Air Travel Tips for Children Flying Alone

Review these tips on airline fees and requirements before sending your child on a solo flight.

It has to be one of the ultimate leaps of faith: allowing your child to fly alone. It’s fraught with worry about your child, doubts about airlines’ watching out for your kid, plus hefty fees for the privilege. Add in wildly varying rules from airline to airline, the unpredictability of flying, and it’s almost enough to say “forget it.” But sometimes it’s unavoidable (think divorced parents, far away grandparents, overnight camps and so on). Plus, at least according to one kid we interviewed, it can be fun.

Eli Borovoy, a 9-year-old from Boston, took his first solo flight last year from Boston to Atlanta on Delta Air Lines to visit his aunt and loved it. “You get to eat all the snacks and soda you want.”

Eli’s mom Erin had a harder time. “I was most affected by the thought ‘He’s growing up.’” She’d outfitted Eli with his first cell phone, he’d charged up his Game Boy and iPod, and was ready to go. Admittedly, he was a veteran flyer, having gone on many flights with his parents before. Other children might need more reassurance.

Tips for Tiny Travelers

US Airways has some useful tips on its Web site (most of which can apply to any airline):

If your children haven’t flown before, take a trip to the airport. Familiarize them with the identifiable uniforms of the proper airline representatives (of whatever airline they’re flying).

Alison Eshelman, manager of corporate communications at JetBlue Airways, offers this advice: “Summer is the peak season, as most kids are out of school and traveling for vacation. We encourage parents to book the first flight of the day—which is usually more likely to be on time, especially during the busy summer season.” This goes for holidays (coming up soon!) as well.

Eshelman says on JetBlue, kids are usually seated in the front of the plane, so in-flight crewmembers can be immediately available to them should they need anything. “We show them how to work the TV and/or XM Satellite Radio, and make sure they get all the snacks and beverages they want.”

This is not the case with many airlines because of first-class and business seats. Unless you pay for front-row seating, children traveling alone can be seated in the middle of the plane. Booking them on an aisle seat might be advantageous so the flight attendants can see them better and they won’t have to ask strangers to let them out if they need to use the restroom.

Some rules seem to be pretty universal for all airlines. Unaccompanied minors can usually travel on nonstop or direct flights (those that make a stop but do not change aircraft). Photo identification is required for both parties who drop off and pick up the child. And no airline will be responsible for medications. Most advise that kids take the first flight of the day in case problems arise.

Eli is gearing up for his second solo flight, but this time on AirTran Airways instead of Delta. “Last year, it was $50 [extra] each way and now it’s $100,” says Borovoy. AirTran is $39. “It seems like price gouging.”

Airline Fees and Age Requirements

Delta Air Lines
Unaccompanied minor service is required for ages 5 to 14.
Fee: $100 each way.
Of note: Children from 5 to 7 years can only fly on nonstop or direct flights with no change of planes. Children from 8 to 14 years can fly on nonstop or connecting flights, but may not connect to other airlines.

United Airlines
Unaccompanied minor service is required for ages 5 to 11; optional for ages 12 to 17.
Fee: $99 each way.
Of note: Ages 5 to 7 can only fly nonstop or direct, but can’t fly on the last flight of the day; ages 8 to 11 can make connections, but can’t fly on the last flight of the day; ages 12 to 17 have no restrictions.

US Airways
Unaccompanied minor service is required for ages 5 to 14.
Fee: $100 each way, on nonstop flights only.
Of note: Upon request, children aged 15 to 17 can be supervised (for the above fee) on nonstop flights only.

JetBlue Airways
Unaccompanied minor service is offered for ages 5 to 14.
Fee: $75 each way.
Of note: Flight crews will show the kids around the plane and when time permits, the pilots will meet any child and welcome them on board, which includes showing them the flight deck and offering JetBlue pin wings.

Continental Airlines
Unaccompanied minor service is offered for ages 5 to 14. Kids aged 5 to 7 may only travel on nonstop flights. Kids aged 8 to 14 can make connections, but not on the last flight of the day and not if there is an overnight stay required.
Fee: $75 each way for nonstop flights; $100 each way for connecting flights.
Of note: Continental offers Young Traveler Clubs in Cleveland, Houston and Newark, which are enclosed, secured areas where unaccompanied kids can wait for a connecting flight or to be picked up. Clubs are supervised by Continental employees and provide entertainment and snacks. 

Themes: Family Travel