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Kids fly. Alone. In a nation of far-flung families, kids frequently shuttle between Mom, Dad, and the grandparents. Unfortunately, parents can't always accompany them. But kids can still fly, as unaccompanied minors -- though they are accompanied, of course, by airline personnel.

All the U.S. airlines we surveyed take "unaccompanied minors" starting at age 5, and all except AirTran provide at least optional UM service through age 17. Booking your child as an unaccompanied minor makes sure she'll be escorted and watched by airline employees throughout her trip (except on Southwest and Spirit). This also puts someone "in charge" in case something goes wrong.

Flying UM isn't for everyone. It's for serious kids who deal well with rules. The airline gives you guidance, but the escort is going to turn her back sometimes - this isn't Con Air.

Yes, things can go wrong (Delta mixed up kids bound for Cleveland and Boston last month), but those incidents are relatively rare. Unlike with luggage and pets, I can't think of an airline ever losing an unaccompanied minor in a way that caused injury. Make sure to send your child with a cell phone so she can call you, and the two of you can work out any unforeseen circumstances.

How to Choose an Airline For Your Kid

Generally, UM policies have three levels of intensity. The youngest kids must travel on nonstop flights only. Some airlines allow older kids to transfer planes. Above a certain age, UM status becomes optional -- teens are allowed to travel as adults, but they can be escorted for a fee if that gives you peace of mind.

Unaccompanied minors get frequent flyer miles -- and your kid should definitely have a frequent flyer number, especially if she's shuttling around a lot. The frequent flyers' bulletin board FlyerTalk (www.flyertalk.com) has many stories of kids with elite frequent flyer status -- and some even upgrade their parents.

Choosing the right airline can save you money, as unaccompanied minor fees vary widely. While most airlines charge around $100 each way for UM service, Southwest, Alaska Airlines, AirTran, and JetBlue all charge lower fees than the majors, ranging from $25 on a nonstop Alaska Airlines flight to $75 for a JetBlue flight. (See chart below).

Southwest is the only airline that still has discounted child and youth fares. According to Southwest's Whitney Eichenger, these mysterious fares are only available over the phone, and they vary in how much cheaper they are than standard rates.

Some airlines offer bonuses. On Continental, your child may get to peek into the cockpit and talk to the pilots. On United and Spirit, she'll get a free snack box. AirTran, Delta, and Continental both have "kids' clubs" at their hub airports where kids waiting for connections or to be picked up can relax with free food and movies.

Seating can vary. JetBlue tries to seat UMs in the front of the plane. Spirit seats them all together near the back. Other airlines let you choose your seat.

There are plenty of restrictions on what flights UMs can board. Generally, UMs aren't permitted on the last flight of the day, to prevent them from getting stuck at the airport overnight. Some airlines also keep UMs off red-eyes. American, Continental, Delta, United, Alaska, and AirTran all let kids 8 and over fly on connecting flights.

But in our congested world of air travel, sometimes more flights are cancelled than just the last one. Continental Airlines told me that if UM kids end up stuck for long periods of time, they'll be kept at Continental's special unaccompanied-minor centers at their major hub airports. If there's no UM center, the airline will call you and have an airline employee take your kid to a hotel, where she will get her own hotel room with the airline employee in a separate room nearby. US Airways also confirmed that they can put kids in hotels if necessary, and a post on FlyerTalk confirms that Alaska Airlines also sends kids to hotels where they're supervised by airline employees.

Other airlines declined to respond as to how they would treat UMs who get stuck overnight. That's why it's extra important to have a friend available at the connection point, just in case.

Airline Min. age for connecting flights Min. age to fly without UM service UM fee (each way)
American 8 15 100
Continental 8 12 100
Delta 8 15 100
United 8 12 99
US Airways Never 15 100
Southwest Never 12 50
JetBlue Never 15 75
Spirit Never 15 100
Alaska 8 13 25 nonstop; 50 connecting
AirTran 8 12 49 nonstop/direct; 69 connecting

How To Fly Unaccompanied

To book an unaccompanied minor, call the airline's reservation office. American, Continental, JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska all let you book minors online, but you'll want to talk to the reservation agent about rules and paperwork anyway.

You'll need to give the reservation agent the full, legal name of the people dropping off and picking up your child, as well as their telephone numbers. If your kid will be connecting somewhere, try to make it a city where you know someone. Give the airline that person's details in case something goes wrong at the connecting point.

Before you fly, practice with your kid about what she'll do in difficult situations. What happens if she loses her escort or if her connection is cancelled? What if she's stuck on the tarmac for two hours? Some children might even appreciate it if you write down answers to these questions -- a kind of FAQ for her trip.

Get to the airport at least two hours before a domestic flight, or three hours before an international flight. You'll need to go to the ticket counter with your child to collect a special pass, which will let you through security and to the gate. Your child won't need ID (unless she's flying internationally) but you will. At the ticket counter, you'll need to complete a form with the full details of who's dropping off and picking up the kid. Depending on the airline, your kid may also get a lanyard or tag that she'll have to wear throughout her entire trip -- tell her not to take it off. You'll accompany your kid to the gate, wave goodbye to her, and stick around to watch her plane take off.

If your kid is traveling internationally, there can be additional paperwork. Typically, if a child isn't traveling with both parents, the missing parent (or parents) needs to provide a signed note saying it's OK for the kid to cross borders. Depending on where you're going, though, that form may have to be notarized, translated, or notarized, translated, and verified through a specific government office (Colombia is especially intense on this count). Check with the local authorities at your destination.

When your child lands, tell her to wait for a flight attendant or a ground crew member to take her to her next location, which might be a connecting flight or the arrivals hall. Yes, young teens may decide to strike out for themselves. Bad idea -- that will drive the airline nuts.

Unaccompanied Minor Packing List

Unaccompanied minors should carry a backpack with their important items:

  • A cell phone programmed with your number: If your kid doesn't have her own phone, you can get a prepaid TracFone for $10 from your nearest big-box store or tracfone.com. Throw it away at the end of your trip if you like, or keep it for the next one.
  • Entertainment: Books, video games, movies, whatever you've got. A portable DVD player or iPod Touch is worth its weight in gold here.
  • Snacks: Airlines serve weird food, if any. But remember that you can't get liquids, gels, or mushy things through security, so bring firm snacks. If you're traveling internationally, you often can't bring meat and fruit from one country into another, but you can bring it onto the plane.
  • Money: Budget some money for layovers and emergencies. If you trust your child with a credit card, that solves the "cashless airline" problem, though remember she'll also be able to use the credit card to charge all the $6 setback movies she wants.
  • Something soft: Young kids should bring a favorite stuffed animal. Older kids might want to throw a sweater in there. It's good for cuddling and doubling as a blanket or pillow.
  • An absolute minimum of carry-on luggage: Check everything that isn't in your child's "go bag." That way she has less to misplace. Yes, we normally advise you not to check your bags, but in this case, convenience trumps all else.

Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his Frommers.com columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and daughter, who frequently accompany him on his trips.

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