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The Ins and Outs of Air Travel for Minors

For whatever reason—and you can think of plenty—parents sometimes want to have a young child fly without an adult along for the trip. And we often get questions from readers about the particulars. Our latest was terse and to the point:

“At what age can a minor travel alone on an airline, and what does it cost?”

The short answer is that all the airlines I know allow children age 5 or over to fly by themselves, one way or another. But provisions and fees differ sharply. We last covered this question more than two years ago, so an update is in order: If nothing else, fees on most lines have increased substantially.

Kids Traveling as Adults

On all the airlines I know, kids age 15 or over can travel as adults, completely on their own and with no special arrangements and no itinerary limitations. Among the airlines I checked, a few allow adult travel at younger ages: 13 on Alaska and 12 on AirTran, Allegiant, Southwest, and Hawaiian (for interisland travel). It’s also 12 on a few big international lines, including Air France, British Airways, and Qantas.

On most large domestic lines, any child over the age of 2 requires an adult-fare ticket. Among the exceptions: Southwest offers special fares for children and youth, which like its senior fares, are often higher than the least expensive any-age tickets (but are not listed online); the AirTran U program offers cheap standby deals for travelers age 18-22; and some international lines offer discounted youth and student tickets.

Younger Kids

Kids between 5 and the minimum “adult” age can travel alone only as “unaccompanied minors.” That is a process where airline employees shepherd the kid from boarding through meeting with a responsible adult at the destination. Among the larger US domestic airlines, the rules for unaccompanied minors vary depending on age and flight schedule. In the following listing, “direct” flight means a flight with no change of planes; all listed fees apply each way. On most lines, a single fee can apply for a group of up to three or four children.

In almost all the cases I checked, kids age 4 and under cannot travel alone under any circumstances. However, a few foreign lines apparently allow kids age 4 to travel within their home region.

In all cases, any child over the maximum age listed can travel as an adult. Some lines, however, provide optional unaccompanied minor service for kids up to age 17 or 18 if requested.

AirTran Age 5-7: nonstop or direct flights only.
Age 8-11: connections OK.
Fee: $39 nonstop or direct; $59 with connection.

Alaska Age 5-7: nonstop or direct flight only
Age 8-12: connections OK
Fee: none nonstop or direct; $75 with connection.

Allegiant Age 5-11: nonstop or direct flight only
Fee: $75,

American Age 5-7: nonstop or direct flight only.
Age 8-14: connections OK.
Fee: $100.

Continental Age 5-7: nonstop or direct flight only.
Age 8-14: connections OK.
Fee: $75 nonstop or direct domestic; $100 with connection.

Delta Age 5-7: nonstop or direct flight only.
Age 8-14: connections OK
Fee: $100

Frontier Age 5-14: any itinerary
Fee: $50 per segment

Hawaiian Age 5-7: nonstop or direct flight only.
Age 8-14: other connections OK.
Fee: $35 nonstop or direct; $100 for connections.

JetBlue Age 5-14: any itinerary
Fee: $75

Midwest Age 5-7: nonstop or direct flight only.
Age 8-14: connections OK
Fee: $50 nonstop or direct; $100 with connection.

Northwest Age 5-7: nonstop or direct flight only.
Age 8-14: connections OK.
Fee: $100

Southwest Age 5-11: nonstop or direct flight only.
Fee: $25.

United Age 5-7: nonstop or direct flight only.
Age 8-11: connections OK
Fee: $99.

US Airways Age 5-14: nonstop or direct flight only.
Fee: $100

Virgin America Age 5-14: nonstop only.
Fee: $75.

Permissible connections depend on the itinerary. Online connections are almost always OK, as are connections to regional affiliates and partner lines. However, rules and times may vary. Connections that require changing terminals at a big airport may not be allowed. Interline connections to non-partner lines—increasingly rare these days—may not be allowed. As noted, accompanied minors generally require a full adult fare ticket, regardless of their age.

Requirements on smaller domestic lines and international lines are similar. Check with each line’s website for details.

Other Flight Conditions

Although specifics vary, a few other rules for unaccompanied minors seem pretty consistent. Most lines do not accept unaccompanied minors on:

  • Overnight red-eye flights or late-hour flights, except on routes where the only schedules are overnight (such as Alaska to the lower 48 on some lines) and long-haul international flights.
  • Connections to the last flight of the day out of a connecting airport.
  • Flights with overnight or extra-long layover times at a connecting airport.
  • Connections that require a change of airports (Midway to O’Hare, for example, or Houston Intercontinental to Hobby).

Unaccompanied Minor Procedures

Airline treatment of unaccompanied minors is rigorous. The kids generally wear an around-the-neck pouch that clearly identifies them and contains the requisite paperwork. Where necessary, airline employees escort them between gates at connecting airports and verify that only properly identified persons retrieve them at the completion of the flight.

Some lines maintain special lounges or “clubrooms” for minors at their large hubs. Following some unfortunate instances of molestation, airline employees are generally not allowed to take unaccompanied minors to their homes or hotels in the event of unforeseen overnight delays or if the designated adult fails to show at the arrival airport. In such cases, the minor is generally turned over to local child welfare organizations.

Airlines establish rigorous requirements for identification of the adults designated to meet the arriving minor. Specifically, they require the name, address, and phone of the person bringing the child to the airport and the name, address, and home and business address of the person meeting the minor. The meeting person must provide positive identification to ensure that they are the person indicated on the paperwork in ticket jacket.

As far as I can tell, all airlines require that you book unaccompanied minor travel through a reservation agent rather than online. And many require up to 48 hours advance notification.

Each airline posts its recommendations for adults who arrange travel for unaccompanied minors. Most are obvious no-brainers. By all means check them out on a few websites.

Arranging The Trip

I found too many variables to permit an easy checklist of “how to do it” or “which airline has the best deals.” At best, I can provide a few basic guidelines:

  • Kids as young as 12 can travel solo on AirTran, Allegiant, or Southwest. If your kid is 13 or 14, and mature enough to handle a solo trip, adult travel on those lines involves a lot less hassle than unaccompanied minor treatment on other lines.
  • You can usually figure out an unaccompanied minor trip for any kid age 5 or over.
  • Beyond the cost differences, nonstop or direct flights are always your best bet, even if that means using airports more distant from the ones you prefer at either end or both ends of the trip.
  • I strongly recommend that any minor traveling alone have a cell phone. Make sure the minor knows how to use it and someone to call if something goes awry. Also, designate someone at the receiving end who will either attend a landline or carry a cell phone so that the minor will be able to ask for help if needed.

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