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There are few experiences as nerve-wracking for a parent as sending a young child off on a flight on his or her own, but it’s a reality of 2019 for many families. There are airline policies out there to help you plan your unaccompanied minor’s adventure, but those policies are extremely varied from one airline to the next.
There are some similarities among the airlines, such as the unaccompanied minor service costing extra (anywhere from $50 to $150 per child), and flying totally solo can’t be done in the US until a child is at least 5. But that still leaves a ton of variables about when kids can fly, where they can go, what happens if a teenager is also traveling and so on.
Here’s a full rundown of US airlines’ unaccompanied-minor policies. But, specific policies aside, today we’re talking about the important stuff — our actual tips for your unaccompanied minor. Because even if an airline allows your second grader to fly by themselves with a connection to an international destination, maybe you shouldn’t. Every year there are stories about unaccompanied minors being put on the wrong flight, getting stuck at airports overnight and so on.
Tips for Booking a Trip for an Unaccompanied Minor
- Make sure your child is mentally and emotionally prepared to travel alone. One child may be ready to go solo at age 6, while another won’t be ready even at age 16. Think through worst-case scenarios (but knock on wood): Will your child be excited, calm or traumatized under uncertain circumstances such as diversions, delays and confusing instructions given by the crew?
- Book nonstop flights whenever possible to keep his or her travel experience as simple as possible. Think long and hard about every connection, as each exponentially increases the chance of something going wrong.
- Buy flights that depart earlier in the day to account for potential delays, diversions or rebookings that would be more likely to require an overnight stay if they happened later in the evening.
- Choose a seat nearest the cabin crew.
- Give your child a phone to reach you in case of emergency. Or make sure they at least have an iPad, Apple Watch or something similar to FaceTime with on Wi-Fi. And turn on the tracking.
- Make sure your child has some way to pay for food and incidental expenses. Do not count on the airline (or their contracted provider) to be your child’s babysitter for every potential need.
- Include a printed list of emergency contacts for your child, and teach him or her to insist on having an airline employee reach out to you or other designated guardians if needed.
- If your child is on any medications, make sure he or she knows how and when to take each dose.
- Stay available the entire time. As the parent, you need to be reachable the entire time your child is in transit.
Tips for Kids Flying as Unaccompanied Minors
Here are things I told my child when she first flew without me at the age of 6:
- Don’t assume anything. Pay attention to the flight you’re on, where it says you are going, etc.
- If something seems wrong, speak up loudly and often. Call or text your parents for help ASAP if anything seems off.
- Once on board, stay seated with the seatbelt on unless you are sure the seatbelt sign is off and it’s OK to get up.
- Be polite and cop no attitudes.
- If anyone does anything inappropriate or makes you uncomfortable, tell them to stop, alert the flight attendant immediately and yell, if needed.
- You can have your iPad and headphones out, but keep the rest of your goodies packed in your backpack to reduce the chance of leaving something behind.
- Listen to all instructions from the flight attendants and captain, especially in the event that something unusual happens, you have to make an emergency exit, etc. We also talked through what happens if you need to go down the emergency-exit slide or use the oxygen mask. I don’t know that she would remember all that, but she at least has been exposed to it and knew to listen for instructions.
- I told her when she gets off the plane not to leave the employees at the gate area no matter what until I was there to get her.
You might be riddled with anxiety knowing your kid is flying miles above the ground without an adult guardian, but sometimes there’s no better choice. As the parent, only you know when he or she is ready for that responsibility. Airline policies for unaccompanied minors tell you the limits of what is possible, but deciding what is best within those parameters is up to you.
Featured image by YakobchukOlena / Getty Images
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