Links to Example Programs for Children Under 18 Flying Alone:
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"Unaccompanied Minors". To me, as a parent, these are two frightening words conjuring up images of children alone and lost. In reality, children traveling alone are so common that most airlines have programs to support this service. I have considered using this option a number of times to enable my children to spend more time with extended family - particularly during the long summer school holidays - but I've always managed to find a reason to avoid such a drastic choice. Until this year. My children are asking when they're going to see their grandparents next but it's very unlikely that we'll be able to take a family trip to Ireland or anywhere else in Europe this summer.
Why am I nervous at the prospect of putting my children on an international flight without a parent? Well, let's see, they could totally misbehave on the flight...they might start fighting with each other...they may forget to eat on the flight...I know they won't sleep...they might lose their passports...the person who's meeting them at the other end might forget to pick them up... As you can see, plenty of fodder for a healthy set of mom-nightmares. Practically, though, it's likely that none of those things will happen, and the experience of traveling alone is an excellent opportunity for my boys to assert their independence and step up to increased responsibility. I suspect they will pass this "maturity test" with flying colors. So, this summer they will travel from Seattle to Dublin (via Heathrow!) without Mom or Dad.
Most airlines offer some form of escort/safety service for unaccompanied child travelers between the ages of five and fifteen. Usually, there is an additional fee (between $50 and $120) levied per child. Many airlines require that the child's flight reservation is made with a travel agent or directly with the airline. Airlines also collect detailed information about the person who will meet the child at the destination.
Airline programs differ with regard to: the specific age limits for traveling as an unaccompanied minor domestically and internationally; management of connecting flights; taking red-eye flights; and cooperation with codeshare or partner airlines. I've included links to the specific details for a few major carriers below for comparison purposes. I'm loath to summarize this information for you since - as with anything else related to flying - the rules are likely to change over time. If you're considering having your children fly alone, check with your airline for their specific rules. I've found that searching on the phrases "unaccompanied minor" or "children traveling alone" on the airline's website is the most efficient way to find this information.
Meanwhile, I'm going to go back to coordinating this one trip with a half-dozen relatives (and their respective work and vacation schedules) to ensure that my boys are safe and well cared for through lay-overs and that their grandparents have help and support if needed. And worrying. Probably needlessly, I know. But I have a feeling I'll be dwelling on this, oh, until maybe Labor Day - when my kids are safely back in Seattle.