NEW YORK -- Sending your child on a flight alone can be overwhelming for a parent – from packing the right things to making sure the kids are fed.
Adding to the confusion, not all airlines follow the same rules, or charge the same fees for children flying solo. Yet hundreds of thousands of kids fly on their own each year – about 160,000 on Delta last year alone. Delta was the world's largest airline in 2010 before being displaced when United and Continental combined.
Here are the general guidelines on unaccompanied minors and some do's and don'ts to avoid problems at the airport.
Reservations are made the old-fashioned way: by calling an airline or travel agent directly. You won't be able to book online, but you should still research flights online before calling. Airlines should waive an additional phone reservation fee in this case. Check with the customer service representative about that.
You'll be charged between $25 and $100 each way for an unaccompanied minor in addition to the airfare. When two or more children from the same family (immediate or extended) travel together, most airlines charge a single fee for all of them. Most airlines also waive the first and second checked-bag fees for kids flying alone.
The fee for unaccompanied minors buys a flight attendant escort on the plane and between flights, but not constant supervision. Children will likely spend some time alone, either on the plane or in an airport room away from other passengers, especially when extended layovers or delays are involved.
Now, the basic rules: Kids must be at least 5 years old to fly alone and 8 years old to take a connecting flight. Children between 12 and 14 can fly alone, but they don't have to. Parents can opt to pay the fee to have their child accompanied, up to age 17.
It might be a good idea to pay for the service for your teenager, especially if you live in a small town and your child has to change planes at a big hub like Chicago or Atlanta. This provides some insurance that youngsters won't get stuck trying to find a place to stay or calling you in the middle of the night to authorize a credit card if they get stuck somewhere. Extended delays or cancellations are common at the height of summer.
To minimize delays, book a nonstop flight whenever possible. If you must connect, avoid using two different airlines. Also choose a flight early in the day. They're less prone to delays than later flights.
Most airlines won't allow parents to send a child alone on the last flight out because a delay could mean an overnight stay. Since some booking agents may not remember this, a good rule-of-thumb is not to book a child on a flight later than about 6 p.m.
What to pack
_ Kids should have a copy of their itineraries and birth certificates in their bags. The itinerary should include travel dates, flight numbers, departure and arrival times and the reservation's record locator number. You should also include the parents' or guardians' home, work and cell phone numbers. The birth certificate serves as proof of age if the airline asks for it.
_ Snacks and cash for food. Most airlines will give children traveling alone snacks onboard like chips or cheese-and-crackers for free. But long delays can lead to growling stomachs, so give your child some traveling money. About $10 or $20 should be plenty for a decent meal and something to drink. Throw in some gum to ease popping ears.
_ Entertainment. Books, small toys and electronics like DVD players and iPods are great to bring onboard, especially on longer flights. Be sure to tell your child that they'll have to turn off electronic gadgets during takeoff and landing so they don't interfere with the plane's navigation equipment.
_ A day's worth of essentials. Pack a change of clothes in your child's carryon, in case a checked bag gets lost, along with a light sweater or sweat shirt for chilly planes.
_ A cell phone or calling card. Kids will be more at ease – and many parents will be too – when everyone stays in touch.
At the airport
When you drop off the child at the airport, get there earlier than you would for a standard flight – up to two hours ahead. Parents have to fill out paperwork at the customer service counter and get a gate pass if they want to go through security without a ticket. The adult picking up the child should also arrive early – by at least an hour – to fill out their share of paperwork.
Adults should also bring government-issued IDs. Without them, the child won't be accepted onboard or released to them upon arrival.
Don't make last-minute switches for who picks up the child. Changes in the adult assigned to pick up a child cannot be made at the airport. They must be made by calling the airline directly.
Boarding and arrival
Unaccompanied minors usually board first, along with families traveling with small children and elite flyers. Notifying the airline staff when you get to the gate gives them time to find a crew member to walk the child to a seat on board.
Once the child has boarded, stay at the gate until you're sure the flight has taken off. Flights can be cancelled hours after they've taxied out on the runway.
When picking up a child at the airport, don't worry if you don't see the child right away. They're often the last ones off. A flight attendant will check the identification of the receiving adult, get a signature and you'll be on your way.