Unaccompanied Minors: Preparing Your Child to Travel Alone

In 2006 the film Unaccompanied Minors hit the big screen just in time for Christmas. The movie was about a few kids who got stranded in an airport during a Christmas Eve blizzard, and it was marketed as a comedy. While the movie was funny, parents who find themselves putting their kids on a plane without an adult present may not see the hilarity. Sending your child in a plane without you can be stressful not only for you but also for your child. Unfortunately, it’s also sometimes necessary, especially around the holiday season when they may need to visit with other relatives and you may not be able to join them. If you find yourself in that situation this year, calm your nerves by knowing what to expect and how to best prepare your child for the trip.

How Does It Work?

Most major airlines offer unaccompanied minor programs to allow children over a certain age cut-off—generally around 5 years old—to travel without an adult present. There is an extra fee for this service, which includes having an escort ensure the child boards the plane, has a chaperone during any connections, and is handed off to the correct party at their destination. Restrictions do apply to the types of flights you can book for unaccompanied minors, so be sure to read up on your particular airline’s rules and regulations ahead of time.

You’ll have to fill out some extra paperwork for your child if they’re traveling as an unaccompanied minor and you’ll want to be sure to have their passport on hand to confirm their age. Also, help them to pack their bag and be clear about what’s in their bag to ensure it will meet with all security regulations.

Is This a Good Option for My Child?

Even if your child meets the age cut-off to travel as an unaccompanied minor, you’ll want to consider whether this is truly a viable option for them. Although they will have an escort on and off the plane and between flights, they are not necessarily monitored the entire day. It takes a certain level of maturity for your child to travel alone. Consider whether or not they have the emotional fortitude to be away from a parent for the entire day and whether they have the capability of listening to the flight attendants’ directions and entertaining themselves during the flight. If you’re not confident about your child’s maturity, having them fly unaccompanied may not be a good idea.

Packing the Carry-On

Once you decide that you’ll be letting your child fly as an unaccompanied minor, it’s important to help them prepare so that it will be a positive and successful experience. Start by helping them pack their carry-on bag, ensuring that they know both what is in the bag and where each item is located. Ensure that the bag is light enough for them to carry on their own, and discuss with them the importance of keeping track of their bag all day long. Also make sure there is a clear luggage tag on their bag so that if they do forget it anywhere, it can be located and returned to them.

You’ll want to be sure that your child’s carry-on sets them up for success during the flight. Include a few different forms of entertainment that will distract your child without disrupting the other passengers on the plane. Books and small toys can be great options. Many planes also offer in-flight movies, so packing a pair of neatly stowed headphones can allow your child to indulge if that’s the case. You’ll also want to pack some snacks, as well as a little bit of emergency cash in case they need it between flights.

Preparing for Emergencies

You and your child will both feel more comfortable with this adventure if you’re confident your child knows what to do if something goes wrong. Take a field trip to the airport with your child ahead of time. Point out what the security guards look like and discuss what they should do if a stranger approaches them during their trip or if they get separated from their chaperone at any point. You may even consider packing a cell phone with your child with a few emergency phone numbers programmed into it just in case something happens.

Discussing Airplane Etiquette

If this is your child’s first solo flight—or first flight in general—it’s reasonable to assume that they don’t automatically know airplane etiquette. Have a conversation with your child about your expectations of their behavior while waiting in the terminal and, later, on the airplane itself. Talk about the fact that it’s rude to kick the seat of the person in front of them, for example, and that they’re expected to stay in their seat with their seatbelt fastened throughout the trip. Laying these expectations out ahead of time can ensure your child behaves responsibly while traveling alone.

Talking About Feelings

You don’t want to impose any fears you may have about flying on your child, but your child may have some anxieties of their own about flying. Give them space to discuss these fears in a judgment-free environment before you go to board them on the plane. If your child does have anxieties, discuss some of the safety feature planes have in case something happens. You may even want to check out a book on aviation so that they can better understand how the plane works in the first place.

Other feelings to discuss with your child may be feelings they haven’t experienced yet. Let them know that they may feel nauseous during the flight, and talk to them about what to do if they need to throw up during the flight. You may also want to discuss the fact that their ears may pop during takeoff or landing. If your child is old enough and can be trusted with it, you may want to pack them some gum to chew during takeoffs and landings to prevent that.  

Flying unaccompanied is a big responsibility for your child, but with careful preparation and clear expectations, you can make this a positive learning experience for them, helping them foster some independence when they fly this season.