My 11-year-old son, who has been flying regularly since he was 2 months old, took his first solo flight yesterday. Fortunately, while my son had not done the whole “unaccompanied minor” thing before, I had experience when my niece and/or nephew have come to visit. Also, flying all the time, I had also seen unaccompanied minors on flights so I had a good idea as to what to expect.
Like all moms sending their baby off on a flight like that, I was nervous, but probably not about what you think. My son is mildly autistic and does not like to sit next to strangers. Every other flight, he’s sat next to the window with his dad or me in the window seat. At the movies? He sits between his dad and me or on an aisle. Even on rides at Disneyland, he will only sit next to an edge and someone he knows. We tried to prepare him by having him sit by other people at the movies and other places, but I could tell it was not comfortable for him. We’d also had conversations about how it was OK to be nervous or scared or uncomfortable, but that as long as he was safe, it was OK. Even with that, though, I fully expected that before the flight took off, the flight attendant was going to bring him back out to the gate saying he couldn’t do it.
I am so proud to say that he did it!!! Not only did he do it, but it didn’t seem to phase him. He didn’t even talk about the flight on the 2-hour drive to his aunt’s house (which he actually mostly slept through) nor since he arrived there. I am so proud of him!
Anyway, a couple of tips I picked up now doing this on several airlines with several different kids.
Check the policies for the airline on which your child will be traveling. They are vastly different. For example, American will allow unaccompanied minors on travel that requires a plane change if they are above a certain age and it is on their list of airports approved to do so. Southwest, on the other hand, only allows them on direct flights. On American, the paperwork is filled out at the airport upon check in. Jet Blue, however, requests that the form is filled out at home prior to the flight. If filling out paperwork at the airport, be sure to arrive extra early as this does take time.
Know that the fees for unaccompanied minors also vary greatly. As of this writing, Southwest is $50 each way. American is $150. Jet Blue is $100. United is $150. You get the picture.
What those fees include also vary by airline. US Airways, now American, used to allow one piece of checked baggage and a snack on the flight complimentary for unaccompanied minors. That is no longer the case. On top of it, the food they sell on the plane can only be paid with a major credit or debit card. We got our son a prepaid MasterCard (in addition to some cash) just in case, although we also made sure he ate before boarding and had plenty of snacks in his carryon.
It probably goes without saying, but be sure your child has everything he needs (snacks, entertainment, medicine) in his carryon without making it so big that he can’t handle it himself. As I said before, we also made sure he had a prepaid debit card, some cash, and we also included our contact information. In addition to that, we went over a few tips such as checking if the seat belt sign is off before going to the bathroom, when it’s appropriate to call a flight attendant using the button, and how to identify and airline employee so he knew who to ask for help if he needed it.
Make sure the person who is picking your child up or dropping them off knows what they need to do as well as what your expectations are. The airline, of course, will have certain rules such as needing to show a government-issued ID at the airport and getting a pass to get through security so they can meet the child at or accompany the child to the gate. Above and beyond that, though, what do you want? Are you going to be nervous needing to know they are at the airport before the plane lands? Be sure they know that so they can call or text you when they get to the gate. Otherwise, they may just plan to call you once they have your child or even once they’ve gotten your child and his bags all the while with you worrying about whether they’ve even made it to the airport. A little advance communication with the party on the other end can go a long way. We also sent a photo and description of my son’s checked bag so they knew what to look for at baggage claim.
Finally, stay calm. Maybe other kids are different, but my son feeds off my emotions. If I were to outwardly be nervous or teary eyed, he would be the same. Instead, I did my best to smile and remind him of how much fun he was going to have at his destination. With that, he gave his dad and me a hug and walked on the plane without a tear shed on either side.