Oct. 14, 2013 -- The story about the enterprising 9-year-old who managed to get past security and onto to a flight to Vegas without buying a ticket got me to thinking about kids on planes, especially since I've been flying with one for the past 13 years.
My daughter and I have flown a lot of miles together ever since she was an infant and she's got the elite status to prove it.
But if this is your first trip with a child, or maybe you're sending your kid off on a solo flight, you've probably got some questions. I've got some answers.
1. Children Flying Alone
How young is too young for kids to fly on their own? Only you, the parent, knows the answer to that but a lot depends on your child's maturity level, independence and simple common sense. If you ask the airlines, many say 5-year-olds are okay to travel solo and that includes American Airlines. But US Airways allows a child as young as 2 to travel as an "unaccompanied" minor if this very little one is traveling with someone who's at least 15. Yes, rules vary from airline to airline.
Don't forget: Young solo travelers must pay the regular ticket price plus an unaccompanied minor fee and that also varies from airline to airline. Southwest, for example, charges $50 each way. JetBlue charges $100 each way. The fee at United is $150 each way.
By the way, many airlines drop unaccompanied minor fees for kids once they hit age 12 although Delta puts the cut-off at 14. On the other hand, Allegiant won't accept unaccompanied minors at all (but at age 14, a child can travel on Allegiant as an adult). What's the rationale for 12 or 14 being the "age of reason"? No one seems to know for sure.
Most airlines don't allow you to book tickets for unaccompanied minors on the carrier's website (or any other). Instead, you must go through the reservation call center. Also, many airlines require their youngest solo travelers to fly non-stop routes only. Contact your airline for complete details.
Solo child travel tips
• Make sure the child has your contact information - on his person! - along with contact information for whoever is picking him/her up. (The airlines will also require this when making the reservation, but duplicating this effort makes sense.) • If your child doesn't have a phone, a simple throw-away device with speed dial is a good (and cheap) investment; then input all contact numbers • Head to the airport early, and that goes for whoever is taking the child to the airport and whoever is picking him up; planes can and do arrive early and finding the right agent to get a security pass to enter the gate area can take some time. Suggestion: Sign up for flight status alerts for every leg of the trip • Don't check a bag. If you must, do drop a business card inside the checked-bag on the off chance the outside label or tag goes missing • Teach your child to ask this question the moment he or she gets on the plane: "Is this the flight to…" Boston or LA or wherever he's going.
If that last part sounds odd, it wasn't so long ago that airline reps for both Delta and Continental delivered children to the wrong planes and yes, they wound up in the wrong cities far from their loved ones. Fortunately, the kids were okay (one later told reporters how much he enjoyed all the snacks that embarrassed airline employees kept pushing on him). My philosophy is why provide your little ones with unnecessary adventure?
2. Children Flying with You
When it comes to traveling with kids in the U.S., children in their own seats will pay the same fare as adults no matter how old (or young) they are. Lap children, on the other hand, pay nothing but they must be under 2 years of age. If they turn 2 in the middle of a trip, you will have to pay for a return ticket. Note: Experts say it's much safer for infants to have their own separate seats, complete with appropriately-sized travel seat if necessary, but this is not an airline or FAA rule.
International travel is a little different and it can include some discounts. On United, for example, the cost of a lap child on a fall flight from New York to London was only $18 but then they added child-apportioned taxes and fees which brought the total to $137. Not bad but not free, either. But say the child is 3 and has his own seat; that United ticket costs almost as much as the adult fare but there is a little discounting so you'll save $45. Again, better than nothing. And again, check with your airline for any child airfare questions because it can get complicated.
3. Noisy Children
If you're a regular reader of this column, you know noisy children can be more than a pain; they can get themselves and their parents kicked off a plane. That's rare but adults traveling with children must take some responsibility for those times when their angel morphs into a demon spawn. If I had one wish, all children on planes would suddenly decide that kicking the seat in front of them is a total bore.
Games and toys and movies are a great distraction, so bring plenty. Plus favorite foods and even special treats (I'm not above bribery). When all else fails, offer to buy a round of drinks for all the passengers in your section. You'll change from the "bad guy" to a "prince of a fellow" in no time.
Let's not give the proponents of adults-only seating any more ammunition, shall we? They're already making enough inroads with those adults-only sections on Asian airlines.
4. Tips For Flying with Children
• Flight attendants are not babysitters. They're on those planes mostly for our safety. If your child cannot fly without supervision, your child should not be flying. • Snacks and games. Pack favorite foods in a little backpack or small, child-sized carry-on that fits under the seat; free sodas, juices and water will be available onboard. Make sure his or her favorite toy is there, too, along with games, books or an electronic device, especially for older kids. • Know your child's breaking point. If he/she can only be calm for a couple of hours, break up those cross-country flights and add a stop (or two). You're the only one who knows what your child can and can't put up with, so give the other passengers a break. They may not thank you but at least they won't be glowering at you.