Kids Flying Alone: Make it Safe, Hassle-free and Fun

Last updated on March 3rd, 2018 at 11:40 am

My son achieved a big milestone in 2011 – his first solo flight – at the tender age of eight! Not that he flew a plane by himself, but he joined the ranks of what airlines call “unaccompanied minors”; a kid at least 5-years old flying without an accompanying adult. Considering we don’t even let him ride his bike to the other end of the neighborhood unaccompanied, this was a pretty big deal.

Sending your children on a flight on their own can feel risky, but the airlines all have secure procedures for handling solo minors, and the benefits for far-flung extended or divorced families can be significant. While airlines levy charges for minding your kids, it’s easier and generally cheaper than flying with them. But despite the benefits, the process isn’t entirely straightforward. I didn’t have much of a clue what to expect the first time we took advantage of this service, and having just recently done it a second time – on a different airline – I’ve realized that parents need to be well informed before preparing to send their kids into the great blue yonder.

Overview of the Basics

There are no federal government regulations for travel by unaccompanied minors (UM), so airline policies vary on several dimensions (e.g. booking process, age requirements, fees, eligible schedules, etc). Unaccompanied minor service gets your children safely boarded and deplaned, alerts gate staff and flight attendants to their status, and provides oversight during connections. It does NOT include constant monitoring throughout the flights. For a good summary of airline policies and more helpful advice, see this US Department of Transportation brochure.

Generally carriers allow children to fly alone on direct and non-stop flights at the age of five; however, many will only allow journeys on connecting flights for kids at least age 8. Several airlines require UM procedures/fees through age 11, though some require this through age 14. Most airlines make the process optional for older kids and teens, though I have to say I don’t think I would feel comfortable letting my son travel alone at age 12 or 13 without the UM procedures. Some airlines allow travel on international flights, but others do not. Fees for unaccompanied travel are typically $50-$150 EACH way – so it pays to shop around. Thankfully, airlines only charge the one fee even if you have multiple minors flying.

Despite all the procedures, being eligible to fly alone is different than being ready to do so. How do you determine whether this is a good idea for your children? In our case, our son, Elliott, had flown with us many times and had become a pro at the process. He knew about seat belt lights, staying in his seat for extended periods during take-off and landing, and that electronics can only be used once up in the air. What clinched our decision is that on a family trip earlier in the year we couldn’t get seats all together. A passenger offered to move for us, but Elliott was adamant he wanted to sit by himself. He ended up having a merry time – as did his adult seatmates who told me afterwards that he really kept them entertained. He even got them playing a board game with him!

Booking Flights

Unaccompanied minor flights must be booked directly with the relevant airline. Travel sites such as Expedia and Orbitz won’t accept these reservations however it can help to check them first to determine who has the best routes and fares. Once you’ve chosen a flight/airline, MAKE SURE to visit that airline’s website and review their rules for unaccompanied minors – your choices may not fit their requirements. For example, many carriers prohibit UM kids from traveling on or connecting to the last flight of the day. Problems can arise if a child is stranded overnight as most hotels will not accept minors age 17 or younger to register.

You can often book the flights on the airline’s site – some require that you do – but you will then need to call and speak to an agent to finalize the paperwork and extra fees (some airlines allow you to pay the UM fee when booking, others will only take payment at check in….go figure?!). If you are booking with an agent via the phone, have your flight choices and prices at hand – they may not offer the cheapest or connecting flights even when allowed (and they may not be familiar with the airline’s unaccompanied minor policies).

This process requires a lot of information and documentation – both at booking and on the actual day of flight. Be sure to gather all the requirements BEFORE making the reservations – and ensure the designated adults have copies of the information and documents with them at departure and arrival.

Information Requirements:

  • Full name, address and home/daytime contact numbers for adults responsible for BOTH drop off and pick-up
  • Be sure the designated adult’s name is EXACTLY as listed on their government-issued photo ID – the address on the ID should also match (our son’s grandfather was picking him up at arrival so we had him send us a scanned picture of his license to be sure we had the correct details)
  • Proof of age – several airlines want to ensure your children have reached the age requirements for the journey, so you should plan to bring copies of their birth certificates – and include copies in their baggage for the return flight

Departure and Arrival

Be sure to arrive at the airport with your children in plenty of time for the extended check-in procedures for unaccompanied minors (about 90 minutes prior to departure). You will have to complete and sign paperwork regarding your kids’ travel and the person designated to meet them at arrival. You will be given an official envelope containing this documentation, all boarding passes and baggage claim tags – which you will hand over to the airline representative at the departure gate. A flight attendant will keep this envelope safe during the flight.

Your kids will be fitted with wristbands or other type of badges indicating they are UMs and the airline they are flying. You will receive a gate pass so you can escort them to the flight. Make sure you have your ID with you and be prepared to go through airport security just as if you were traveling – no banned items in your pockets or purse…and make sure you wear no-hassle shoes. I’m speaking from experience here! Once past security you might want to buy your kids something to eat and take care of bathroom breaks.

Alert airline gate staff that you have minors traveling alone – they should be expecting them. Staff will take the travel envelope and accompany your children and any other minors onto the flight. If you’re like me, be careful to limit excessive motherly PDA when saying goodbye!  Then settle down for a significant wait. Airlines require you to stay at the gate until the plane has taxied away – or even taken off – which can take considerable time. Keep this in mind when traveling to the airport. Anyone with you will need to wait in the terminal since only one adult will be allowed through to the gate.  Like I said, the process isn’t exactly straightforward.

At the arrival airport, again only ONE person will be given a gate pass to meet the incoming flight. This person must be the adult designated on your children’s travel form – no last minute changes are allowed. And be sure the person meeting your kids arrives at the airport well ahead of the scheduled arrival time. There are no electronic terminals for gate passes so they’ll have to wait in line to see an agent. I was almost late meeting my son’s plane last time as it landed 20 minutes earlier than scheduled.  But despite the challenges, some advance planning and research will ensure a big adventure for your kids and low stress for you.

Flying on My Own – A Kid’s-eye View

 

Hi. My name is Elliott and I’m 9 years old. I have flown by myself twice. Although I’ve been on planes many times with my parents, it’s cool when I fly alone. I feel so independent, with no one to tell me what to do. I played with toys and read on my first flight, but I just slept the second time because I had to get up so early that morning.

 

You get a wristband on your arm to show you’re unaccompanied (I kept mine on for 2 months after my trip!). Then you get on the plane first and the flight attendant tells you to push the HELP button if you need anything, and to fasten your seat belt and stay seated while the seat belt sign is on. People always talk to you – they ask your name, how old you are, and if you’ve ever done this before. Some flights give the kids traveling alone a special treat – but not all.

 

You’ll really love flying on your own. You’ll miss your parents a little – I wonder what mine are doing while I’m on the plane…whether they’re having fun or bored – but you’ll get over it. And some flights take a long time, so it’s hard to sit still. Take lots of activities with you – I recommend small board games or portable video games, a notebook/pencil to draw or write with, and lots of Pokémon cards! And try to get a window seat – it’s very entertaining to look out. If you’re going somewhere warm you can count how many yards have pools!

 

There’s not much to worry about – but I got scared once when I read the safety manual and thought about us landing in an ocean and being surrounded by great white sharks. But then I just went back to what I was doing before and forgot about it.  The End.

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited fourteen-year old boy. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global diabetes education programs as well as by her fourteen-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a member of the PedSafe Team

Comments

3 Responses to “Kids Flying Alone: Make it Safe, Hassle-free and Fun”

  1. Mike says:

    I love this article and your site! This subject is great! Congrats to your son!

  2. Alica says:

    Hi! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate!

    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Entertainment. Books, small toys and electronics like DVD players and
    iPods are great to bring onboard, especially on longer flights. Be sure
    to tell your child that they’ll have to turn off electronic gadgets
    during takeoff and landing so they don’t interfere with the plane’s
    navigation equipment.

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