Should Children Travel Alone on Airlines? Safe Flight Guide

Good question: Is it safe for children to travel alone on airlines?

If you mean a child’s physical well-being, the answer seems to be “yes”.

If you mean a child getting to where he’s supposed to go, the answer is sometimes “no”.

Children Sent to Wrong Airports

We saw that just this week with Delta Air Line’s double destination mix-up involving a pair of young travelers: a 9 year old boy heading to Boston was flown to Cleveland, while a 9 year old girl heading to Cleveland was flown to yes, Boston.

Delta quickly apologized, got the kids on the right flights, refunded the tickets and more, but it had to be pretty scary for the families.

So, are “unaccompanied minors” – which is what these kids are called in airline lingo – safe on their own? Well, millions of kids fly by themselves every year and problems seem to be rare but, mistakes do happen. And sometimes mistakes happen repeatedly.

More Airline Mistakes

A year ago, Continental Airlines racked up two “misdirected child incidents” (more airline lingo) on back-to-back days; in one case, a little girl was sent to Arkansas – which was a shame since her family was waiting for her at an airport in North Carolina.

One Airline Says “No” to Solo Child Travelers

I wonder if those events helped Allegiant Airlines with its decision to change its unaccompanied minor policy: as of last November, the low cost carrier has banned children aged 13 and under from flying alone on its planes.

How Old Must a Child be to Travel Alone?

What are the age requirements for children traveling solo? A child must be 5 years old on AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, United and Virgin America.


What Airlines Actually Do for Solo Child Travelers

What you get: Airline supervision typically means an airline employee meets them at their gate and escorts them onto the plane, and shepherds them through the airport betweeen flights (although most carriers insist the very youngest children fly nonstop routes only). Airlines also require that whoever picks up the child at the airport presents photo identification to an airline employee.

What you do not get: Airline supervision does not include someone actually accompanying and sitting with a child throughout a flight.

The best parents can hope for is that a kindly flight attendant will keep an eye on them, but frankly, these days flight attendants are pretty overwhelmed with the demands of cranky grown-up passengers, so this may not be possible.

What Does the Unaccompanied Minor Fee Cost?

What you pay: Naturally, this being the modern era of airline fees, the unaccompanied minor service is not free.

Some sample fee prices:

  • American – $100 each-way
  • Delta – $100 each-way
  • Spirit – $100 each-way
  • United – $99 each-way

Starting to notice a pattern? In other words, on most airlines, the unaccompanied minor fee adds another $200 to the cost of the child’s ticket.

Some carriers are cheaper, of course, and our Domestic Airline Fee Chart has all the details, but even Southwest’s relatively modest $50 each-way unaccompanied minor fee is double what the airline was charging just a few months ago.

Do You Get What You Pay For?

Is the fee worth it? That’s something for the parents to decide (and we’re not going to get into the socio-economic angles of the solo child traveler phenomenon), but here’s something to ponder:

Even when parents do accompany their children, things can go very wrong.

Parents Lose Children, Too

In 2008, a large and apparently somewhat disorganized family with a lot of luggage flew from Tel Aviv to Paris; 40 minutes into the flight, the parents were approached by a flight attendant who said something like, could you count your kids? We seem to have a stray 3 year old back in the airport. Yep, they’d left a toddler behind. Hey, stuff happens.

How to Avoid Problems

Want to be extra certain your child reaches his destination safely? Follow these tips:

Child ID: Pin an easy-to-read note or name tag on your child’s clothing; include his name and the words, “I’m traveling to Boston” or wherever the child is heading (put a similar note in the child’s backpack and include your cell phone number). Okay, maybe a fourteen year old will balk at the name-tag, but force it on the younger ones.

Cell Phone: If the child is old enough to fly alone, he or she is old enough to know how to use a cell phone; make sure they have one and that all family numbers are programmed in it.

Ask the Question: Train your child to ask the first flight attendant he/she sees this question: “Is this the plane to Boston?” or wherever the child is heading; make sure this is asked the moment the child steps on a plane.

Food and Fun: Pack a lunch for your child and include some treats and toys in his backpack; remember, these days, most airlines require credit cards for in-flight purchases including food – and while no flight attendant will let a child go hungry or thirsty, what if the flight attendant doesn’t notice – or the child is too shy to speak up?

Be There for Arrivals/Departures: Most airlines require an adult to accompany the youngster to the gate, and that a specifically named adult (with proper ID) is there to meet the child on arrival (and if someone else shows up, the airline will not release the child). If there are any questions about who is able pick up the child, keep the child home.

Decide if Your Child is Ready to Fly Solo

Some five year olds are “mature” enough to fly by themselves, and some eleven year olds are just not ready; only you know what your child is comfortable with. If you have any doubts, wait – or fly with them. Sure it’s expensive, but you can’t put a price on peace of mind.

“Well, They Did Give Me Dunkin’ Donuts…”

If a child is ready, problems don’t seem to faze them. That chubby-cheeked 9 year old boy who was mistakenly sent to Cleveland instead of Boston seemed to enjoy telling reporters about his airline misadventures; in fact, his eyes practically lit up as he enthusiastically described how apologetic airline employees “gave me some free food and some Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Ah, the resiliency of youth.


Updated: September 13, 2017