The end of the summer travel period, and holiday periods are peak times for children traveling solo on the airlines. For many children, returning to school can mean a cross-country trek. The frequency of children traveling by themselves has led airlines to set up programs that address the specific needs of children traveling alone.
The common term that is used to describe children who fly alone is unaccompanied minors (also known as UMs). Particular rules apply to these young travelers, and there are travel tips to help make the experience easier.
What is an unaccompanied minor? The short answer is a child traveling without a parent, guardian, or another trusted adult that the child knows. The age requirements that are generally used by the airlines to define the unaccompanied minor are children between the ages of five and eleven years old (and sometimes up to 15 - it is always advisable to contact the airline to make sure that they accept unaccompanied minors as passengers). Let the airline know that a child is traveling unaccompanied in advance - many airlines require this information at the time of booking.
Some airlines will permit a child who is over twelve (or fifteen and older depending on the airline's rules) to accompany a child who is between five to eleven years old (or fourteen for the more restrictive airlines) without requiring the younger child to travel as an unaccompanied minor. For a short journey this may not be a huge problem, but for a long journey involving connections it may not be worth the anxiety for both the children traveling and the parent or guardian waiting to hear that the children have made it to their destination safely. Children who are twelve and older (sometimes fifteen and older) can be accepted as unaccompanied minors as long as the fees are paid and the proper documentation is completed.
Almost all airlines will charge for their unaccompanied minor services, usually assessed per direction. It is important to note that if a child will be traveling on more than one airline there is the potential that you may be paying more than one fee. Further, not all airlines employ the same rules for their unaccompanied minors. Some permit all unaccompanied minors to have connecting flights if needed; some will allow unaccompanied minors that are eight years old or older to have connections; and some will not permit connecting flights at all. If more than one airline is required, you will need to follow the rules of the airline that imposes the most restrictions.
If two or more children are traveling together, most airlines will assess only one fee, and not charge per child.