Kids flying solo: Tips for booking a flight for an unaccompanied minor
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Sitting alone at the gate and watching the plane your child is on push back away from the jet bridge without you (or another parent or guardian on board) is an interesting moment, to say the least. Speaking from experience, in that breath, you’re probably equal parts proud, excited and nervous.
Most U.S. airlines will transport your child without a parent or guardian, at least on select flights, once they turn 5-years-old if you pay the unaccompanied minor fee. Here’s a full rundown of airlines’ unaccompanied-minor policies and fees. But, while specific policies are the relatively easy part, today we’re talking about the important stuff — our actual tips for your unaccompanied minor.
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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.
But those are the rare exceptions.
There are also plenty of usually untold stories about a child taking pride and building confidence in being able to fly on their own. It’s a big deal and a huge moment in creating the next generation of travelers. Once you and your child are ready, there’s no better training to navigate a flight and an airport as an adult than doing it with a watchful eye from the airline.
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 fly to grandparents’ house solo at age 6, while another won’t be ready to fly by themselves even at age 16. While some of these scenarios aren’t likely to happen, you do need to think through situations such as diversions, delays or an onboard unruly passenger.
Will your child be able to handle those types of situations without you? If the answer is absolutely not, then perhaps this isn’t the year for them to fly solo.
Keep the itinerary simple
You’ll want to book nonstop flights whenever possible to keep your child’s travel experience as simple as possible.
Think long and hard about every connection, as each exponentially increases the chance of something going wrong and your child spending significant time away from a caregiver, potentially in a place you can’t easily get to.
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 afternoon or evening.
Choose their seat wisely
Choose a seat nearest the cabin crew. I personally prefer seating my child as close to the front of the plane as possible, but some airlines actually ask that you seat them in the very last row. Either way, try and have them close to where the crew sits.
Provide your child with a way to contact you
Give your child a phone or other way to reach you in case of emergency. Perhaps this could be an iPad, Apple Watch or something similar to be able FaceTime with you on Wi-Fi if they don’t yet have a phone. And don’t forget to be sure you can track your child with that device.
You’ll want to give 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 in the event the child isn’t able to contact you directly.
Along those lines, you need to stay available and close to your phone the entire time your child is in transit.
Send cash, cards and a charger
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 and provide for every potential need.
Airline employees aren’t babysitters
While you are paying a fee for the airline to ensure your child gets from Point A to Point B without you, the $50 to $150 fee is not supplying a constant babysitter for your child. Hopefully, the flight attendant or other airline employee is keeping an eye on your child and checking in periodically to see if they need anything, but they are not going to be providing constant supervision by any stretch of any imagination. If your child needs constant supervision, they aren’t yet ready to fly without you.
Get to the airport very early
It takes extra time and extra paperwork to have your child fly as an unaccompanied minor and much of this isn’t done until in-person on the day of departure.
You will need to interact with an airline employee at the check-in counter, so add time not only for that process but for potential lines to even get to the counter and through security.
Track the flight
You’ll need to stay at the departure gate until the flight is in the air, but you can’t then just assume it makes it to the final destination from there.
You’ll want to set flight alerts to track the flight both from the airline’s website directly and perhaps also from Flight Aware. Personally, I then like to manually check the flight’s location every 15 to 30 minutes while it’s in the air, just to make sure things are progressing as planned.
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 and again when she recently flew as an unaccompanied minor at the age of 11.
Listen and ask questions
I explained that just like in school, you won’t have a parent there to do things for you, so you have to pay attention to instructions and ask questions if you are unsure of anything. Especially when my child was younger, comparing a flight attendant to a teacher in terms of being the point person who is in charge and available to help was a helpful comparison.
But even now, at an older age, providing reminders to not just keep her earbuds in and actually listen to announcements was a crucial part of our pre-flight chat.
Speak up — loudly — if something is wrong
I prefaced this part of the chat as very unlikely to happen, but still an important thing to know.
With my 11-year-old, we talked through what to do if someone puts you in an uncomfortable situation and that some people naturally react to those situations by freezing and staying quiet. But I told her that even if that is what you want to do in that moment, you need to do your best to speak up, loudly, multiple times if needed to get yourself out of a potentially bad situation and seek out a flight attendant or another adult for assistance.
Don’t leave the gate
If everything goes to plan, one adult is at the departure gate until the plane is safely in the air and another is waiting at the arrival gate before the plane lands. But, things happen and there are plenty of ways something could happen and the child ends up at a gate without a guardian there.
In that case, your child needs to know to not leave the gate, even if no airline employee is keeping a close eye on them.
You might be riddled with anxiety knowing your kid is flying miles above the ground without an adult guardian next to them, but sometimes there’s no better choice. And eventually, your child may even be the one pushing to take on this responsibility without you.
As the parent, only you know when he or she is ready, but there is real learnings and growth that can come from a child taking this task on once they are ready. Personally, I flew by myself when I was 5-years-old and it was unquestionably a part of the framework for developing a love of travel and a belief that I could handle adventures as they came. I’m seeing the same groundwork laid with my own oldest child.
But every child and situation is different. 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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