The holiday season is a busy one for air travel, including children flying alone. November to January sees the highest number of unaccompanied minors as kids travel to visit parents and other relatives. Recently, our 11-year-old son, Calvin, flew alone on Alaska Airlines when he traveled from a Portland, Oregon soccer tournament to join us for a family vacation in Orange County, California. With lightweight luggage in hand, what could have been a stressful process was made easy by remembering the following tips.
Tips for Children Flying Alone
1. Plan on additional forms.
After booking a flight online for an unaccompanied minor, almost all airlines will direct you immediately to a Guardian Contact Form. Fill this out carefully. Your child will not be released to anyone who is not listed on the form.
2. Plan for additional fees.
We paid a $25 unaccompanied minor fee on Alaska Airlines, but fees can reach as high as $50 each way. Plan accordingly! Also bear in mind that it is likely your minor will check luggage (to keep hands free), so luggage fees may apply as well. No doubt about it: children flying alone will cost more. On some airlines, younger children incur higher fees than older children.
3. Plan on arriving early.
This goes for departure and arrival: children flying alone need to be at the airport a minimum of 90 minutes before departure to ensure the adult escort has time to procure an escort pass. An escort pass allows the parent or other guardian to walk the child all the way to his or her gate. This means going through security like any other passenger. Try to be at the gate 30 minutes before departure, and check in at the podium. In many cases, children flying alone can board first.
At the arriving end, the guardian escort will also need to secure an escort pass and allow time to go through security to pick up the child at the gate. Make sure this adult is the same one listed on the escort form. The airline representative at the gate will not release the child to anyone else. Have ID ready.
4. Keep your child’s age in mind.
For most airlines, children ages 5-17 can fly as unaccompanied minors. Kids ages 5-7 are restricted to direct flights only. I recommend booking only direct flights for older children as well, when possible. Make sure your child has easy access to in-flight entertainment such as books, magazines, or video games. Check bags even if you usually fly carry-on only as a family: it will be easier for your child to keep track of only a backpack or tote. Find out if the airline will provide a snack and/or a drink. Explain this process to your child. Tip: stock up on snacks because on most airlines children cannot buy snacks in flight with cash.
5. Choose your airline carefully.
I am not paid to say so, but I recommend Alaska Airlines for their friendly service, helpful website, and easy booking process. When buying tickets for kids flying solo, picking a family-friendly airline will eliminate stress. Ask around to friends and family who have children who have flown alone. Which airline did they use?
6. Explain the Process to Children Flying Alone
While on-board, your child should feel safe, secure, and able to ask for help. Letting your child know what to expect days in advance of the flight can alleviate stress. It will give him or her time to think about it ahead of time. It will enable them to come up with questions to ask you before boarding the plane. It will make them feel prepared and alleviate stress if you come to them in a calm manner and explain the process.
- If they have an assigned seat explain where to look for the seat number. (On Southwest Airlines they aren’t assigned.)
- Let them know about being able to talk to the flight attendants.
- Let them know to expect and to pay attention to the safety talk or video before the plane takes off.
- Explain their bag of personal items will have to be stowed under the seat in front of them during take-off and landing.
- Tell them about the tray table in front of them. Let them know if they have a window seat, that the shade can be raised and lowered. Tell them to look out the window for a great view!
- Tell him or her about the call button, and explain why and when it can be used.
- Talk about the small bathroom on the plane and about the one in the front that does not allow a line to form.
- Explain to them about the “fasten seat belt” sign and rule and to wear a seat belt when seated.
- Explain that during the beginning and end of the flight, that they will have to turn off electronic devices. They should listen for the announcement.
- If the flight is long enough, explain about the snack and drink the flight attendant will offer them.
Be sure you talk to your child in advance about what to expect. It will help to relieve anxiety and hopefully get them excited about the flight.
Being Prepared Before a Child Flies Alone
Flights are delayed, weather is sometimes bad, and other things out of your control may happen. However, you can do your best to control in advance many things in order to ensure a positive airline experience for your children flying alone.
Photo credit: E-Guide Travel