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Jasmin: I was chatting with another mom the other day and she asked me about how to decide if your children are ready to fly alone. Putting your kid on an airplane by themselves for the first time is nerve-wracking for any parent!
It’s not a decision to take lightly. And the honest answer is, it really depends on your child.
My daughters flew across the continent by themselves using Air Canada Aeroplan miles when they were 8 and 10 years old. And I flew as an unaccompanied minor many times when I was young(er). 😉
Their experience was generally good, but at that point, they were already pro travelers, having flown on dozens of flights since they were infants.
But those trips aren’t the only experiences I’ve had with unaccompanied minors. In my 20s, I worked as an airline customer service agent for several years. And one of my roles was to check-in, escort, and board kids traveling alone. So I’ve seen it from all sides!
Here are questions you should ask yourself to help you decide if your child is ready to fly alone.
When Should Children Fly Alone?
1. Do Your Kids Meet the Airline’s Requirements?
Each airline has different policies regarding who can travel as an unaccompanied minor on their flights. These include age restrictions, medical considerations, routing rules, and more.
Plus, you’ll have to pay an additional fee for unaccompanied minor service, which can range from $25 to $150 each way depending on the airline. So don’t forget to pay with cards that offer airline incidental fee credits, like:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- The Business Platinum® Card from American Express
- American Express® Gold Card
- Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card
For example, American Airlines accepts children ages 5 to 14 as unaccompanied minors. If your child is 5 to 7 years old, they can only fly on non-stop flights. But kids ages 8 to 14 can fly on connecting flights through certain airports.
Meanwhile, Southwest’s age range for a child to fly as an unaccompanied minor is 5 to 11 years. And only non-stop or direct (no plane change) domestic flights are eligible.
Many airlines also have restrictions pertaining to your child’s health. For instance, if they require help administering medication, have a severe allergy, or require a service or emotional support animal, they may not be able to fly without an adult.
Always check the airline website directly for up-to-date rules before you book a ticket for your child.
2. Are Your Children Seasoned Travelers?
If your child has limited (or no) flying experience, sending them on an airplane by themselves is probably NOT a good idea.
Air travel can rattle even the most frequent (adult) flyers. Crowds, delays, and poor weather can be incredibly stressful for children, especially if they’re not familiar with airplanes or airport routines. Younger kids may be frightened if there’s a mechanical delay or unscheduled landing.
Will your child panic if the airplane encounters turbulence? Do they know what to do if they feel airsick or need help from airline staff? What if they accidentally become separated from the airline employee escorting them?
Most airlines issue gate passes to parents that allow you to escort your child to the gate. But once they’re on the plane, there’s not a lot you can do for them. And while flight attendants do their best to comfort a kid who’s distressed, they don’t have unlimited time or resources onboard to devote to your child.
You know your child and their previous experiences best. If they’re not familiar with air travel and they’ll be flying unaccompanied for the first time, I’d suggest talking about various scenarios with them before they fly, so that they’re comfortable should unexpected situations arise.
3. How Mature Is Your Child?
Just because your child meets the age restrictions for unaccompanied travel doesn’t mean they’re ready to fly alone. For example, your 5-year-old may technically qualify to travel by themselves, but if they’re still very attached to you or are fearful of strangers, it’s best to wait until they’re older.
Similarly, teenagers above a certain age aren’t required to use an unaccompanied minor service. But anxious or immature teens should probably still have assistance. Again, you know your child best!
Consider your child’s typical demeanor, both day-to-day and when they’re under stress. Are they usually calm and well mannered? Or are they prone to tantrums or outbursts if things don’t go their way?
Remember, your child will be confined to a metal tube with dozens (if not hundreds!) of other passengers. Are you confident they’ll behave appropriately during the flight, especially if unexpected circumstances arise?
4. Can Your Child Advocate for Themselves?
Some kids are terrified of asking for help or speaking up if things aren’t right. Children who are confident in expressing their needs and asking questions will do much better when they travel alone.
Consider whether your child would hesitate to ask the flight attendant if they needed assistance during the flight. Can they take care of themselves in the bathroom? What if they’re hungry, thirsty, or become ill? Or what if the passenger next to them is making them uncomfortable?
Mentally run through any scenario you can think of. Suppose the plane is diverted to a different airport or your child’s connecting flight is cancelled and they’re stuck in an unfamiliar city. Would they know what to do or who to call? This is especially important for teens who aren’t using an unaccompanied minor service.
5. Why Is Your Child Traveling?
Working for the airlines, I encountered hundreds of happy, excited kids traveling alone to meet up with family for fun vacations, visits to Grandpa and Grandma, or special occasions like weddings.
But there are times when children fly by themselves for reasons that aren’t pleasant for them. And that can add a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety to an already out-of-the-ordinary situation.
Here’s an airline memory that stuck with me. It was the end of the school year and I was escorting a ~6-year-old girl to her gate for a transcontinental flight. There were many tears shed as she said goodbye to her mom at security (the airport I worked at didn’t allow gate passes for parents at the time).
Once we got to the gate, the little girl’s crying turned to sheer panic. She was bawling her eyes out and hyperventilating. Come to find out, her parents were divorced and she was being shipped across the country to stay with her father for the summer – which filled her with dread and despair.
Despite the best efforts of the ground and flight crew to reassure her and calm her down, she remained inconsolable. The captain couldn’t allow her to fly that way. And so she was removed from the flight and her mom was paged in the terminal to come and retrieve her.
I was heartbroken for them both. The little girl collapsed into her mom’s arms, sobbing and apologizing. The mom was visibly irritated and worried about the whole situation – how would she possibly transport her daughter to her father under these circumstances?
The solution was for the mom to buy a pricey last-minute, second ticket for herself to accompany her child. Sometimes, you don’t have a choice.
Sending your child on a flight as an unaccompanied minor is a big decision. And there are no one-size-fits-all guidelines, outside of airline policies. It truly depends on the child.
Before you book your kids to fly by themselves, ask yourself these questions:
- Do they meet airline age, health, and routing restrictions?
- Have they flown before and are they comfortable in airports and airplanes?
- Are they mature enough to handle air travel alone? Can you count on them to behave properly if you’re not around?
- Will they advocate for themselves and ask for help if required?
- Are they looking forward to the trip, or is the travel for unpleasant reasons?
As a previous airline employee, I’ve seen hundreds of kids successfully and happily navigate their solo travel experience. But there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve witnessed meltdowns, panic attacks, and tears from children who probably weren’t ready to fly by themselves.
When in doubt, it’s better to wait until your child is older. You’re the best judge of your child’s readiness and maturity.
Have you sent your children flying alone? I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts in the comments!
Come back each Wednesday for a new installment in our Family Travel series!