Kids flying solo? How to save on unaccompanied minor fees
Pay for the fare with your card points, cover the service fee with travel credits
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.
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.
Airline rules for unaccompanied minors
|Airline||Policy applies to||Cost|
|American Airlines||Mandatory for ages 5-14, optional for 15-17||$150 each way|
|With American, the person dropping off must show proof of the child's age and accompany the child to the security gate and remain until takeoff. Numerous restrictions and conditions apply; see website for details.|
|Delta Air Lines||Required for all children 5-14 years old and optional for children 15-17 years old who are traveling alone.||$150 each way|
|With Delta, a parent or designated accompanying adult must take the unaccompanied minor to the departure gate and remain until the flight has left the ground. A valid ID must be presented and signature captured of the person meeting the child. Delta will not release your minor to anyone other than the person named.|
|United Airlines||Required for all children 5-14 (as of the travel date) who travel without a parent, legal guardian or someone who is at least 18.||$150 each way|
|United requires information about who is dropping off and picking up unaccompanied minors. It is recommended that this information be included when making the reservation for the child. United has a checklist online for parents making reservations for unaccompanied minors.|
|Alaska Airlines||Required for children 5-12, optional for youths 13-17.||$25 each way for children 5-7, $25 or $50 each way for children 8-17, depending on whether flight is nonstop or connecting|
|Alaska Airlines requires gate escort and guardian contact information. Numerous rules and conditions apply for unaccompanied minors, depending on the age of your child. See website for details, a checklist and a blank guardian contact form.|
|Southwest Airlines||Required for children 5-12||$50 each way|
|With Southwest, a parent or guardian must be present and show a valid government-issued photo ID to a Southwest representative when checking in or picking up an unaccompanied minor. Children flying alone are allowed to travel only on nonstop or same-plane service. See website for additional details.|
|JetBlue Airlines||Required for children between the ages of 5 and under 14.||$100 each way|
|With JetBlue, when you call to say that a child will be flying unaccompanied, you will be asked to supply the following information for both the person dropping off and picking up the child: name and address (as it appears on government-issued ID) and phone number.|
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.
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.
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.
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