By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/8/2006 6:37:01 PM ET 2006-08-08T22:37:01

Summer is a time when many youngsters make their first solo airplane trip. But not every child is ready for the journey.

I’m wondering how safe it is to send young children alone on an airplane. My kids will be going to Texas by themselves. Their ages are 8 and 11.
—Janette T.,  Wharton, N.J.

I think the decision to let a child fly alone must be based on your assessment of that specific youngster’s maturity and responsibility. Will they consider this an exciting adventure or a terrifying experience?

I remember being on a flight where a brother and sister were going to see their grandparents. They were petrified and started to freak out when we pulled away from the gate. As we taxied to the runway things got so bad the captain decided to return to the gate and have the kids get off.

Every airline has its own rules about unaccompanied minors. For most of the major airlines, unaccompanied minors 5 to 7 years old can fly alone as long as they take a nonstop or direct flight so they do not have to change planes. They'll need to be at least 8 years old to take a trip where they must change planes. US Airways has the strictest policy — a child traveling alone must be 15 years old before he or she can go on anything but a nonstop.

I would never put a child younger than 8 on anything but a nonstop. Remember, with a direct flight that has a scheduled stop, there’s still a chance the second leg of the flight will be canceled or delayed because of weather or a mechanical problem. Would your child be able to deal with that?

Before departure, you will be required to tell the airline who will be waiting to pick up your child. They must be at least 18 years old and have a government-issued ID. That person is the only one who can leave the gate with your child.

Terry Trippler, airline analyst for myvacationpassport.com, gave me this important piece of advice: Pick the most responsible person you know to meet the child at the airport. Some airlines have rules that if the person is not there to meet the child within a certain amount of time, “they either call the police or the child welfare department.”

Keep in mind: With packed planes and cutbacks in staffing, airlines can’t give children the individualized attention they did in the past. Be sure to let the airline know if your child has any medical problems. Most airlines will not administer medicine; that’s up to the child. Don’t forget, on most flights there’s now a charge for food. So pack a meal and some snacks or give the kids money to buy food onboard.

What are the airline rules for bumping ticketed passengers when flights are oversold — specifically during connection legs of the trip, not your initial flight?
—Bob K., Fayetteville, N.C.

When you check in for the first leg of your trip, you’ll get a boarding pass for all the flights along the way. That virtually eliminates your chances of being bumped from a connecting flight, but it doesn’t guarantee it. “It’s rare, but I’ve seen it happen," says but as Bill McGee, travel consultant for Consumer Reports.

The best way to avoid this problem is to check in early. When it comes to involuntary bumping, the airlines start with those who checked in last. Many airlines let you print your boarding pass at home, 24 hours before your flight. By doing that, you are considered checked in.

By the way, airline bumping is way up. A new report from the U.S. Transportation Department says 16,300 passengers were “involuntarily” bumped in the second quarter of the year. That’s the highest rate in six years.

I am getting ready to travel with a new digital camera. Will the memory stick be affected by the security scanners?
—Lea K., Bremerton, Wash.

There’s nothing to worry about. Digital cameras and memory cards are not affected by the airport metal detectors or X-ray machines.

A few years ago, the digital media storage industry teamed up with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to make sure there was no problem. Those tests found “no evidence of X-ray scanner damage to digital camera media cards or to the images they hold.”

What leverage does a credit card holder have when a European hotel charges for an unused room that was canceled and the card issuer sides with the hotel? Can they charge for a service/product that was never used when the reservation was canceled?
—Obee L., Bethesda, Md.

It all depends on the hotel’s cancellation policy. With some hotels and resorts (and this can be anywhere in the world) you will be charged for one or more nights even if you cancel in advance. If that’s the policy at your hotel in Europe, the credit card company has no choice but to deny your refund request. That’s why it’s so important to check about canceling before you book your stay.

If the hotel’s policy allows for cancellation without penalty prior to arrival and you met those rules, you have every right to expect your money back. If that’s the case, write the credit card company (you’ll find the address on the back of your monthly statement) and provide a copy of the hotel’s policy and proof of when you canceled. That could be a confirmation number or an e-mail. When I cancel I get both.

If the credit card company turns you down again, and you feel you’re in the right, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

I recently purchased a non-refundable round-trip airplane ticket. An unexpected business trip came up that kept me from using the departure leg of the ticket, but I had every intention of making the return flight home. When I called the airline and asked about just canceling the departure flight, they informed me that there was a $100 fee for changing the ticket, plus $46 to make up the difference in the price of the new one-way ticket. Rather than cancel and pay the fee, I simply skipped the departure flight. When I went to check in for my “return” flight, I was told that since I hadn’t used the departure flight, the airline “assumed” I wasn’t going to use the return flight and canceled my reservation. Can they do this?
—Melissa C., Charleston, S.C.

They can and they will do this. When you did not take the first leg of your flight, you were a “no show” and the airline canceled your reservation. Remember, you bought a round-trip ticket, and the fare was based on that.

Does this make any sense? Is this fair? Unfortunately, the airlines do a lot of things that are less than customer-friendly. But those are the rules, and if you read the “terms of carriage,” which almost no one does, you’ll see that this is all spelled out in the fine print.

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