You never imagine travel involving your small children flying solo, but life happens. Whether thru divorce, moving far away from family or educational opportunities that aren’t near home, there may come a time when your child flies as an unaccompanied minor. Here are a few things you should always remember when your child flies alone.
Unaccompanied Minor: What Does That Even Mean
When you book your child as an unaccompanied minor (UM), it means they will be taking their flight without an accompanying adult. This often happens when children whose parents are divorced are shuttling the kiddo back and forth or when kids go visit out-of-area relatives.
For most airlines, unaccompanied minor ages run from around 5 to around 16. Ages vary from airline to airline. Unaccompanied minors are typically charged a fee that covers having a flight attendant watch over the child on the flight. A parent will check in the minor, escort her to the plane. The other parent or relative will pick her up plane side at the arrival airport. UMs are restricted to mostly to nonstop/no equipment change flights, and are often not allowed on the last flight of the day to remote destinations.
Read on for tips that every parent of an unaccompanied minor should know and how to pick the best unaccompanied minor airline for your family. We also did a Facebook live video with all the answers you need- from the airport!
Does your child fly as an unaccompanied minor? We have some tips for UM's and teens flying solo.
Posted by Traveling Mom on Sunday, November 26, 2017
Booking an unaccompanied minor flight.
Every airline has different rules. Be sure that you check rules before settling on a flight. This way you can be sure the flight you choose complies with the airlines rules.
Call to book the flight. Many airline reservation systems will not allow you to book a UM ticket online. The one exception to this is children between 12 and 17 flying alone on Southwest. If they are flying solo and will not need unaccompanied minor services, you can book them online. Expect to put in parent pickup and drop off info.
If you live near a smaller airport, you may find yourself driving further to a larger airport for the flight. Because many airlines limit choices to nonstops, we found ourselves heading to Boston when my son was young, rather than being able to utilize Burlington or Manchester airports.
Unaccompanied Minor Fees and Rules by Airline
Alaska Airlines– Purchase of UM service required for kids 5-12. Optional for 13-17. Rules apply about nonstop flights for younger passengers. $25 fee each way on flight, $50 fee each way for connecting flights.
Allegiant Airlines– Allegiant does not accept unaccompanied minors. Children under 15 must travel with an adult.
American Airlines– Purchase of UM service required for kids 5-14. Optional for 15-17. The youngest passengers can only travel on nonstop flights. Older children can connect through certain hubs. UM fee is a whopping $150 each way!
Delta Airlines– Purchase of UM service required for kids 5-14. Optional for those 15-17. Delta has introduced scanned bar code bracelets for UMs so that you can “track” your child. They do offer international options and therefore have more rules and regulations than most airlines. Fee is $150 each way. One fee will cover up to 4 kids from the same family, making it one of the cheapest options if sending multiple children.
Frontier Airlines– Purchase of UM service required for kids 5-14. Optional for those 15-17. Fee is $110 each way.
Hawaiian Airlines– Purchase of UM service required for kids 5-11. Fee is $35 each way within Hawaii and $100 each way within the rest of the US.
JetBlue– Purchase of UM service required for kids 5-13. UMs can only travel on nonstop flights. There is also a form that needs to be printed at home and filled out in triplicate to bring to the airport. It is VERY important to note that Jetblue limits UMs to 3 per flight. If your UM will be traveling near a holiday BOOK EARLY! UM fee is $100 each way.
Southwest Airlines– UM service is required for kids 5-12. Nonstop or direct flights only. No international travel. Fee is $50 each way or $100 round trip. Children can travel solo once they turn 12. Southwest is the airline we used the most for UM travel. Our son said the flight attendants were always friendly and, since he traveled often, it was nice to stop paying the UM fee when he turned 12. In my opinion Southwest Airlines is the best unaccompanied minor airline.
Spirit Airlines– UM service is required for kids 5-14. Nonstop or direct flights only. Fee is $100 each way.
United Airlines- Purchase of UM service required for kids 5-15. Nonstop flights only. Fee is one of the highest in the industry at $150 each way! Given the number of times United lost my luggage while I traveled for business, we did not ever consider them for travel for my son.
Virgin America– Purchase of UM service required for kids 5-12. Nonstop flights only for the younger passengers. Older ones can have a connection to another Virgin flight. Parents can elect to purchase UM service for 13-17 year olds but it is not required. Fee is $25 each way for a nonstop flight/ $50 each way for a connecting flight.
Before an unaccompanied minor flight.
Pack all the snacks. Seriously- you know when kids get “starving”? When you’re not there to buy them snacks. This is not the time to pack things you think are good for them. Pack things they will actually want to eat. Also many airlines seat UMs together. Make sure your kiddos put away snacks if they are going to take a nap. My son woke up once to find another minor had eaten all of his snacks. He was on a flight that had a stop (but no equipment change) and the pilot brought him to Burger King and bought him a meal. It’s still a vivid memory for him!
Review electronic rules and make sure they have headphones.
Write a note with all emergency contact numbers and any important info about your child. My son travels with a list of numbers so that someone can reach us if there is an emergency.
You would buy travel insurance for your own trip to protect against the unexpected. Why not buy it for your child? Allianz USA offers both individual and family policies. Protect your investment (especially when paying all those extra UM fees!).
Allow extra extra time to check in and get through security.
If your unaccompanied minor has a connector flight, don’t cut it close. There are multiple steps involved in getting your child to the plane and you don’t want to be stressed and rushing at the airport. UMs need to be checked in at the airport where they will verify your information and that of the relative picking up. Be prepared with names, phone numbers and a backup person’s info just in case. If it’s holiday travel time, the lines grow even longer. Plan ahead.
Airlines will issue what is called a gate pass to the drop off parent. This lets you go through security with your child and bring him to the gate. In order to get a gate pass you will need to bring valid photo ID. Depending on time of year, they can restrict gate passes to one person so be cautious about bringing additional kids with you to the airport for drop off or pick up.
You will need to go through security and be screened just like any other passenger. Be sure to remember this! I find it best to just bring my phone and ID in. There is always the chance that I’ve got some “contraband” item in my purse, so I cut out that variable.
Waiting for your unaccompanied minor’s flight to depart.
Once you’re through security, get to the gate and notify the gate personnel that you have a UM. Every airline will board UMs differently. Sometimes they take them first, sometimes during family boarding and other times they are the last ones on the plane. The personnel will let you know what to expect. Set up shop near the gate and listen for further instructions.
Keep in mind that once you put your child on the plane you cannot just leave the airport. According to the terms and conditions of the ticket, you must stay in the gate area until the plane has taken off. I always go back to the gate and ask if it’s okay to leave shortly after I see the flight taxi out. This is a good time to text whomever will be retrieving the child at the arrival airport that the flight has taken off safely.
Picking up an unaccompanied minor at the airport.
As many steps as there are to get the child on the plane, the area where I see the most confusion and blunders is on the pick up end. When picking up a UM, you can procure a gate pass to go sit at the gate and wait for the plane’s arrival. Keep a few things in mind though:
- What time the airline’s counters close. If your UM is arriving in at 10 p.m., you may think you can arrive at 9 p.m. and have plenty of time, but if the airline’s counter closes at 8 p.m. after it tickets the last flight out, you will not be able to get a gate pass.
- What time security closes. Same scenario here. You’ve got your gate pass, but with no more outgoing flights, the checkpoint is closed. You’re out of luck and won’t be able to get to the gate. For both of these items, you can usually check the airport’s website or call the airport’s number. I used to send my son to visit my sister and she’d have to arrive at the airport 3 hours before his flight landed to be able to get through the gate. Be aware to avoid surprises.
- Holidays can change rules. We have had several airports that will not issue gate passes for parents picking up during the busy holiday travel season. During these times, the best thing to do is to verify with the airline where the child will come out (escorted by a flight attendant). It is usually near baggage claim. Don’t fret if you don’t see her right away. When the flight attendant’s walk the kids out, they are almost always the last ones off the plane.
Did you miss the opportunity to get a gate pass? Don’t panic. Go stand near the security exit nearest to baggage claim and I guarantee that the flight attendant and your child will find you.
Cell phones come in handy.
I never imagined getting my 9 year old a cell phone, but with the amount of flying he was doing solo, it was the responsible thing to do. You can pick up a basic model smartphone for roughly $7/month (equipment cost) through many providers. Add on the $20 line fee we pay and I have peace of mind at a low cost. Review rules with your child about shutting down the phone before the flight, not draining the battery completely on games and responsible phone use. Program in all parent, step-parent and grandparent phone numbers. My son would text when he boarded the plane and when the plane was landing, so that we knew he had arrived.
Keep calm and project confidence.
Your child is about to take a huge step and fly alone. You may be nervous and the thought of putting your baby on a plane solo may terrify you, but please breathe. Your child will absorb what you project. Let him know you know he can handle this. Review how things will go. Explain when it is and isn’t ok to get up on the plane. Make sure your child knows to direct all questions to the flight attendant.
Things will go smoothly. The best thing you can do is pick an airline you trust when booking your child’s ticket. There is a reason we use Jetblue and Southwest exclusively in my family for UM flights.
Old Enough to Fly Alone?
With cutoff ages for unaccompanied minors around 12-15, there comes a time when your child will fly alone but not as an unaccompanied minor. My son started flying solo at 12. On the one hand ,not having to pay the extra fee was fantastic. We were of course still concerned about how he would do on his own. Be sure to thoroughly review TSA rules and guidelines with your teens if they are flying solo.
As a seasoned traveler, my son knows how the process goes. If the flight comes into or leaves from an airport that he is unfamiliar with, we have him call my cell to “walk” him through it until he is at his gate. He texts when he boards and touches down. At 13, now he will come out to the curb when he lands if we tell him the door number. He is very confident in his travel skills. We always make sure he has an emergency $20 on him just in case. In this day and age, I can also text him a screenshot of my Starbucks app pay screen to use for food/drinks if he needs it.
What other questions do you have about unaccompanied minor flights? Would you send your child on a plane solo?