Unaccompanied Minors: Children Flying Solo
Many airlines provide accommodations for the anxious parent to ensure their child’s safety when flying and traveling by themselves. Surprisingly, there is no single set of applicable regulations concerning children flying alone. Instead, the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Department of Transportation sites general rules and procedures for U.S. air carriers. Each airline relies on these guidelines when drafting their own regulations regarding age limits, escorts, and fees.
Below are some of the DOT’s general guidelines regarding age and restrictions:
Since universal guidelines do not exist, parents wanting to ensure a stress-free and uneventful trip for your child must contact their preferred carrier in advance of making a reservation for their specific procedures regarding children traveling alone. Key points for parents to find out include:
• Does the airline provide an escort to take your child to the gate?
• Are parents allowed to accompany the child and stay with them until boarding?
• What services does the unaccompanied minor fee provide for your family?
• Find out what documentation your child is required to have with her.
• Will your child be checked on by airline personnel mid-flight or are personnel only concerned with escorting the child to/from the gate?
Like every other aspect of traveling, fees for unaccompanied minor services vary per airline. However, most airlines will charge a fee for the unaccompanied minor services in addition to the airfare. Most of these fees vary between $50 to $100 each way on domestic flights and are slightly higher on international flights. Some carriers may waive a fee might when the child is not taking a connecting flight. If you have two or more children traveling on the same flight to the same destination, most airlines charge only one fee.
In addition to differences in fees, there are differences in rules concerning check-in, seating, and prohibitions between airlines. Inquire beforehand about the specifics for your peace of mind as well as for a smooth transition upon arriving at the destination. An adult is generally allowed to accompany the child to the departure gate, but many airlines do not provide an adult employee to escort your child. Surprisingly, if they are short staffed, or did not receive advanced notice, airlines may refuse to provide an escort. Be aware of your airline’s procedures beforehand in order to avoid confusion on the day of traveling. Find out pertinent information such as who will accompany the child on and off the aircraft, where the receiving adult should meet the child, and whether the child should remain seated while all other passengers depart.
If your child is flying internationally, check ahead with the embassy or consulate in the U.S. of the destination country for its requirements. Certain countries require children leaving that country without both parents or a legal guardian to have a letter of consent, in some cases, they require notarization of that letter. The airlines do provide useful information on required documents for international travel, although the responsibility of obtaining that knowledge falls on the parents and inquiries with agencies outside of the airlines may be necessary.
Furthermore, if the child has a passport, be aware that he or she can even travel internationally without parental permission as most airlines do not require proof of parental consent.
Tips to follow when your child travels alone:
• Make sure the child has your contact information as well as the contact information of the person picking him/her up, and the travel itinerary. Have this printed and kept on the child – in his pocket or on a lanyard. Proper planning will make hiccups such re-routing a young child to the correct gate, or contacting the appropriate guardian in the corresponding city as easy as possible.
• Head to the airport early, and have whoever is picking her up arrive early, as well; planes can and do often arrive early and finding the right agent to get a security pass to enter the gate area will take some time.
• Sign up for flight status alerts for every leg of the trip.
• Encourage your child to ask reaffirming questions from airlines employees, such as “Should I wait for you in my seat for you after the flight?”
• All adults responsible for departure and arrival should use the airline apps to track the flight in real time.
• Fly early in the day. The chances of not reaching a destination generally increase as the day grows longer, so early is best. In addition, some airlines prohibit unaccompanied minors traveling on redeye flights between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
• Make sure your child’s luggage is easy for them to carry and recognize.
• Include a photograph of the person your child will be meeting at the airport along with that person’s complete contact information written on the back.
Children traveling alone often receive extra perks they would not otherwise receive. Unaccompanied minors traditionally receive extra attention from flight personnel. They are often given one free meal or extra snacks depending on what is provided on the plane. They get a free headset to keep if a movie is being shown. Airline personnel always make sure to check on children during the flight and are happy to provide any assistance possible in order to ease any potential apprehension.
Many parents get understandably nervous at the thought of their child flying alone – and their children may experience similar anxieties. But taking some safety precautions and pre-planning can help make your child’s trip smoother, easier, and ease fears for both children and parents.