With my third child due just before the school holidays, I knew we couldn’t go on a family holiday. There was no way we could get baby’s passport and Chinese visa in time, nor did I want the stress of trying.
The best solution I could think of was to send the two older kids, aged 6 and 8, to fly by themselves to family in San Francisco. After all, my sister and I flew from Atlanta to Amsterdam and back every summer on our own, to spend two months with my grandparents. These summers left me with the best memories and an everlasting bond with my grandparents. We loved being at the airport with the airline hostess, though not so much the big pouches we had to wear around our necks with our important papers and passports. These did not look too cool.
I was sure things must have changed since the late 80’s, so I started my research. Even finding the information isn’t straightforward. It’s usually under “Special needs travel” on the airline’s website at the very bottom.
Unaccompanied minors (UMs) cannot make a stopover; the flight must be direct, which reduces the choice of airlines. Also, each airline has its age guidelines, but they almost all start at 5.
I decided to book with United Airlines directly on their website. Here, I selected their ages, and the UM fee was automatically added: USD 150 (RMB 950) each way (not per child, just per direction). I had to give detailed information on who would bring the children to Beijing airport (full name, relation to the children and passport details) and who would pick them up in San Francisco, and the same for the return trip. These adults must take their passports with them when collecting the children.
I called United a few times to make sure they were all set to receive the kids at Terminal 3 on this date and time, and United assured us all was in order. When that day came, Albert (my husband) brought them to the airport while I was at home recovering with our new baby, but there was no one waiting for UMs at the check-in desk. United made some calls, and the three of them had to wait for at least an hour to get things sorted. So make sure you go early.
Eventually, when a lady came to take the kids, she didn’t speak English. In our case, this was fine, but take note if you have children that don’t understand Chinese. United had told us the drop-off parent would be given a special pass to take the children all the way to the gate. This was not the case, nor did they give the kids the big pouch around the neck, even though Albert asked for it especially. All the important documents and visa info were given to the lady who took the kids to the plane.
He connected with her by WeChat so she could send him photos of the kids boarding their flight, which she kindly did. Everything went smoothly after that until it was time for my brother to drop the kids off at San Francisco airport. Here, he was forced to pay another UM fee of USD 150 or the children wouldn’t be allowed to board, even though we had already paid it when booking our tickets at the very beginning.
Albert went to pick the kids up and waited behind the barrier; there’s no special meeting-point or exit for UMs. The children were accompanied by a United staff member and Albert was asked to show his passport, which was checked thoroughly. It was a happy reunion.
He also went to the United office to have a word, but the blank-faced ladies there told him to fill out a complaint form online, which I had already done that morning. We’re still waiting to hear from them and get that UM fee back.
The moral of this story is that sending your children unaccompanied to another country is, with planning, very doable, but there can be unexpected hiccups. Luckily, my children got safely there and back, which is the most important thing, and that gave me some much-needed time to recover from childbirth.
Photos: Courtesy of Elisabeth Koch
This article appeared on p44 of beijingkids April 2018 issue