Essential tips for kids flying as an unaccompanied minor

Sitting alone at the gate and watching the plane your child is on push back away from the jet bridge without you (or another parent or guardian on board) is an interesting moment, to say the least. Speaking from experience, in that breath, you’re probably equal parts proud, excited and nervous.

Most U.S. airlines will transport your child without a parent or guardian, at least on select flights, once they turn 5 years old if you pay the unaccompanied minor fee. Each airline has specific policies and fees regarding unaccompanied-minor flights. However, while specific policies are the relatively easy part, today we’re talking about the important stuff — our actual tips for your unaccompanied minor.

Arranging for your child to travel solo for the first time is a big deal and a huge moment in creating the next generation of travelers. Once you and your child are ready, there’s no better training in how to navigate a flight and an airport than doing it under the watchful eye of the airline.

How old do you have to be to fly alone?

When your child turns 5, many airlines allow you to pay a fee to register them as an unaccompanied minor so they can fly without an adult. The fee covers additional supervision by the airline, assistance getting on and off the plane, an escort to any connections and assistance in the event of irregular operations.

Related: Child turning 18? Here’s everything you need to know before the next time they travel

Some airlines, like Allegiant Air, do not accept unaccompanied minors under the age of 15. Others, like Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines, will accept unaccompanied minors as young as 5 but will only allow them on nonstop or direct flights until they reach a certain age.

Typically, a parent or guardian will complete the paperwork and obtain the boarding pass at the check-in desk, obtain a gate pass, escort the child through security and then wait at the child’s gate until their plane is in the air. Upon arrival, a designated adult will go through roughly the same process and be waiting at the gate when your child’s plane arrives.

Tips for booking an unaccompanied minor flight

Make sure your child is mentally and emotionally prepared to travel alone

One child may be ready to fly to grandparents’ house solo at age 6, while another won’t be ready to fly by themselves even at age 16. While some of these scenarios aren’t likely to happen, you do need to think through situations such as diversions, delays or an onboard unruly passenger.

Will your child be able to handle those types of situations without you? If the answer is absolutely not, then perhaps this isn’t the year for them to fly solo.

Reward your inbox with the TPG Daily newsletter

Join over 700,000 readers for breaking news, in-depth guides and exclusive deals from TPG’s experts.

Eleven years old and ready to board the flight solo. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Keep the itinerary simple

You’ll want to book nonstop flights whenever possible to keep your child’s travel experience as simple and smooth as possible.

Think long and hard about every connection, as each exponentially increases the chance of something going wrong and your child spending significant time away from a caregiver, potentially in a place you can’t easily get to.

Related: What to do if your unaccompanied minor is stranded overnight

Buy flights that depart earlier in the day to account for potential delays, diversions or rebookings that would be more likely to require an overnight stay if they happened later in the afternoon or evening.

Choose their seat wisely

Choose a seat nearest the cabin crew. I personally prefer seating my child as close to the front of the plane as possible, but some airlines actually ask that you seat them in the very last row. Either way, try and have them close to where the crew sits.

Provide your child with a way to contact you

Give your child a phone or other way to reach you in case of emergency. Perhaps this could be an iPad, Apple Watch or something similar to be able FaceTime with you on Wi-Fi if they don’t yet have a phone. And don’t forget to be sure you can track your child with that device.

You’ll want to give a printed list of emergency contacts for your child and teach him or her to insist on having an airline employee reach out to you or other designated guardians if needed in the event the child isn’t able to contact you directly.

Along those lines, you need to stay available and close to your phone the entire time your child is in transit.

Send cash, cards and a charger

Make sure your child has some way to pay for food and incidental expenses. Do not count on the airline (or their contracted provider) to be your child’s babysitter and provide for every potential need.

Airline employees aren’t babysitters

While you are paying a fee for the airline to ensure your child gets from Point A to Point B without you, the $50 to $150 fee is not supplying a constant babysitter for your child. Hopefully, the flight attendant or other airline employee will keep an eye on your child and check in periodically to see if they need anything. However, they’ll not likely provide constant supervision by any stretch of the imagination. If your child needs constant supervision, they aren’t yet ready to fly without you.

Get to the airport very early

It takes extra time and extra paperwork to have your child fly as an unaccompanied minor and much of this isn’t done until in-person on the day of departure. You will need to interact with an airline employee at the check-in counter, so add time not only for that process but for potential lines to even get to the counter and through security.

Track the flight

You’ll need to stay at the departure gate until the flight is in the air, but you can’t then just assume it makes it to the final destination from there.

Set flight alerts to track the flight both from the airline’s website directly and perhaps also from FlightAware. Personally, I also like to manually check the flight’s location every 15 to 30 minutes while it’s in the air, just to make sure things are progressing as planned.


Tips for kids flying as an unaccompanied minor

Here are things I told my child when she first flew without me at the age of 6 and again when she flew as an unaccompanied minor at the age of 11.

Listen and ask questions

I explained that, just like in school, you won’t have a parent there to do things for you, so you have to pay attention to instructions and ask questions if you are unsure of anything. Especially when my child was younger, comparing a flight attendant to a teacher in terms of being the point person who is in charge and available to help was a helpful comparison. Even now, at an older age, providing reminders to not just keep her earbuds in and actually listen to announcements was a crucial part of our preflight chat.

Speak up — loudly — if something is wrong

I prefaced this part of the chat as very unlikely to happen, but still an important thing to know.

With my child, we talked through what to do if someone puts you in an uncomfortable situation and that some people naturally react to those situations by freezing and staying quiet. But I told her that even if that is what she wants to do at that moment, she needs to do her best to speak up loudly, multiple times if needed to get herself out of a potentially bad situation and seek out a flight attendant or another adult for assistance.

Don’t leave the gate

If everything goes to plan, one adult is at the departure gate until the plane is safely in the air, and another is waiting at the arrival gate before the plane lands. But things happen, and there are plenty of ways something could happen, and the child ends up at a gate without a guardian there. In that case, your child needs to know not to leave the gate, even if no airline employee is keeping a close eye on them.

Bottom line

You might be riddled with anxiety knowing your kid is flying without an adult guardian next to them, but sometimes there’s no better choice. And eventually, your child may even be the one pushing to take on this responsibility without you.

As a parent, only you know when they are ready, but there are real learnings and growth that can come from a child taking this task on once they are ready.

Personally, I flew by myself when I was 5 years old, and it was unquestionably a part of the framework for developing a love of travel and a belief that I could handle adventures as they came. Now, I’m seeing the same groundwork laid with my own oldest child.

Every child and every situation is different. Airline policies for unaccompanied minors tell you the limits of what is possible, but deciding what is best within those parameters is up to you.

Additional reporting by Tarah Chieffi

Popular this month

7 compelling reasons to book a luxury cruise
Digital Nomad Guide to Living in Puerto Vallarta in 2023
Value of Hilton Honors status when booking hotels directly
Alaska Airlines Visa credit card review: Earn hard-to-get miles
What are cruise ship pilots, and what do they do?
15 Best Coffee Shops and Cafes in Bath in 2023
Guide to lounge access with the Amex Platinum and Business Platinum
What you need to know about Hilton’s new lifestyle brand Tempo
LGA's Terminal A closes due to floods, FAA issues ground delay for NYC airports
United asks DOT for more slots at Tokyo's Haneda Airport