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Unaccompanied Minors: Tips to Help Kids Fly Solo Safely

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Air travel is a bit like riding a bike; after you’ve done it for a while, it becomes second nature. However, the world of airport terminals and baggage claims can be pretty overwhelming to the uninitiated, especially kids traveling alone. So today, TPG Contributor Jason Steele offers guidelines for helping unaccompanied minors get from gate to gate worry free.

Update: United has increased the age of passengers who must use the unaccompanied minor service from 5 to 11 years old to 5 to 15 years old. The site reads, “For tickets purchased on or after December 14, 2015, children 5 to 15 years of age who travel on an aircraft without a parent, legal guardian or someone at least 18 years of age are considered unaccompanied minors and are subject to certain restrictions.” The unaccompanied minor service charge is still $150 each way and is not available to children over the age of 15.

As a child, I was always very excited (and a little bit nervous) to fly by myself to visit my grandparents. Back then (in the eighties), arranging for airline staff to escort an unaccompanied minor was free and easy, just like checking baggage. And like checked baggage, there were occasionally some problems, which led airlines to eventually increase safeguards and pass the costs on to passengers.

Like all airline policies and fees, those for accompanied minors vary between airlines and are constantly subject to change. For example, American Airlines recently announced that it would start charging a $150 fee for unaccompanied children ages 12-14, whereas the fee previously applied only to children age 5-11. In this post I’ll explain the unaccompanied minor (UM) policies of some major domestic airlines, and offer recommendations for how to help the kids in your life travel safely and comfortably.

Traveling as an unaccompanied minor can be exciting, but also a little scary.
Traveling as an unaccompanied minor can be exciting, but also a little scary. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Unaccompanied Minor Policies for Domestic Airlines

Alaska Airlines
Alaska’s UM service costs just $25 each way for a non-stop or direct flight with no change of planes, and $50 each way for connecting itineraries. Children ages 5-7 require a non-stop/direct flight, while those ages 8-12 can have connections. The service is optional for kids ages 13 and up. Read their entire policy here.

Allegiant Air
This airline does not accept unaccompanied minors under the age 15.

American Airlines
American charges a $150 fee each way. The service is mandatory for children ages 5-14, and optional for ages 15 – 17. No connections are permitted from other carriers or other nearby airports (co-terminals such as Kennedy and LaGuardia), and children cannot be booked on the last scheduled connection of the day. No connections at all are allowed for children ages 5-7. Read their entire policy here.

Delta Airlines
Delta charges $100 each way for unaccompanied minor service, but otherwise has largely the same policies as American; that is, UM service is required for ages 5-14 and optional for older children, and no change of planes is permitted for children ages 5-7. Delta also stipulates that, with some exceptions, children cannot be booked on red-eye flights. Read their entire policy here.

Frontier Airlines
Frontier’s UM service is required for children ages 5-14, and costs $100 each way. However, the fee is waived for children of Summit or Ascent elite members. Frontier only offers UM service on non-stop flights. A drink and snack are provided, and only one fee is assessed for multiple children on the same reservation. Read their entire policy here.

JetBlue
JetBlue charges $100 each way for UM service, which is required for children ages 5-14, and is only available on non-stop flights. Read their entire policy here.

Hawaiian Airlines
Hawaiian charges $35 for UM travel within the State of Hawaii, and $100 for itineraries that go out of state. Connecting flights are permitted. The service is required for children ages 5-11, and optional for ages 12 and up. Read their entire policy here.

Southwest Airlines
Southwest only requires UM service for children ages 5-11; it’s optional for ages 12 and up. In fact, Southwest will actually allow a 12 year old to serve as an escort for a minor age 5-11. The UM service fee is only $50 each way, but plane changes are not permitted; only non-stop flights and direct flights with one or more stops (but no changes of plane) are allowed. Read their entire policy here.

Southwest has one of the best unaccompanied minor policies, but you can't book a trip with a change of plane.
Southwest has one of the best unaccompanied minor policies, but you can’t book a trip with a plane change.

Spirit Airlines
Spirit offers UM service on domestic flights (including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands). The UM service fee is $100 each way, is required for children ages 5-14, and is optional for ages 15-17. A change of plane is not allowed, but direct flights with a stop and no aircraft change are permitted. A drink and snack are included with the service. Read their entire policy here.

United Airlines
United charges $150 each way for UM service, which is required for children ages 5-11, and is optional for older children. There is no minimum age for traveling with connections. According to their policy, children are offered one free food item, even when food is offered for purchase only. In addition, United has a Young Travelers Club (which is a kid’s lounge dedicated to UM travelers) in Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Newark, and Washington Dulles. Read their entire policy here.

United has special lounges for unaccompanied minors.
United has special lounges for unaccompanied minors.

US Airways
There is a $150 charge for UM service, which is mandatory for children ages 5-14 and optional for ages 15 and up . US Airways does not permit any plane changes with UM service; only non-stop flights are allowed. Read their entire policy here.

Virgin America
UM fees are $75 – $125, depending on the destination, and are required for children ages 5-15. Connecting flights are not permitted. Read their entire policy here.

Canadian Airlines
Air Canada, Porter, and WestJet all have a minimum age requirement of 8 years, and charge a $100(Canadian) UM fee for children up to age 11. At age 12 and up, the service is optional.

Kids
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Tips for Choosing an Airline for an Unaccompanied Minor.

1. Travel with connections. Many cities can only be reached with a connection, but that’s a challenge with UM travel. If you need to send a child ages 5-7 on an itinerary with a connection, you pretty much have to go with United. Otherwise, someone will have to drive (or otherwise travel) to the nearest city with a non-stop flight. Even when a connection is permitted, I think that parents should strongly consider going out of their way to put an unaccompanied minor on a non-stop flight (or a direct flight with a stop, but no plane change), even if it means paying more or driving farther to an alternate airport.

2. Shop around. The prices for unaccompanied minor service vary tremendously, with Alaska being the least at $25 each way for non-stop and direct flights, and the three major legacy airlines charging $150 for the same service. Parents should first consider Alaska and Southwest, which charge at most $50 each way, followed by the remaining carriers, which typically charge $100 each way.

3. Tween travel. Another area where airlines differ is in their policies for “tweens,” which are children ages 12-15. Southwest, United, Alaska, and the three largest Canadian airlines all allow tweens to fly essentially as adults without paying for unaccompanied minor service. Parents need to take into account the travel experience and comfort level of each child before allowing them to travel without the UM service. On a non-stop flight, and with family escorting kids to and from the gate, this can be a great option.

Kid
Escorting kids to and from their gate will help them feel more comfortable. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Other tips for unaccompanied minor travel

1. Plan carefully. It’s worth repeating that parents should do everything possible to avoid connecting flights, as that is where kids will have the highest chance of being stranded or having other travel problems. Many airlines forbid unaccompanied minors from booking the last flight out, but it’s a good idea to avoid those flights even when permitted. In fact, flights earlier in the day are the least likely to be delayed by mechanical and weather issues, and offer the best chance for being re-accommodated in the event of cancellations.

2. Use a checklist. Sending a child off alone can be a bit stressful, and it’s easy to forget one or two important steps. Thankfully, Alaska Airlines offers a great checklist for children traveling alone. Even if your child is flying another carrier, most of the items on their list will still apply.

Alaska airlines has a great checklist that you can use, even if you are traveling on another carrier.
Alaska Airlines has a great checklist you can use to get your child ready, even when flying on another carrier.

3. Give the child a phone. There’s no need to buy your child the latest smartphone, but if he or she is old enough to operate a simple handheld, then you should definitely purchase an inexpensive, no-contract phone just for travel. That way you should be able to reach your child no matter what happens, rather than rely 100% on the airlines, which are far from perfect.

4. Be careful with non-refundable fees. Many airlines make the unaccompanied minor fee non-refundable, so don’t be in a hurry to pay that fee when you book the ticket. Pay it at the airport instead, just in case your travel plans have to change for any reason.

5. Use travel funds and fee credits. To offset the pain of expensive UM fees, there are a few tricks you can use. For example, airlines often hand out travel credit vouchers for service failures, and UM fees often can be covered by these vouchers. UM fees are also eligible for reimbursement using the $200 annual airline fee credit offered by the American Express Platinum card, or similar credits offered by other cards. Finally, you can redeem miles from your Barclaycard Arrival Plus or Capital One Venture Rewards cards to pay for this fee or any other airline charge.

6. Consider a meet and greet service. A company called Global Airport Concierge, which meets and greet travelers and assists them with luggage, also offers an unaccompanied minor service. This option might be necessary to fill in a missing step in an itinerary, such as when a child has to connect to a flight on another airline. MasterCard cardholders receive a 15% discount on this service.
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