Kids on Planes Traveling Alone: Q&A

Say you have a child that must travel alone. What should you know? I consulted a young friend and the research became the topic of my latest column for ABC. Here are the highlights.

Q: Do all airlines allow all children to travel alone?

A: No. Most airlines don’t allow children under the age of five to travel without an adult. Those aged five and up who are allowed to fly solo are required to be in an unaccompanied minor program* at least until age 11 to 14 depending on the airline.

*Allegiant does not have an unaccompanied minor program so it does not allow any passengers age 14 or younger to travel alone.

Q: What do unaccompanied minor programs cost and what do you get?

A:  It varies from airline to airline but there is a fee, and it can cost as much or more than the plane ticket. Sample prices.

Low end:

  • Alaska: $25 to $50 each-way, depending on flight
  • Southwest: $50 each-way

High end:

  • JetBlue: $100 each-way
  • American: $150 each-way
  • United: $150 each-way

What you get:

An escort to the gate (and between gates for children old enough to take connecting flights); they will also provide supervision until the responsible party picks the child up (and this person must be named beforehand and have proper ID).

What you don’t get:

A babysitting service. A child on a plane is effectively on his/her own. Yes, flight attendants will be happy to come to the aid of a child in distress – as they would any passenger – but they are not babysitters either.

Q: Do children flying alone ever run into problems?

A: It is extremely rare, but it happens – and sometimes it happens when they are under the supervision of escorts which happened a few years ago when a couple of kids were put on the wrong plane. However, we have not heard of similar incidents in a long time.

Q: What can parents do to avoid problems?

A: Go to the gate with the child and have whoever is picking up the child meet at the gate. It’s easy. Simply head to the airport earlier than usual and request a gate pass at the main airline desk and go through security with the child even if the escort is present. Then before the child  boards, ask the gate agent if it’s the right plane. Don’t feel dumb; adults have gotten on wrong planes, too.

Q: What should children bring when traveling alone?

A: A phone and a charger and a sheet of paper with important numbers on them (in case phone gets lost or batteries die).

Q: What about fun and games – and food?

A: Electronics loaded with games and/or movies (we’ll assume the kid will not lose the tablet). Something to snack on is a must, too, since no U.S. airline serves free meals in domestic coach anymore*. Pack what you know your child likes and don’t forget the 3 Cs: Chocolate, cookies and chips. You want them happy and calm, right? Let them be unhealthy just this once.

*When meals-for-purchase are offered, most airlines accept only credit cards.

  • See all of Rick Seaney’s columns for ABCNews.com here.

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Published: September 2, 2014