I talk a lot about flying with kids on this site, but what if you are ready for your child to fly without you? Each year, millions of parents trust their kids to the airlines, allowing them to fly solo to a destination as an unaccompanied minor. Whether your child is traveling to visit extended family, heading to a camp or an activity, or shuttling between living in two different households, unaccompanied minor programs are very useful offerings for many families who don’t have the time or the money to fly a parent or guardian along too.
Most US based airlines (but not all of them) offer flights for unaccompanied minors. For a fee, the airline and its employees provide limited supervision on board flights for the child. They also help the child in making flight connections, when applicable. Parents or guardians are responsible for taking the child to their first departure gate and then having a designated adult to meet the child at their destination airport arrival gate.
But like all special programs, this can be complicated. Extra fees, restrictions, and constantly changing policies are confusing and are often a trap for the unwary.
If you are booking flights for unaccompanied minors, this comparison guide breaks down all the considerations in play for every United States-based airline. From which airline has the cheapest unaccompanied minor fee to age and other restrictions, here’s how to find and book the right unaccompanied minor flights for your child.
The State of Unaccompanied Minor Travel on US Airlines Today
I have fond childhood memories of flying as an unaccompanied minor in the 1980s and early 1990s. My parents regularly sent my sister and me to see grandparents a few states away. We were doted on by flight attendants and given the red carpet treatment, being driven in beeping carts through the tunnels of ATL as we were rushed off to a connecting flight. In those days, our parents walked us to the gate and watched us board without having to pass through a TSA line with a special pass. The unaccompanied minors service was also, for many years, free on all major airlines.
If you are a parent of a child ready to travel alone, you may have had a similar experience flying solo as a child yourself. But things certainly have changed in air travel since our time! In a world of strict TSA rules and increasing airline fees, it is harder – and more expensive – than ever to do the planning and preparation to allow your child to travel alone.
To make things even more difficult for families, airline policies for unaccompanied minors are all over the map. No two U.S. airlines have the same cutoff ages, rules, or fees. That means parents need to carefully research numerous options before even beginning to look at flight schedules and prices. One airline might have more expensive tickets, but a much cheaper unaccompanied minor fee, making that airline a better choice for your child’s travel. One airline may charge by the child, while another may let siblings fly together by paying only one fee. One may allow kids to take connecting itineraries, while another may only permit unaccompanied minors to fly on non-stop or direct flights.
There is no airline search booking engine that lets you do this kind of comparison. Since organizing and deciphering all the fine print is what we do best here at Trips With Tykes, I’ve done it for you!
I originally published this post many years ago when I had kids too young to fly as unaccompanied minors. But now that we have older kids, I have been glad many times that I had already done all the research. I’ve had to refer to it often when booking flights for my now 13 year old. She has flown as an unaccompanied minor on two different airlines so far (Southwest and American), and we are currently looking at booking another solo trip for her this summer. She’ll be 14 at the time, which makes her an unaccompanied minor on some airlines. But other airlines will allow (and indeed, one would require) her to travel solo outside of their unaccompanied minor programs.
Related: Tips for Flying Southwest with Kids
I’ve created a printable chart below (fully updated as of early 2023) summarizing the rules and fees for the major U.S. airlines. Hopefully this helps save you hours scouring airline websites comparing apples to oranges.
Rules & Restrictions for Flights for Unaccompanied Minors
So what are the major parameters, rules, and variables in play when it comes to unaccompanied minor air travel? Airline differences to look out for include:
1) The definition of an “unaccompanied minor” differs from airline to airline.
Exactly just who is an “unaccompanied minor?” The airlines disagree! Each airline in the United States is free to set its own age requirement, and the results are highly inconsistent. All US airlines that have an unaccompanied minor program allow kids to start using it at age 5 (usually for non-stop flights only).
But the upper age bound is much more variable. Some airlines allow children to travel solo without needing to pay a UM fee as soon as they turn 12. Others make children wait until they turn age 15. Several others are somewhere in between.
Some airlines also have older ages where utilizing the unaccompanied minor program is not required, but is available for families who wish to take advantage. This optional program is available for kids as old as 17 years old with a few airlines.
2) The definition of an “accompanying adult” differs too!
Whether your child is considered an unaccompanied minor also depends on who is also flying with that child. If the child has someone age 18 and up with them (parent, grandparent, friend, sibling, etc.), then the child is not an unaccompanied minor, of course.
But a few airlines allow older kids who are not yet 18 to escort younger kids without needing to pay an unaccompanied minor fee for the younger child. In that case, the older child counts as an accompanying “adult.” For example, Southwest Airlines does not consider a younger child traveling with passenger age 12 or over as an unaccompanied minor. This would mean that my two kids, one of whom is 13 and one who is 9, currently could travel together without needing to pay an UM fee on Southwest.
A few other airlines set the cutoff age for an older child to qualify as an accompanying “adult” somewhere between ages 14-16. Confused yet? The bottom line is that you need to check the fine print, with a consideration of all the ages of your children who will be traveling together, before you book.
3) Many flights are off-limits to unaccompanied minors.
Many airlines have pretty strict limitations on the flights on which they will accept unaccompanied minors. Again, this is a time for reading all the fine print if you are considering booking anything other than a nonstop flight in the morning. Here are some of the kinds of flights that might be off-limits for unaccompanied minors, depending on the airline:
- Connecting itineraries (some airlines prohibit connections entirely; some only allow older kids to change planes as unaccompanied minors; others allow connections only through designated hub cities)
- Redeye flights (usually defined as flights departing between 9pm and 5am)
- The last connecting flight of the day to a given destination
- International flights
- Flights on partner airlines (including codeshares)
- Certain airports (e.g., Alaska doesn’t allow UM travel to/from Sun Valley, Idaho in winter months, presumably due to the risk of winter weather; several airlines have restrictions on certain international cities but not others, etc.)
To make things harder, there are exceptions to these exceptions, such as when there is only one flight a day to a given destination.
We just recently bumped up against one of these limitations when investigating flights for our daughter this summer, when she will be 14. We strongly considered JetBlue because it is one of the few airlines that allows 14 year olds to fly solo without needing to participate in the unaccompanied minor program. I ran a few searches and located a JetBlue flight that worked for her schedule. But not so fast! I quickly spotted that this was a flight actually operated by JetBlue’s partner American Airlines, which has a higher age cutoff for unaccompanied minors. Then I read the JetBlue fine print again, and saw that JetBlue doesn’t permit unaccompanied minors on codeshare flights (likely for just this very reason). So back to the drawing board it was. You’ll likely have to go down several of these kinds of rabbit holes too before finding flights that work for your situation.
4) Most airlines require phone bookings, but you should probably pick up the phone no matter what.
Many airlines won’t allow you to book a trip for an unaccompanied minor online, so you have to call to even book the flight. Others may allow you to book online, but then will require you to call to give the airlines all the details about who will be dropping off and picking up the child. You may also need to call to pay the unaccompanied minor fee.
My advice is to do your research, and then to call no matter what (for airlines that charge phone booking fees, they will usually waive them for UM bookings). Why? Talking to a human being can serve as a double-check to make sure you understand the airline’s policies. If the phone representative tells you something that is inconsistent with your research, you can clarify the matter right away so there is no confusion on the day of travel. In my experience, phone representatives have also been very helpful in giving detail about logistics and flight day preparation – what paperwork is needed, how to get a gate pass to take your child to their departure gate, and what the adult at the destination will need to do.
5) Unaccompanied minors traveling internationally may need notarized letters of consent.
Several airlines won’t allow unaccompanied minors on international flights at all, but for those that do, even more careful preparation is needed. In order to prevent child abduction, many countries have strict rules governing children traveling alone (or, for that matter, children traveling with only one parent).
If your child plans to fly as an unaccompanied minor internationally, it is a good idea to have a notarized letter of consent from both parents no matter what your destination. Also, check the airline rules and the destination country’s specific rules as well, as they may be more restrictive. Of course, don’t forget the passport either!
6) Some airlines don’t charge additional fees for multiple children and some charge per child.
If you are sending more than one child on a flight as an unaccompanied minor, look closely at the fees charged. Some charge per child on the reservation but a few allow multiple siblings (or sometimes even multiple non-sibling kids) to travel together only while paying a single fee. These policy differences can make a huge price difference for families flying more than one child together unaccompanied. They may even make or break what the affordable choices are.
7) Some airlines limit the number of unaccompanied minors per flight.
Many airlines limit the number of unaccompanied minors permitted on a single flight in order to avoid overwhelming their flight crews with supervision duties. JetBlue, for example, only permits 3 per flight. American has a limit too, although it’s unpublished and likely quite a bit higher (my daughter’s recent cross-country flight on American had at least 6 unaccompanied minors).
That means that during peak travel periods like school breaks and to certain destinations, all the slots for unaccompanied minors may book up long before a flight otherwise sells out. If you know your child is likely to be flying out of a destination or at a time when a lot of other children may also be flying unaccompanied (like an airport in small town on the last day the nearby sleepaway camp ends), book early. Be sure to notify the airline, complete all the paperwork, and pay the required fee right away to secure your spot.
Best Airlines for Unaccompanied Minors
Given these many restrictions, you’re probably wondering what is the best airline for unaccompanied minors to fly. While the answer depends on your exact circumstances, I think it’s important to highlight a few general winners and losers.
In 2023, the biggest legacy carriers – American, United, and Delta – make parents pay a $300 roundtrip fee for kids to fly even on simple domestic non-stop flights until their 15th birthdays. A few of the traditionally lower cost carriers – Spirit and JetBlue – now charge $150 each way too. Even as an occasionally overprotective parent, I think that is absurd. I was certainly flying solo much earlier… and in an age before cell phones for emergencies!
Many well-traveled children just don’t need the service that old, and it seems like a money grab to me. I know from watching my independent daughter fly last summer at age 13 on a non-stop flight from CLT to SFO (on a route she has flown before and through airports she knows well) that she didn’t need the service at all for that trip. But we had to pay the fee, because American is the only airline that offers non-stop flights on that route.
So kudos to the airlines that have more sensible fees, reasonable age cutoffs, and navigable rules. I’d recommend more traveling families vote with your pocketbooks and give these airlines the first chance to earn your business.
These are what I consistently see as the three best airlines for unaccompanied minors to fly (and why):
- Southwest: Cheap UM fee ($50 one way) + youngest age where children can travel without paying a UM fee (no fee needed by 12th birthday) [Editor’s Note: Southwest increased its UM fee to $100 each way as of August 2023]
- Hawaiian: Cheapest UM fee ($35 one way for intra-island flights & $100 one way to mainland) + youngest age where children can travel without paying a UM fee (no fee needed by 12th birthday)
- Alaska: Cheap UM fee (as low as $50 one way for non-stops and $75 for connecting flights) + younger age age where children can travel without paying a UM fee (no fee needed by 13th birthday)
Unaccompanied Minor Airline Comparison Chart
Of course, those three airlines won’t get your child everywhere they may need to go. So how can you compare all the choices? The following is a summary of the unaccompanied minor policies of the every US domestic airline. Each airline has additional fine print that you should read in full on the airline’s web page to make sure you have covered the smallest of exceptions.
Download the full PDF version with embedded links to each airline’s unaccompanied minor rules. Or get a quick glance in the images below.
Additional Tips for Unaccompanied Minor Flights
Now that you have booked with the appropriate airline and flight at the right price, the next step is preparing for your child’s big solo flight day. Again, read your airline’s specific unaccompanied minor fine print several times to make sure you don’t miss anything as you prepare (links in the chart above).
Here are some general tips that will serve you and your child well no matter what airline they are flying:
- Prepare your child: Make sure your communicate to your child how the entire flight process will work, who they can ask for help along the way, and who will be meeting them. If you fly with your child regularly already, the preparation starts on those trips too! I have my kids “lead me” to our gates in our family travels, training them for the days when they eventually will have to navigate airports on their own.
- Choose luggage carefully: Think carefully about what luggage to send with your child on an unaccompanied minor trip. We’ve found a backpack as a carryon is ideal. Children can easily stow those themselves under their seat, where they can access snacks and entertainment, plus keep their belongings safely in one place. For transporting everything else, checked luggage may be simpler, as there will be an adult on either end to assist at that stage of the journey, especially with younger kids. But for shorter trips, older kids can usually manage a roller bag just fine too. And most of the time, airline employees or fellow passengers are happy to help kids put a roller bag in the overhead bin.
- Give your child a cell phone: If your child has a cell phone or you have an extra to spare in the family, send it along. While airlines are supposed to contact parents if something goes awry, letting your child have that direct line is an extra layer of security. Plus, the device can be their entertainment too. Don’t forget charging cords and a portable charger!
- Pack snacks: Some airlines provide special snacks or meals to unaccompanied minors, but I always recommend packing plenty of your own.
- Consider sending along a credit card AND cash: If your child is old enough and responsible enough to manage valuables, I highly recommend sending both a credit card and cash with them on the trip. Most airlines will only accept credit cards for on board purchases. And a little cash is never a bad thing to have on hand for emergencies in any in-airport on on-the-ground location.
- Bring all necessary paperwork: Make sure you know what paperwork you need to bring to the airport on departure day. A photo ID will be required for the accompanying adult. Other paperwork that is sometimes required, depending on the airline: a birth certificate, passport, or ID for the child as proof of age and contact information (name, address, and phone number) of the person meeting the child.
- Arrive with lots of extra time: Airlines pre-board unaccompanied minors, so getting to the gate early is essential. You likely need to go first to the ticket counter to complete paperwork, check a bag, and get a gate pass for the adult walking the child to the gate. Then you’ll have airport security. Even if you and your child have TSA Pre-Check, you will not be able to use that benefit because it only works for ticketed passengers – not for those with gate passes. (Note however, that that you can use a CLEAR membership in airports where it is offered.)
- Prepare your pickup person: Make sure the person picking up your child on the other end knows exactly what they need to bring and where they need to go. At the very least, a photo ID will be required. They will usually be required to get a gate pass to meet your child at their scheduled arrival gate. Again, have them leave extra time for getting that pass at the ticket counter and clearing security.
- Stay at the airport until takeoff: Once your child boards the plane, most airlines require that you continue to wait in the gate area until the flight pushes back and takes off.
Deciding to allow your child to fly unaccompanied is a major family travel milestone. It requires a lot of research and preparation, but the programs work well once you master the rules and restrictions… and if you can handle the cost! Ultimately, our family has found these programs quite helpful in giving our oldest the freedom to pursue her own travel interests without the rest of us on a few occasions. And flying as an unaccompanied minor has helped prepare her for the day in the not-too-distant future where she will be flying completely independently.