When Your Child Has to Fly Solo

Advice for Parents of Young Travelers

There are many reasons why your child might need to make an unaccompanied flight. In fact, for some children, unaccompanied travel is routine: summer trips to visit a parent or grandparent, trips to school or camp, or even a last-minute entry into a sports or academic competition. But today, as travel rules become more complex and stringent for everyone, even the most experienced young travelers are encountering new challenges.

Unlike airfares, which are subject to the pressures of regulation and competition between carriers, the rules regarding unaccompanied minors vary dramatically from airline to airline. Each air carrier sets its own policy regarding acceptable age for solo travel, applicable fees and fares, and whether minors can travel alone on connecting flights that require a plane
change.

An individual airline’s policies can also change, so never assume the rules that applied last time will also apply next time. If you anticipate that your child, age 14 or under, might have to make an unaccompanied flight, begin your plans early and keep the following points in mind:

  • Contact the airline to see whether your child is old enough to make the proposed trip unaccompanied by an adult. 
  • Choose nonstop flights if possible. If the trip requires a change of planes, make sure this is allowed by the airline. 
  • If you have reliable friends or relatives living near the connecting airport, consider asking one of them to be on hand to usher your child through the connection. 
  • Make specific arrangements for pickup at your child’s destination and give the airline (and the child) a written copy, including all relevant phone numbers. 
  • If possible, give the child a cell phone that will work where they are going. 
  • Will a flight attendant accompany your child off the aircraft? 
  • Will the airline require identification and/or an authorization letter before turning the child over to the person meeting the flight? 
  • Give your child written instructions on what to do in case of a delayed connecting flight. 
  • Consider what will happen if a connecting flight is cancelled and devise a plan to deal with it. 
  • Take your solo flier to the airport, and do not leave until the aircraft takes off.
  • You will not be able to board the aircraft with your child. Contact one of
    the flight’s cabin attendants who will take charge of getting your child seated aboard the aircraft. 
  • Tell your child how to call a flight attendant in case any problems arise. 
  • Once the plane is off the ground, call the people meeting the child, and give them the estimated arrival time. 
  • Always avoid displaying your children’s names on their outer clothing or backpacks and review appropriate behavior if the child is approached by a stranger. 
  • Make sure that whoever picks up your child at the other end is a reliable person, preferably someone the child knows. Make sure they use the “family code word” to greet your child.

Remember: begin planning well ahead of time, review the security and flight procedures with your child and those who will meet the child, and be sure to check for last-minute changes.


MARLENE M. COLEMAN, MD is the author of Safe and Sound – Healthy Travel With Children. Dr. Coleman is a Board Certified Pediatrician with an emphasis on adolescent medicine and a subspecialty in travel medicine. Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Southern California Medical school and an attending physician at the California Institute of Technology, helping keep students healthy as they study, lecture and travel all over the world. Dr. Coleman lectures on healthy travel with children.

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