It can be stressful to prepare kids for flying alone. When a child has the opportunity to fly alone for the first time it can be a very exciting, but it can also be overwhelming and emotional. Preparing children beforehand, as well as adults, on what to expect can make the process run smoother for everyone.
Children who fly alone are referred to as Unaccompanied Minors (UMs), and every airline has different requirements and regulations for children traveling without an adult. Most airlines consider children ages 5 to 14 as falling into the category of unaccompanied minors and charge a fee to accompany these children to their final destination. Before you consider sending your child off on a solo airplane adventure, here are some things you need to know.
1. Know airline rules and regulations before you book your ticket
Each airline has their own policy regarding Unaccompanied Minor (UM) travel. There are certain age requirements for solo travel and fees attached to a UM ticket. If there is more than one member of a family traveling on a UM ticket, they usually only charge the fee one time. I have included the link to the UM page for most of the major airlines for easy reference that should answer any specific questions you might have.
American/U.S. Airways (Charges $150 each way for a UM ticket, ages 5-14)
Delta (Charges $150 each way for a UM ticket, ages 5-14)
JetBlue (Charges $100 per person fee each way, ages 5-14)
United (Charges $150 each way for a UM ticket, ages 5-11, ages 12-17 have option to use UM service or travel as an adult)
Frontier (Charges $100 each way for a UM ticket, ages 5-14)
Southwest (Charges $50 each way for a UM ticket, ages 5-11)
Spirit (Charges $100 each way for a UM ticket, ages 5-14)
2. Prepare your kids ahead of time
If you know your child is going to be traveling alone, talk to them about what to expect. Better yet, fly with them and let them sit away from you and see how they manage. Tell them how to find seat numbers, discuss who they can talk to if there are any issues while flying, and explain what happens when a plane lands. Explain turbulence and ear pressure and what to do if they feel sick to their stomach or have ear pain. Tell them how long the flight will last in terms they can understand. Will it be as long as a movie? Four episodes of their favorite show? Play out every scenario you can think of with your kids and make sure they feel comfortable with the idea of solo travel before you commit to buying a ticket.
Also make it a point to discuss appropriate behavior with your kids. Tell them not to kick the seat in front of them, stay within their own space, not to play the sound in their headphones too loud, and to follow the etiquette for de-planing by taking turns (actually, I would like to repeat these rules for many adults).
3. Pack a Small Bag for Them to Carry On
Make sure your child will have plenty to do on the plane, but don’t burden them with half the toy closet. Send a few snacks (here are some easy ideas), and some of these items: a paperback book, a magazine, an electronic device, games, puzzles, coloring books, headphones, cash (in case of emergency), bubble gum, and a phone if you feel they are responsible (and so they can call you when they arrive). You might want to throw in a spare change of clothes if you are worried they might spill and a blanket in case they get cold. Also, be sure to include medication if they need to have that with them. Be aware that most airlines do not accept cash on planes so if you want to send a credit card, check with the airline in advance and make sure your child can use it to charge snacks and food if that is the way you want to go.
It is important to include the contact information for the personal they will be meeting inside their bag, preferably somewhere it won’t fall out. (Tip: Some people purchase a lanyard for their children to carry an ID and the contact info for the person they are meeting on the other end. This could be very helpful.)
4. Making the reservation
Most, if not all, airlines will require you to book a direct flight to avoid any possibility of confusion or lost children. Also, airlines almost always do not allow you to book the last flight of the day in case of cancellations or weather delays. They also have requirements about where the children can sit. Some require them to sit in the front, some in the back, some require window seats, just check with the airline.
5. Make sure your child knows who is picking them up
The airlines will definitely want to know this ahead of time, and will require you to provide them with the name of the person picking up your child on the other end of the flight. Your child needs to know this information as well. Should that person change during the flight, you will have to call the airline directly and make changes over the phone. Also, the person greeting your child will need to provide a picture ID and show up anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour in advance (the policy differs by airline) in order to fill out the necessary paperwork and go through security.
6. Arrive early the day of travel to complete paperwork
Each airline has a different policy, but many ask that you arrive two hours before the flight to complete the necessary Unaccompanied Minor paperwork. You will need to bring your driver’s license and a birth certificate for your child. Once the paperwork is completed, you receive a “Gate Pass” to accompany your child to the gate.
7. At the gate
Introduce your child to the gate agent. Usually, they will introduce you to one of the flight attendants when they are ready to board the plane. While you are waiting, make time to take your child to the bathroom (one less thing they have to worry about on the plane). You are required to wait at the gate until you see the plane take off. Not taxi, take off in the air. Yes, it can make a parent very anxious.
8. While they are in the air
While they are enjoying their freedom, you will be at home fretting. Use an app like Flight Tracker or Gate Guru to know where the plane is at all times. Neurotic? Yes, but this is your child we’re talking about.
Also, place a call to the pick up person and let them know when to expect your child. Keeping in touch with them will help you keep your sanity.
9. Landing and arrival
Once your child arrives, make sure you connect with them via phone to relieve yourself of any anxiety. Now that they are safely on their way to a fun vacation, you can relax and enjoy yours.