Parents: Should You Let Your Child Fly Alone?
Absolutely — as long as he’s on board with the idea and you do all the right pre-flight prep
Your kid may not be ready to walk to school alone or even stay home by himself. But what if he’s itching to visit Aunt Ruthie (she has a pool, after all!) and Aunt Ruthie happens to live halfway across the country? Is it safe to put your child on a plane by himself?
The prospect is enough to make many parents break out in hives, but plenty do it. Most airlines let children ages 5 through 11 or 15 — depending upon the carrier — travel without a parent or guardian. Some airlines even allow kids under 5 to fly without an adult as long he’s with someone who’s at least 12 to 18 years of age. And if your child is an adolescent under 18, you may have the option of letting him fly as an unaccompanied minor.
Whatever his age and stage, here’s what you need to do before you let your child board a plane and take to the friendly skies by himself.
Ready or not? Making the call
“As a parent you’re in the best position to decide whether your child is ready to fly alone,” says Caitlin Harvey, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
At the same time, “I don’t think anyone can predict how a child will respond in a relatively stressful situation if a loved one or someone familiar isn’t nearby,” says Joseph O’Neil, MD, associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Riley Hospital for Children at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.
One thing to consider: If a child isn’t mature enough to handle a school field trip alone, she probably isn’t ready to tackle a solo airplane ride. And certainly if your child seems doubtful about flying alone or even frightened by the idea, you don’t want to push her. “It’s a lot of responsibility to put on a child who’s younger than ten,” adds O’Neil.
Up, up and away
If you and your child are ready for her first solo flight, here’s what you’ll need to do. Keep in mind that rules, procedures and fees vary somewhat among carriers, so be sure to check with the airline your child will fly with for specifics.
Book the ideal itinerary. Kids ages 5 to 7 are allowed to fly alone only on nonstop or direct flights — aka “through” flights. That means the plane may make stops but the child won’t have to change planes. Children 8 and older can take connecting flights, preferably with the same airline. If your child has to connect with a flight operated by a different carrier, find out who will escort him to that flight.
Book flights early in the day when delays are less likely. Never put your child on the last flight of the day: If it’s canceled, rerouting options are limited. And keep an eye on the weather. If bad weather is forecast, try to reschedule.
Sign up for the airline's unaccompanied minors program. This service typically costs $50 to $150 each way. Fees for international travel may be higher. Here’s what you’re paying for: An airline representative will help your child board and another will meet her at her destination and deliver her to whoever is meeting her.
You’ll need to be with your child at check-in. Some carriers let parents apply for a gate pass so they can escort their kid through security to the gate. You may be asked to stay at the airport until the plane takes off.
Do the paperwork for both legs of the flight. The airline will need the name of and contact information for the person who’ll meet your child when the plane lands. He or she will need to show identification before the airline representative will hand your child off, so remind Aunt Ruthie to bring her driver’s license. You’ll need to show ID when you pick up your child from the return flight.
Bear in mind: If your kid child looks younger than the airline’s age cut-offs, bring her birth certificate to the airport. It’s also wise to send a copy to the person who’ll be putting her on the return flight.
Prepare your child. If your child has never flown before, take time to visit the airport before travel day. You won’t be able to pass through security, but you can point out airline employees and watch planes take off.
Describe what flying is like. Explain that planes make odd noises, especially when they’re taking off and landing, advises O’Neil. Be matter-of-fact about turbulence: Tell your child that if the plane feels like it’s jumpy, it’s because it’s going over bumps in the air — just like when the car drives over bumps in the road. Warn him that the change in air pressure may hurt his ears, but he can counter that by swallowing hard, yawning or chewing gum.
Assure your child understands that someone will check on him during the flight and that he can ask a flight attendant for something to drink or anything else he might need. The airline will require him to wear a badge indicating he’s an unaccompanied minor. Make clear he shouldn’t remove it. Finally, tell your child not to leave the airport with anyone he doesn’t know and to only speak to a uniformed police officer or airline employee.
Make sure she’s comfy. Tuck a sweatshirt or sweater in her carry-on in case she gets cold during the trip. Pack a snack. If meals will be served, find out if you can reserve a kid’s meal in advance. If your child will need to take medicine during the trip and can’t handle it on her own, ask her doctor about options. Flight crew can’t administer medication
The other thing the flight crew won’t do is entertain your child, so pack plenty of stuff for her to do — a tablet and headphones preloaded with movies and games, books, favorite toys.
Also, include essentials in her carry on: a copy of her ticket, her passport (if she’s traveling abroad), itinerary and identification; a cell phone; cash; a change of underwear and toothbrush, just in case; and contact info for you and the person who’s meeting the plane.
Finally — and this is key — have her use the bathroom before boarding.
Related: 7 Tips for Avoiding Jet Lag