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Guide to flying with children and unaccompanied minors rules

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

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.

The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date. Please review our list of best credit cards, or use our CardMatch tool to find cards matched to your needs.
The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date. Please review our list of best credit cards, or use our CardMatch tool to find cards matched to your needs.

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.

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.

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.

Article Online website - https://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/unaccompanied-minors-save-fees.php
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