Children flying solo? How to save on unaccompanied minor fees

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Pay for the fare with your card points, cover the service fee with travel credits

Travel and cards writer
Travel expert who writes the “Have Cards, Will Travel” column for CreditCards.com

Children flying solo? How to save on unaccompanied minor fees

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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. 

See related: Hidden card benefit: Save money and sanity in airport lounges, 5 money-saving credit card tips for savvy family travelers, How to use your points to travel on the best airlines





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