell phone for emergencies.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:32 PM on November 25, 2013

Examples from Japan probably mean little in this case, but kids here ride the commuter trains by themselves when they enter elementary school, which is 5 years old for most. I took the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya (less than two hours) by myself when I was something like 5, but like DarlingBri, I'm pretty sure my mother put me on the train and my grandmother was waiting for me on the platform at Nagoya.

My husband and his older brother used to take the night train from Ueno to Akita when they were kids to their grandparents' place in the summer. The first time they did it was when his brother was around 10 and he was 8. That's like a ten hour ride with dozens of stops along the way. I suppose things were a bit different back in those days, and I'd never let a girl do something like that, but there you go.
posted by misozaki at 3:32 PM on November 25, 2013

Best answer: I think you'll get some guidance from the mode you choose. BoltBus says no unaccompanied minors under 16. MegaBus says 17.
posted by cecic at 3:35 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I was put on a flight from New Orleans to San Antonio, TX, when I was 10 or 11 and remember being very nervous about it.

That said, I was more nervous about it beforehand, realized it was fine when it was actually happening, and was a generally anxious kid.

I also think a plane is a very different beast from something like Bolt Bus. So many opportunities for something to go wrong. Hell, I'm an adult, have traveled all over the world, and have had weird hiccups happen on bus trips between East Coast cities.
posted by Sara C. at 3:35 PM on November 25, 2013

I'd judge it by how ready you think he is to say no to/move away from an adult that's creepy and/or he doesn't want to talk to. If one parent puts him on the bus, the other meets it, and he has a cell phone for emergencies, there's not really much that could go seriously wrong.

But a realistic scenario is that because there's no assigned seating, he ends up with a chatty seat-mate who's asks him about himself for the entire ride. Are you comfortable with his ability to put his headphones on and say "I'd rather not talk" or to pull out his cell phone and spend the ride in conversation with you instead? Then I'd say he's ready.
posted by MsMolly at 3:37 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Looks like I'll be earning Amtrak rewards again in a couple years. Thanks everybody!
posted by whuppy at 3:41 PM on November 25, 2013

Just wanted to add that bus arrival gates at Port Authority seem to be randomly chosen and the place is a maze for the first-time traveler. Waiting on a street corner in the dead of winter is not much fun either.

At least the trains have a conductor to keep an eye on the kid.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:52 PM on November 25, 2013

In my personal opinion it's somewhere around 12-13. My mom was fairly overprotective, but around that age i got a phone and started busing all around the city alone. Within a year or two i was busing out of town on 2-3 hour bus trips to visit friends who had moved out of town, and eventually busing and walking a couple hours to visit my first girlfriend who had moved way down the state very suddenly.

I never had a single close call that wasn't just something to laugh off. And quite a bit of the time, especially at the beginning of highschool and when i went out of town i'd be riding the sketchiest intercity buses or ones that went through shitty areas and were full of hammered yelling hobos and tweakers and shit.

Nearly all of my friends got around everywhere the same way too, and quite a few had already been riding public transit all over the city and even out of town before i had. Several of them had flown/taken the train/greyhounded to visit some family or go stay with another parent as far away as california(from washington).

Honestly, i'd gauge this by how capable of being completely disaffected and indifferent about that sort of thing he is. That and how willing and capable he is of, as said above, to completely ignore people.

Also, as much as it sucks to bring up, the amount you get harassed as a boy compared to a girl at those ages is such a huge difference that it might as well not exist. Nothing weird happened to me in that sense until i was in highschool, during which i had a full beard and looked like i was midway through undergrad. Whereas every girl i knew then, who i had discussed it with, had been harassed a shitload of times.

I really wouldn't worry about this much. He'll just get on the bus and play pokemon or something on his 3ds MK.4 or iphone 7 or whatever we're at by then with his headphones on and no one will even look at him for more than 30 seconds.

I honestly think this is a good experience to have in your early-mid teens. The kids who didn't get to do this stick out in college and are visibly frightened by weird shit on transit, and the crazys and assholes notice their fear and latch onto it like the predators they are and specifically harass them. Register it as the baseline earlier and they'll have a lot smoother ride a few years later in life.

What i'd suggest is doing what my mom did, which was transition into this by riding the bus with me even if she didn't technically need to go where i was going.

You'll see what it's like and what's out there, and they'll get used to it with you around to defend them if anyone latches on to how inexperienced they are and tries to be a fuck.
posted by emptythought at 3:53 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a warm up, it might be worth trying a trip with him. See what parts confuse him, check his understanding of the process, and ask what he would do if things went wrong.

(I would have killed to do this at 12!)
posted by gregglind at 4:13 PM on November 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

I was seven the first time I flew somewhere unaccompanied, but I think the airlines are a lot easier for solo children to navigate than the bus system. For starters, there isn't much to wander off TO, with minders assigned to children that are flying unaccompanied.

But what is the right age? By 12 I was navigating unfamiliar metro systems of foreign cities not only solo, but also with a younger sibling in tow, so I was clearly more than ready at that age. Speaking purely for myself, I think nine would have been a fine age, with the proviso that I would have the kid go with a map, a cell phone, ask him/her to sit in the front of the bus (and ask people to move/share if there were no free rows in the first two rows of the bus), etc.

Nthing this is something you probably need to take up with the other parent, particularly since I'm guessing s/he was the one that nixed the walking five minutes to summer camp solo idea?
posted by arnicae at 4:15 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would worry much more about logistical issues like getting left behind at a rest stop than sketchy weirdoes.

I really like the "warm up" trip idea.
posted by Sara C. at 4:17 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

The first time I walked to the grocery store by myself, I was 10 or 11. I was bright, intrepid, and game, but ran the last quarter mile home because I got so damn nervous.

Also, if we're using this for a metric, my sister and I were walking to the grocery store by ourselves (about 1.5 miles) from basically second grade. Along a very busy road. Just to buy candy. It wasn't a big deal. So - perhaps your kid is similar?
posted by arnicae at 4:19 PM on November 25, 2013

I would also consider his reading and specifically map-reading skills. If he's able to read a metro or bus map and any signs he might see (even of unknown names) easily, that means he'll be able to figure out where he is and where he needs to be relatively easily, which makes the trip a whole lot less stressful or dangerous for him. If he's struggling to read the maps or to read new signs, then things will probably still be OK if everything goes right, but it's going to be a much more stressful journey to him, and a lot more has the potential to go wrong.

I would also consider how long his attention span lasts when he's left to his own devices. How able is he to stay focused or to amuse himself over long periods of time? If he's too young or energetic to have an attention span that will take him from the beginning of the journey to the end without him getting antsy or unduly bored, then without someone accompanying him, he's likely to act up or attract the attention of the wrong people en route -- that's unfair to the other passengers at best and dangerous for him at worst.

Maybe one place to look to figure this out would be how comfortable you are with leaving him home alone. If you aren't comfortable leaving him to his own devices in his own home, I don't think he should be traveling across state lines by himself (when I was growing up, that was roughly ages 7 or below). If you are comfortable leaving him to his own devices at home but only under strict rules, then I think you probably can let him travel by himself, but it's probably going to be a stressful experience for him and require some extra planning by you to make sure he doesn't have to do much/any problem solving en route -- I would think of it as a possibility if necessary, but not ideal (when I was growing up, roughly ages 8 & 9). If you're comfortable leaving him to his own devices at home and can expect him to arrive there from school, fix himself something to eat, go run errands or hang with friends or do homework, and get back in time to cook/eat/wash up from dinner, then traveling on his own is probably not a problem (when I was growing up, that began at roughly 10 or 11). If you're comfortable leaving him overnight, he can probably book his own travel (anywhere from 12 on up, depending on the kid).
posted by rue72 at 4:48 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you do, for example, an Amtrak warm-up trip, you could leave him for a while and go sit in another carriage (unless all the seating is allocated?) so he can get a feeling for what it's like sitting there alone for a bit, while he knows you're still close at hand. Would give you both an idea how comfortable he feels with being alone while travelling.
posted by penguin pie at 4:49 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I flew across the country numerous times by myself starting at age 5, but the airlines all had "unaccompanied minor" programs that essentially tasked someone to babysit me. But seriously, I was a smart quiet (girl) child and if one parent dropped me off and the other picked me up, and some adult was aware of my solitude on the trip, I certainly ended up fine. Looking back, it does seem kinda insane.
posted by hepta at 4:50 PM on November 25, 2013

I would have been fine with this at 12, 40 years ago. But I am surprised no one has really made the counter argument here, which is that there are a lot of bad people in the world, and a lot of ways they could prey on even a self-confident and well prepared 12 year old child, and NYC and Boston transit facilities are reasonably likely places such people might be found, and he's your child.

I'm down with not over-protecting kids and my own experience was virtual urban independence at 14 or so, and solo travel before that for sure. But there are ways times have changed. It depends on the kid, but I can't really picture putting the average 12 year old (I've known a few) on the bus to Port Authority alone. And I'd be a bit nervous about Amtrak depending on how much supervision they provide for unaccompanied minors. If you fly a solo kid you can still get (from the airline) a parental pass through security to take the kid to the gate and pick them up at the gate on the other end, so I'd have no concerns about flying a 12 year old solo on a direct flight.

It's one of those situations where you know the risk is low, but not how low, and the upside (your kid gains a sense of independence and confidence) is priceless and important -- you save time and money too, but those traveling hours can be bonding time too.

But you stand to lose everything in the world that matters most to you on the slim chance something goes wrong. How you arbitrage that psychically (and importantly how mom does) might make it wiser to spend the money and time just a couple of years longer.

Another ironic angle no one has considered: you're both safer by far on a train than driving, and the kid is probably statistically safer by himself on a train than in a car on the highway with dad, actually.

Just playing angles here, but I can see why some parents would wait longer than 12 to send a kid alone to NYC.
posted by spitbull at 5:30 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Relevant: Free Range Kids
posted by Tom-B at 5:30 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: He's done the trip on train and bus with his mom before, but I love the idea of a dry run where one of us accompanies him but hangs back and lets him handle things. (Much like I do for the little Leeroy Jenkins in TF2.)

Thanks again for all the responses!
posted by whuppy at 6:12 PM on November 25, 2013

My children were taking the train into NYC from the suburbs alone at the age of 14. They would wander around the city all day Saturday and come home. Sometimes they would go to an all ages show and come home at 11:00pm. If one parent put your child on the transportation at one end and the other met said transportation at its destination, I would consider doing it depending on the child from say 12-13 on.

Another anecdotal piece of information, when I lived in Chicago, because it was a American and United hub, I would meet my nephew and niece who were 10 and 13 at one gate and walk them to another while they traveled from SF to Pittsburgh. I only had to do that because the airlines required it, otherwise they were certainly capable of doing it on their own.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:37 PM on November 25, 2013

I wouldn't do it until you had confidence that he'd be ok if no one does meet him at the end. What if you or his mother get stuck in traffic, or something worse? His being ok acting by himself in an emergency -- and it means you'll need to go over emergency procedures for that situation -- would be a prerequisite for me.
posted by jaguar at 7:19 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to take a bus about 3 hours to visit my aunt when I was 11. I would never let my kid do that now, given it made several stops and, as a later teen/university student, I had people do creepy things to me on public transit. However, I did just fine at 11 and I was under strict instructions to only sit beside a woman in the first seat on the driver's right and to say the seat was taken if a man tried to sit there. (I realize predators are not all male.)

I hear all sorts of people tout Free Range Kids and I'm not necessarily against some of the Free Range ideas. But I hear people go, "I have to free range my kids!" and suddenly their 10yo is taking a bus an hour away. It would make more sense to me if you practiced parts of the trip first. So your kid first goes with you a couple of times to practice the trip. Then your kid practices walking ahead of you on the way to the bus stop. Then meeting you there. Then meeting you there but having to get on the bus without you telling them what to do (and you get on the bus after them). Then they do all that and ride the bus one stop (or something). Then the whole way. You break it down into chunks. I'm pretty sure the Free Range mom did stuff like that before putting her 9yo on a Subway and I wonder if anyone has ever quizzed her on stuff, such as what they practiced before that or whether she had a friend or two (out of sight) on the train or even a couple of friends posted at other stations, just in case. Plus, the subway system has lots of cameras and you can predict the time the train rolls in, so it's kind of a safe thing to try out. Likewise, it may be that the bus system offers similar protections, making it a little safer than walking home from middle school, when you might not have any predictable schedule or confined and televised environment!

So, with all that in mind, I think it should be doable, depending on the trip length and the readiness of your child by age 12 or so or maybe later, depending on the rules. And maybe you could break down part of it or work up to him meeting you half way and then you take the train/bus back with him. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. One of my friends was looking at her kid take a walk, bus and a ferry to get to a daycamp until I pointed out she co.uld just put him in a cab with a prepaid chit and have him call as soon as he got out. So sometimes you can work out a different route too
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:45 PM on November 25, 2013

OP, have you ever read Gavin DeBecker? In addition to his book "The Gift of Fear" which is recommended frequently here on the green, he wrote another book about safety for kids/teens - Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children & Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane). It can sound a little fear-monger-ish from the descriptions, but the actual book is very grounded in reality, and has a lot of good practical info.
posted by oh yeah! at 9:43 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

My first long solo trip was an overnight coach trip between London and Edinburgh, aged 10. I then did the return trip a week later. At 12 I took a solo overnight coach/ferry ride from London to Nantes in France. At 13 my folks moved abroad so from 14 onwards I had to do a 2 hr train trip, bus ride, and three flights to get home on my own, which took around 24 hours.

My folks are pretty sensible, levelheaded people but they were used to travel because my mum and her dad had both grown up hsving to fly or catch a boat home from boarding school.

I did all this without a credit card or mobile phone because this was in the 80s and very early nineties so for he really long trips I was out of contact for a fair while. I don't think I'm some super independent travel guru. The first two trips were just point to point. All I had to do was make sure I got back on the coach at toilet stops. The intercontinental plane journey I did twice accompanied by my older brother before doing it solo.

These days we can equip kids with phones and an emergency card. We worry more about the safety of kids now but the reality is kids are safer now. Do a trial run, go through the ground rules, show him how to ask for help. When kids screw up it can be because they compound problems.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:14 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was 10 when I flew to Florida. Technically I wasn't an unaccompanied minor, as I was flying with my mother and two brothers, but she had her hands full coralling my younger brothers and pretty much asked me where to go. I would think that 10-12 would be fine for taking the train, but like some others I wouldn't want to take the bus. Busses are definitely more sketchy than trains and also tend to be in worse parts of town.
posted by koolkat at 2:35 AM on November 26, 2013

I was 12 when I flew as an unaccompanied minor from France to Australia. I was dropped off at the drive through at Paris airport, and on my own for several hours at both Paris and Singapore airports. A year or two later I made this trip including an overnight stay in Hong Kong, alone - that was a little more scary.

*I had made this trip before several times.

So, if you have a fairly independent child, and a familiar trip, highschool age.

I did have enough money to get things if I needed them, a phone that I could use in an emergency (it had international roaming), and a lot of familiarity with how things worked. For example, I knew my way around Singapore airport on my own because I'd wandered off for an hour on previous trips while parents had coffee or something.
posted by Ashlyth at 2:59 AM on November 26, 2013

You're right that it's still years away. I have absolutely never seen an unaccompanied 12 year old walking through Penn Station or Port Authority in NYC in the last 20 years (and I'm a near-native.) And also, it's not really like being a free range kid on the subway. The subway is easier and safer to navigate.

Yes, I managed to get myself through Penn Station alone regularly at 15, many years ago. But nowadays, it's even rare to see a teen alone. Older teens in pairs or groups is the limit to what you'd really see nowadays. There's a reason the company rule linked to above is the older teen years.

In Penn Station, for example, there is no one obvious around to ask for directions, very extreme crowding and poor signage, and cell phones often don't work well in there. No one wants their kid asking random strangers in Penn Station for help.
posted by third rail at 3:25 AM on November 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I flew across country from San Francisco to Pittsburgh, alone, when I was 7.

Sure, I was put on the plane by mom in SFO and Granny and Grandpa picked me up at the gate in Pittsburgh, but I sat in the plane and talked the ears off of anyone who would listen and didn't give it a second thought.

So, if you have a bright kid, and you can put him on the vehicle directly, and guarantee that Dad would be at the other end to intercept him at the distant end...I'm thinking 11 or 12 on the Megabus.

There may be rules, so check the conveyance.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:15 AM on November 26, 2013

I should add to my answer above that I am a parent who DID send her tween age children alone on airplanes. Penn Station/Port Authority is a totally different story. At bus and train stations, they switch arrival gates all the time and there is a huge amount of unpredictability built in, without the capacity to have someone help the kid find the parent.
Also re. the bus itself: an airplane is an atmosphere monitored by the flight attendant walking around and the fact that people on the plane have paid a lot of money to definitely be going somewhere. And it isn't stopping here and there for people to get on and off. It's a very different environment, and I would advise caution using a child's readiness for solo airplane travel as an accurate gauge for interstate bus travel.
posted by third rail at 7:31 AM on November 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I could add my experiences to the many who've been traveling alone between divorced parents since an early age. And in a way, I miss those days. But today, there is a completely different context, and very, very few minors are traveling alone (outside of specific programs which exist for that purpose).

The thing is, because minors traveling alone have become such a rarity, those who are out there are much more at risk. Predators - and not only pedophiles - are aware that those few children who are out on their own have risk-taking parents. I wish we could all agree to let our children move around, so it became normal again. But I am not experimenting with my children.

My kids are relatively free-range. They move around the city freely, and on their own accord avoid the places I want them to avoid (not the places you'd expect, though, since we live "downtown" and have friendly relations with all the homeless, immigrants and drunks). Also, in town their phones work 100% everywhere they go. But for longer distances, they have not been completely alone ever. At 12, they were allowed to travel with friends or siblings. At 16, my elder daughter tried going alone just 20 miles with public transportation, but something went wrong with a connection, and it all ended in tears and drama. In my view, the guy who "helped" her was shady, and the main factor in getting her back safely was that I could get friends who were close to the place she stranded to move out very rapidly. I'm aware that with more experience, she maybe could have managed that on her own. But again - with fewer solitary children traveling, those who are alone are more visible and meet worse challenges.
posted by mumimor at 11:28 AM on November 26, 2013

I took airplanes alone from age 7 on, but, as noted, airplanes are quite different (even back before they put big buttons on unaccompanied minors).

More relevantly, my best friend and I were allowed to take the train into Chicago from the suburbs by ourselves at age 12, and we started doing Iowa/Chicago to NYC trips on Amtrak and Greyhound by ourselves when we were 14. I started doing the Iowa City to Chicago Greyhound by myself when I was 14 or 15. I knew the Chicago stations pretty well and my friend new the NYC stuff well, so it worked out fine. This was in the early 1990s, so well before cell phones. I don't ever recall being frightened on the bus or train even when I started doing it solo, and there were rarely any other kids my age.
posted by newrambler at 1:42 PM on November 26, 2013

I would point out that our parents (those of us in our 30s or older) rarely made us kids wear seat belts even on highway drives. The world wasn't less dangerous then, either. It was more dangerous. Cars are much safer inherently now than they were then, for example. You can look back at the 1970s and say "well, what a golden age of freedom, kids were on their own and less protected and they managed fine and learned independence." But you can't say that about seat belts (or many other things we used to do or not do for or as kids). Not putting kids in seat belts was just plain stupid, our parents just didn't know any better. A lot of kids used to die in car accidents who don't die that way now, for real and true. Same with smoking around kids in the car or house. Same with not having childproof containers for deadly poisons. On and on. We live in a more protective and safety-conscious world than 30 or 40 years ago, and some of that is overprotection and needless anxiety and growth-stunting denial of agency to children. But not seat belts or safety caps or no smoking in the house or car. Those are actual improvements. They created annoyances too, and unforeseen new risks in some cases perhaps. But the good old days when we were more free and independent might be a nostalgic haze over a past where kids were more likely to get hurt.

It's striking how many answers in this thread proudly say "I did it at 10 or 11 or 12," and I answered that way in my first reply too. But as I think about it, knowing what I know as an adult, I sometimes wonder what the fuck my parents were thinking letting me spend weekends on my own in New York City at 14. Yeah I was fine, nothing bad happened, I learned a lot and gained a lot of confidence. But it was damn sure risky. They just calculated risk differently back then. Childhood mortality has declined sharply in recent decades in the developed world because of improved protective systems.

So while it's cool to be nostalgic (and maybe even exaggerate *just a little* how confidently we strode through Port Authority at 13, or navigated a foreign subway system -- shit, I've been reduced to near tears by insane or frightening travel challenges I've faced as an adult) , or whatever, I think it's worth not viewing a present day situation through the backwards telescope of nostalgia. You make your kid wear a seat belt and sit in the back seat when you drive him from Boston, right? Your parents didn't do that not because freedom, but because stupid.
posted by spitbull at 1:50 PM on November 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

For reference, I'm 27--my answer is calibrated to the experience of someone who was 12 in 1998, long after people started worrying about unaccompanied children falling prey to predators or whatever. I still suspect somewhere around that age is when one might contemplate whether your particular kid could handle going on Greyhound alone or whether you definitely need to wait till he's 13 so Amtrak becomes an option (and reconsider then). What was reasonable for me would have been totally unreasonable for some kids I went to school with, so obviously your kid may vary.

(That said, I saw some junior high kids on campus yesterday (I was walking to the bus at the time a program for gifted kids lets out) and they looked impossibly small and I couldn't imagine them on the train alone. Of course, they were about to get on the buses to various places in twos and threes and I was taking the train in junior high.)
posted by hoyland at 5:49 AM on November 27, 2013

People worried about unaccompanied children in the 70s and 80s. There were paedophile scares and child abductions. I disagree strongly with the view that unaccompanied children are now more at risk because of their rarity.

Firstly, street crime is lower. At record lows. Secondly, we are now firmly coming out of a culture where children aren't believed at first instance. As a society were now incredibly protective of the safety of children and this means that in the home, in cars and out on the street, children are safer than they were before because we have a much more ingrained child safety culture.

It is absolutely true that people calibrate risk differently now, generally for better. But it is also true that widespread helicopter parenting and big paedophile scares is a symptom of parents misunderstanding risk too.

On a point to point journey on a coach, armed with a phone, having done the journey before and given guidance about how the system works the main risk is not, IMHO, criminal actions of bad people, but the risk of a child making a succession of poor decisions. It is not a great risk, but it is a risk. You can mitigate the risk in several ways - make the driver aware of your child, and that they are solo, help your child identify places to look for help, give them hard and fast rules to stop them getting into trouble in the first place (like - if the bus makes multiple stops, you only get off the bus if the bus driver tells you to).
posted by MuffinMan at 10:47 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

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