You can encounter lots of situations in which a minor child has to make an air trip by himself or herself: Shuttling between separated parents, from one set of grandparents to another, and such. As long as the child is at least five years old, arranging that sort of trip on a nonstop route is straightforward. However, a trip that requires changing planes can pose a challenge. One reader recently asked about it this way:
“What would be the best route and airline to get our 11-year-old grandson from Salt Lake City to England in June 2009?”
There is no short answer to this question—any solution requires some degree of compromise. Here are the main issues involved.
General Rules for Travel by Unaccompanied Minors
Just about every airline I know accepts children as “unaccompanied minors.” The basic rule of any unaccompanied minor program is that someone supervises—and is responsible for—the minor during all phases of the trip: The airline makes sure that the person who delivers the child to the departure airport is authorized, gate agents and flight attendants keep positive track of the child during the flight process, and the airline delivers the child only to an authorized person upon arrival. Most airlines assess a fee for this service.
Four age levels are relevant to unaccompanied minor travel:
- Five years: The minimum age for unaccompanied minor travel on almost all lines.
- Eight years: The most common minimum age for unaccompanied minor travel on itineraries that require a change of planes; some lines don’t allow changes at all.
- 12 to 15 years: The minimum age at which children can travel alone, as adults, without mandatory unaccompanied minor treatment. This limit varies among airlines. It’s 12 on [[AirTran]], [[Southwest]], and [[United]]; 14 on [[JetBlue Airways | JetBlue]]; and 15 on [[American]], [[Delta]], and [[US Airways]]; limits on other lines (including foreign ones) generally fall in this range.
- 17 years: The typical maximum age for unaccompanied minor assistance from an airline, although it varies among airlines. (Some airlines, however, provide equivalent service for cognitively impaired travelers of any age.)
Most unaccompanied minor programs also entail additional restrictions, mainly designed to minimize the chances that a child will be stranded overnight at a connecting airport. Those include no overnight flights unless they’re the only flights available and no itineraries that include the last flight of the day out of the connecting airport. Many lines also limit itineraries to their own flights or those of “partner” airlines. Check [[Children Flying Alone | here]] for more details on unaccompanied minor programs.
Planning Specific Trips
The above rules generally dictate the type of itinerary that would be “best” for any given trip. The specifics of our reader’s question illustrate the possibilities (I assume that by “England,” my reader meant London.):
At age 11, our reader’s grandson qualifies for—and also requires—unaccompanied minor treatment on any itinerary. At present, no airline flies nonstop from Salt Lake City to England, so his best bet would be on a single airline that can complete the trip with only one connection at a U.S. hub airport. In this case, that would be on Delta—nonstop from Salt Lake City to either Atlanta or New York, then nonstop to London.
According to Expedia, [[Continental]] also offers one-stop service for this trip, Salt Lake City to Cleveland to London. But the flight from Salt Lake City to Cleveland is flown by Delta as a [[Codeshare | codeshare]], so a Cleveland connection would actually involve two different airlines.
Even with one-line unaccompanied minor monitoring, travelers should avoid connections wherever possible. For that reason, my reader might want to consider driving to Denver, for a nonstop to London on either [[British Airways]] or United, or driving to Las Vegas for a nonstop on [[Virgin Atlantic]].
In general, in any unaccompanied minor situation, an itinerary on a nonstop is clearly the best approach, followed by an itinerary on a single airline with only one connection. Even “partnership” connections may involve schlepping from one terminal to another at a big hub airport. And if no airline provides nonstop service on what would normally be your preferred route—and if the distances weren’t too great—you should consider driving to the nearest airport with a nonstop flight.
(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)