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Unaccompanied Minors: What’s New?

Children traveling alone: an uncomfortable consequence of today’s split families, remote retirement centers, and extended off-site job assignments. And that means you sometimes need to arrange flights for kids traveling by themselves. Most airlines have “unaccompanied minor” provisions to take care of the problem; they’re included in contracts of carriage, as augmented by various rules. But they’re not free. And the recent announcement from American that it upped its charge presents an opportunity to revisit a question I last covered more than a year ago.

Overall, unaccompanied-minor procedures are fairly common among all lines. Unaccompanied minors require reservations and adult-priced tickets. Adults involved must make ironclad arrangements to get them to their departure airport and retrieve them at their destination, with all the required documentation. Airlines typically hang a pouch containing all relevant documents—tickets, meeting instructions, and cash for incidental expenses—around the child’s neck. Flight attendants provide onboard assistance; where connecting flights are allowed, ground attendants escort the child from arrival gate to departure gate.

Airlines generally do not accept unaccompanied minors on flights that stand a substantial chance of interruption: They don’t book them on the last connection of the day, they generally don’t accept kids on itineraries that require a change of airline or airport, and they cancel any departure likely to run into a foreseen weather problem. In the event of a glitch, airline personnel are required to arrange for monitored accommodations, but airlines work hard to minimize the chances of an overnight delay.

The one common rule among all large domestic lines is that the minimum age for any child to fly on a nonstop or direct flight without an accompanying adult is five years. Beyond that, airline policies vary a bit:

  • The minimum age for a child to travel alone and unsupervised on an adult ticket: 12 years on Hawaiian, Southwest, and United; 13 years on Alaska and Sun Country; 14 years on JetBlue; and 15 years on Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, People Express, Spirit, and Virgin America.
  • The minimum age to travel as an unaccompanied minor on an itinerary requiring a connection: 8 years on Alaska, American, and Delta.
  • Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, People Express, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country, United, and Virgin America do not accept unaccompanied minors on connecting flights at all.
  • Each-way fees for unaccompanied-minor services: $25 on Alaska nonstop ($50 for connections); $50 on People Express and Southwest; $75 on Sun Country; $100 on Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian ($35 on interisland flights), JetBlue, and Spirit; $150 on American and United; and $75 to $125 (depending on destination) on Virgin America.
  • The three largest domestic Canadian lines—Air Canada, Porter, and WestJet—have the same unaccompanied-minor policies: The minimum age to travel unaccompanied on a nonstop flight only is 8 years, the minimum age to travel as an adult is 12 years, and the fee for unaccompanied-minor treatment is $100 CAD each way. Porter is the only airline I found that offers a reduced “guardian” fare for adults accompanying minors who might not otherwise be able to travel.

Even where not required, most airlines provide unaccompanied-minor services to children up to age 17 if parents request it. (Some also offer similar services to cognitively impaired adults.)

Most big international airlines also provide for unaccompanied minors. Fees and age requirements are about as for domestic travel. Paperwork requirements, however, are more extensive, often calling for certified permissions from divorced/separated spouses and other procedures designed, in part, to prevent a separated parent living in one country from “kidnapping” kids away from a parent living in a different country. Check with airlines for details.

All this shows that finding the best deal for an unaccompanied minor involves a lot of tradeoffs and complexities. And it also shows a “new rule” for unaccompanied-minor fees: Some are nonrefundable. Thus, no matter how far in advance you buy the ticket, unless the unaccompanied-minor fee is refundable, wait as long as the rules permit to pay.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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