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Originally published September 22, 2012 at 7:00 PM | Page modified September 24, 2012 at 12:56 PM

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Tips for making solo flights for kids go smoothly

You're planning to let your child fly solo across the country to visit a parent or grandparent for the holidays. Should you be worried? I say "no," given the...

Special to The Seattle Times

Making a solo flight go smoothly

Tips for parents of children flying alone:

• Make sure your child has a copy of his or her itinerary including flight and reservation numbers. Include the name and phone number of the parent or guardian meeting them.

• If possible, provide your child with a cellphone or phone-calling card.

• Get to the airport in plenty of time to complete and submit parent/guardian contact forms and other paperwork.

• Many airlines no longer accept cash for onboard meals. Pack a snack or give your child cash to buy food in the airport.

• Alaska Airlines has a handy checklist at www.alaskaair.com.

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You're planning to let your child fly solo across the country to visit a parent or grandparent for the holidays. Should you be worried?

I say "no," given the hundreds of thousands of children who fly annually with no bigger worry than what video to watch. But that doesn't mean that a recent report about a 10-year-old Michigan girl flying to camp and missing her United Airlines connection at Chicago's O'Hare Airport shouldn't be a wake-up call for parents.

Depending on the airline, you'll pay $50 to $200 per round-trip flight to make sure someone is watching over your child.

The United problem surfaced over its outsourcing to a contractor the job of escorting children between gates. When the girl's flight landed in Chicago, the contractor apparently failed to show up, according to Associated Press reports. She missed her connection, but eventually made it to camp on another flight.

United apologized, saying it regretted the confusion. Spokesman Charles Hobart said in an email that the airline "conducted a review of the matter and found that she was fully supervised during her entire time at O'Hare." He declined to elaborate on United's use of contractor escorts.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines as well as Delta and American also rely on outside contractors, as well as their own staff, depending on the airport.

Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America use their own employees as escorts.

In Seattle, Alaska Airlines, which expects to transport 70,000 minors this year, up 14 percent from 2011, uses personnel from Bags Inc., a company that provides its skycap and wheelchair services.

"We have not had any issues in the two years we've worked with Bags," said spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey. There are, of course, lots of other variables on how airlines handle the increasing numbers of children flying alone.

Consider the following, then check your airline's website for details:

Age: Policies differ on how old a child has to be to fly alone without paying an unaccompanied-minor fee.

Alaska requires the unaccompanied-minor service for children 5-12, with a $25 fee each way for nonstops and $50 for connecting flights. Delta ($100 each way) and Virgin ($75-$125) require it for ages 5-14. Southwest ($50) and United ($99) make it mandatory for those 11 and younger. No airline allows children younger than 5 to fly alone.

Flights and times: Plan on a nonstop or direct (meaning a stop but no change of planes) flight if your child is younger than 7. Most airlines allow only older children to fly solo on connecting flights. Virgin restricts all unaccompanied minors to nonstops.

Red-eye flights are out in most cases as are the last flights of the day.

Weather: All bets are off when severe weather disrupts flights. Alaska stopped accepting unaccompanied children last winter when it precanceled some flights due to storms. Flights to or from Sun Valley, Idaho, are off-limits to minors traveling alone between December and April.

Supervision: Airlines provide escorts on and off planes and between gates and take responsibility for making sure the parent or guardian picking up the child is who they say they are.

Alaska has a waiting room at Sea-Tac for children on connecting flights. Delta maintains Sky Zone lounges in some airports (none in the Northwest) that are equipped with books, snacks, games and phones.

Carol Pucci: travel@carolpucci.com.

Web/blog: www.carolpucci.com. Twitter: @carolpucci

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Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', Carol Pucci covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. Her column runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

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