The unfamiliarity of traveling can be unnerving for young children, even with their parents beside them, so what happens if your child must travel alone? Children between the ages of 5 and 14 who travel without a parent or guardian are referred to as unaccompanied minors. If you intend to send an unaccompanied minor by plane (with or without a connection), all airlines require you to complete a form providing emergency and identification information (such as the child's name, age, medical considerations, etc.). In addition, you will have to agree that the airline is not assuming any special responsibility of guardianship during the flight.
For legal purposes, an unaccompanied minor is treated the same as an adult passenger. However, children are routinely escorted onto and off of the aircraft by a flight attendant and, upon disembarking, released to the person named by you prior to departure. General guidelines for most domestic carriers can be found below (just remember, rules vary by carrier so be sure to contact your airline, in advance, for specific information!):
- Kids ages 1-4 may fly only when accompanied by an adult. A child must be at least 5 to fly alone.
- Kids ages 5 - 7 can take a direct flight to a single destination but not connecting flights.
- Kids 8 and older may change aircraft on most airlines. If they're between 8 and 11, they will be escorted by airline personnel to their connecting flight for an additional charge. Older kids (age 12 and over) are not routinely escorted, but such assistance can be requested.
- Anyone under 17 who is flying alone on an international flight must have a signed note from a parent or adult guardian giving permission, destination, and length of stay.
- All minors must be met at their destination by another parent or responsible adult.
To find your airline's policy on unaccompanied minors, select a link below:
Tips and Suggestions To Help The Trip Go Smoothly
- Always inform the airline, well in advance, that you will be having a minor traveling unaccompanied. It is best to contact your carrier's customer service by phone so that you can discuss all of your options, fees, and special needs, as well as any other questions or concerns you or your child may have.
- 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 teach them to recognize uniformed employees.
- If possible, buy only nonstop tickets for your child. If a change of planes is unavoidable, try to use a smaller, easily navigable airport for the transfer. Also, if possible, book a morning flight, that way if there is a delay or cancellation, you will have the rest of the day to make adjustments and alternate plans.
- Rehearse the journey and make sure your child is familiar with the trip itinerary. Ensure that all travel documents are stowed in a safe, secure place, and that they are replaced in the same spot for the return flight.
- Pack only a single carry-on bag and a personal item. If checked baggage is necessary, check your child's checked bag stubs carefully to be sure that the claim ticket and luggage tag match your child's final destination and that all other information is accurate.
- Equip your child with plenty of emergency information (i.e., instructions on how to handle flight delays or cancellations, emergency contacts, a means to pay for unforeseen emergencies and necessities, identification, and medical history, if applicable).
- Make sure your child has a picture of the person meeting him or her once the plane lands. Write the person's full name, address, and phone number on the back. This information will also need to be provided to the airline. In addition, be certain the adult meeting your child at the destination airport is carrying photo identification and that the escort checks it against the photo the child is traveling with.
- Pack some basics for your child for the trip. Good snack choices include: trail mix, chips, grapes, sandwiches, and cheese sticks. You may also want to purchase water for your child after you pass through the security checkpoint. Also, make or buy a travel pack of distractions for the flight. Make sure your child has a little cash on hand to cover in-flight expenses (headphones, etc.). Provide a cell phone to use in an emergency, as well as a list of numbers to call if necessary.
- Use your best judgement. Just because a 5-year-old is legally permitted to fly alone doesn't mean that your 5-year-old will be able to handle doing so, particularly if it is the child's first flight. Parents should use common sense and make arrangements based on the maturity and temperament of their child.
Safe and happy travels!