Sending your child on a plane alone—especially for the first time ever—is nerve-wracking enough. Add in news stories about a kid being placed on a one-way flight to the wrong country or the other young solo travelers that were left without their medication and a meal during a flight delay and a parent's worries can be taken to another level.
In a perfect world, you'd always be traveling together. But there are many reasons you may have to send your little one on a flight alone (full-time job or a parent living across the country to name a few). Good news is a worry-free flight is possible.
As a parent, you ultimately know if you're child is capable and mature enough to fly alone. "This will vary from individual to individual," says Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers. So if you feel your child is ready for a solo adventure, let him take one, but make sure to know the rules and how to make the right preparations.
When can you let your kid travel alone?
While the Department of Transportation doesn't have any regulations around children flying alone, every airline has its own particular guidelines. The particulars vary slightly per carrier, but most major airlines have similar procedures.
It's standard for most airlines to allow children over the age of 5 to fly alone. Children under the age of 5 must always be accompanied by someone at least 12 years of age, flying in the same cabin (18 years of age on some airlines). And some airlines, like Frontier and British Airlines, have decided to stop letting unaccompanied minors under the ages of 14 and 15 respectively, from flying alone altogether.
For kids between the ages of 5 and 11, almost all airlines enforce unaccompanied minor procedures—and those come with fees (usually $200-$300) that sometimes rival the cost of the actual flight itself. For example carriers like United only allow unaccompanied minors on non-stop flights only. Others, including Delta, allow unaccompanied minors on flights with connections within their own system, but not with other carriers. After a child turns 12, most airlines don't require any special accommodations but will provide if requested.
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So, what does the mandatory unaccompanied minor fee include? Most airlines define the service as making sure each child is boarded onto the plane, introduced to the flight attendant, accompanied during connections (if airline allows connects for unaccompanied minors), and released to the right person at their final destination. Some airlines have additional perks. For instance, Delta uses trackable wristbands that are put on at check-in and worn for the entire journey and United offers a complimentary food item on flights that have food available for purchase. Some airlines, including Southwest and United, pre-board unaccompanied minors. Almost every airline states that while the flight attendants check on the child during the flight, they are unable to continuously monitor.
If your child is of the right age and you've made the decision to let them fly alone, take a look at what you can do to prepare for a stress-free experience.
How to make sure kids fly alone safely
Before their flight
- Know the airlines rules and regulations. "Be prepared," says Kidd. "Memorize airline procedures for unaccompanied minors, and get contact numbers of police, customer service, and airport management at the destination airport." Ask the airline exactly what documents you'll need to have with you when you check in your child on the day of travel.
- Book early and smartly. Many carriers limit the number the children flying alone on each flight and you'll want flexibility when scheduling. Also, book a flight that departs early in the day to minimize delays and cancelations. Finally, seat selection is important! Pick an aisle seat close to the front of the plane so flight attendants are able to keep a close eye on your child. It will also help with your child's comfort and security levels to know they're close to a responsible adult.
- Make sure your child is prepared. That includes with games, snacks, and most important of all, identification and contact information for you and for the person meeting them on the other end of the journey. Give them a little cash too for any incidentals that might pop up.
- Fill your kid in. "Talk through the trip with your child a few days before and make sure they understand what to expect," says Taylor Garland, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA representing 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines. This is especially necessary if your child's first time flying alone. Explain things like the boarding process, take off, turbulence, onboard restrooms, seat mates, and landing. Don't forget to give them a heads up about the pressure changes during takeoff and landing. Tell them it may make their ears feel weird or uncomfortable—but it's totally normal. Let them know they can also ask the flight attendant for help during the flight, adds Garland.
- Expect the unexpected. Think "bad weather, mechanical issues, canceled and/or overbooked flights, unscheduled stops en route," says Kidd. These things do happen. Make sure your child understands that there may be hiccups and what to do if something unexpected happens.
On the day of travel
- Arrive early. Many airlines have forms to complete during the unaccompanied minor check-in process and you'll want to leave yourself plenty of time for logistics and long security lines.
- Get your special pass. You'll receive a special pass at the airport that allows you to go through security and all the way to the gate with your child. It's recommended you stay at the gate even after the flight is boarded in case the plane returns to the gate for any reason. Once the flight is in the air, you are good to go.
- Help your child practice being alone. Kathryn Reklis, mom to an 8-year-old frequent unaccompanied flier, always does this with her son. "We let him do things like go to the bathroom in the airport by himself and find his way back to our gate," she says. "We let him buy gum from a convenience store without us going with him or ask a clerk for information about something…things that help him feel confident interacting with adults and navigating space on his own."
Once you've said goodbye
- Track your child's flight. At the very least it will give you peace of mind. And you'll know the moment the plane lands and can stay in contact with the adult picking him/her up on the other end.
- Make sure the person picking up your kid has your contact information. It's important the parent, guardian, or whoever is picking up your child from the airpot lets you know when your child has arrived safely. One other note: make sure your child knows not to leave the airport unattended or with a stranger and that they can approach any airport personnel for help at any time.