Kids Flying Solo: Tips for Unaccompanied Minors

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

Summer and school holidays are family travel red-zone periods. These are the times when kids are flying alone to visit parents or grandparents, heading to camp, going on teen trips and college visits, or connecting with friends. Unfortunately, these are also times when travel delays and flight cancellations are common.

If you’re planning to send your kids on a flight alone, here are a few tips to follow:

* Check out airline report cards. Research airline unaccompanied minor records carefully and avoid airlines that have had problems in the past.

* Stay away from small regional jets whenever possible. As past incidents with Continental Airlines Express Jet showed, regional jets use shared airport facilities that can contribute to mix-ups. In addition, past Department of Transportation statistics show regional jets have a higher tendency to be late and lose more luggage. Before booking, look carefully at the itinerary details or call the airline to find out what company is actually operating the flight.

* Try to book larger aircraft. Larger aircraft generally experience less turbulence in flight, which can be important when kids are flying alone. In addition, these larger planes are less likely to have shared departure and arrival facilities and tend to have more flight crew available to assist your child if needed. Call the airline before booking to ask what type of plane is used for your flight.

* Choose direct flights. Direct flights may be more expensive, but they minimize the risk of problems making connections. If you have to purchase flights with connections, try to schedule them through a smaller airport for easier navigation and allow plenty of time (at least 90 minutes) between flights in case of delays.

* Book an early departure. Early flights aren't delayed as frequently and there's less chance for your child to be stranded due to flight delays and cancellations. Check www.flightstats.com to see whether the flight you've chosen tends to be on time.

* Review unaccompanied minor policies carefully. Airline rules and policies for unaccompanied minors differ substantially. For example, kids 12 and older are completely on their own on Southwest Airlines. Others, such as Delta Airlines, offer unaccompanied minor services for older children. Honestly evaluate what your child is capable of and what you're comfortable with and move forward with the appropriate airline and flight plan.

* Speak up. Let the reservations department know that your child will be traveling alone. Call a day before departure to make sure your child is listed as an unaccompanied minor.

* Be ready for problems. Think about everything that could happen - even if it's not supposed to - and coordinate with the person who will be picking up your child. Make sure the person picking up your child has a cell phone or quick access to a phone, and have 24-hour numbers for that individual.

* Review the plan. Go over the flight itinerary with your children and practice saying where they are going and who's picking them up. Tell them to ask the flight attendant when they get on board to check where they are going to make sure it matches. Instruct them not to wait for the pilot to announce something - that may happen once the plane is on the runway or airborne. Talk about what will happen during the flight, how long the flight will be, and who will pick them up.

* Discuss unaccompanied minor rules in advance. Make sure your child understands what is expected of an unaccompanied minor. If you have a teen traveling alone and connections are involved, instruct them to call you immediately if there's a problem so you can review the situation with them and an airline representative and tell them about Travelers Aid stations at the airport (www.travelersaid.org).

* Carry the card. Make sure your child carries a card listing:

- child's name, age, flight destination and flight itinerary
- name of the person bringing the child to the airport along with all available phone numbers (home, business, cell, pager)
- name and phone number of the person meeting the child, along with a picture
- an emergency contact name and phone number in case of a flight cancellation or problem

* Stash some cash. Send your child off with a little extra cash in case they need it. If your child is old enough, have them carry a temporary credit card so they'll have money in case of an emergency.

* Get to the airport early and stay late. Get to the airport at least 90 minutes in advance and don't leave until the aircraft leaves the runway.

* Stay connected. Give the child a cell phone if old enough, and show them how to use it. Some cell phones are specially designed for kids so they can call home by just pressing one button. The child should carry a card with the parent's phone numbers (home, cell, work) and the number of the persons meeting them at the destination.

* Bring identification. Make sure the person meeting your child is carrying photo identification and a cell phone, along with all of your possible contact numbers. In addition, make sure you have all possible contact information with you along with airline and travel agent phone numbers.

* Pack a travel backpack. It should include snacks, plenty of entertainment (portable DVD player, iPod, activity books, games, dolls, etc.), some new little surprises (the Dollar Store is great for these) as well as a sweater or jacket and a complete change of clothes - just in case.

* Calibrate your own comfort zone. Airline rules aren't the only factor in determining whether children can travel as unaccompanied minors. It's just as important for parents to decide whether they're comfortable with their son or daughter flying alone - no matter what the age of their child might be. If the thought of your 8-year old traveling on a plane alone gives you goosebumps, perhaps now is not the time to try out unaccompanied minor status.

* Stay calm. Keep a positive attitude and remain composed. Your child senses your feelings and it’s important for them to relax. If a problem arises, keep your cool and don’t panic. Talk with airline personnel, review your options, contact the individual who will be meeting your child, and stay in a problem-solving mode.

* Make your own rules. Here’s the bottom line – you need to evaluate whether your child is truly old enough to fly alone. Airline rules and guidelines really don’t matter. You know your child and his/her capabilities better than anyone else. Airlines offer unaccompanied minor options and should be responsible if parents take advantage of these services. If everything goes as planned, children as young as 5 should be fine traveling on a direct flight alone. But, sometimes everything doesn't go smoothly no matter how well you've planned for it. Evaluate your child's maturity and flight experience. Think about whether your child is old enough to ask questions, carry a cell phone, and handle the unexpected. Then make your decision accordingly.

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