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What You Need to Know About Flying with Children and Older Relatives


This holiday season, don’t ground your flights by failing to follow the rules for flying with children and don’t miss out on seeing favorite older relatives because they fear flying solo.

Columns, Lifestyle, Travel, Airport, Plane, Children, Elders

This holiday season, don’t ground your flights by failing to follow the rules for flying with children and don’t miss out on seeing favorite older relatives because they fear flying solo.

We tell you what documents you need to take your child on an international trip without her other parent; what brand is the only Federal Aviation Administration approved child safety device for kids weighing 22 to 44 pounds; whether your 13-year-old child can fly alone; and how to find a travel companion to get your favorite great-aunt to the Thanksgiving table.

Bring the correct documents

Don’t ruin your holiday ski trip in France or your beach vacation in Mexico by showing up at the airport without the proper documentation. When traveling with a minor, but without that child’s other parent or guardian, you could be stopped at the US or international border if you don’t have the correct paperwork.

The rules, established to thwart child abduction by non-custodial parents, differ by country. Always check with your destination’s embassy or consulate. In general, it’s wise to bring a copy of the child’s birth certificate plus a notarized letter of consent from the stay-at-home parent authorizing the travel.

In cases of divorce, you may be asked to show the custody decree as well. If the other parent has died, a copy of the death certificate may be requested. If you are taking along a friend of your child’s, be sure to obtain a written, notarized form signed by the friend’s parents stating that you have their permission to take your child’s pal out of the country. He or she should also have a photo identification card. Some school IDs will suffice but ask ahead of time.

Babies need passports

Don’t disappoint your in-laws in Spain who look forward to meeting their four month-old grandson. To go abroad, tots, no matter how young (as well as their older siblings), must have their own passports. Apply for passports at least five to six weeks in advance to avoid fees for expedited services. Obtain more information at US Passports & International Travel.

Use approved child safety restraint systems

Although you can hold a child under 2 on your lap when flying, this is neither the safest option for the tot nor the most comfortable for either of you. Before you tote your car seat onboard, make sure that it has a visible label or stamp saying it is approved for air travel. If not, be prepared to check the car seat.

For kids weighing between 22 to 44 pounds, carriers suggest, but don’t require, the CARES Child Safety Device, the only harness approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Know the age requirements and fees for children flying alone

For many children, the holidays mean flying solo to visit non-custodial parents and other relatives. Since each airline creates its own unaccompanied minor rules, policies may differ. In general, an unaccompanied child age 5 through 7 may fly on a non-stop or through flight. On some airlines, children ages 8 through 11 may also board a connecting flight except for the last one of the day. (This helps prevent the child from being stranded in a non-destination city). United Airlines, for example, requires unaccompanied minors to fly only on nonstop flights.

On some airlines, 12 year olds may fly alone as “young adult passengers.” Other airlines require teens flying alone to be at least 15-years-old. On American Airlines, children ages 5 to 14 flying without someone who is at least 16 years old must fly as unaccompanied minors, paying a $150 additional fee for each way above the ticket price. On United, ages 5 to 15 must either travel with a guardian or someone who is at least 18 years old to not be considered unaccompanied minors. Be sure to check the rules for airlines before booking a ticket.

Reserve wheelchairs

During the busy holidays, be sure to ask ahead of time for a wheelchair (always free) for granny who tires after walking a few steps. Doing so will lessen her wait time for assistance.

Consider flight companions

Great-aunt Ellen wants to fly from her Miami condo to the family Thanksgiving in Boston, but she’s anxious about flying solo since she’s wheelchair bound and sometimes forgetful. According to the Department of Transportation, if someone cannot be counted on to follow safety procedures, then he or she can no longer fly alone.

If no one in your extended family or friends’ network has the time to fly to Miami to bring Ellen to the festivities, then consider the services of a paid travel companion. These flying buddies provide the assistance your elderly relative or friend may need. Depending on the company, the travel companion can pick your relative up at the airport or at her home, check her in, and fly with her. Always be sure to ask for references for the company and for the particular aide the company will assign to your relative. Make sure you understand all the costs. Companies that provide these services include: Travel Helpers as well as Flying Companions.

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