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11-yo and 5-y-o traveling alone together

April 2008

This summer, our 11-year-old and 5-year-old may fly with each other (without parents) to visit their grandmother. The trip would last several hours and be nonstop. I think we can cover safety issues (especially since I understand we can get a pass to accompany them to the gate) but am worried about sibling squabbling during the flight. At times they are angelic together (with strangers complementing us on how well they treat each other) and at other times they quarrel (but no hitting). Does anyone have experience in preparing children to travel alone together? We have a portable DVD player we've used to keep them occupied on past trips. What else would help solo child travelers traveling together? How much money should we give our 11-year-old for emergencies on flight day? Any advice is welcome! Ready to let them stretch their wings


Hi, When I was five, my 11-year-old brother and I flew to Spain alone together to join our father for a vacation. Not only did we not squabble, but we now share some great memories from our adventure together. I think an 11-year-old will be more responsible when an adult isn't around to take care of things for them.

The flight attendants were also wonderful; this was 35 years ago but they helped make the flight special...taking us into the cockpit, the first class lounge on top of the 747, giving us little presents. This kind of attention might not happen now with the new regulations, but I have seen flight attendents dote on children flying by themselves recently.

Good luck with your decision! Loves to fly


My immediate reaction is that at 5 and 11--they are too young to fly w/o adult supervision. My oldest is 5 - and I can't imagine he'd remain well behaved for a three hour flight with adult supervision much less with an 11 yr old sibling calling the shots! If they have to fly alone, maybe u can request they be seated in the first or rear row, these seats are typically near flight attendants' stations. anon
You have got to be kidding!! I would never in a million years allow my children to travel without an adult. Maybe a teenager, maybe. Nor would I expect an eleven year old to be responsible for the well being of a five year old during a long flight. Forget squabbling, what if your five year old is missing you or scared? What if either one of them becomes sick? What if your eleven year old falls asleep? Yikes. This reminds me of the posting several months ago from a mom who wondered if it was OK to leave very young children to sleep alone in a hotel room at night while she and the husband went out for dinner. Why? Why? Why? Why take a risk like that? I just don't think it's the same as when we were kids. Airports are bigger and crazier. Flights are delayed and routed elsewhere. Remember that story in the news last year about the young girl being molested by the man traveling next to her? Very curious about the other responses you get. anon
I have to spend a minute responding to your post. I have 5 year old twins and I am also familar with 11 year olds. Having recently flown and having the trip delayed by over an hour, I can honestly say I don't think it is appropriate for you to allow a 5 year old to fly even with his/her sib. Soooo many things could happen that one could never predict. Why should your 11 yr old be responsible for their younger sib and what if something does go awry? A 5 year old belongs with a parent or guardian and quite frankly I find it hard to believe the airlines allow this. This past year my daughter and I were seated next to an absolutely, inappropriate, out of control drunken man. He wrecked of alcohol and was flirting with my little girl and practically leaning over onto my chest. Fortunately, the security guard bounced him off the plane and the story has a happy ending-my daughter was able to lie down since there was a second seat available. I ask you-What would this experience been like for your children without a caring family member? traveling mother of two
My children have flown by themselves twice. They started when they were 9 and 7. On the first time: the oldest was fine, even though he isn't very independent, and the youngest was nervous, even though she is very independent. She was worried about not having an adult 'be in charge of her.' She told me later she was fine once the flight attendant introduced themselves to her and she knew who to ask questions of. I also emphasized that the flight people will not leave them until they are safely turned over to whomever is picking them up. I felt awful watching them get on that plane, my heart was in my stomach, kind of like when you send them to school for the first time. The second time they went it was very routine. One time, while waiting at baggage claim, a woman came up to me and said, are those your children? I thought, uh-oh....she just wanted to tell me how wonderful they were, friendly and well behaved etc. My point is that when they are alone they form a team in trying to handle this new and maybe scary circumstance.

On preparing them: I told them in advance who was sitting by the window on the way there, and to switch on the way back. I packed some brand new, never seen little toys in their carry ons, which they couldn't open until the plane took off. We generally don't allow soda and I told them they could each order whatever they wanted, including soda. (THAT was a brainstorm, they were so excited!) You could give them each a disposable camera to document their trip. And a movie is a good idea on a longer flight. I do worry a little bit about the 5 year old changing their mind at the last minute, but if they seem ok with it, go for it! The 11 year old is certainly old enough to watch over him/her. anon


Ahh, this reminds me of a flight where I was one up from siblings (about 9 and 11) who played their noisy video games nonstop. Mom and Dad were smart (?) enough to be two rows behind their kids, and had a pleasant flight without having to parent. Lucky me. I got to hear the video game sounds for hours, along with squabbling, and societal rules of ''don't stick your nose in others' business'' meant I had to quietly endure this.

How nice for all the surrounding passengers that they get to parent your FIVE year old for free on a flight, and/or frustratedly listen to your kids squabble and/or cause problems with no recourse.

I cannot believe you are sending a five year old on a flight with only an 11yo as babybsitter. How utterly incompetent, not to mention really crappy to do to other passengers. My friend is *considering* allowing her very responsible, well-traveled 13yo travel alone. This age seems more appropriate.


My younger brother and I flew alone when we were kids and we fought horribly at home, but I don't remember ever fighting while traveling. I would explain to the older child that s/he needs to help the younger one. Meals on the plane are usually $5 each and headsets sometimes a few dollars--that's all they would need money for. If the people picking them up are late, the airline staff will keep them in a special room for unaccompanied minors, so they wouldn't be able to buy anything in the airport anyway. My kids have flown alone many times (but not together!) with no problems. happy flyer
Call me crazy, but I've been letting my son fly by himself since he was five years old. My in-laws live on the East Coast and love to have him come see them. The first time we sent him I was really worried, but fortunately, United is very organized about taking care of minors on planes. The child has to take a direct flight. You walk him to the gate, and he is picked up at the gate on the other side. They always seat him with a family, and the flight attendants have been very attentive. We've never had any problems. I really wouldn't worry about it, but then again, I'm much more laid back than most parents. Anon
My son flew alone from SF to Boston when he was 6.5 yrs old. The experience was great for him, he felt so proud of himself! He was well taken care of by a flight attendant and his grandmother met him at the gate. I met the flight attendant at the gate and she ushered him onto the plane. The kids sit right up front. Perhaps your 11 year old would step up to the plate and be responsible for the younger one for the duration of the flight. My kids are 10 and 4 and I would have them travel together when they are 11 and 5. My kids fight but the 11 year old can be very protective and loving with his younger sibling. anon
I just wanted to apologize to you for the awful tone of some of the responses you got! Goodness, people, back off - she asked about flying alone, not about feeding her kids to the jackals! Can't we keep this civil?

Personally I think it would be fine to send them on a 3-hour flight. Make sure that they each have a DVD player and headphones, and they will be happy as can be. (My 7 year old flies alone, and enjoys the feeling of independence and competence.) In favor of civil discourse


Go for it! They'll be fine! I dont have a ton of advice, but I wanted offer encouragement to cancel out the doubters. I flew alone (to Italy (!) to see grandparents) when i was 9, and it was fine. It's sort of like going out to eat; if you act like your kids can't possibly be well-behaved for a dinner out, then they won't learn, and then they can't. The flight attendants are helpful, you can escort the kids to the gate, and a few hours is not that long. Emphasize in advance how it is important for them to be good (e.g. ''if you're not good, Mommy might have to go in time-out''). The little presents thing is a great idea.

For some reason, I'm picturing the poster that complained about video game noise as being a snorer ... Sigh. -c


wow! i can't believe the overwhelmingly negative responses to your post. i had to write in to say that i think it depends on the children and their nature. is the 11-yr-old a responsible type, willing to calm down his sibling if s/he gets upset? is he willing to ask a flight attendant or airline staffer for help if anything goes wrong. do they both exercise common sense generally? last summer my 9-year old flew by himself up to oregon alone to spend a week with my best friend and her triplets. i was more nervous than he was! but the flight attendant met us at the gate, walked him to his seat, escorted him off the plane to meet his auntie at the gate on her end (and the same on the flight back) and it was a wonderful experience for him. airline staff are very helpful and fully understand your worries. please think of your own children and their capabilities when making this decision - don't let others' fear stop you from letting your children grow and experience life, if they are ready. hope this helps! mother of future world traveler
My 7 yo daughter flies alone several times a year starting last year and it has always been fine. She loves it, in fact. But she only flies for a hour to LA. In answer to the parents who were worried about someone inappropriate sitting next to your child, the airlines are supposed to make sure that doesn't happen. I don't know if they actually do, but they are supposed to. They escort my daughter to her seat up front where they can keep an eye on her, and they have any other children flying alone sit together. At least on Southwest. My daughter has met some great kids that way. I don't know if this is easier or harder with a sibling. I would think that would depend on your children. I'm very thankful the airlines have policies that allow this, because my life situation, which is probably different from those of the parents who are horrified by this, makes it important. It's probably fine
I used to work for Japanese travel agency in NYC for 7 years and often used Unaccompanied Minor service. The kids were over 6 year old, who are grown enough to manage themselves.

My daughter is 4 and already fly (with me) more than 10 times to Japan. She is not ready yet, but at 6 year old, if she seems mature enough to fly by herself, I will let her try. Although most of the flights to Japan are over 10 hours, there were no problems, as I know.

Airline requires some information, for example, the person who is sending off and picking up. And an airline clue is supposed to be with the minor until he/she meets the person at arrival gate. I saw Japanese flight attendants were checking the minors all the time, and taking care well. However, I also heard some mistakes with some American airlines on domestic flights several years ago, as well. Some airline may have lousy service. Plus, since September 2001, airlines have changed and had their own unaccompanied minor service rules and restriction. So you should call airlines directory. Here is an information site you might want to check, http://www.unaccompaniedminor.net/ Good luck! a berkeley mom


I was appalled to read one reply to this question:

''How utterly incompetent, not to mention really crappy to do to other passengers.''

How did that get by the moderators?

I started flying alone when I was 7, I was well behaved and enjoyed the adventure. My parents had the highest confidence in my ability to handle myself responsibly, and that confidence has continued throughout my life.

It's not incompetent parenting to let your kids fly by themselves. That assertion is offensive to me.

It's incompetent to have badly behaving children NO MATTER WHERE THEY ARE, and as a parent it's up to you to assess your child's readiness realistically. Some kids would behave badly when left on a plane alone or with a sibling. Some kids behave badly in RESTAURANTS.

A friend of mine once paid for a plane ticket to London for me to accompany his two kids - and they did have an antagonistic relationship (they were close in age, and boy/girl). But it might have worked to just seat them in different sections of the plane or put them on different flights. But he knew that they should have an adult and he provided it.

Not all children are the same, and I find it incredibly offensive to have someone on this list call another parent ''incompetent'' for considering something that has been done with great success many times over. Flew Alone Fine, Parents Were Competent


After reading the first set of responses I have to say I'm surprised at the animosity. Kids under 14 who are unaccompanied by an adult are supervised by the airline staff. Parents are required to pay an unaccompanied minor fee for each leg of the flight. At no time is another passenger responsible for ''parenting'' an unaccompanied child. We've had visitors from 9 for 14 arrive in California from other parts of the country and their worst complaint has always been boredom. Frankly, I think it might be safer for my 10 year old to fly across country than get into a car of someone I don't know very well during a class fieldtrip. Good luck making your decision. Susan
When I was 13, I flew cross-country with my 4-year old sister, including a several hour long layover in Chicago. It was great. We didn't fight and had a wonderful time exploring the airport. I can't imagine there being a problem on a direct flight. Glad we had an adventure
Wow, I just have to comment on all the replies! I didn't see the original question, but I have a child who has flown alone MANY times since he was 6 years old -- both 1 hour flights to LA and several cross-country flights as well. He has NEVER been a problem for other passengers -- I always get glowing reports from flight attendants and passengers alike. He often comes off all chummy with some new friend he's made. As a responsible parent I provide food and things for him to do on the plane -- little games, lego sets, drawing pencils, etc. Some children would not be able to handle this, but I would hope that the parent asking the question knows their child(ren) and whether or not they are up for the task.

When kids fly alone they are put on the plane first, parents are not allowed to leave the airport until the plane has left the gate (I always wait until it's in the air) and the child is taken off by a flight attendant and waits at the gate for the responsible person to pick them up -- the child has to be ''signed'' for, like a package. It is very organized. Most airlines will only allow children under age 11 to fly direct -- no transfers are allowed.

If your kids are mature and have experience flying (my son had flown extensively with me before he started flying alone), I see no reason why they wouldn't be able to handle themselves on a plane. Good luck with your decision. Mom of a flyer


You received so many negative responses, I just had to weigh in. I'm now 39 and I have been flying since age 3. I started flying alone as soon as I reached the rq'd age, which I believe was 5). I flew regularly between Oakland and San Diego. I loved flying as a child, and I still love flying. To this day, I believe that flying alone as a child helped make me the independent non-fearful person that I am. I learned to talk to others - both children and adults. I learned to entertain myself. Of all the times I flew alone - many many times - probably 60 flights btwn ages 5 and 11 -I have only one negative memory of a man who was too large for his seat, & he lifted the armrest in order to take up some of my seat! (unpleasant, but not actually traumatic) Other than that, I have only good memories of sitting with other children, ordering punch as my beverage, looking out the window, and playing with the toys I brought in my carryon case. Back in the 70s, the regulations designated that unaccompanied minors were always seated in the first 2 rows, where the flight attendants could watch over us and help us off the flight, and personally deliver us to the person coming to claim us. I never ever felt scared at all, and I think that I derived quite a bit of self esteem from the fact that I was able to fly alone and be independent from my parents for the duration of the flight.

I think the decision about whether or not to allow a child to fly alone would have to be based on the particular child - how they feel about flying, and how you believe they would act. It seems to me that if the airlines allow it, and if your children are up for it, and if you do the proper planning (helping pack appropriate items for the flight - books, magazines, drawing material, cards, and snacks, etc) it can be a wonderful experience for them. I very much disagree with other posters who are predicting that your children would misbehave and would therefore make all the other passengers suffer. I have never seen children traveling alone making a scene. I have seen children traveling *with* their parents make a scene, and I have seen much too much bad behavior from adults traveling alone, but I have yet to see poor behavior from unaccompanied minors. I think that if you communicate to your kids that you are allowing them to do this voyage because you trust them and you know that they are going to act appropriately, they will likely be pleased to feel your trust and your confidence in them, and they will rise to the occasion.

And I'll add that I have a strong memory of sitting near a young girl flying alone to France - she was approx 9 or 10. This was over 10 yrs ago, but I can still remember observing her because she was such a lovely child - she made friends with adults sitting near her, and I think she actually had a wonderful flight. It was a neat thing to see. Here's to the Unaccompanied Minors! Mari


I just have to respond to those who are suggesting that you are an awful, irresponsible person for considering putting your children on an airplane. You are not, and you should not be bullied into thinking you are.

If your kids are 5 and 11, they will most likely both be considered unaccompanied minors. They would be traveling together, but under the care of the flight attendants.

My husband and his ex wife (for reasons I will NOT go into in this incredibly judgmental forum) live across the country from one another. His daughter has been visiting us regularly from Michigan and later New York since she was 6, traveling alone many many times each year. She has been fine -- no bad thing has happened. She traveled as an unaccompanied minor until she was 13 (rules vary depending on airlines). We had to pay an additional fee, and she could not take connecting flights until she was 8 or 9 (it again varies). We had to take her through security, to the gate, and stay at the gate until the plane left. On the other end, someone had to come through security to pick her up at the gate, so don't think you have to worry about money for flight day emergencies.

I think the airlines do a great job with this. The flight attendants put children traveling alone next to nice people, and keep them up front where they can keep an eye on them. Because she was under the care of unfamiliar but competent adults, she was well behaved and well taken care of. Even when she become a snarky pre-teen, we always had good reports on her behavior. Because she has so much solo travel under her belt, I think this has made her a more independent and self-reliant person.

As for how to keep them occupied, I'd talk to them (particularly the 11 year old) about what he/she thinks would work. I think the DVD player is a great idea, and maybe some books of games.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the unaccompanied minors thing, but I bet the airlines can help you out with that as well. Merrilee


You've gotten a lot of advice on this one...but after reading the replies, I though that I would throw in my own two-cents. We have been discussing the 'at what age would we let the girls (currently 5 & 3) fly alone, what distance and why.' My husband is an airline pilot.

Our current assessment is about '10 or 11' for flying alone on a short flight (90 minutes or less) to visit a friend or relative or if my husband is in the cockpit, pre-teen to fly with my husband on a 'trip' with longer legs and high school before flying coast to coast (I started taking overnight trips on trains lasting more than twelve hours at age 15 and LOVED THEM) But, those are rules for our kids. They fly a lot, are used to air travel and are very well behaved on flights...but I just don't think that they would be comfortable flying that long alone even with each other and even with flight attendants who know them...I realize that your 5-year-old may be more mature/worldly than my 5 year old because of the older sibling influence (my three year old is light years ahead of many three year old 'onlys' or 'olders' for the same reason.)

Also, there is the weather factor. Just last week, my husband got held on the runway for two hours at his departure airport, had to divert to an airport at which his company does not have operations, where he refueled and then spent three hours on a runway hold and then finally arrived at his destination several hours late because of bad weather (a five hour flight turned into ten) that slowed down/closed operations at his destination airport. The passengers remained calm and in high spirits (they had tvs in front of them, they could see the weather reports and my husband kept them in the loop on what was going on...But, ten hours is ten hours. And, passengers aren't always the amazing bunch that sat on my husband's plane. You would be amazed at how many adults cannot behave themselves on airplanes especially in delay situations. This can cause stress to other passengers and I would think especially to young children. They think that the pilot, the airlines, and probably the CIA are trying to ruin their day. Can your kids handle that? Summer weather on the East Coast (and mid-west for that matter) can cause plenty of problems with airplanes/airport delays. anon


Eleven Year-Old Flying Alone to San Diego

July 2003

My 11 year-old daughter wants to go to San Diego in August to visit a friend for a week. This would entail having her fly round-trip on a direct flight via Southwest airlines. Although she has done a lot of flying with our family, she has never travelled solo before. I would be grateful for any tips about this from other parents whose kids who have made this or similar trips around this age. Even though I don't consider myself to be overprotective, my daughter is not the only one who is a little nervous about this trip. I didn't see anything specific to this issue posted on the web-site. Thanks! sarah


I was 6 years old when I would fly alone to my grandparents--- direct flight from Denver to Illnoise. I did that for many years. I have fond memories of being alone with my grandparents--my mother couldn't affort two tickets so she'd send me. And, yes, yes, yes, I felt nervous everytime I'd fly solo for many years but as soon as the plane would take off, I'd feel better. It's ok to be a little nervous...where your child wants to go is not a long flight. Good luck! Amy
Starting at age 6, I travelled quite a lot alone. I loved it. That being said, travelling twenty, even two years ago was quite different than it is now. However, most airlines have very good unaccompanied minor programs. The airlines will usually issue a pass to one adult at each the departing and arriving airports so that your daughter can be escorted to and from the gates by someone she knows. (I picked up a niece at the airport and was pleased to see that the airline was quite strict about checking my ID, etc...) And, while your daughter is outside of your or your friend's ''posession,'' a member of the airline crew is assigned to her. (The only down side is that some crew members are more responsible and attentive than others.) Happy Travels
If your daughter is ok with flying alone and its a non-stop it should be fine. One thing the airlines don't tell you is that because your daughter is flying alone, you can get a pass to go past security and accompany your daughter to the gate. Call the airline ahead of time and ask if they will allow you to do this (I did it with my 15 yr old son last summer). The friend who takes her to the airport to come home should also be able to do the same. Also ask about pick up, you usually cannot go to the gate to pick up but will have to wait at the entrance to security. This will mean her friends parking and waiting for her at the security exit. anon
Well, my child has never flown, since she's not yet born! But, I used to fly alone as a child, from the time I was FOUR years, from California to New York, round trip. I even took flights with transfers, with no problem. And, I LOVED it. So, I think your 11 year-old would be just fine going to San Diego. You just have to make sure there's a reliable adult at the other end who has her flight number and itinerary. Also, let the flight crew know, when you take your daughter on board, that she'll be flying alone. The flight attendants will make sure she gets to where she needs to go. I hope she has a great time! Loved flying alone-
Call Southwest and see what their policy is regarding minors flying solo. I don't know this for fact, but I think most airlines arrange to have an attendant assist a minor throughout the flight - and particularly making sure they meet their party at the other end. I flew solo when I was about 11 - from France to England - and I remember feeling like the belle of the ball with all the special attention I got. I would think an 11-year-old who's done a lot of flying already (as you say she has) will handle this experience just fine. Just call and make sure Southwest knows she's coming and will be ready for her. Have fun, Julie T.
My daughter has travelled by herself on non-stop flights about 3 round trips a year since she was 9. Until the age of 13 most airlines will require you to get their 'unaccompanied child' service where a flight attendant is resposible for your child during the flight and only the people that you indicated will be able to pick him/her up at the gate. After age 13 you can still elect to take the service, but you are not required. The price tag is not cheap, around $60 each trip 3 years ago, but you and your kid know that s/he won't just get lost in the airport. My daughter elected to drop the service as soon as her age allowed her to do so because she didn't like the extra attention from the flight attendants, however your child might feel differently. ghill
Both my kids have flown on their own to visit grandparents...My daughter flew alone at 8 years of age on Southwest last summer from Oakland to Reno and did just fine. She was proud of herself. I thought the airlines did a good job with ''shepherding'' her through and a flight to San Diego just isn't long enough to get overly anxious or bored. Since she has flown quite a bit in the past she will know what to expect. Make sure she has a good book or game boy...some kind of distraction. I would just not have any expectation that the flight attendants will pay much attention to her on the flight itself...probably just the getting on and off the flight and delivered to the right folks. Often there are other kids flying alone on the same flight and that is also reassuring. Pat
My step-daughter regularly flies between Oakland and New York (where her mother lives), and seems to like it pretty well. She's 9 now, and has been doing this since she was 6. You've already received many good tips and advice, but there are a few things I'd like to underscore, particularly for others reading this

The security policies allow for someone to both accompany your daughter to the gate, to see her off (you may be required to do so?), and also for someone to come in through security and meet her at the gate. Ask the airline about this.

Many airlines have a fee for minors, but some don't. JetBlue has no unaccompanied minor fee, and we love them for it. Others, like Northeast, have very high minor fees -- something like $35 on each leg of a journey! For a flight with connections, these fees can really add up.

The airline should brief you on this, but be sure you bring the contact information for the person who is going to pick her up at the airport. She has to be turned over to a particular person, who has been identified ahead of time.

It's a good idea for the person on the other end to know what the child took on the plane with them. We've left sweaters, books, backpacks, etc. behind, and now come to pick her up armed with a list. It's a pain to retrieve these items once you've left the terminal and gone onto baggage claim.

There are different regulations for different ages, and possibly even different fees.

Your attitude counts! If you are tense about your child flying, she will be tense as well.

Best of luck in the air, Merrilee


It seems that just because you pay an airline to ''care for'' your child doesn't mean that the carrier will actually do so. We were flying on Southwest when a young girl wearing large (!) ''paperwork'' around her neck was allowed to wander off the plane by herself upon landing. No one from Southwest was ''escorting'' her anywhere, and we had to hook her up in the terminal with a Southwest employee. In this case the large tag around her neck served only to show whoever cared to notice that she was alone. In fairness, the other few times we've seen children in this situation they were taken care of, but this was a real eye-opener. - Anon
I have no problem myself but when I was a kid my sister flew to my gradma's when she was six or seven and I started when I was six alone I we always did after that. There were never problems. I think it's safe but if you don't feel comfterble it is not worth it. Anon
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