Solo Teenager
July 6, 2019 8:43 PM   Subscribe

I need advice regarding my teen son traveling solo to NYC.

My 18-year-old son wants to travel solo to NYC for a week this summer. He would pay for the trip with money earned from his job. We are trying to convince him to wait until Spring Break to go with friends. (His friends can’t go this summer for varying reasons.)

My husband and I mainly have anxieties about safety and navigating the city alone. He has never used public transportation. I think the experience might be richer if he shared it with a friend.

I think it’s great that he wants to travel. I don’t want to squash his sense of adventure. I am apprehensive. My husband is totally against it. We both know that he may go despite our reservations.

My husband and I have never traveled to NYC so we cannot advise. If he were to travel to NYC, do you have any advice? Is this wise?
posted by loveandhappiness to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (37 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It’s just a week. Where will he stay? What does he want to do? I think he will find the city overwhelming but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s underage so hopefully he won’t be trying to hang out in bars. Does he do drugs? I’d be more concerned about his itinerary and that he has prepped ahead of time for how he’ll get around. Does he have any friends or family he could meet up with even for a day there?
posted by amanda at 8:53 PM on July 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you Amanda.

To add: No family or friends in the city. I agree with the overwhelm. No drinking or drugs. He’s a responsible person, although can be absentminded at times. He is leaning toward the Pod hotel. I think it’s in midtown.
posted by loveandhappiness at 9:02 PM on July 6, 2019

He may have more fun with a friend, I can't take a position on that. But a neurotypical eighteen-year-old who's not prone to getting in trouble should totally be able to handle NYC by himself. It'll be a bit much at first, but he should get used to it relatively quickly. He's in no danger virtually anywhere in Manhattan, beyond the odd bit of petty property theft if he doesn't keep an eye on his stuff. And the subway initially seems impossible but you quickly learn it, and the dangers of "messing up" are low. If he ends up totally lost he can always get a cab or Uber (if you must) back to his hotel. Really, this is something I would not discourage.
posted by praemunire at 9:08 PM on July 6, 2019 [28 favorites]

I traveled alone to NYC by myself at 17, in the big bad 80s. Well, I stayed with a family but other than a place to sleep, I was on my own. And we didn’t have cell phones back then. He’ll probably be fine.
posted by matildaben at 9:13 PM on July 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Get him Lyft/uber on his phone in case he gets stranded.

Also keep in mind, if you make a big stink about this and he ends up running into a problem or getting into trouble he is less likely to contact you for help right away. So I'd reconsider my approach on this one.
posted by Toddles at 9:16 PM on July 6, 2019 [8 favorites]

Would you feel differently if it was a different city, maybe one you're more familiar with?

New York has this reputation as, like, the Hard Mode of US cities — extra-dangerous, extra-difficult to navigate, requiring extra street smarts and savvy to survive. Some of that stuff may have been true decades ago. None of it is really true now, and a kid who can handle a trip alone to another city can handle a trip to New York.

It's true that it's very, very busy and crowded. It's also quite safe; you have to go well out of your way to find someplace it's not okay to be out at night. The crowdedness actually makes you safer, since there are people around to keep an eye on what's happening. New Yorkers are sometimes brusque, but also more helpful than people anywhere else I've lived, and are generally happy to give (brief) directions or explain (quickly) how things work. The subway can be overwhelming at first, but there are good clear signs and people around at all hours who can help. (Millions of tourists every year find their way around the subway, and a lot of them don't even speak English.)

In other words, if he's smart and skilled enough to get safely around whatever big city is closest to you, he's smart and skilled enough to get safely around New York.

The things I struggled with the most when I was there alone at around his age were emotional. Being there alone can be very lonely, especially if you grew up someplace where people talk to strangers. I sometimes felt sad. I sometimes got overwhelmed — not in a "couldn't cope" way but in a "oh god I need a rest from all this sound and motion" way. You really have to make a conscious effort to take a break when the place you're in keeps going at all hours. But I think those are all things it's appropriate for an 18-year-old to be learning to handle.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:17 PM on July 6, 2019 [23 favorites]

I guess contextually, how big a deal is this? How long is his trip plan? What's his planned budget, and is he giving himself padding for emergencies? How far away is he coming from (like, is he going to take a train into the city, or are you far away enough that he has to fly)? Has he spent time in other big cities ever, whether with you or with friends? Does he stay calm during challenging situations, when trying to figure out something new (like how to navigate the subway)? What kinds of things does he actually want to do in NYC?

Generally speaking, NYC is much safer now than it was when I was a kid in the eighties; I wouldn't panic about letting an 18 year old go spend a few days there to explore, but I would want a big picture idea of what he was doing and how he planned to get around (walking is a reasonable answer for NYC! but it isn't always for other places), and evidence that he knew how to test and maintain his own boundaries safely. From your added description, he sounds responsible enough that he'll probably be fine.

Also, where is he planning to stay? (On preview: oh, the Pod is a totally sensible and clean hotel chain, I've stayed at Pod 39 in Midtown East; rooms are small but it's not like you need more than a place to sleep and use the bathroom. If he has any questions about the city, the front desk staff at his hotel will be able and willing to help.)

I mean, tons of eighteen-year-olds fly across the US and the world by themselves to start college because their parents can't always afford to accompany them, and they make things work, thousands of them at the various colleges and universities in NYC. :) Solo travel is a great way to practice your own independence and is its own fun as well.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 9:18 PM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

If he’s an 18 year old off to college (vs about to start 12th grade) then social dynamics may change in his HS friend group, and he may want to do spring break activities with college friends instead.

However, perhaps you might want to point out that it is a lot cheaper to split the cost of a hotel room.

However, I think NYC is a good starting trip with the caveat that he needs to make sure the hotel he books will rent to 18 year olds. New York City is overall safe, and he will blend right in with all the other tourists. Worst case scenario, you are only a phone call/ plane ride away. However, I think it’s reasonable to ask him to provide you with an itenerary— flight numbers, hotel contact info, approximate plans for the day’s planned activities.
posted by oceano at 9:19 PM on July 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

I moved from the middle of nowhere to a big city at 18, all alone. He can totally do this, it'll be good for him.
posted by stray at 9:20 PM on July 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

My friends recently stayed in that Pod hotel. They're 37 year old professionals and said it was perfect. That sounds like a good choice for lodging. I think he'll be ok: plenty of 18 year olds live in NYC, it's a safe city, it's an adventure. Make sure he is smart and safe (e.g., he should bring an extra credit card and a little cash and keep them in his hotel room in case he loses his primary card, it's a good idea to carry around a spare phone battery, that kind of stuff--no need to go overboard and wear a money belt or anything intense).
posted by sockermom at 9:21 PM on July 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

I also did this when I was that age, back in the early ‘90s. I was (am) a theatre geek, and felt like I needed to see Broadway. I also really really needed that step in my development. Figuring out how to navigate the city (pre cell phones and internet!) was a giant step and one that helped me separate from home, so I could go live on my own and start becoming a real adult.

The City has never felt less safe to me than anywhere else in the world.

Make sure he knows how to get use his phone to navigate the subway - or that he really knows how to read those maps. If he buys a weeklong subway pass he can get everywhere for very little money. He should have an itinerary, there’s so much to see, and better to have somewhat of a plan. A week gives you a taste. It is overwhelming for sure, but that’s part of the great part of it all.
posted by miles1972 at 9:36 PM on July 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Basic logistics are totally doable if he has a smartphone. He'll be able to get around fine using Google Maps and/or CityMapper — both of which can get you from any Point A to any Point B in the five boroughs via subway, bus, bike, or rideshare. And he can find good-but-not-too-expensive places to eat on Google or Yelp. (He'll want that help if he's in Midtown, too, which is rife with disappointing-but-expensive food.)

Also, contrary to their reputation, New Yorkers are generally pretty welcoming and happy to give directions, tips, etc. to newcomers.

Where one does run the risk of irking the locals is being ignorant of how to exist as a person in public space shared with millions of other people. But cartoonist Nathan Pyle has you effectively and humorously covered with his NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette:
Preview on BuzzFeed
Buy the full book on Amazon

Lastly, encourage him to get off Manhattan. The other four boroughs can offer some psychological breathing room and have some fantastic eating & activities. (I'm super biased toward Brooklyn, having lived there for 12 years, but found great stuff elsewhere too.)

I think if you can manage to show more interest than concern, and can ask him what he's excited to do and see whilst gently sowing seeds of preparation, it'll be a better experience for all involved.

Good luck!
posted by D.Billy at 9:47 PM on July 6, 2019 [8 favorites]

Oh gosh, he'll be fine! Maybe brush up on how the subway works, but there's often people around to help navigate, especially the stations near the biggest tourist attractions. New York City is a breathtaking place, I love it more than almost anywhere else on earth. There's so much to see and do, and it's easy to get to places where there are fewer people if he gets overwhelmed -- or more people, if he craves that. I second planning to get out of Manhattan and see the other boroughs, they're often calmer and feel more neighborhood-y, while still having, like more museums in a square mile than you could visit in a week.

Everyone else is covering practicalities really well, but I do want to note -- it will be good for him to have to go it alone and problem-solve and get himself around. I was pretty sheltered through high school, and going off to college and having to sort myself out was an incredible experience. A bit scary, yes, but now I know that I can take care of myself in pretty well any situation. Smartphones make self-rescue awfully easy now.

Also, as someone who usually takes vacations alone -- it's a good skill to have. I love traveling alone, and being just super-self-indulgent about what I want to see and do, and getting by on my own. I promise, if I could navigate Kiev without a word of Ukrainian (or able to read Cyrillic, for that matter), he'll be fine in NYC. It'll be a great adventure, and he'll learn about trail magic when something unexpected and amazing happens, and he'll get fantastic skills to get him through life. I really cannot recommend traveling alone enough.
posted by kalimac at 9:55 PM on July 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

The most probable bad possibility is that he gets his phone and wallet pickpocketed. If he keeps a $50 and contact phone /credit card numbers in his sock then he won't be stuck. He could call the cc company to report the theft, buy a new metro card, and if needed you could western union him money.
posted by Sophont at 10:00 PM on July 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

As you and his father seem to be a lot more concerned than the hive mind perhaps you could approach this as an exercise in trip planning. It seems as if he has started to do his research. That’s great. Ask him to share what he finds out, get him to walk you through his budget, through his itinerary, how he imagines public transport will work etc. The spirit here should be that you want to learn about the city, you want him to have a great adventure and spend his hard earned money well, not that he can’t do this without your input. That’ll do two things. One, hopefully you’ll see he is thinking this through and coming up with a sensible plan so this will give you confidence in his ability to cope. Two, you will learn about the city at the same time so hopefully you’ll also learn to look at this as a manageable endeavour. I was running around London on my own at 18, as foreign tourist and none native speaker of English. It was fine.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:30 PM on July 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think it’s a great idea! Let him test his ability to be independent, resourceful, and self-sufficient! I took a trip like this at his age to Europe. I went for a month. It was before cellphones and easy communication via internet. When I ran into problems, I had to solve them myself. It gave me a confidence and self assurance that changed me. I’m sure my parents were privately reluctant to send their 18 year old daughter overseas, but it ended up being a great experience for me and helped me to know that I could take care of myself. He’s an adult. This is an opportunity for him to develop a confidence that he’ll feel in his bones. Don’t hold him back.
posted by quince at 10:44 PM on July 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was allowed to go into NYC by myself at 14. I know many NYC kids who were taking the bus ans/or subway to school by themselves at 12 - 14.

If he is a good responsible person, let him go.
posted by AugustWest at 10:48 PM on July 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Some basic tips about safety in a city are a good idea... How to carry a wallet, don't leave your phone out on a table at a Cafe, generally keep your wits about you.
But nyc is so incredibly safe nowadays. He should be totally fine.
posted by k8t at 10:59 PM on July 6, 2019

When I was 17 I moved over 1000km away from my family, by myself, to attend a different university. I was paying rent and bills, cooking for myself and basically doing life management at the same age. Kids this age are more than capable of taking a big trip! In Australia, it's not uncommon for kids to spend a year or so overseas at around that age. He will be fine; more than fine, he will learn a lot about himself, this sounds like a great trip.

If he catches a wrong train, he catches a wrong train. There are few decisions that are irreversible on trips like this, and his own nerves will probably keep him well away from those.

Just make sure he know that he can reach out to you, no matter what. :) Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 12:14 AM on July 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

When I was a teenager I was often not allowed to do this kind of thing on the grounds that I wasn't sufficiently experienced or "street smart". I always wondered how I was supposed to become those things if I was also supposed to stay at home. Anyway, I left home when I was 18 (like a lot of kids) and it turned out I was completely fine figuring things out and getting along.

If you have younger kids maybe take this opportunity to teach them the things you wish he knew now (a few decades have passed and I still don't understand the logic of the "you're unprepared; welp, now you're an adult!" approach").
posted by trig at 12:21 AM on July 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yeah, this is fine. Plenty of 18 year olds do a gap year and move abroad for a year. Going to a big city in his own country is totally reasonable and doable. Your reasons for saying no seem to be based on your own anxieties and fears, not on actual reasons. That shouldn’t be enough to say no. Trust him to be the adult he is.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:30 AM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm assuming you're already in the U.S., and legally so?

+1 for this seems fine.

If you want to make sure he's prepared,

1. Ask him to do an overnight trip to a different place that doesn't sound as scary to you.

2. Ask him to write up his New York plans for you: how he'll get there and back, where he'll stay, what he'll do in various scenarios (e.g., missed his plane, lost his wallet, got hit by a car). Given his age and experience, it's fine to demand a little more forethought.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 1:06 AM on July 7, 2019

I went to NYC plenty--usually just for one night--when I was 16-18. Almost always with friends, but I think that made me more likely to get into trouble than when I was alone. Again, it was the bad old days of the early 80s and nowadays it is so safe. The thing is I was strictly forbidden to ever go to the city, so we'd invent "camping trips" (which were credible bc Boy Scouts and seen as wholesome) but change our clothes, leave all our tents and gear in a parked car, and then take the train into the city. Which meant there was no way in hell we could call our parents if anything had really gone wrong.
posted by Gotanda at 1:07 AM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

A couple of tips: New Yorkers may seem alarmingly mean to him. We’re honestly not — what we are is brusque: we’re not going to make eye contact or speak to him in complete sentences unless there’s a reason. If he needs directions or something, he should ask and confidently expect randos to be helpful.

He’s going to stay in Times Square? That’s fine, but he should know that TImes Square is a shatteringly unpleasant area to spend any time in on the street — that’s not normal NYC, that’s a packed, seething mob of tourists. If he walks four blocks in any direction, things will settle down some and not be so crazy.

Other than that, NYC is super safe these days. My kids have been roaming the subway system freely since they were twelve or so, I rarely know what boro they’re in after school. He will very plausibly get lost some, but nothing else bad is going to happen to him.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:44 AM on July 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

Grew up outside the city but spending every possible moment there on my own from the age of 14 or so, also in the big bad 70s and 80s. Live there now. My own 18 year old travels feeely and safely around the city when they’re in town. NYC is safer than ever and safer than most American cities of any size, as someone said above in part because it’s crowded. But also because it has changed. Our homicide rate is at a *historical low.* Petty theft and grifter scams are the major dangers and they can be avoided with common sense.

Depends on the kid. By 18 I was perfectly at home by myself in NYC. I agree that supporting rather than questioning his choice is the wise move here.

What’s he into? Lots of New Yorkers here who can come up with cool things to do for him! Young people tend to hang out in Brooklyn and now Queens more than Manhattan, for a small point of reference.

By the way if he comes in mid-August there are thousands of new 18 year old kids arriving in NYC for college.
posted by spitbull at 3:47 AM on July 7, 2019

Together with him, sit down and discuss what, to each of you, are the Worst Things That Could Happen.

Then, work through what to do if any of those things actually did occur. (Basically, create a Known Issues/Runbook/User Guide sort of thing for him.) Simply having already considered and "planned for" the worst possible situations will go a long way toward a calmer mindset for both of you.

Maybe poll your close friends and co-workers to see if ANYONE has a contact in the city, and could be an absolute last-resort "phone a friend" helpline in case of dire need? (If anyone I knew had a child traveling to my city, I would certainly say, "sure- they can call me, and I will try my best to help.")
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:04 AM on July 7, 2019

NYC is so safe now, the worst thing that will happen to him is pickpocketing.

Plenty of teenagers go to Europe for the summer, many on their own; NYC isn't more dangerous, and your son is not less capable than they are. He can figure out a subway map!
posted by DarlingBri at 4:22 AM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Assuming he is white and neurotypical, he will not have any issues. Ppl have this 70s-80s image of NYC forever stuck in their minds of Constant Danger! but it's absolutely not a big deal to come here without knowing anyone, outside of issues like the regular targeting of visible minorities by law enforcement.

It's hot and disgusting here in the summer, if he's never been anywhere extremely humid and hot and foully disgusting you might want to advise him to, idk, drink some gatorade or something. Honestly that's the most likely threat to him, mild heatstroke on the subway platform.
posted by poffin boffin at 7:00 AM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Everyone above has given great advice. My daughter and her boyfriend went to NYC the month after they graduated from high school; granted, they were traveling together but I would have been fine if she (or her brother) had wanted to go to NYC alone. It's a safe place, there's tons to do, he won't have to worry about not speaking the language (assumption on my part but I think I'm right).

Plus, I mean...he's 18. Legally, he's an adult. What happens if he just says he's going no matter what you and your husband say because he *is* a legal adult? It's way better to support him in this endeavor so he feels comfortable asking for help if he needs it than to make it an adversarial thing right off the bat.

Would it make you feel better if he enabled tracking on his phone so you could see where he is while he's in the city? Maybe he calls you once per day?

He's going to go out into the world eventually anyway. You might as well help him do this while you can.
posted by cooker girl at 7:34 AM on July 7, 2019

The tourists zones of Manhattan, and the buses and subways connecting them, are about as crime-free as can be. If you're worried about temptations, for better or worse New York is also surprisingly strait-laced these days: no legal or decriminalized drugs, tough door policies at bars, etc.

Going without friends sounds great, to be honest. There's a lot to do and if his tastes are broad, eclectic and open-minded a friend would hold him back.

Anyone who reads English and maps will figure out the subway in about 30 seconds. JFK and Newark have easily navigable one-connection trains to Penn Station in Manhattan. (LGA is slightly more complicated.) Uber and Lyft, and two services that aren't available in most of the US Juno and Via, go everywhere and aren't super expensive.
posted by MattD at 7:48 AM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

NYC is so safe these days. I think even the risk of pickpocketing is astonishingly low. (I worked in law enforcement for a while so have more data about this than the average person, for what it's worth.)

I grew up in the city and went around alone plenty as a teenager. Based on what I know of teenagers, I'd actually be more worried about your son doing crazy things with a friend for spring break (especially given all the cultural associations with "spring break") than traveling alone.

I'm sure plenty of mefites, myself included, would be happy to offer suggestions for stuff for him to do/help if he and you have any logistical questions.
posted by ferret branca at 7:55 AM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

To this day, my family constantly makes the mistake of assuming that I'm not competent to take care of myself in situations other people handle every day. It was much worse when I was your son's age. And I've got to tell you, that attitude severely hampered my personal development, caused me tons of emotional stress, and made me doubt myself on every day-to-day decision. Fighting back against it caused plenty of interpersonal problems within the family.

If your son has a smartphone, has enough money for the trip, and isn't of seriously-far-below-average intelligence, he will be totally fine. Moreover, doing this thing by himself will be so wonderful for his confidence and his emotional and social development. Another city might be cheaper, but it also might not have as comprehensive public transportation network as New York.

I think it would be totally reasonable to ask him to check in with you every day while he's away. But making a big deal about how he shouldn't go could just give him the message that you think he's stupid and incompetent.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:34 AM on July 7, 2019 [11 favorites]

People have covered the "NYC is safe, people seem rude but will be quite helpful" aspects, so I'll try to address the "what will this look like to the neighbors??" aspects:

My mother worried a lot that I liked doing things alone, that I never "got a group together" to do things, but instead, just went to do them myself. I think she wanted to see more photos of me with a gaggle of other girls. However, her sister (my aunt) liked to complain about her daughter not being independent enough!

So if there's some fear that people will think your son has no friends if all he posts from NYC are selfies (or photos of cool street things that don't include him), eh, there will be just as many people admiring that he is independent enough to get along by himself and that you are courageous enough to let him go.

Also, spring break freshman year is pretty important for college life, whether you choose to use it academically or socially. I think your son is right to keep that week on reserve.
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:52 AM on July 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

Throughout my young adulthood/college years, my parents repeatedly tried to stop me from traveling alone with limited success. Looking back on those years, I think there were a few things going on:

- My mom and dad each escalated each others' worries. If you and your partner can get on the same page so that you're talking about concrete fears/worries instead of making assumptions, it will be easier for everyone.

- My parents did not want to explain to my grandparents that I was traveling alone because they thought they would be judged for it. They were right, but over the years have learned that they just shouldn't tell one of my grandparents about my travel until it's over so that they don't make her anxious and don't have to explain why they're letting me do something. Works a charm.

- My parents were using "no solo travel" as an excuse to keep me from traveling so they could see me more. If it ever does apply, ask for what you need instead of saying no to alternatives.

- They regularly watched the nightly news and had seen a few too many "girl abducted in Aruba" stories. Those make the nightly news because they are unusual. Many people (myself included) travel alone to all sorts of destinations and come back better for the experience.

- "Solo travel" was a really scary concept to them. If you're really concerned, have your son travel with exactly one other friend, maybe two. Large groups are logistically way harder to travel with successfully, and either one of them can zone out and assume someone else is in charge, which works great until it doesn't (they're separated from the group, someone gets sick, etc.) or the "bad idea generation" can drop to the lowest common denominator of the group. 2-3 people is much easier and gives a bit of a safety net.

At 19, I took a 9-hour bus to NYC from my college for Thanksgiving week, then spent the first half traveling by myself while staying in a hostel in Harlem and the second half sleeping on the floor of a friend's dorm room at NYU. I figured out how to ride the subway, went to the Met, did a lot of window shopping, saw the Thanksgiving Day Parade live, ate in Chinatown on Thanksgiving Day when things were closed, enjoyed the wonders of an all-bread-pudding restaurant, and walked most of the length of Manhattan in a day. It was a great experience and the worst thing that happened was that I stayed in a hostel room with someone who snored really loudly - and that was before smart phones. Your son will be just fine.
posted by asphericalcow at 10:34 AM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm 72. The last time I went to NYC, I had a Metrocard fail, and someone got my credit card info (and spent a few dollars at McD's). So stress security in the little things.

As an aside, why are the subway card vending machines in just about every city so confusing?
posted by SemiSalt at 10:54 AM on July 7, 2019

Response by poster: Thank you all for comments and great advice. It is very reassuring, and husband and I both feel better about him going on this trip. I'm happy for him. I wish I had the inclination, guts, and money, to do something like this when I was a teen. He has been working a lot and has a little fortune amassed. He is starting college in the fall. It would be a 2.5 hour plane ride. I think all will be well and a great experience. Thank you again!
posted by loveandhappiness at 1:54 PM on July 7, 2019 [13 favorites]

I went to Tokyo as an absentminded 18-year-old by myself before I owned a smartphone (and before I'd experienced living in a big city) and survived. I do think the subway could be a little confusing if he's literally never ridden one before elsewhere (figuring out how to use the ticket machine, how to swipe, etc....the swipe has to happen at a particular speed to work). I googled a guide, which might be useful- photos of the stations, turnstiles, etc.
posted by pinochiette at 2:15 PM on July 7, 2019

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