“No, this is not my child!”

Imagine having to say those words as you wait to pick up your child at the airport. That was the nightmare experienced by Maribel Martinez as she waited for her son at JFK International Airport for over three hours thinking he was kidnapped. She eventually found out that JetBlue sent her child to the wrong airport. She arranged through JetBlue for her son to leave Santiago, the Dominican Republican and arrive in New York. After paying fees for the unaccompanied minor program and going through the appropriate channels her son still ended up at the wrong airport.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time an unaccompanied minor was sent to the wrong airport. Back in 2009 Continental (now United Airlines) a child was also sent to the wrong airport. Sending your child off unaccompanied can cause a lot of worry, but there are ways to alleviate the worry and ensure your child makes it to the right location.

Booking the Flight

When booking your child's flight, check the airline's website to see if your child is the right age to fly alone. The following are the most common rules for unaccompanied minors:

  • Children under 5 cannot travel unaccompanied
  • Children 5 – 7 years old can travel alone on domestic nonstop and through flights
  • Children 8 – 11 (some airports through 14) can travel alone on almost any domestic flight
  • Children 12 – 17 can travel alone without restrictions domestically and sometimes internationally.

Remember to keep flight itineraries simple to decrease the potential for flights to be delayed or canceled. Flights earlier in the day tend to have fewer delays than flights in the evening. Be sure to avoid the last flight of the day— if it is canceled it could be a hassle to reschedule an alternate flight for your child. Additionally, airlines charge a fee for the unaccompanied minor service. Fees range from $50 to $150 each way.

Getting Ready for the Flight

Take a ride to the airport with your child.  During the trip, point out important places to your child and get them acquainted with airport staff. Younger children tend to avoid confrontation with adults—by letting them meet flight attendants and staff in advance—you can alleviate their shyness. Make sure to have a talk with your child about flying such as pressure changes, engine sounds, and the possibility of turbulence. Remind them that those are all part of the flight and if they ever feel uncomfortable to let the flight attendant know.

Check the airport’s website to make sure you have all the appropriate paperwork and identification ready for your child’s trip. While on the site also check to see if your child will receive a meal during their flight— if not pack a snack along with paperwork, IDs, a prepaid cell phone, and a video game or tablet to keep them entertained in a small carry-on or backpack. Instruct your child to keep the bag at all times.

Drop Off & Pick Up

During drop-off remember time is everything. Plan ahead for traffic, paperwork, and waiting for your child to depart. We would recommend arriving one to two hours early for domestic flights and two or more hours for international flights. Remind the person picking up your child to arrive early with ID in hand.

At the airport, your child may receive a special badge or lanyard to wear. Instruct them to never take it off. Before heading to the gate double check and make sure you have your child’s itinerary and paper ticket (if e-ticket isn’t available) in their carry-on bag. Let them know if the flight attendant is confused about their itinerary, they have the information in their carry-on bag.

Returning Home

Remind the person sending your child back to follow all of the guidelines you followed in the beginning. Have them also give you a call before and when the child has boarded. Sending your child aboard a flight unaccompanied can be hard, but by following these simple guidelines you can help prevent your child from arriving at the wrong location. For more information and tips on unaccompanied minors, check out this guide from the Department of Transportation. 

All products and services mentioned on Airfarewatchdog are independently selected by our team of expert travelers. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

More Stories You'll Love