By Tom Parsons
Dallas Morning News
The holidays are a popular time for kids to fly solo.
Each airline has its own rules and fees for unaccompanied minors, so it’s a good idea to check the policies before you buy a ticket. One thing the airlines have in common is that children must be at least 5 to fly alone.
In most cases, children ages 5 to 7 can only fly on nonstop flights. Some airlines allow unaccompanied minors that age on direct flights, which are flights with a stop but no change of planes.
Some airlines won’t allow unaccompanied minors of any age on connecting flights, and those that do won’t allow them on the last connecting flight of the day.
The best approach is to send unaccompanied minors on morning flights or on midday flights at the latest. This allows ample time and options in case of inclement weather or mechanical issues.
The airlines have mandatory fees for unaccompanied minors, but the upper age range varies. American, Southwest and United require the service for children up to 11; Alaska requires unaccompanied-minor service for children up to 12.
Delta, Frontier, Spirit, US Airways and Virgin America require the service for children 14 and younger. If you want a child who’s older than the mandatory age to be escorted, most airlines will be happy to assist – for a fee.
The fees vary by airline, with Alaska charging the lowest at $25 for nonstop flights and $50 for connecting flights. Dallas-based Southwest charges $50 each way. Most airlines, such as American, Delta, Spirit and US Airways, charge $100 each way.
United charges $150 each way. Virgin America charges are based on distance, with a fee of $75 each way for flights under two hours, $100 each way for flights over two hours and $125 each way for flights to and from Mexico.
These fees are usually nonrefundable, so if you pay and then cancel the trip, you will lose the fee.
Many airlines charge one fee for multiple kids from the same family, or extended family, who are flying on the same itinerary. On Southwest, you have to pay the fee per child.
You can avoid having to use the service and paying the fee if the minors are traveling with a passenger who meets the airlines’ minimum companion age. On Southwest, the minimum age of the companion is 12; on Frontier, Spirit, US Airways and Virgin America, it’s 15. On American, the minimum companion age is 16, and on Delta and United, it’s 18.
When your child flies as an unaccompanied minor, you may need to present the child’s birth certificate, passport or other ID at check-in. You will fill out paperwork and you’ll need to designate who will be picking up the child at the arrival destination. You also will need to provide contact information for that person, and he or she will need to show government ID at pickup time.
You may escort the child to the gate by getting a pass. Many airlines require that you wait at the gate until the flight has boarded, but even if it’s not required, it’s a good idea to stay at the gate until the flight has taken off, because there are times when planes have to return to the gate.
A note about smartphones: Make sure kids understand the need for a phone with a full charge. They need to avoid using the phone for games because it could run down the battery. Bring a separate device for video games. Books, small toys and snacks can help keep children entertained during a flight. The government has an online booklet with helpful tips for kids flying alone at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/KidsAlone.pdf.
When shopping for tickets, make sure to look at the unaccompanied-minor fees and policies when comparing fares. It could save you a bundle. Remember, these rules are always subject to change at a moment’s notice.