My son left on his very first unaccompanied flight to vacation for a few weeks out of the summer eight years ago. He was six and it was an incredibly hard time for me. I not only was unprepared for what he needed to have, what was necessary to get completed before he got on a plane or how to do it; I was unprepared emotionally for him to leave me for the first time long distance.
|My oldest when he was a little traveler.|
I was thinking about this as I was preparing, once again, for my son to leave for the rest of the summer. I’m a veteran at this now. It’s been eight years and he’s of age now for me to let go my fears and allow him to walk through the security line onto the plane without me. This will be the last time, I know, and because of that, I wanted to share some tips and helpful insight/wisdom into how to not only prepare your child for flying unaccompanied. Some assistance for parents to cope with that new feeling of anticipation of freedom and loss of security.
|My son, his Father and half sister.|
My son visits his biological father during the summer and some of you might have similar arrangements. However, this also applies for parents who prepare their children for summer camp or visiting relatives. I’m not a doctor, a flight attendant, a counselor or a psychiatrist; these opinions are from my experience and the wisdom from the mistakes I made in the process, however, you can find links here to where you can contact airlines and ask for additional information and always discuss relevant health concerns with your doctor and/or counselor.
What is an Unaccompanied Child?
Any child between the ages of 5-14 (est) flying without an adult passenger is considered an Unaccompanied Child and/or Unaccompanied Minor. This can differ with some airlines such as Southwest, which will allow your child to fly accompanied with any other passenger 12 or older. Children 4 and under are not allowed to fly unaccompanied at all, however on some airlines (like Delta) children 15-17 can still opt for Unaccompanied Child services.
Some airlines also have restrictions on the type of flight a child can have at a certain age. In example, Delta will only allow children 8-17 to fly airlines that transfer or have connecting flights; any child 7 and under must have a non-stop flight. Southwest doesn’t allow any Unaccompanied Minor to have transfers, they must only have non-stop or direct flights as well as other airlines do not allow Unaccompanied Children/Minors to flight red eye (or last connecting) flights. Make sure you check with the airline before you purchase the ticket.
Fees and Services for Unaccompanied Child
Unaccompanied Child/Minor services generally have a $50-$100 fee each way, depending on the airline you choose. Although the fees for children flying Unaccompanied seem at first high, you must think about the services they are providing, not only for the child but also for the parents peace of mind. Most flights will not allow you to choose any other way unless they are over 12 years of age(est.), but even after 12 some children feel more secure not traveling alone on flights. I personally allowed my son to travel in Unaccompanied services until he was 13 and felt he was ready to fly on his own. After that there are a few services still available to parents to ensure the security of their children until they get onto the plane and when they arrive at the airport. We’ll go through those later.
The services provided by airlines also differs, but here are the basic services that most airlines offer. Make sure to contact the airline they are flying and ask what services they provide.
- Unaccompanied Child/Minors generally sit together on the airline to provide companionship. They also are the first to board the airline with assistance from the designated Flight Attendant. My son told me that most of the time they all sat in the front. This could be different now as it has been a few years.
- Unaccompanied Child/Minors wear a badge and/or a lanyard around their necks to differentiate them from other children. This helps keep them together, but also lets the designated Flight Attendant be aware to check on them as frequently as possible. During connecting flights these are most important because Flight Attendants change.
- Unaccompanied Child/Minors are not only escorted onto the plane first, but also escorted off the plane first. They are kept in the group at the arriving station until the arriving guardian (who must have picture ID) picks them up. In emergencies, they are allowed to use the phone to call the arriving guardian and/or the guardian they departed from.
- Unaccompanied Child/Minors are sometimes provided extra snacks and goodie bags with things to do on the plane (coloring crayons/pads). This really depends on the airline. Make sure you provide snacks and things to entertain your child in their carry on.
- Delta Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- US Airways
- United Airlines
- American Airlines
- Jet Blue
- Frontier Airlines
What Should My Child Bring?
First off, you must go to the ticket counter. You cannot use those nifty auto ticket computers, you have to go to the counter in order to get your escort pass. In order for your child to have their Unaccompanied Child ticket, you must provide documentation of age; this can be in the form of a Birth Certificate or Photo ID. Make sure to ask your airline what documents are acceptable and if there is any other papers (outside of your own legal ID) that you must provide for the ticket.
What your child brings on a flight should be no different than if they were also flying with you. However, you should remember that they may not have other Unaccompanied Child/Minors to entertain with, so make sure that they have lots of fun things to do on the plane; especially if it is a long flight and they are young. Some of the things that my son brought on were:
Snack Bag: Fruits, Vegetables, Chips, Soda/Water, Cookies, etc.
Books: 2 Books – So he had a choice in what to read.
Coloring Books/Crayons: They’re always great time passers!
Nintendo DS: Nothing makes time go by faster for kids than electronics.
Small Pillow/Headrest: In case they get tired.
Bubblegum: For their ears, so it’s not so hard when they pop.
Headphones: Some airlines give them free headphones if they have movies, but most cost $5. So make sure they have headphones if there are movies or music to listen to on the plane.
If your child is older and they have a laptop, that’s something to consider but they are really a pain to have children mess with through security. And if your child has a Smartphone, those are great. Make sure they stock up on lots of gaming or educational Apps before they leave.
What is an Escort Pass?
An Escort Pass is a pass for parents to be able to take their children through security to the boarding gate. In order to receive one of these you must provide a government photo ID at the ticketing counter, this is your pass through security. You do not have to have a child flying Unaccompanied to receive one, you just have to have a minor passenger flying. This is now what I get when I go to drop off and pick up my son. Some airlines have you pay a small fee ($25) if you are not with an Unaccompanied Child/Minor, others do not. Make sure to ask before you arrive at the ticketing counter so that you are prepared in case you have to pay the fee. I personally think it’s worth it because I can’t stand waiting at the baggage claim to get my child or thinking he’ll get lost on his way there. If you have a child that doesn’t have a cellphone yet (there are some out there!), I think this is really important.
Also note: Escort Passes are generally only good until they are 15.
I also want to let you know to make sure you arrive early at the airport. Unaccompanied Child/Minors and child passengers board before anyone else, which means if you arrive just before they start boarding then you won’t have a lot of time for Good-byes. I once arrived just when it was boarding and I had less than 2 minutes to say good-bye to my son, it was really difficult. Just a little advice, no matter how old they get you still need time to make sure they are ready to fly alone, to make sure you are ready to let them fly and to have that time together before they do.
How to Prepare Your Child for Flying Alone
Children, especially younger children, are often as anxious and nervous as the parents. They also tend to notice if you are anxious and worried, which just magnifies their own emotions. Make sure to be excited for them on their journey. If they think they are causing you great sorrow for leaving, they will stress over it the whole time they are away. If you find yourself crying, make sure to try and smile and say you are happy but it is very hard to say good-bye sometimes and they will understand this. Here are some ways you can get your child to not be so anxious about an upcoming flight and instead be filled with anticipation and excitement.
- Get a calender and check off the days together until they leave. Make sure to do something really special the day before they go. Go out to dinner or have their special meal at home. Get a cake and celebrate their upcoming vacation. Do something to surprise them!
- Get a map and show them all the things they will fly over and tell them to try and spot as many as they can up in the air. My son loved this because when he first started flying he had never seen a mountain or the ocean, generally they get so distracted by seeing the clouds and the whole lay of land that they forget, but it helps calm their nerves when they are thinking of all the special things they might see instead of the distance it is to get there.
- If you know what things they will do when they get there, think of little trinkets or objects that they could find on their trip to bring back home. This way they know that you are thinking of them when they are away and they are thinking of you. Often my son had these irrational fears that I wouldn’t miss him and telling him I was waiting every day to get my rock (he would collect rocks for me) had shown him that he had something important to bring home and that I was waiting.
- Writing Letters: If your child will be gone for more than two weeks, letters are always a good idea, even if they are just pictures for little ones. However, they don’t have to be gone so long in order to do letters. Sometimes writing letters to them, just for yourself, helps sooth the absence of them being gone.
- Make Appointments: If you are like me then you may hate canceling things. Making appointments ahead of time, even to doctors and dentists, gives you something to prepare for and oddly look forward to to keep you busy. Although I suggest making appointments to nail salons, hair dressers, massage therapists, etc., they aren’t always budget friendly. You can also make ‘dates’ with friends or your spouse, these are great positive things to look forward to and make sure your friends won’t let you cancel!
- Make a List: Like making appointments, making a list of tasks to complete while your child is gone gives you something to prepare for and keeps you busy. There are lots of things you can get done when children are away! Freshening up their rooms, getting rid of old clothes/toys, cleaning out those closets you always said you would clean out but never got to.
|My son boarding his flight.|
My son left yesterday evening to make it in time for 4th of July with his Father, Step-Mom and baby sister. His Father is in the Military so my son tries to make it to visit as much as he can when he is not deployed. Sometimes it is really hard to let him go, even for a few weeks. I wasn’t really good at it when he was little and often became self destructive (refusing to go home, staying out all night, unproductive). The loneliness would seep in and he could tell, it often made both of our ‘vacations’ a sour time after awhile. That’s when I learned that it wasn’t fair to him to always be sad and I made sure that even if I was having the worst time ever, that I let him know that I was lonely without him, but I was really, really happy that he was having so much fun and hearing about it always made my day. And it did.
You can also use FlightAware in order to see Live Flight Tracking. Some airlines also provide this on their websites. This way you can track the flight live on a map. I did this for my sons first flight even when I was at work, I watched that plane go until it landed.
Just remember to always check with your airline to see what options are available. Make sure that your child has your cellphone number to call you once they arrive. I always find it is smart to wait until the plane actually leaves, just in case it gets delayed on the ground and they are sitting there awhile. It’s nice for them to know that you are just on the other side.
Stay positive! Keep informed. And know that they always come home.