If you’ve got a child who will be traveling as an unaccompanied minor, you could be in for an unpleasant surprise. Over the years, we’ve seen the fees for this service climb.
Some airlines are charging as much as $150 each way, or $300 round trip, for the unaccompanied minor fee — and that doesn’t include the ticket. If you score a good deal on airfare, the fee could be the most expensive part of the trip.
Fees and rules vary by airline, but none of the airlines allows children younger than 5 to fly alone. Southwest and United require the unaccompanied-minor service for kids ages 5 to 11; Alaska requires it for ages 5 to 12; and American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Spirit, US Airways and Virgin America require the service for children 5 to 14.
If you’ve got a 12-year-old flying alone, you could avoid the fee by choosing Southwest or United, but you’d have to use the service, and pay the fee, on many other airlines. If your child is older than the required age, most airlines have an optional service for the same fee.
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There are a number of restrictions for unaccompanied minors, so look at the rules before you book. For example, unaccompanied minors 5 to 7 years old are not allowed on connecting flights on any airline, but many carriers extend that restriction to unaccompanied minors of any age.
We suggest choosing flights early in the day, so if the flight is delayed or canceled, you should be able to get your child on another flight that same day.
Alaska has the cheapest unaccompanied-minor fees, charging $25 each way for nonstop or direct flights and $50 for connecting flights. Southwest charges $50 each way; Frontier, JetBlue and Spirit charge $100 each way; and American, Delta, United and US Airways charge $150 each way.
Virgin America has a tiered system, charging $75 each way for domestic flights under two hours, $100 each way for domestic flights over two hours and $125 each way for flights to and from Mexico.
Last year, American changed its age requirement and now requires the service for kids ages 5 to 14. This also applies to US Airways. This means American can make more money by requiring more kids to use the service. For years, American required that only children 5 to 11 use the service, but now it is making the fees mandatory for older youths, which allows the airlines to collect hefty $300 round-trip unaccompanied-minor fees on young passengers.
Delta also changed its fee last summer. It went from $100 each way to $150. That puts Delta in line with American, United and US Airways in charging the highest fees.
Some airlines charge the fee per child, but many charge only one fee if multiple children from the same family are flying on the same itinerary. For example, American charges one fee for multiple children and Delta charges one fee for up to four children on the same itinerary. Southwest charges $50 per child, so if you are sending two kids, the fee would be $200 round trip. It’s still cheaper than paying $300 round trip for two kids traveling together on American or Delta.
If your child is traveling with an older sibling, you may be able to avoid having to use the service. The minimum companion age is 12 on Southwest; 15 on Frontier, Spirit and Virgin America; 16 on American and US Airways; and 18 on Alaska, Delta and United.
It’s a good idea to arrive at the airport earlier than usual when you have a child flying solo, and some airlines require you to arrive two hours in advance. When your child checks in, he will receive a badge that identifies him as an unaccompanied minor; it should be worn until he is picked up at the arrival airport. You will need to fill out paperwork and give contact information for the person who will pick up the child at the destination airport. That person must show government-issued ID.
For most domestic flights, you can request a pass that allows you to escort your child to the gate, and the person picking up the child should be able to get a pass to meet your child at the arrival gate. I recommend waiting at the gate area until you know the plane has taken off, because sometimes planes return to the gate.
You’ll want to make sure your child has plenty of entertainment during the flight, so I recommend sending snacks, books, electronics and small toys in a backpack. If your child is traveling with a smartphone, don’t forget the charger. Send a prepaid debit card for airport purchases and onboard food purchases.
Remember that the rules and fees for unaccompanied minors can change, so you’ll want to check them before you book a ticket. We have found the fastest way to find the rules is to Google “unaccompanied minor” along with the airline name.
Tom Parsons is CEO of www.bestfares.com.