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Flying Alone, Unaccompanied Minors on Plane Flights

Updated on April 23, 2018
Teeuwynn Woodruff profile image

Teeuwynn lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, three children, one dog, one cat, and two rats. She is a long-time pet lover.

Every day, children get on planes unaccompanied by the adults in their lives and travel to meet relatives, go to camps, or visit family friends. But it can be frightening and confusing to try to set up such a daunting trip as having your child fly without you. What if something goes wrong?

This article aims at giving you the information you need to have confidence that you know what you are doing when you send your child, or children, alone on a flight, whether it’s just a two hour hop or a transatlantic journey. My husband is British and I am American so we’ve had some experience with having a set of grandparents across the ocean wanting extra visits by their grandchildren!

Unaccompanied minors on an international flight
Unaccompanied minors on an international flight

How do Airlines Define an Unaccompanied Minor?

Unaccompanied minors are children who board a plane without an adult accompanying them. However, this idea is more complex than it seems. What each airline considers a minor and who can accompany them varies.

In general, unaccompanied minors are considered children ages 5-14, but you will have to check either the table below or the airline you want your children to fly to see if this is true in your case.

What is the Difference Between an Unaccompanied Minor and a Young Adult?

Many airlines draw a distinction between an unaccompanied minor and a young adult. As discussed above, unaccompanied minors are generally seen as children aged 5-14. A lot of airlines consider teenagers age 15-17 as young adults.

Young adults are treated essentially like regular adults. They do not receive special escorts. However, many airlines will allow parents to request their young adults be treated as unaccompanied minors and the airlines will do so as long as the parents are willing to pay the fees that go along with that choice. (Again, these age ranges may change by airline.)

Unaccompanied Minor Flying Chart

 
 
 
Alaska Airlines
Fee: $25 nonstop/direct each way
Fee: $50 connection
5-7
nonstop, direct
 
8-12
nonstop, direct, connecting
 
13-17
nonstop, direct, connecting
Young adults, parents can choose to have fly as unaccompanied minors
 
 
 
American Airlines
Fee: $150 each way
 
5-7
nonstop, direct
 
8-14
nonstop, direct, connecting*
 
15-17
nonstop, direct, connecting
Young adults, parents can choose to have fly as unaccompanied minors
 
 
 
British Airways
Fee: $75 each way
 
14-15
nonstop, direct, connecting
 
 
 
 
Delta Airlines
Fee: $150 one way
 
5-7
nonstop, direct
 
8-14
nonstop, direct, connecting
 
15-17
nonstop, direct, connecting
Young adults, parents can choose to have fly as unaccompanied minors
 
 
 
Frontier Airways
Fee: $110 each way
 
5-14
nonstop only
 
 
 
 
Jetblue Airways
Fee: $100 each way
 
5-13
nonstop, direct
 
 
 
 
Spirit Airways
Fee: $100 each way
 
5-14
nonstop, direct
 
15+
nonstop, direct, connecting
Young adults, parents can choose to have fly as unaccompanied minors
 
 
 
Southwest Airlines
Fee: $50 each way
 
5-11
domestic nonstop, direct
 
12+
nonstop, direct, connecting
Considered young adults
 
 
 
United Airlines
Fee: $50 each way
 
5-14
nonstop, direct
 
15+
nonstop, direct, connecting
Considered young adults
 
 
 
Virgin America
Fee: Varies
 
5-7
nonstop only
 
8-12
nonstop, direct, connecting
 
13-17
nonstop, direct, connecting
Young adults, parents can choose to have fly as unaccompanied minors
*certain cities only

You will need to check carefully with whatever airline you choose to make sure you have the most updated information on their rules on unaccompanied minors, any paperwork you need to fill out, and any other specific rules that airline has.

Booking the Flight

When you book your flight for your unaccompanied minor you will probably have to call the airline to do so. There are some exceptions, but don’t count on it. (When we booked our two sons to fly to England this Summer on Norwegian Air we could do so over the internet.)

When booking a flight, try to get your child on an earlier flight. Many airlines won’t even take a minor on a flight that leaves between 9:00 pm and 5:00 am because they are worried about having a stranded child on their hands if the last flight out is cancelled.

Again, even if it’s earlier in the day, try not to book your child on the last flight of the day in any city because, if anything goes wrong with that flight, your child could be stranded somewhere for the night.

You’ll also want to do what you can to get your child on a nonstop flight since that has the least chance of having anything go wrong in terms of dealing with handoffs or flight delays causing missed flights. If you can’t get a nonstop flight, get a direct flight. The least desirable, is getting connecting flights as your child will have to change planes. Even though the airline will have a person to help them, there is just more chance of things going wrong. You might also be charged an additional fee for this help.

If you are booking a younger child, you will only have the opportunity to book a nonstop or direct flight anyway, as most airlines don’t allow younger unaccompanied minors on connecting flights.

Try to get electronic ticketing. Physical tickets are just something else important that needs to be held onto, which means one more thing your child needs to hold onto that, if it were lost, would be a huge hassle and cost money to replace.

Another thing to check when booking flights is to see where the airline suggests unaccompanied minors sit on the plane and see if you can book your child in one of those seats.

Although it’s unlikely, if the flight offers meal service, reserve your child a meal in advance so he can get something he might like better than the other meals offered.

When you get your itinerary, double check it so that all dates, times, names, cities, airports, and planes are correct. Make sure you give all this information to the person who will be meeting your child at the other end of the journey.

Finally, ask the airline what phone number you should call if you have any questions or concerns about your unaccompanied minor during the trip.

Nonstop vs. Direct vs. Connecting Flights

  • Nonstop flights fly directly from one airport to its final destination without stopping along the way

  • Direct flights stop at another airport along the way, but passengers remain with the same plane to complete their journey.

  • Connecting flights mean the passenger flies part of the route on one plane, but then changes planes at least one time along the route before getting to their destination.

International vs. Domestic Travel

Unaccompanied minors flying on international vs. domestic travel don’t have too many differences to worry about. The advice given above applies to international travel as well. However, your child will have to have a passport and make sure to keep it safe while travelling to and from her destination.

Some international airlines are more strict than other airlines on the age at which children can first fly as unaccompanied minors.

Waiting for take off to fly alone for the first time.
Waiting for take off to fly alone for the first time.

Gate Passes

The week before you go to the airport call the airline and make sure you and any other adult accompanying the child to the gate can get a gate pass. This will allow you to go through security with your child and escort her to the gate. There you can wait until the plane takes off before you go home. You will need ID with you as well as the gate pass to get through security.

Preparing Your Child To Fly

Before your child heads to the airport make sure he knows your phone number and the cell phone number of the person picking him up at the airport at the end of the trip. These numbers and the names of the parties should also be written on the itinerary your child will carry with him.

Ask your child if she has any questions about flying alone. Talk with her about anything she might be nervous about. If your child hasn’t flown before or is particularly nervous, go to the airport ahead of time and walk around the public areas, showing your child where the check in desk is as well as bathrooms, security, food, and other locations of note. Go online with your child to look at the flight route and see pictures of the destination airport and any connecting airports.

Remind your child to never go anywhere with a stranger while travelling (even the person they are seated next to). If they get nervous or confused about anything, tell your child to approach a police officer or someone dressed like a flight attendant or pilot.

Go over your child’s flight schedule with him, so he’ll know how long the flight or flights are and what to expect. Tell him if he’ll be able to plug in electronics and if there is any in flight entertainment available.

Tell your child not to go anywhere without the designated escort they get from the airline.

If this is your child’s first flight, go over with him the different noises and feelings he’s going to experience. The sounds and sensations on a plane can be scary. Explain that there are bumps from the wheels going up and from pockets of air in the sky, but that they aren’t harmful. There will probably also be some whining noises as the plane accelerates or reverses thrusters. Just remind him, these are normal noises.

Also, remind (or let your child know) that when a plane gains or loses altitude the pressure in the cabin changes and that can make the pressure in her ears change uncomfortably. Tell her to try swallowing, yawning really widely, or drinking something to see if that helps her ears pop.

Finally, remind your child to wear her seatbelt at all times, even when the seatbelt sign is off.

Have you had a child fly as an unaccompanied minor?

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Packing the Carry On

The first thing to pack is the flight information for both the inbound and outbound flights. On this itinerary write down your name and contact information as well as the names and contact information for anyone picking your child up and delivering them to the airport on the return trip. Place this paper in a plastic bag to protect it.

Also pack in the carry on a variety of snacks. The amount you pack should be based on the length of the trip, but remember to pack extra in case of delays. You should also pack a sweater or jacket, extra shirt, underwear, some money, possibly a temporary charge card with some money on it for the trip, any electronic devices, a comfort item if your child wants one, chargers, books, quiet toys, earbuds, medicine, and glasses as needed.

Bring to the Airport

Make sure to bring your child’s carry on, luggage, any specific paperwork the airline requires, any paperwork required for the people taking care of your child to have responsibility for him, his passport if travelling internationally, proof of child’s age (such as a birth certificate or passport), your ID, paper with all travel information, your contact information and the contact information of the person picking your child up at the destination.

At The Airport

Get to the airport about an hour and a half ahead of time for domestic flights and at least two hours ahead for international flights.

Your child may be given a special badge to wear to identify her as an unaccompanied minor. If so, make sure to tell her she has to wear it at all times.

Make sure you check in and get your child’s ticket and your gate pass.

Walk your child to the gate and kiss, hug, and wave as happily as possible as she gets on the plane. Then wait until the plane takes off before leaving to make sure there are no difficulties and the plane doesn’t return to the gate.

That’s it! Seeing your child fly off on their own for the first time is a big step, but it’s one you can all handle well if you follow the proper steps and are prepared for the journey. Keep in touch during the journey and remember to get another gate pass in order for you to get to the gate when it's time to pick your child up on their way back home.

Runaways

There are some instances where teenagers buy plane tickets on their own and use them to fly places without their parents knowing about it.

  • All your teen needs to get a plane ticket on his or her own is the internet and access to a credit card. Technically, your teen could buy a ticket with cash at an airport or ticket office, but this might cause more attention.

  • By age 15, most airlines allow teens to fly alone. At this point, airlines don’t require evidence of parental permission to fly. If your teen has a passport your child can even travel internationally without your permission.

  • If you are at all worried that your teen might try to purchase a plane ticket on his or her own you should monitor their computer activities carefully. If your teen has access to a credit card you should review the activity online or possibly take it away and keep access to your cards away as well.

  • If you really believe your minor child is going on plane trips without your permission, call the local police. This sort of travel is very dangerous for your child.

One Child's Experience Flying Alone

© 2018 Teeuwynn Woodruff

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