Travel expert who writes the “Have Cards, Will Travel” column for CreditCards.com
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I started my flying and points-collecting career pretty young. My parents lived in different parts of the country and as a preteen frequent flyer, my sister and I would fly solo up and down the East Coast for shared holidays and summer vacations.
Back then, there were limited regulations about loyalty programs, security checks and lots of other things. My mom would walk with us to the gate, wave us off when we boarded the plane and my dad would pick us up on the other side – no extra fees, no special gate passes, no cumbersome airline rules.
The big fees some of the largest airlines now charge to fly unaccompanied minors are just one of many things that have changed in the airline world since I was a kid flying solo in the ’80s, but there are ways around them.
While you can’t make your kids get older any faster to avoid the fees, there are a couple of actions you can take as a savvy spender to help you save on those occasions when you must fly a child somewhere solo. One of these involves some rewards credit cards, which include annual travel credits that could cover the expense of flying an unaccompanied minor. Another plus: these cards also offer sign-up bonuses, typically enough for a free trip.
First, check airlines’ unaccompanied minor policies
In addition to looking for a good fare for the plane ticket you’re purchasing, shop your options across the airlines for their unaccompanied minor services. Airlines have significant variations in their unaccompanied minor policies with fees and age range being the most notable.
The three largest traditional U.S. carriers – American, Delta and United – charge the highest unaccompanied minor fees at $150 plus tax each way for children flying alone. This adds a hefty surcharge to even the best bargain ticket.
Outside the big three airlines, the cost of unaccompanied minor services varies notably. If you’re looking to save and can find the routing you require elsewhere, it’s worth looking beyond the traditional airlines.
Service fees for unaccompanied minors on Alaska Airlines, for example, which runs many of the same transcontinental routes as the U.S. legacy carriers, will cost you $25 each way on a nonstop direct flight, or $50 each way for connecting flights. Children 5-7 fly for $25 each way whether it is a nonstop direct flight or connecting flights.
Can’t find your flights on Alaska? Southwest’s unaccompanied minor service charge is $50 each way on U.S. domestic routes.
Print our downloadable checklist for flying with infants.
Airline policies differ depending on your child’s age
The age of the children flying alone also will affect what you pay. At the low end of the age limit, all the airlines follow the same rule – 5 is the youngest at which you can send your child unaccompanied on a direct flight.
The difference in airline policies comes once your kids pass double digits and enter the tween years.
Last summer, my very independent and not-quite-yet 15-year-old niece asked if she could fly across the country from Florida to Oregon to visit me. She had received a free ticket on American Airlines by volunteering her seat on a family vacation.
Airline policies on flying with babies
|Lap baby policies||Children under two may travel on the lap of an adult ticketed passenger. To add a lap infant request to your reservation, call Alaska Airlines reservations at 800-252-7522 with your confirmation code. Due to oxygen mask availability, only one lap infant is permitted in each row.|
|Infant seat requirements||If there is an empty seat, a lap infant may use the seat with an approved car seat. The car seat must be labeled both: “this restraint system conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety conditions” and “this restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.” However, an infant may not sit in an emergency exit row or the row in front of or behind one, any aisle seat or “A” seats in rows 1-4 on flights operated with Embraer E175 aircraft.|
|Infant fare?||Lap infants travel free in the United States, but may incur fees of $17 to $27 when traveling internationally into United States. Lap infants traveling outside of North America may be ticketed at a percentage of the adult fare plus taxes.|
|Infant fare?||Lap infants travel free in the United States, but may incur fees of $17 to $27 when traveling internationally into United States. Lap infants traveling outside of North America may be ticketed at a percentage of the adult fare plus taxes.||Other policies on flying with babies|
|Lap baby policies||A parent or person at least 16 years old may hold an infant in their lap if they add the infant to their reservation by calling AA reservations. AA accepts infants as young as two days old, but infants less than seven days old require passenger medical form filled out by your doctor. (A special assistance coordinator will send the form directly to doctor.) Infants must be accompanied by a parent or a person at least 16 years old.|
|Infant seat requirements||“In order to sit in a seat, an infant must be ticketed or there must be an empty seat next to the accompanying adult. In this case, the infant may be placed in an FAA-approved* car seat or directly in the seat if they can sit up without assistance with the seat belt buckled. The safety seat can’t be used in an exit row or in the rows on either side of an exit row. *(It is also acceptable to use a car seat approved by a foreign government or with a label stating that it was manufactured under the standards of the United Nations.)”|
|Infant fare?||For international flights, international taxes and percentage of adult fare may apply.|
|Other policies on flying with babies||To carry on a safety seat, you must have bought a seat for the child, or a seat must be available next to you. If an unoccupied, adjoining seat is not available, the gate agent will check the safety seat to your final destination. Bassinets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis at the gate for travel only on 777-200, 767-300, 777-300 and 787 aircraft. (But not available in first class.) One lap infant per adult passenger.|
|Lap baby policies||Lap infants are permitted if the baby is under two, the accompanying adult is at least 18 and is the parent or legal guardian and is traveling within the U.S. However, Delta strongly recommends that you purchase a seat and use a car seat. All infants must be accompanied in the same cabin by a parent, legal guardian or other adult at least 18 years old. Newborns less than seven days old require a doctor letter to fly.|
|Infant seat requirements||“Car seats may not be used in: aisle seats; emergency exit rows and the rows directly in front of or behind them; bulkhead seats when the safety seat is a combination car seat and stroller; or flat bed seats in the Delta One area of these aircraft: Airbus A330-200 or A330-300; Boeing 777, 767 or 747 aircraft. Delta-approved restraints for infants include: car seats manufactured after 2/25/85 with the label “conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle standards” or “certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft”; or car seats manufactured between 1/1/81 and 2/25/85 and labeled: “conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle standards”; or car seats approved by a foreign government or manufactured under the standards of the United Nations. Booster seats are not allowed. The only harness allowed is the FAA-approved CARES restraint device.”|
|Infant fare?||There is no fee for traveling with a lap infant in the United States. International taxes and fees apply for lap infants, and the cost is usually about 10 percent of the adult fare, plus any international taxes and surcharges. You must purchase a ticket if you have a child that turns age two during a trip.|
|Other policies on flying with babies||“You must purchase a ticket for your infant if you have a second child who will be sitting on your lap or if you will be traveling between countries, even if the child does not occupy a seat.”|
|Lap baby policies||Lap infants are permitted if they are at least seven days and less than two years old. Lap infants can’t sit in any row with an airbag seat belt, which usually includes the first row. The person holding the child must be at least 15 (or 18 on international flights.) Please let Frontier know you’ll be traveling with a lap infant.|
|Infant seat requirements||Car seats must have an FAA-approved label. Booster seats are allowed during flight but not during takeoff and landing. It is recommended to place car seats in window seats. Car seats are not allowed in the first row or in exit rows or the rows directly in front of or behind exit rows.|
|Infant fare?||Lap infants travel free on U.S. flights but may incur taxes on international flights.|
|Other policies on flying with babies||You may be asked to supply a birth certificate to verify infant’s age. One lap infant per adult passenger.|
|Lap baby policies||Children under age two are allowed to travel as lap infants. You must call reservations to arrange travel with a lap infant. Babies under seven days old require doctor approval letter to fly.|
|Infant seat requirements||Car seats manufactured between 1/1/81 and 2/26/85 must bear a label stating: “This child restraint system conforms to all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety standards.” Car seats manufactured after 2/26/85 must contain a label stating that they are approved for use in flight. Car seats approved by foreign governments also may be used. If you wish to use a rear-facing car seat, notify the airline in advance so accommodations can be made. Car seats are not permitted in: aisle seats; exit rows and rows immediately in front of or behind an exit; or in row 4 on B717 planes.|
|Infant fare?||Lap infants fly free to neighbor islands and on North American flights. For other international flights, the cost is 10 percent of an adult ticket plus taxes and fees.|
|Other policies on flying with babies||You must provide infant’s birth certificate as proof of age for international flights, and it’s recommended you carry this documentation for domestic flights. You may request bassinets on most international flights. One lap infant per ticketed passenger age 15 or older.|
|Lap baby policies||Lap infants at least three days and under two years old are permitted. Passengers traveling with a lap infant must call 800-JETBLUE (538-2583) to provide JetBlue with the name and birth date of the lap child. Infants three to 14 days old need a doctor’s letter to fly. Infants must be traveling with a passenger age 14 or older. One lap infant per row on each side of plane. Lap infants may not be seated in exit rows.|
|Infant seat requirements||Car seat must be FAA-approved. A child may sit in an airplane seat without a car seat if they are able to sit upright on their own. Booster seats and harnesses not allowed during takeoff and landing unless FAA-approved.|
|Infant fare?||Lap infants travel free domestically. Lap infants traveling from an international location to the United States will incur a fee based on the place of departure. In some cases (depending on origin country and destination airport), infants must be ticketed, so check with JetBlue.|
|Other policies on flying with babies||You will be asked to provide proof of age for a lap infant (for example: birth certificate, immunization records pr passport.) Copies are acceptable. One lap infant per adult passenger.|
|Lap baby policies||Lap infants must be under two and traveling with a passenger age 12 or older. A medical release for travel is required for infants under 14 days old.|
|Infant seat requirements||Discounted infant fares are available if you prefer to purchase a seat for the baby and use a car seat. To book infant fares for international flights, call 800-I-FLY-SWA (800-435-9792). If your car seat was manufactured before 2/25/85, it must have one of the following three labels, while a seat made after 2/25/85 must bear both of the first two labels: 1. This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft. 2. This child restraint device conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards; 3. FAA approved in accordance with 14 CFR Part 21.305 (D) approved for aircraft use only. A car seat may not be used in an aisle seat.|
|Infant fare?||No charge for lap infants flying domestically. Taxes and fees apply for international flights.|
|Other policies on flying with babies||A copy of birth certificate is required for age validation. Lap infants do not need a boarding pass, but do need a “boarding verification document.” Ticketed infants need a boarding pass. One lap infant per adult passenger.|
|Lap baby policies||Lap infants at least seven days and under two years old are allowed. You must check in with a gate agent if you are flying with a lap infant. The infant must be traveling with a passenger who is at least 15 years old. You may add a lap child to your reservation when booking online.|
|Infant seat requirements||You may purchase a seat for your infant if you wish. In that case, the infant must sit in an FAA-approved car seat. Lap infants and children in car seats are not allowed to sit in emergency exit rows or in the row in front or behind the emergency exit row. They also may not occupy a seat that has an inflatable seat belt.|
|Infant fare?||There is no charge for the flight, but taxes and fees may be charged depending on the destination.|
|Other policies on flying with babies||An infant that requires an incubator or other life support system may not fly. Spirit reserves the right to ask for proof of age (such as a birth certificate or passport) for any child under two. One lap infant per adult passenger.|
|Lap baby policies||Lap infants under age two traveling within the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands do not need a ticket. Lap infants must be at least seven days old. When making your own reservation, let United know you will be traveling with an infant.|
|Infant seat requirements||Children who are not traveling on a lap and are unable to sit upright on their own must be in an FAA-approved car seat. Infant seats are not permitted in exit rows, or the rows in front of or behind exit rows. Booster seats, belly belts attached to adult seat belts and devices that hold an infant on an adult’s chest are not permitted.|
|Infant fare?||There is no charge for lap infants for domestic flights. The international fee is 10 percent of an adult fare, and it may be cheaper to purchase an infant fare seat.|
|Other policies on flying with babies||United does not accept infants in incubators. One lap infant per adult passenger.|
One minor hiccup: The added unaccompanied minor service fees of $300 ($150 each way) made her ticket far from free.
With American, United and Delta, all children traveling alone up to and including 14 years old must pay the unaccompanied minor service fee, without exception. Even if you’re 14 years and 362 days on the day you fly, the nonrefundable fee is $150 each way.
With JetBlue, the cutoff date for minors is one year lower, allowing 14-year-olds to fly alone. With JetBlue, there is a $100 per person fee, each way for unaccompanied minors.
If you have an independent tween who feels comfortable navigating airports and flying solo, Alaska Airlines requires minors to be accompanied only through age 12, and Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest Airlines cut off the requirement after age 11.
Selecting one of these alternative carriers could save some extra money even if the base fare is a little more expensive.
Had my niece flown the Alaska Airlines flight from Orlando to Portland rather than using her free American ticket, we would have paid significantly less in the long run for her flights.
An added benefit of flying your child on an alternative airline: You might spare your teen the humiliation of what my best friend’s teenager refers to as “unaccompanied airline jail.”
Most airlines require minors traveling alone to wear placards and name bracelets, and to remain with a flight attendant at the gate so they can’t get lost in the airport. This can be torture for the 14-year-old who wants the freedom to get a pre-flight frappuccino at Starbucks.
Pay with points, use travel credits to cut your cost
Unless you can find a flight in which your unaccompanied minor tops out of the age bracket, you’ll most likely wind up paying some fees to fly your kid(s) solo.
While there are no credit cards that cover this specific type of airline fee as a benefit, there are a few ways to play your points and rewards to minimize this added travel cost.
First off, all airlines will let you purchase the actual ticket for an unaccompanied minor with points. This will be easiest to do with miles or points you’ve earned in the airline program through a co-branded airline credit card or transferred from a flexible rewards program directly to the airline.
In most cases you will need to call the reservation number to book the award, as online ticket systems often will not issue bookings for children traveling alone.
On top of the cost of the purchased ticket, the unaccompanied minor service fee is added as a separate charge, and airline policies differ on when this payment is collected. While you can’t use your airline points to cover this cost directly, you can use travel credits to reimburse you for the expense if your rewards card offers these.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card includes an annual $300 travel reimbursement, and the Platinum Card from American Express credits $200 of incidental fees annually on your choice of airline.
Alternatively, you could make the payment with a flexible travel rewards card, such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard or the Capital One Venture card. Since the charge is made directly to the airline, you can redeem miles from your Arrival Plus or Venture cards to pay for unaccompanied minor fees.
Tip: Make sure your children – no matter what age they are – are registered for their own frequent flyer account so they are earning points whenever they are flying with or without you.
Safety tips for kids flying alone
It’s true that flying alone can be a great way for kids to spread their wings. But it’s crucial to make sure they know how to navigate the airport and the flight safely, especially if they’re too old to fly officially as an “unaccompanied minor.” Before your child takes off, share these unaccompanied minor safety tips:
- If your child is flying through an unaccompanied minor program, tell him not to take off the airline badge or bracelet until after he’s arrived and has been picked up by the designated adult. These tags might be annoying or embarrassing (especially for older kids), but they’re the ticket to a safe flight.
- Make sure your kid has a fully charged cell phone and a list of phone numbers, including yours and the number for the adult designated to pick her up at the arrival airport. And teach her how to put that phone in airplane mode for the flight
- Tell your child to try to put an empty seat between her and anyone else. And talk to her about what to do if a seatmate touches her or does anything that makes her feel unsafe. While it’s rare, there have been cases of minors getting groped on flights. Talk about options such as yelling “NO!” loudly, getting the attention of a flight attendant as quickly as possible and alerting other nearby passengers immediately. Make sure your child knows to explain clearly to a flight attendant what happened and to get moved to a safer seat.
- Tell your child, if flying through an unaccompanied minor program, to wait for a uniformed airline representative to escort him off the plane. And no matter what his age, stress that he should never, ever leave the airport alone or with a stranger.
- Let your child know she can ask a flight attendant or other uniformed representative of the airline she’s flying if she has any doubts, questions or ever needs help.
Start by taking to the skies with baby
If your child isn’t yet old enough to venture out from under your wing, you’ll need to navigate the world of flying with infants. As with sending your child on a solo trip, a little planning can make the journey much easier.
The good news is that flying with babies can be quite affordable. Airlines typically allow babies under age two to fly for free on U.S. flights as lap infants. (See chart for airline policies on flying with babies.) That’s not always the case with international flights, where taxes and fees for lap babies can cost you more than a discounted infant ticket. Getting an infant ticket also can make the flight more comfortable and help baby get an early start racking up miles. Unfortunately, lap babies don’t earn miles.
If you plan to fly with your baby, let the airline know at the same time you make your reservation. Airlines typically require advance notice, and there’s sometimes limited seating for lap babies, depending on the number of oxygen masks available on a given flight and other factors.
If your baby is a newborn, you’ll have to check airline policies to make sure your little one is old enough to board the plane. Many airlines require the baby to be at least a week old or have a doctor’s letter clearing them to fly.
It’s also important to scope out the right seats since lap infants and babies in car seats are generally not allowed to sit in certain seats or rows for safety’s sake. For example, they can’t sit in, or directly in front of or behind, exit rows. And they can’t occupy rows with inflatable seatbelts. If you do your homework ahead of time, you won’t be scrambling to switch seats while trying to calm your baby.
And speaking of keeping your little one serene and happy, most airlines recommend that you bring along some food or drink to give your child during takeoff and landing to lessen ear pain.
Getting an early start as a frequent flyer will help your kid easily make the transition to flying alone. For many kids, flying solo builds confidence and a sense of independence. You never know what will happen when you give your kids wings like my parents did for me. Your unaccompanied minor may turn into a very independent and well-traveled adult.
Additional reporting by Allie Johnson.