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Eleven-year-old Seth boarded an airplane by himself, for a trip to visit his grandparents. His father watched him walk down the runway, then went home, assuming his son would arrive to his destination safely. Six hours later, he discovered Seth had walked off the plane just before it departed. He had left the airport, stopped at a gas station for directions, and trotted 30 miles along a busy interstate to his hometown.

If you are allowing your children to fly alone, be sure to take every necessary precaution to ensure their safety. Millions of children fly alone each year, the majority without incident. But Seth's case should be a warning to parents: Be sure you and your child are prepared for the trip.

Unaccompanied Minors

Children between five and 12 who travel without a parent or guardian are known as "unaccompanied minors." Many airlines will not allow children who are under seven to make connections at all, but in the event a minor is old enough to change planes, they will probably be assisted by airline personnel; and a fee of $40-$65 will be charged. Some airlines, Southwest for example, will not allow any minor (5-12) to change planes.

If you send an unaccompanied minor by plane, you will be required to fill out a form detailing the child's name, age, medical considerations and other relevant information. Upon arrival, children will be escorted from the aircraft by a flight attendant and released to the person named by you prior to departure. In addition, you will have to agree that the airline is not taking on any special responsibility of guardianship during the flight. Legally, an unaccompanied minor is treated in the same way as an adult passenger.

What It Will Cost You

Most major airlines will charge you $40-$75 each way for an escort fee. The exact fees will depend on the airline and the age of the of the child.

Here are the fees charged EACH WAY for domestic flights on the major US Airlines:

 

Airline
Nonstop
Connecting
American $40 $75
Continental $40 $75
Delta $40 $75
Northwest $40 $75
Southwest No Charge No Charge
United $60 $60
US Airways $40 $75

General Age Guidelines:

Airline rules vary but this will give you a good idea of what to expect on domestic flights:

  • Children ages one through four may fly only when accompanied by an adult. A child must be at least five to fly alone.
  • Kids five through eight can take a direct flight to a single destination but not connecting flights.
  • Those over eight may change aircraft. If they're eight through eleven, they will be escorted by airline personnel to their connecting flight. A significant extra charge for this service is likely. Older kids "ages 12 through 15" may not be routinely escorted, but you can request this assistance.
  • Anyone under age 17 who is flying alone on an international flight must have a signed note from a parent or responsible adult giving permission, destination and length of stay.
  • Minors must be met at the destination by another parent or responsible adult.
  • As these guidelines vary slightly by airline, be sure to contact your carrier for specific information.

Other Minor Details

Although many airlines offer discounts for minors under normal circumstances, if your child is flying unaccompanied, it is practically a certainty that you will pay a full adult price for the ticket.

The good news? The fee you pay for an escort covers an unlimited number of children traveling in the same party (except on Alaska Airlines). Hence, if you are sending your three children together, you pay only once.

On international flights, the age restrictions are more stringent. Additional fees may apply if a flight is longer than six hours in duration.

Due to new security measures, it is possible you won't be able to accompany your child to the boarding gate. In such cases, the airline will provide an attendant to escort your child through security and accompany them through the boarding process. Sometimes, however, you may request special admission at check-in and accompany your child into the terminal. Such policies vary by airport, so be sure to check ahead of time if this is a concern.

Tips For Smooth Sailing

  • Never wait until you have reached the airport to inform the airline that you have a minor traveling unaccompanied. Always provide this information to customer service over the phone, and have them inform you of all your options, all fees involved, and so forth.
  • If you can help it, fly only nonstop, so that your child does not need to change planes. If a change of planes is necessary, use a small, less intimidating airport for the transfer, if possible.
  • When you send your child, make sure that he/she is traveling with emergency information. For example, leave instructions on how to handle flight delays or cancellations, including emergency contacts and a means to pay for necessities, such as overnight accommodation.
  • Familiarize your child with the plane ticket and have him/her keep it in a safe place. Upon departure, the child will need to retain the ticket for the return flight or as a receipt. We recommend utilizing e-tickets whenever possible, so the information will be stored in the airline's computers in case of emergency.
  • Try to book a morning flight. If it is delayed or canceled, you have the rest of the day to make alternate plans.
  • Small children may have trouble with checked baggage. If it can be avoided, don't send them with excess luggage. If not, when checking luggage, make sure to check the stubs yourself, to be sure that the luggage claim ticket and luggage tag match your child's final destination.
  • Get to the airport early to ease check-in and get children accustomed to their surroundings. If possible, show them where help desks are located, and get them to recognize uniformed employees.
  • Give them a picture of the person meeting them -- with the full name, address and phone number written on the back. You will need to provide this information to the airline as well.
  • Pack some snacks for the child: juice boxes, chips, sandwiches, trail mix or other finger foods like grapes or berries.
  • Make or buy young children a travel pack to keep them entertained while in-flight. A great place to try is Travel Tots.
  • Give your child a little cash to cover incidental expenses and phone calls in the event of an emergency.
  • In addition to being sure your child knows how to place a collect call, you may want to give him/her a calling card before she travels, as well as a list of numbers to call if necessary.
  • Just because a five-year-old is permitted to fly solo, does not mean that your child will be able to handle flying alone, especially if it involves a connection and/or a child that hasn't flown before. Parents should use common sense and make a decision based on if they feel the child is mature enough to handle it.

Reading Recommendations

  • The Department of Transportation, with the National Child Safety Council, offers a free brochure, "Kids and Teens in Flight." Contact the Office of Consumer Affairs, Department of Transportation, 400 7th St. SW, Washington DC, 20590.
  • How to Fly For Kids by Natalie Windsor
  • 52 Things to Do on the Plane by Lynn Gordon

This article appears courtesy of Independent Traveler. Independent Traveler (www.IndependentTraveler.com) includes a comprehensive travel planning guide featuring worldwide travel bargains (airfare, hotel, car rental, cruise, family vacations) within their Bargain Box (www.BargainBox.com)- as well as travel resources, travel tips, reader's reviews and message boards. The Independent Traveler also publishes Cruise Critic (www.CruiseCritic.com).