This travel writer loved flying solo when she was a child. It’s a little different now that she’s the parent. Here’s what you need to know to make your kid’s solo odyssey as smooth as possible.
As a child, I looked forward to flying alone from Florida to New York for the summer. It meant a few blissful weeks spent with cousins I rarely saw, and precious time with my grandparents, who I knew would be waiting for me at the gate.
This year, I put my own children, ages 6 and 9, on a plane by themselves to see their grandparents. Getting them on the two-hour flight was relatively easy; waiting for them to land took a bigger toll on my nerves. But they arrived safely, and yours will too. Here’s what to expect when your child is flying alone domestically:
WHO’S A “MINOR”?
Airlines generally consider a minor to be between the ages of 5 and 14. Some airlines, like Southwest and Alaska, cap the age at 12, but you can request and pay for unaccompanied minor status for your older child regardless.
SOLO FLIGHTS FOR KIDS ARE PRICIER
That solo flight is not cheap. Every airline adds a surcharge. Some are relatively small: Southwest charges $50 per flight, per child, or $100 round trip. JetBlue’s program costs $100 per child, per flight, or $200 round trip.
EACH AIRLINE HAS A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT POLICY
You will book the flight differently on all airlines. Delta is unique in that you book the flight by phone using their Unaccompanied Minor phone line, which adds a level of comfort knowing there is a dedicated support staff for your questions. Most other airlines allow you to book the flight online; you just indicate the child is flying alone when prompted for the status of the passenger (adult or child) or when prompted for the passenger’s birthday.
AIRLINES DO THEIR BEST TO KEEP YOUR KID SAFE
You tell the airline in advance who will be dropping off and picking up your child, and ticketing agents ID the designated adult on both ends to let them through security and to the gate. (Unfortunately, they often only let one adult through.) The airlines will also give your child a bracelet or lanyard to indicate they’re unaccompanied, along with an envelope with their flight details.
The flight crew typically places unaccompanied minors in the front of the plane to keep an eye on them, but prepare your child to be on his or her own during the flight and to go to by alone to the bathroom or ask for help if needed.
A WELL-PACKED CARRY-ON WILL KEEP YOUR KID HAPPY
Pack books and games to keep your child occupied and happy, and if you’re sending them with a tablet, charge it and/or pack a charged external battery. Buy food at the airport in case there is no substantial meal on the flight. Be sure to point out where they should place their envelope with all of their flight details, and include a list of important phone numbers just in case. And show them what’s in their carry-on before you say goodbye.
BE PREPARED FOR A LONG TRAVEL DAY
It will take a lot of time. You and the adult on the other end will be meeting your child at the gate, which means you’ll have to go through security both times. On the departure end, you’ll arrive at least an hour before just as if you were flying and you’ll need to stay until the plane is in the air, so don’t expect a quick goodbye. On the arrival end, allow at least 30 minutes to park and get to the gate, more if you’re in a major airport.
CHECK THE FLIGHT ARRIVAL BOARD OFTEN
Arrival gates change, and you could be waiting at the wrong one when your child deplanes.
SOME INTERNATIONAL AND CONNECTING FLIGHTS DON’T ALLOW SOLO KIDS
Each airline treats these cases a bit differently, so read each airline’s FAQs carefully.
DON’T DOWNPLAY THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT OF SAYING GOODBYE
Letting your child fly alone might be harder than you imagined. My daughter clung to me before her flight, my son didn’t even wave goodbye. And until they landed safely, my stomach was in knots because my most precious cargo was out of my hands, high in the air. It can be terrifying if you think of it this way. So try not to. Send them to the family members they rarely see. You’ll be forging lasting memories—and an early sense of independence.
Visit each of the major U.S. airlines’ websites for more information on their unaccompanied minor programs.