Over the holidays, Keri Wilmot’s 14-year-old son was flying home alone from his Massachusetts boarding school to Texas when mechanical issues caused a delay that dragged on long enough that the flight crew timed out. Falling squarely at the height of one of the busiest travel periods of the year, flights were of course oversold, meaning his best option was to wait through the 12-hour delay. Since American Airlines’ rules for unaccompanied minors required a guardian (in his case, a school chaperone) to get a gate pass and stay with him at the gate until the flight took off, he was never left alone—and his dad picked him up safely in Dallas at 1:30 a.m.
“It's an exhausting day when you are thousands of miles away from your child,” says Wilmot, a pediatric occupational therapist and toy expert. “It's hard when things don't go smoothly, but he did arrive home safely, just a lot later than we expected.”
Headlines over the last few weeks have been dominated by nerve-wracking tales of children’s solo travels gone wrong though. There was a six-year-old traveling on Spirit Airlines, who landed in Orlando instead of Fort Myers (the gate agent who put him on the flight has since been fired). Days later, a 16-year-old on a Frontier flight never had his boarding pass scanned, and he landed in Puerto Rico instead of Ohio.
“Obviously there was an operational misstep or two,” Daniel Friedenzohn, aeronautical science associate dean and professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says of the recent incidents. Friedenzohn points out that the vast majority of the tens of millions of travelers who traveled over the holidays this year, including kids flying on their own, did get to their destinations without incident.
Even still, the reality of letting your child fly solo can still be daunting—so we mined travel experts and fellow parents for their best advice. These are their top tips for sending unaccompanied minors on flights, from checking bags and using tracking apps to nailing down a pre-flight routine in advance.
1. Review the airline's unaccompanied minor policy
Every airline has a detailed rules for children flying alone defined in their contract of carriage. Some carriers offer unaccompanied minor service, typically for children age 5 to 14. The additional fee for the service is $150 on United (for one or two kids), American (for groups of siblings), Delta (for up to four kids), and JetBlue (per child) and Spirit (per child).
Southwest’s service is $100 per person, but only for those 5 to 11 years old, while Alaska Airlines has a tiered program for those 5 to 12 years old ($50 for nonstop flights and $75 for connecting). Hawaiian Air charges between $35 and $100 for unaccompanied minor service for passengers age 5 to 11, whereas Frontier doesn’t allow anyone 15 or under to fly by themselves.
For the most part, on domestic flights, unaccompanied minor services grant parents or guardians a gate pass to stay with their child until the flight has departed, as well as one for a pick-up right at the gate. Gate agents will guide the children through the airport and flight attendants will check on them throughout the flight. Some airlines also have built in back-up plans in case of irregularities. United, for example, has unaccompanied minor rooms in all its major hubs that are used as a safe place for kids to stay if their parents don't arrive on time, or if the flight is disrupted by a delay or cancellation.
2. Familiarize your child with the flying process
“From the moment we began traveling with [our son] around the age of 5, we acclimated him to basic airport processes and had a consistent pre-flight routine of getting something to eat, [picking up] a few snacks, and going to the bathroom,” Wilmot says. She even let him handle his own baggage through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) check, so he had the experience of managing it on his own.
The on-board environment can also be confusing for first-time travelers. Yvonne Montoya, who runs family travel blog MPA Project Travels, says that it’s important to fly with kids first to familiarize them with the basics, like knowing when they can get up to use the restroom and how to put their devices in airplane mode.
3. Choose early flights that are nonstop
Friedenzohn suggests minimizing the chance for flight disruptions by strategically choosing flights. That means opting for departures earlier in the day (providing more options if something does go wrong) and going for nonstop routes to “reduce the risk” of flights on which things can go awry. “If there’s a storm somewhere during a layover and there’s a delay or, worse yet, a cancellation, it could be a stressful situation,” Friedenzohn says.
Wilmot adds that she tends to book flights for her son on larger carriers, as they have more daily flight options to choose from if they do need to make a change.
4. Keep important documents safe
When booking the flight, Montoya advises asking exactly what documentation and information is needed to ensure the check-in process goes smoothly. At the terminal, she says airlines usually will provide a lanyard for the child to carry their boarding pass and other essential documents around their neck to ensure everything is on the child and not with the gate agent.
“I also send my son with his passport in my travel neck wallet which he wears underneath his shirt,” Montoya adds, noting that kids can also fly domestically using their birth certificates. “This is for my peace of mind. I worry that his passport would fall out of his backpack if I stored it there.”
United advises parents write down all the contact information that a minor might need during their trip, including the phone number of the adult dropping them off and picking them up. A gate agent will verify that the contact information provided is correct and give the child a special wristband for identification, and an envelope for their documents, a spokesperson for the carrier tells Traveler.
5. Pack the essentials—plus a little comfort
Think ahead through the journey to anticipate any items that your child might need. Montoya says TSA-friendly snacks and a refillable water bottle are always useful, as well as a phone or iPad pre-downloaded and charged up for entertainment. A portable charger is always wise, in case the battery drains—you can also go analog with a book or a notebook with colored pencils. “Any stuffed animal or comfort item that the child might want is helpful,” she says. “Lastly, pack a jacket because planes can get very cold.”
Wilmot also sends her son with a Visa gift card to use for food at the airport since so many vendors are now cashless. And one nice touch: “We generally pack extra packages of M&M's and other small gift cards for him to share with the flight attendants as a thank you for monitoring him,” she says.
6. Opt for checked bags instead of carry-ons
While carry-on bags may be easier for most adult travelers, asking a child to navigate their suitcases through the plane can be a lot, especially if they need to find overhead storage space. Since a parent or guardian will be with them at the gate on both sides, they’ll also be able to help with checking luggage and picking it up at baggage claim.
Using a backpack as the child's personal item can keep things simple, Montoya says. That way, they can easily place important belongings under the seat and “walk through the airport hands-free.”
7. Build in extra time
One of the biggest mistakes parents tend to make when sending their child on a flight alone is not building in additional time. United recommends arriving to the airport 30 minutes earlier than you usually would, since unaccompanied minors need to check in at the ticket counter.
Montoya recommends padding time for connections as well. Her son's first solo flight was delayed, which meant he missed his connection and got stuck in an unaccompanied minors lounge for hours. “It was an adventure, and in the end, everything worked out fine,” she says—but obviously, it was not ideal.
8. Keep track of your child virtually
While it can get nerve-wracking to just sit back and hope that all goes smoothly, digital tools can help provide peace of mind.
Wilmot says she signs up for text alerts to monitor her son's flights (she once received a text message that the flight was delayed even before her son found out at the gate) and puts an Apple Airtag in his backpack and luggage. “I make sure the FindMy app is enabled on his phone so I can track the location,” she says.
9. Encourage your child to speak up
Unaccompanied minors should be made aware that they’ll be in the first group to board the plane and that, when it's time to de-plane, they should remain in their seat (even if everyone around them is getting off) until a flight attendant comes and escorts them to meet their parent or guardian at the gate.
Though flight attendants should check in on the child throughout the flight, kids should also feel empowered to speak up if they need anything. “Make sure that your children are confident in advocating for themselves,” Montoya says. She notes that can include asking other passengers to get up if they need to use the restroom, or asking the gate agent escorting them on a layover if they can stop to get food if they’re hungry and there’s time.