What is a good age to fly kids alone as unaccompanied minors? Which airline should you choose and how do you know it is the right choice? Jo O’Neil has been sending her daughter Darcie* (10) on planes between Sydney and Brisbane in Australia once a month on her own since just before she turned 6. She tells suitcases&strollers how she knew when Darcie was ready to fly solo and how she ensures she is safe and comfortable flying as an unaccompanied minor. (And don’t miss Darcie’s tips for kids flying alone as unaccompanied minors at the end of our story.)

Why did you decide to send Darcie on her first unaccompanied flight?

Darcie had been travelling between Sydney and Brisbane once a month since the age of three accompanied by either me, her dad or her stepdad. This is because my husband and I relocated to Sydney, but wanted to ensure Darcie and her dad maintained their relationship.

Usually Darcie and I would fly to Brisbane, her dad would meet us at the airport and take her home with him, I would go and spend the weekend on the Gold Coast with my family, then we would meet again at the airport to fly back to Brisbane. Other times her dad or stepdad might make that journey with her, or one would fly her up or down and then turn around and return home on the next flight. It became quite difficult once I had another child (just after Darcie turned five) to manage the logistics.

So after two and a half years of making that journey with her and taking into account the cost and the inconvenience of the journey for the adults, we started thinking we should try sending her unaccompanied.

How do you know when a kid is ready to fly alone as an unaccompanied minor?

Darcie was a seasoned traveller after so many flights – for her it was really like a bus or train journey. She was comfortable going to the toilet, with the process of flying, she knew how to keep herself amused and honestly had no reaction to any part of the journey. As a nervous flyer myself I would look to see how it was affecting her and was always a bit jealous with how much she took it in her stride! If only it was that easy for me! She was very comfortable flying.

I was actually more nervous about her flying by herself than either her dad or stepdad – they were more comfortable that she would be fine. I ended up taking a leap of faith to send her on that first journey herself and was really glad I did – of course she was absolutely fine.

How did you prepare Darcie for that first flight as an unaccompanied minor?  

As she had been flying regularly for so long, we told her that on her next flight she would be going by herself up to see Daddy and then talked her through the process that would happen. I didn’t go into a huge amount of detail – I just told her the key points around how I would take her to the airport and take her to the plane, how she would be going on the plane with the flight attendants, how they would look after her for the flight and then how, at the other end, Daddy would be there waiting. We let her ask any questions she had but she was so comfortable already with the process that once she understood she would be doing the same flight (just by herself) she was fine.

How did you decide which airline for kids flying alone was right for you?

The only options for kids to fly alone as an unaccompanied minor at 5 years of age were Qantas and Virgin and we all agreed that we felt most comfortable with Qantas. I have always been very impressed with their service and they really do have a good process for looking after unaccompanied children.

[For more travel tips on family friendly airlines, see the suitcases&strollers story Family Friendly Airlines Compared.] 

Darcie is always the last person on the flight, behind even celebrities! Once we were waiting for her to board and they seemed to be taking a long time before they took her on. Then all of a sudden there was a bit of a flurry and Usher walked past and boarded the plane…and Darcie went on after him! I was all excited at seeing him but Darcie was already walking on to the plane behind him and she had no idea who he was. It was a cool moment.

Darcie is also the last person off the flight as they will make sure she is brought up to the gate with a flight attendant. I have found them to be very consistent and generally just lovely with her – they always have something nice to say about her and I really have no concerns about her during the flights at all. Their safety record is reassuring and Darcie always says she has had a good flight.

What is the process you go through whenever Darcie flies as an unaccompanied minor?

Because we fly with Qantas (and she is only going away for the weekend) we only ever pack one piece of carry on luggage. She takes a few items with her that she can play with on the plane. Usually some dolls, a book, some colouring in – whatever she would play happily with by herself at home. When she was younger I also packed a change of clothes, some travel snacks and a drink bottle – these are provided by Qantas but this way she doesn’t have to wait or ask anyone. The snacks would be food she was comfortable with and a bit of a treat, plus we might give her a small new toy to keep her amused and make it a bit more exciting.

I would also make sure she had gone to the toilet prior to the flight when she was younger. That may not always ensure she is OK for the whole flight but hopefully it is one less thing to worry about.

With Qantas I always go to the check in desk to check in – not the automatic check in stands. We usually try and get there about an hour ahead of time, but sometimes we cut it quite close (luckily she only takes carry on so that is less stressful). We now have a form to fill in that you can download from the website – they will email it to you when you make the booking as well. You need to complete this form and bring it with you to the airport.

At check in (which I have done at least a hundred times with her now), you will be asked for the form and photo ID. I have occasionally been asked to show other identification as well, but not often. They will then give you the form back to take to the gate, plus the boarding pass and an ID tag that Darcie wears on the plane. We then go through security and make our way to the gate.

[For more travel tips on the important travel documents you should always have when flying with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

As Darcie is always last on the plane, we tend to board very close to the actual flight time. You are asked to wait near the door with your child but they will not process her until everyone has boarded or there are only a few people left. Sometimes one attendant might go down with her while the other one waits for the stragglers; other times she will be the last on as she goes down with the last attendant. They usually check the paperwork, ask a question or two (has she flown before? Any allergies or things we should know?) and then will ask her who is meeting her at the other end. This is quite quick and informal but is the time to bring up any concerns or requests you might have.

[For more travel tips on traveling with allergies and special dietary requirements, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

We do a quick hug and a kiss and off she goes.

You are then expected to wait at the gate until the plane pushes back – this can take quite a while. You need to make sure you park your car – you will not be able to drop and run! I have waited 15 to 20 minutes usually for this to happen. Once the plane pushes back you are free to go.

At the other end she will be last off the plane and the flight attendant will bring her up to the gate, check the ID of the person collecting her is the same as stated on the form and, once that person signs the form, they are free to go. I would recommend the other person always makes sure the child has everything they brought on the plane – we have left a couple of iPods on planes before without recovering them (lesson learnt – no electronics on planes now!).

You need to make sure you have your mobile on you at all times or you are easily contactable as, if something happens with the flight, they will take your child to a holding area and let you know what is happening. We have never had this happen (knock on wood) so my assumption is they would put your child on the next available flight or, if cancelled, you might need to pick them up.

I would very much recommend being able to contact the other person collecting the child – I always send a text that she had boarded and then a text saying she has arrived when collecting her. Darcie’s dad does the same.

How did the airline live up to your expectations in terms of how they care for kids flying alone as unaccompanied minors?

Qantas is very professional and I have complete confidence they take their role as the guardians of Darcie during the flight seriously. As she was already so familiar with the process I did not think she would be worried so that helped. She is a confident, adaptable girl and the feedback we received after each flight was lovely. They take a real interest in her, especially when she was younger, and would play games with her, talk to her and even take her up to meet the captain.

How did Darcie cope with her first experience as a kid flying alone as an unaccompanied minor?

I realise now that 5 is very young to consider a kid flying alone as an unaccompanied minor but for her it was the right choice and she handled it admirably. She really took it in her stride and I never really worried about it once we started doing it each month. The benefits of building the relationship with her dad completely outweighed any concerns I had (which dissipated after the first couple of flights).

I think the independence it has given her, the ability to talk with and interact with different people (usually other unaccompanied minors or families she sits with) is of real benefit.

It sounds like Darcie being a kid flying alone as an unaccompanied minor has become a normal part of the family routine now.

We have always flown Qantas and we definitely have a basic routine. I think the car could automatically drive itself to the airport now! 90% of the time I will drop her at the airport and her dad will pick her up in Brisbane. She knows how to pack her bag and what to take and looks forward to watching in-flight entertainment now she is older.

Would you consider sending Darcie as a kid flying alone unaccompanied on an international long haul flight?

This is a tricky one – I am not so worried about the flight itself but more what happens with getting through passport control, customs, waiting to board. We have not looked into it as we have no reason to do this. Domestically I can walk her to the gate so I know she is fine and only has to walk on the plane. An international flight adds that layer of uncertainty about where she is and who she is with before boarding and when disembarking.

I would want to be very comfortable with that.

What is the ideal age to start kids flying alone as unaccompanied minors?

There are two ways to answer this.

1.  If you have no choice but to send them unaccompanied (which could be for many reasons), then try and make them as comfortable as possible with the process. If they have never flown before, maybe do a trial trip to the airport and walk past check in, go through security, walk up to the gate. Maybe watch some YouTube videos online of flying so they get a sense of it. This will all help.

2.  If you do have a choice and if they have flown before, are comfortable with the process and you believe they can handle asking adults for assistance if needed, that is probably the right age. Every parent will have a different idea of the age their kids would be capable to do that – for example I find it highly unlikely I would send my second child unaccompanied at the same age I sent Darcie. If he went with Darcie then that would be fine, but probably not by himself. So even with our family’s experience, it varies!

How can you which are the best family friendly airlines to cater for kids flying alone as unaccompanied minors?   

Personally, having done this from such a young age, I would only go with a full-service airline. I would never use a budget airline (many don’t take unaccompanied minors anyway). This would be the same for an international flight – for example Singapore Airlines rather than Scoot or Air Asia. Airlines usually post their policies online so this is a good place to start researching. If you know other people who have done it you could also ask them about their experiences.

What are your top 3 tips for other parents considering flying their kids alone as unaccompanied minors?

If possible fly with them at least once [before they do their solo flight] so they know what to expect – you can show them how to use the toilet, what the different parts of the flight are, what some of the noises are. You can also show them how to ask for help. The more comfortable they are with the process, the easier it is!

Make sure they don’t sense your nervousness – flying should be exciting and fun and if they need any help there are attendants there to help. If they think there is a reason to be nervous, then they will start to feel it too.

Make sure you are there in time so there is no rushing and also that the person meeting them at the other end is on time too. This will take the stress out of the whole process and help them feel calm.

A new toy for the plane is also a good idea!

Darcie’s Travel Tips for Kids Flying Alone

I do like flying by myself because I get to be independent and do something by myself.

You sit at the back of the plane in the last row and all the crew members help you if you need it. You don’t have one person assigned to you – but a couple will always introduce themselves either before you sit down or before the plane takes off. You are left alone during the flight but if you need help you can ask for it by pressing the call button. They give you a briefing before the plane takes off of what all the buttons are, what is going to happen. 

[If there are other kids flying alone] you usually sit together in a row of three. If there is only a couple you will sit together, but most of the time I am alone. 

I don’t remember other passengers talking to me much during the flight; there have been a couple of families that talked to me and played some games with me (but only if they had kids). Usually other passengers don’t talk to me at all. When I was younger staff were really nice to me, twice I was taken into the cockpit and met the pilot and secondary officer. Now I am older they don’t need to help me as much because I know what I am doing. 

Flying with my family is more interesting and fun because there is someone to talk to right next to you. Flying by myself is ok but a bit boring.

Be confident. Trust the crew. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.

*Not her real name

Image: Michelle Leung