I have fond childhood memories of flying as an unaccompanied minor. My parents regularly sent my sister and me to see grandparents a few states away. I remember well being doted on by flight attendants. I especially loved being driven in the 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 to get a special pass, and our grandparents were the first faces we saw as we deplaned. The unaccompanied minors service was, for many years, free on all major airlines.
Unaccompanied Minors on US Airlines Today
Things certainly have changed in air travel, particularly for unaccompanied minors. 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 more difficult, airline policies for unaccompanied minors are simply 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. There is no airline search booking engine that lets you do this kind of comparison.
I originally wrote this post several years ago when I had kids too young to fly as unaccompanied minors. But now that my husband and I are seriously considering allowing my 9 year old daughter to fly by herself this summer, I’m glad to have already done the research. Of course, it needed to be updated a bit because airlines have changed their rules in the last several years — and not for the better. Most of the major carriers have increased their fees and now require kids older than ever to use the service. Luckily, there are still a few airlines with humane fees and sensible age rules. See below for the ones I think are standouts.
And of course, you get to share in the results of my research too! I’ve created a printable chart below summarizing the rules and fees for the major U.S. airlines so you can easily compare your options instead of spending hours on airline websites comparing apples to oranges.
Tips & Rules for Flights with Unaccompanied Minors
But first, there are a few general tips and trends about unaccompanied minor air travel to keep in mind:
1) The definition of an “unaccompanied minor” differs from airline to airline.
Airline policies differ as to who an “unaccompanied minor” is. For example, some airlines do not consider a child traveling with another passenger over the age of 12 as an unaccompanied minor. This would mean that two siblings, one of whom is 12 and one who is 10, could travel together without needing to pay an UM fee. On other airlines, however, an “unaccompanied minor” could be any child who is not traveling with someone who is at least age 18. Other airlines set the cutoff age for an accompanying “adult” at age 15 or 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.
2) Many flights are “off-limits” to unaccompanied minors.
Many airlines have pretty strict limitations on the flights on which they will accept unaccompanied minors. Redeye flights are often off limits, as is the last connecting flight of the day to a given destination. Some airlines won’t accept unaccompanied minors on international flights or flights on partner airlines (including code-shares). To make things harder, there are exceptions to these exceptions, such as when there is only one flight a day to a given destination.
3) When it comes to unaccompanied minors, don’t be afraid to call.
Many airlines won’t allow you to book a trip for an unaccompanied minor online, so you have to call. My advice is to do your research, and then to call no matter what (even if you don’t ultimately book with the phone rep to avoid phone booking fees). 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 escalate the matter right away so there is no confusion on the day of travel.
4) Unaccompanied minors traveling internationally may need notarized letters of consent.
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.
5) 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 up to 9 siblings to travel together only paying a single fee.
Unaccompanied Minor Airline Comparison Chart
Before we get to the full chart, I think it’s important to highlight a few airline winners and losers when it comes to unaccompanied minors.
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. Even as an occasionally overprotective parent, I think that is absurd. I was certainly flying solo much earlier 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.
So kudos to the airlines that have more sensible fees, age cutoffs, and rules. I’d recommend more traveling families voting with your pocketbooks and giving these airlines the first chance to earn your business:
- Alaska: Cheapest UM fee (as low as $25 one way for non-stops)
- Southwest: Cheap UM fee ($50 one way) + youngest age where children can travel without paying a UM fee (no fee needed by 12th birthday)
- Hawaiian: Cheap 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)
The following is a summary of the various unaccompanied minor policies of the US domestic airlines. Of course, each airline has additional fine print that you should read in full on the airline’s web page. Click the images below to download the full PDF version with embedded links to each airline.