Summer is the busiest season for kids flying solo, and there are a number of things to consider before you make travel plans. Fees and restrictions vary for each airline, so you'll want to know the details before buying a ticket.
All the airlines require that the child be at least 5 years old to travel alone. Most carriers require unaccompanied-minor service through age 11; Alaska requires it through age 12, and Delta, Frontier and US Airways require it through age 14. Although these are the required ages, you can opt to use the service for older kids as well.
Most carriers require that kids ages 5 to 7 fly on nonstop or direct flights (makes a stop but no change of planes). Southwest requires direct or nonstop flights for all unaccompanied minors. United requires that you follow the most restrictive age requirement when more than one child is flying, so if you have a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old traveling together, they will have to be on nonstop or direct flights.
Even if your child is old enough to meet the age requirement for connecting flights, I recommend choosing nonstop flights. You may pay a little more, but you’ll ease any worries about your child being stranded at a connecting airport due to a mechanical issue or weather. I suggest that children take early morning flights, so if there is a delay you have more options for alternate flights. Most airlines won’t allow unaccompanied minors on the last flight of the day because they don’t want to have to make arrangements for taking care of a child overnight if the flight gets canceled.
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Alaska Airlines currently has the lowest price, charging a $25 unaccompanied-minor fee for nonstop or direct flights and $50 one-way for connecting flights. Alaska charges the fee per child and not per reservation.
On other carriers, the fee is per reservation; some airlines cap it at three children traveling together, some at four and some do not specify.
Southwest charges $50 one-way and allows kids to fly solo only on nonstop or direct flights.
United charges $99 one-way, and the legacy carriers like American, Continental, Delta and US Airways charge $100 each way. The prices listed are for domestic flights. International fees may be higher.
If you have siblings traveling together and one is older than the age requiring unaccompanied-minor service, you may be able to avoid the fees. For example, AirTran and Southwest will allow a 5- to 11-year-old to travel with someone 12 or older, and American allows minors to fly with someone 16 or older.
Since each airline has different fees and rules, read the unaccompanied-minor policies before booking. Once you book a flight, notify the airline that your child or children will be traveling without an adult. You will need to provide the airline with your contact information and the information for the adult who will be picking your child up at the final destination. That person will need to get a gate pass, present a photo ID and sign a release.
To make your child’s flight as smooth as possible, prepare her on what to expect and let her know to talk to an airline employee if she needs assistance.
Give your child a prepaid debit or credit card for food or other small on-board purchases because many airlines are now cashless. Keep carry-on baggage to a minimum, but make sure your child brings along some snacks and entertainment, such as toys or an iPod.
Tom Parsons is CEO of Best Fares.com: www.bestfares.com