Travel: Travelling the world can be child's play

The ups and downs of children flying alone. By
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The Independent Culture
I CAN still remember the excitement. Almost 30 years ago, my sister and I flew, without our parents, from London to Dublin. My mother checked us in at Heathrow, where we received our enormous name badges, and a very nice air hostess took us down to the plane.

As many Coca-Colas as we could manage later, we were as nine and seven year old UMs (Unaccompanied Minors) able to find our baggage, go through the Green Channel and locate our perfectly relaxed father in the Arrivals Hall.

How things have changed! I tried to book a ticket for my 12- year-old goddaughter on Eurostar and was told that no one under the age of 14 could travel without an adult - "company policy," she said. They did finally let her travel as a UM when her parents wrote a letter which my goddaughter had to present to staff as she boarded the train.

Things are different with the airlines. The smaller, cheaper ones don't operate UM schemes. The larger, former national carriers have continued, but the format is much more structured. Moving children is a risky business. British Airways even offers a flying escort service for those unwilling to let their child fly alone.

British Airways started an unaccompanied minors programme in Heathrow back in 1962. Gatwick started in 1974, and in 1996/97, 1.3 million unaccompanied minors were passengers on what is now known (since 1988) as the Skyfliers programme. There is rarely an extra charge on any airline for being an unaccompanied minor, which must come as a great relief to the parents of children at boarding school and those who need their offspring to travel separately.

On average, children (or their parents) pay two-thirds of the normal adult flight price. Most airlines offer the service from the age of six although some airlines take passengers as young as four. More travel, overseas postings and mixed country marriages (and divorces) mean that this market can only grow.

The rules of each airline vary slightly and it is worthwhile checking the exact procedure as you book the ticket. Procedures are followed rigidly at check-in time so allow a bit of extra time. Parents and guardians need to sign the appropriate paperwork and inform the airline who will be collecting the child at the destination.

It is crucial that the person collecting the child has an accepted form of identity such as a passport. The person leaving the child is then asked to wait at the departure terminal for at least ten minutes after take- off.

Caroline Ricketts, who is now ten, enjoyed travelling as a UM when her parents were based at the British embassy in Paris. She liked the cartoons and the computer games and the free crisps in the lounge. She also liked her free travel bag with the colouring pencils and puzzles. Her brother Edward did tire of all the "nannying" when he got to be about ten or 11 and it is probably for this reason that most of the airlines do not offer the service after the age of 12.

However, on one occasion, nobody called Edward and he almost missed his flight. His mother, Suzanne, was not impressed. She wrote a letter to British Airways complaining about the incident and Edward was sent a "horrible plastic Concorde" as compensation.

Melanie de Renzy Martin's son, Henry, was younger and not so lucky. He was not collected for his flight when it was leaving Amsterdam and his parents were left stranded at Heathrow for about 90 minutes, not knowing what was going on.

The key seems to be to prepare your child well in advance for their trip travelling alone, presenting it as an exciting and grown-up thing to do. According to a friend of mine, who is a flight-attendant with Air France, children are well prepared, easy going and `generally" well behaved. "They just love those enormous pouches that carry their passports and we rarely have any NUMs," (Naughty Unaccompanied Minors).