The busy summer season is coming up and that means a lot more kids will fly solo. If you are sending the kids off to visit an ex-spouse, Grandma or friends, you may be in for sticker shock over fees for unaccompanied minors.
On some airlines, the fees can be higher than the airfare. An unaccompanied-minor fee is $300 round trip on American or United, which can top some domestic ticket prices. The fee on Southwest is $100 round trip, which seems like a bargain in comparison.
The fees and rules for unaccompanied minors vary by airline, so you’ll need to take a look before you book. One thing the airlines all have in common is that children younger than 5 cannot fly alone.
Many airlines, including AirTran, American, Southwest, United and US Airways, require that you use unaccompanied-minor service for kids ages 5 to 11. Alaska requires the service for children 5 to 12, while Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Spirit and Virgin America require it for children 5 to 14.
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If you’ve got a 12-year-old flying alone, you could avoid the fee by choosing a flight on AirTran, American, Southwest, United or US Airways.
If your child is older than the required age, most airlines have an optional service for children younger than 18.
Alaska has the cheapest fees, charging $25 each way for nonstop or direct flights and $50 for a connecting flight. Southwest and AirTran charge $50 each way; Delta, Frontier, JetBlue and Spirit charge $100 each way; and American, United and US Airways charge $150 each way.
Virgin America has a tiered system, charging $75 each way for domestic flights less than two hours, $100 each way for domestic flights over two hours and $125 each way for flights to and from Mexico.
If your child is traveling with an older sibling, you could avoid using the service if the older child meets the airline’s minimum companion age. That is 12 on Southwest; 15 on Frontier, Spirit and Virgin America; 16 on American and US Airways; and 18 on Alaska, Delta and United.
Some airlines charge the fee per child, but many charge one fee for multiple children from the same immediate or extended family flying on the same itinerary.
For example, American charges one fee for multiple children and Delta charges one fee for up to four children on the same itinerary. Southwest charges $50 per child, so if you are sending two kids, the fee would be $100 each way.
There are a lot of restrictions for unaccompanied minors.
Children ages 5 to 7 are not allowed on connecting flights, but some airlines extend that restriction to unaccompanied minors of any age. The rules on American and US Airways have been changed to be pretty similar, but US Airways does not allow unaccompanied minors on connecting flights, while American does.
Many airlines do not offer unaccompanied-minor service on code-share flights, and they have time-of-day restrictions, especially when it comes to night connecting flights.
Book flights that depart early in the day, especially for connecting flights. If the flight is delayed or canceled, you should be able to get your child out on another flight that day.
If your child misses a connection and has to stay overnight, most airlines will not put your child in a hotel room. Your child will have to sleep in the airport, with airline supervision. In the past, teenagers were mixed with younger children and now the airlines don’t want the liability.
It’s a good idea to arrive at the airport to check in your child earlier than usual — and some airlines require it. You will need to fill out paperwork and give contact information for the person who will pick up the child at the destination airport. That person must show a government-issued ID at pickup.
For most domestic flights, you can request a pass that allows you to escort the child to the gate, and the person picking up the child should be able to get a pass to meet your child at the arrival gate. Do not leave the gate area until you know the plane has taken off, because sometimes a plane has to return to the gate.
When your child checks in, he will receive a lanyard/label that shows the child is an unaccompanied minor. This makes it easy for airline personnel to identify your child.
In many cases, flight attendants will give your child special attention on the plane. The child will usually be escorted on and off the flight by a flight attendant, so it’s a good idea to remind your youngster to wait in the seat to be escorted after the plane lands.
To keep a child entertained during the flight, put snacks, books, electronics and small toys in a backpack that can fit under the seat. Consider a prepaid debit card for onboard food purchases because most airlines are cashless and the child may need money at a connecting airport.
When going online to check fees and rules for unaccompanied minors, it can be faster to enter the airline name along with “unaccompanied-minor fee” in a search engine to find the details.
These rules can change, so be sure to look at them before you book — and do the math to find the best option for your itinerary.
Tom Parsons is CEO of bestfares.com.