Most U.S. airlines have the following age-based unaccompanied minor qualifications (but call your airline to get all the information):
Age 5 and younger: Cannot travel alone.
Age 5 to 7: Can travel alone on nonstop and through flights.
Age 8 to 11: Can usually travel alone on any flight.
Age 12 to 17: For domestic flights, can travel alone on any flight without restrictions. For international flights, can travel alone on any flight but many carriers require unaccompanied minor procedures.
For ages 5 to 11, unaccompanied minor procedures are required on all flights.
Booking a flight
When booking flights for children, always try to book a nonstop flight, or if no nonstop flight exists, then try for a direct or “through” flight, where children won’t have to change planes.
If the flight has meal service, ask about reserving a child’s meal if available, because these have to be arranged in advance.
Ask the airline about “electronic ticketing” where no paper ticket is issued (and therefore, no ticket is lost).
Check all itinerary and ticket information to make sure names, destinations and other information are correct.
Ask the airline about getting a gate pass so that you may accompany your children through security to the departure gate.
Preparing for the flight
If your child hasn’t flown, visit the airport before the trip to have them be familiar with their surroundings. Be sure they know where assistance can be found.
Have your child dress in comfortable clothes. Put their first initial and last name on any article of clothing, like a jacket, that may be taken off during the flight.
Get to the airport at least one to two hours before departure for a domestic flight and two or more hours for an international flight. Don’t plan to just drop your child off at the entrance or ticket counter.
Bring to the airport the address and phone number of the person meeting your child. The airline will request this information.
Have your child use the bathroom in the gate area before boarding.
Stay in the gate area until the flight has taken off.
What to pack
Consider having your child bring a small carry-on bag. It could include books, small toys, games, crayons, and even a surprise or two. Also include a light snack and any essentials your child may need for the next 24 hours, in case of delays. Be sure to pack a copy of the child’s complete itinerary, including the names and cell phone numbers of the person meeting them. Make sure your child knows this is in their carry-on bag.
Things to tell your child
The most important to tell them is NOT to leave the airport unaccompanied or with a stranger.
Tell them if the flight will have a stop or connection.
Let them know there will be pressure changes in take-off and landing, that can bother their ears. Tell them they can yawn or chew gum or swallow a few times to help with this.
If it’s their first flight, explain the different sounds they’ll hear and that there may be some patches of bumpy air that pose no threat to the aircraft.
Advise your child to keep their seat belt fastened at all times.
To see all of their tips and procedures, go to http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/pubs.htm and click on “When Kids Fly Alone” under “Other Publications.”