Is Your Kid Ready to Fly Solo?

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Keeping your child’s age and personality in mind, plan ahead to ensure a safe and successful trip.

If you’re considering putting your child on a plane alone, news reports of canceled flights, lost luggage, nasty, dirty aircraft, and the occasional bewildered passenger ejected by airline fashion police may have you freaked out—not to mention stories of unaccompanied minor travel gone wrong. While it’s true that even a paid airline escort doesn’t fully guarantee a smooth trip, thoughtful planning can go a long way toward making your child’s first solo flight memorable for all the right reasons.

Is Your Child Ready for Take-Off?

Most U.S. airlines permit passengers as young as 5 to fly without a parent or guardian with the purchase of unaccompanied minor service, but you should assess your child’s temperament and maturity level, advises Dr. Mollie Grow, a pediatrician and Associate Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Start by confirming that your child feels excited vs. scared about the idea of solo travel, but know that pure enthusiasm isn’t enough. According to Dr. Grow, most kids age 7 and under aren’t ready.

“I think that’s an age where [flying alone is] more of a last resort. I’d be very mindful and selective of the circumstances,” Grow says, acknowledging that situations like shared custody after divorce may require a younger child to travel alone. In that case, Grow suggests previewing what will happen during the trip. “If your child has flown before, you can build on that experience. And if they’re with an older sibling, the buddy system can help.”

For most kids, eight is the perfect age for making a first solo trip, because it coincides with third grade. “Third graders have had a few years of being in school on their own,” Grow says. “They have experience interacting with [unfamiliar] adults and asking for help.”

Although tweens and teens may seem independent, most still need guidance from parents preparing for a solo journey. “Teens can get cavalier about what’s safe,” says Grow. They can also get distracted by devices and potentially miss flight updates or lose track of belongings. (Hey, it happens to adults, too!) Parents should make sure older kids carry electronic and printed copies of their travel documents and know how to set up text or email flight alerts. Older kids managing medical conditions like ADD, asthma, or diabetes may need a reminder to pack critical medication in a carry-on.

How Does Unaccompanied Minor Service Work?

Be aware that purchasing unaccompanied minor service doesn’t get you an in-flight babysitter. Airlines often seat unaccompanied children at the front or rear of the aircraft to make it easier for flight attendants to keep an eye out but expect crew members to be busy meeting the needs of all passengers. The amount of TLC your child receives will depend upon the specific airline’s policies, the fullness of the flight, and the good nature of the flight attendants on duty.

The primary advantage of paying for the unaccompanied minor service is that you’re able to accompany your child to the gate, and the person meeting them upon arrival can be waiting at the gate when the child disembarks. In most cases, you’ll need to call the airline rather than booking online. Be ready to provide the full names, addresses, and phone numbers of the adults who’ll be dropping off and picking up the child at each end of the journey.

On the day of travel, the airline check-in desk will give you a pass to go through security and on to the departure gate. Once there, you’ll be required to wait until your child’s flight is airborne.

Should your child need to make a connection in transit, an airline representative is expected to lead them to the correct gate during a layover. When your child reaches their final destination, an airline employee will escort them off the plane, ensuring the minor is released to the right person by checking ID. Make sure that whoever is meeting your child allows enough time to secure a gate pass at the ticket counter and clear security before the flight lands.

Parents and kids need to be ready to deal with the unexpected, even with unaccompanied minor service in place. Kirsten Maxwell, a Dallas mother of three boys and publisher of the travel blog Kids Are a Trip, arranged for her two older sons to fly alone for the first time when each boy turned 12. She purchased unaccompanied minor service for both, on different airlines. Her oldest flew American to grandma’s, where service exceeded mom’s expectations.

“The flight attendant was lovely,” she recalls. “There was lots of hand-holding and cookies during the flight.”

When her middle son turned 12, Maxwell arranged for him to fly Frontier for his visit with grandma. The unaccompanied minor fee was cheaper at that time, she recalls, “But you get what you pay for.” Frontier staff failed to show her son to his seat. The boy figured it out on his own, but then a flight attendant moved him to a middle seat at the back of the plane that didn’t recline, leaving the boy uncomfortable and disoriented. On the journey home, her son’s flight was delayed late into the night. No staff was stationed at the Frontier counter to issue her a gate pass. Maxwell’s son didn’t have a cell phone (a situation she regrets) so she had no way to reach him.

“I was panicked,” Maxwell remembers. Eventually, an airline employee walked the boy out to baggage claim, where they were reunited, but after that stressful experience, Maxwell has postponed letting her youngest son, now 12, fly alone.

To avoid a negative experience, parents should review the specific airline’s policy closely, Maxwell says. Policies and fees for unaccompanied minor service vary. Some carriers require parents to purchase unaccompanied minor service for solo travelers age 14 and under; others don’t offer the service to passengers older than 12. Call the airline’s concierge desk to ask questions, and research airline performance before booking. As it turns out, Maxwell’s son wasn’t the only unaccompanied minor to have had a bad trip on Frontier, and the airline no longer provides the service at all.

What Are You Forgetting?

The key to a successful trip for your child is planning, says Kelly Rubingh, owner of Family Travel Agency in San Carlos, California. Here are her tips:

  • Book a nonstop flight. Some airlines will only fly younger children nonstop, even with unaccompanied minor service.
  • If changing planes is unavoidable, route your child through an airport with an in-airport hotel, or a city where a friend or relative can help in case of a missed connection.
  • Choose a morning flight to maximize rebooking options if departure is delayed or canceled.
  • Send your child with a cell phone, charger, back up battery, and list of emergency contacts.
  • Provide a credit, debit, or prepaid gift card. Make sure your child understands how to use it for inflight purchases like Wi-Fi, or in a travel emergency.
  • Pack snacks, and take advantage of airline prepaid meal options when available.
  • Airlines often seat unaccompanied minors together. Arrive at the gate early so your child can meet any other young travelers.
  • Introduce yourself to the flight attendants before boarding begins, and share any critical information about your child.
  • Completing a solo flight can serve as a confidence boost for kids, and a rite of passage for parents.

“When you send your kids anywhere, once they are out of your eyesight, they are out of your immediate protection,” says Kevin Merritt, a North Carolina outdoor guide whose daughter first traveled alone in her early teens to attend a sports camp. “We [realized] there is way more parental fear than child fear. We did everything we could to set our child up for success, including instilling a sense of adventure.”