Bob from Michigan sent me the following question:
My wife and I are planning a trip to Disney in Florida with our grandchildren. What advice do you have for navigating the airport with children?
Hi Bob! So jealous of your impending trip as I cannot wait to take my nieces (currently 3 years old) to Disney World. Mom and I visited Disney in June of last year and we just had a blast. Proof that Disney appeals to children of all ages! Anyway, you don’t mention their ages, but I’m guessing they are older (to appreciate Disney). For this post, I’m going to expand on your question to discuss flying with children in case others have similar questions. Thanks for the question Bob and let me know how it goes!
Ticket Options for Children
If you’re flying and your child is under two years old, current guidelines permit you to hold him or her in your lap for the duration of the flight rather than purchase a separate seat for the child. Your child will need a special “lap child ticket” (which may carry some fees but is still considerably less expensive than a regular ticket) that should be purchased at the time you arrange any adult tickets, and at the airport you’ll have to provide proof of your child’s age. Note that airlines have varying rules about these types of tickets (for example, most limit them to one per parent-child pair—so a parent traveling with two children under the age of two must purchase a regular ticket for at least one of them), so check your particular airline’s requirements carefully.
Once children reach two years of age, they need their own seats (and they must be in them during takeoff and landing). Airlines typically require children under the age of five to be accompanied by a parent or guardian. The cutoff for unaccompanied travel varies from airline to airline, though. As always, check your airline’s rules.
Travel Paperwork for Children
Children under 18 usually do not need to show ID when checking in and going through security. Travelers of all ages, however, must have a valid passport when leaving the United States. For children who are 15 or younger at the time they receive (or renew) a passport, passports are good for five years. Because children can change so much in appearance during this short period, their passports may receive a bit of extra scrutiny from officials. (For example, my three-year-old nieces now look very different from their passport pictures, which were taken when they were infants, and it’s quite funny to watch passport control agents look at them carefully. I’ve suggested to my brother that he get new passports for the girls, but he insists on using the current ones until they expire!)
Meanwhile, to thwart child abductions, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agency strongly suggests that an adult traveling with a child who is not accompanied by both parents carry a notarized letter authorizing this travel. The note should be written by the nontraveling parent or, if the child is traveling with other relatives or friends, by both parents. The CBP website includes this statement as a template for such notes: “I acknowledge that my wife/husband/etc. is traveling out of the country with my son/daughter/group. He/She/They has/have my permission to do so.”
Security Screenings for Children
The TSA has very specific requirements for bringing liquids, gels, and aerosols in carry-on bags: those items must be in containers that hold no more than 3.4 ounces each, and all of those containers must fit into one quart-size zip-top bag. (See chapters 3 and 5 for more details on the regulations.) However, medically required liquids for children (including baby formula, breast milk, food, and medications) are allowed in carry-on bags in amounts exceeding 3.4 ounces in reasonable quantities for the flight, and they do not need to fit in a quart-size zip-top bag. If you’re traveling with such items, inform the TSA officer at the entrance to the screening area and don’t just send them through the X-ray machine undeclared.
Just as TSA regulations permit seniors 75 and older to keep their shoes on while going through security, they also permit children 12 and younger to do the same. Not unexpectedly, all children’s toys and child-related items (such as diaper bags, strollers, baby carriers, car seats, and baby slings) must go through the X-ray machine. A child who sets off an alarm in the walk-through metal detector may be asked to walk through it additional times; a child who continues to set off alarms will probably be swabbed (usually on his or her hands) rather than subjected to a regular pat-down. Any child who repeatedly sets off metal detectors or seems suspicious in any way, however, may be required to walk through a full-body scanner.
If your child uses a wheelchair for medical reasons, inform the TSA officers if your child can either be carried by a parent or guardian or walk through the metal detector. If neither option is possible, a TSA agent will do a pat-down search of your child in his or her wheelchair.
Most airlines do not charge for wheelchairs, strollers, or car seats that are checked as luggage. (In light of increasing baggage fees, though, don’t count on that to last forever.) I recommend gate checking these items when possible, though, so that they are readily available when you land and need to make the long hike to the baggage claim area—and so they can avoid rough treatment from baggage handlers!
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