Kids Alone on Planes: What to Know About Safety, Food and Fun

PHOTO: Young solo travelers must pay the regular ticket price plus an unaccompanied minor fee that varies from airline to airline. Getty Images
Young solo travelers must pay the regular ticket price plus an unaccompanied minor fee that varies from airline to airline.

You may have heard American Airlines is raising the age limit in its unaccompanied-minor program to include kids 12 to 14.

I generally applaud this because some kids may need extra help, but I'm not crazy about the price tag: That $300 round-trip fee may actually dwarf the price of the kid's ticket!

It's not just American. United charges $150 each-way, as does US Airways. And it wouldn't surprise me a bit if Delta raised its $100 unaccompanied-minor fee (age ranges vary by airline).

But beyond the fees, some questions: How old should solo travelers be? And what if something goes wrong? To help me answer these questions, I recruited a young friend who, at age 13, has already flown around the world and then some.

Note: My young friend agreed to help on the condition that no direct quotes are used. The kid'll make a fine lawyer someday.

Q: How old should a child be to fly alone in an airline's unaccompanied-minor program?

Young friend: First-grade at the earliest.

Me: I agree, with some reservations. Most airline programs allow children to fly at age 5, which seems awfully young until I remembered my parents once put 5-year-old me on a three-hour Greyhound bus trip to see grandpa (I had a blast). It all depends on the child, whether he or she has flown much, is familiar with airports and knows how to speak up. You parents know your children best and know what they can and cannot handle.

Q: You mentioned some reservations?

Me: Yes. Do not mistake unaccompanied-minor programs for a babysitting service. A child does get an escort but only to and from the gate (and between gates for connecting flights when these are allowed). When the child is on the plane, the child is on his or her own.

Q: At what age should a child be allowed to fly completely alone with no airline escort?

Young friend: Probably age 10.

Me: Again, I agree, for the most part. By this time, a child has a few years of school under his or her belt, maybe has flown several times with the family and knows how to text or call for help if needed. Again it depends on the child (and, of course, airline rules).

Q: Are escort services foolproof?

Me: I wish. It's rare but we have heard stories about airline escorts putting children on the wrong planes. A few years back, one dad waited for his daughter's arrival in Charlotte, North Carolina - and waited and waited - because the airline sent the 8 year old to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Again, this is extremely rare but it does make you wonder whether your child could handle that.

Q: Putting a child on the wrong flight sounds almost impossible.

Me: Well, it has happened to nonescorted adults, too! A recent profile on Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly included a story about how he once got on what he thought was a Dallas-bound plane only to discover an hour into the flight it was heading to New York. It was his own fault, he said (and, no, it wasn't a Southwest flight).

Q: How do you make sure a child gets on the right plane?

Me: Two ways, and the first is real simple: Ask where the plane is going. Most of the time a crew member will announce this but not always. Children should be taught to ask a flight attendant this question the moment they step on the plane. This is where shy kids and little ones might have a problem, but you can always remind them to ask in a text. Or pin a note on a smaller child's coat that says, "I'm going to Hartford, is this the right plane?"

Young friend: [Rolls eyes and says, seriously? A note on a coat?]

Me again: The second and best way is to go to the gate with the child. Arrive at the airport early, go to the airline desk and request a gate pass. Do this even if there's an airline escort. At the gate, keep your eyes on that ever-changing arrivals/departures board so you'll know that your child gets on the right flight. Finally, whoever meets the child on the other end should also be at the gate. Note: Airlines want to know ahead of time who is picking up the minor and this individual must have appropriate ID.

Q: What should every child do at the first sign of a problem?

Me: Kids should be taught to go to a uniformed gate person or airline employee, tell them they're traveling alone and explain the problem. They should also be taught not to leave the secure confines of the airport. And they can always call you because they will have a cellphone (see the next question).

Q: What should every child traveling alone bring on a plane?

Young friend: A phone, a charger and important contact numbers.

Me: We agree. Let me add that important contact numbers should also be on a piece of paper, a “hot sheet” if you will, in case of an emergency (phone gets lost, no batteries).

Q: What about fun stuff on planes?

Young friend: Phone or tablet (or both).

Me: So many kids today dive into a virtual world that electronics are a must. Kids forget about food so pack some favorites but let your child get beverages on the plane or buy them in an airport (after security so there's no problem with the TSA liquid ban). As for food, maybe candy bars? Chips? If you think a child with a picky appetite traveling all alone is really going to eat that nourishing salad you packed, forget the Brooklyn Bridge. I'll sell you JFK!

Opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and not those of ABC News.