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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/22/2010 9:42:36 AM ET 2010-04-22T13:42:36

Southwest Airlines gets kudos for not charging customers a fee to take along two checked bags. But the “Bags Fly Free” airline has a different attitude about kids: starting April 23, Southwest Airlines will double the fee it charges to transport children age 5 to 11 as unaccompanied minors.

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Charging a fee for the extra attention airlines insist unaccompanied minors, or “UMs,” require is nothing new. But like most other services associated with modern-day flying, those UM fees have been creeping up. Southwest Airlines’ doubled UM fees — $50 each way, up from $25 each way — are still on the low end of a fee scale that can top $300 per round-trip. But as we learned last June when one airline “misplaced” very young travelers on two much-publicized occasions, parents don’t always get what they think they’re paying for when they fork over these fees.

So as summer travel planning gets underway and kids start looking forward to camp or a visit to a friend or relative in another city, it’s a good time to review airlines fees for unaccompanied minors and the tips for making sure your little solo traveler flies safely.  

Bags may be free; your kids aren’t
Southwest Airlines charged no extra fee for unaccompanied minors until last year, when it added a $25 charge (each way) on top of regular fares. Now, less than a year later, the airline is moving the booking process for unaccompanied minors online and upping the UM fee, which may apply this year to around 860,000 young travelers, to $50 each way.

Alaska and Horizon said April 22 that they will lower the fees they charge for accommodating unaccompanied minors — passengers ages 5 to 12 traveling without an adult (optional for children ages 13 to 17). Customers will pay a $25 fee per child for direct flights and $50 per child for connecting flights within the Alaska/Horizon network. This is a reduction from the current $75 fee. The new fee is for tickets bought May 1 for travel after June 16.

What about other airlines? Prices and rules are always subject to change, but here are the current charges for unaccompanied minors on most domestic airlines. Fees listed below are one-way.

Some details to keep in mind: Be sure to check for updates, rules and additional fees, which can vary widely and often change on short notice.

For example, some airlines waive the UM fee for children who have achieved frequent flier status. (You’d be surprised how many have.) Some airlines do not allow unaccompanied minors to fly after 9 p.m., on the last flight of the day or if bad weather or some other condition (i.e. impending strike or volcano eruption) might cause delays.

Several airlines promise to give your child a snack; others will waive the checked bags fees; and a few charge just a single fee for two or more children traveling together, which can offer significant cost-savings. 

And be sure to check those age restrictions: some airlines charge unaccompanied minor fees only for children aged 5-11. Others might insist on collecting an unaccompanied minor fee for teens 14 or even 15 years-old. That’s a rule that tripped up Crystal Brown-Tatum. She once dropped off her teen for a flight assuming no extra fee was required. “They made her stand behind the counter and she called me from her cell and told me she could not leave until I came inside and paid!” 

Airlines take the fee; you keep the responsibilities
There’s that old saying, “You get what you pay for.” That rule doesn’t necessarily apply when it comes to picking an airline to transport your young solo flier. Remember those ‘mis-delivered’ kids? They were flying on Continental Airlines/Continental Express, which levies a $100 UM fee. Last June, the airline sent a 10-year-old girl to Newark, N.J. instead of Cleveland and flew an 8-year-old girl to Arkansas instead of Charlotte, N.C. That’s led Jennifer Miner of TheVacationGals.com to conclude that for her two young kids, “The fee for unaccompanied minors is less of a concern for me than are airlines' track records.”

Mistakes happen, of course, and millions of kids fly alone each year with no problems. But there’s plenty you can do to tip the scales in favor of your little unaccompanied minor having a smooth flight. 

Make sure you’re prepared: Nancy Schretter of the Family Travel Network urges parents to do their homework. “Avoid airlines that have had problems [caring for unaccompanied minors] in the past. ... Choose larger aircraft and, if possible, stay away from small regional jets. ... And think about everything that could happen and be ready to deal with problems.”

Some of those problems could crop up with the all the paperwork associated with sending a child as an unaccompanied minor. Study the rules, have the required phone numbers and identification information ready when you go to the airport and make paper copies of everything, including the airline’s posted unaccompanied minor policy. In researching current fees and rules, I discovered that the advice of reservation agents can conflict with an airline’s posted rules. 

Make sure your child is prepared: Arm your child with snacks, some cash, a charged cell phone, emergency phone numbers and books, games and other activities to keep them entertained. And make sure your child knows what to do if things go wrong. 

Sheri Wallace, whose 10 year-old daughter has silver status on US Airways, urges parents not to send a child on their first airplane ride alone. “Too many variables,” says Wallace, who wouldn’t let her daughter fly unaccompanied until she could understand “how to navigate an airport, where to go for help, what to expect if the flight is delayed and how the seats on the airplane are organized.” Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, of WeJustGotBack.com, suggests quizzing your child on a variety of “what if” situations, such as what if they’re hungry or need to go to the bathroom during a long wait at the gate or what if a seatmate is making them feel uncomfortable. 

And Heidi Mylo, whose 7-year-old daughter first flew solo when she was 4 years old,  (“We lied and told her she was 5 since she was very tall for her age”) adds this bit of wardrobe advice for kids flying alone. “Dress your child for flying as if it is a special occasion. They’ll think this is something special and the flight attendants will treat them better if they look cute.”

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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