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Carriers keep close watch on children traveling alone

Recognizing that nothing can take the fun out of a vacation like anxiety, a handful of airlines and some airports have created children-friendly areas or programs.

For example, if you are flying in or out of Boston with children, visit Kidport, Logan Airport's free play area for youngsters at Terminal C. It includes climbing toys such as pretend airplanes and cars and tables full of Legos and blocks.

Delta has reopened its Dusty's Dens in major airports for families with children or for children traveling alone. The "dens" include games, computers, books and videos.

Air Canada has play areas for its "Skyriders" _ all passengers ages 4 to 12 can join the free club _ in the Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Edmonton airports.

Or, if you are passing through Pittsburgh Airport, look for U.S. Air's special day care/play area.

Of special concern to airlines, bus lines and train operators are unaccompanied minors. They all have policies limiting the age and conditions under which a child can travel alone and policies for how to handle these special customers.

Staffers are particularly attentive to children traveling alone or with families, most travel providers say.

"We will do whatever we have to do to keep that child occupied and amused," said David Castelveter, director of public relations for U.S. Air.

Staffers keep careful track of children traveling alone, sometimes taking them to airport lounges during layovers, said Castelveter. "Our flight attendants have a tremendous understanding for this level of discomfort, and they take them up to see the captain or the cockpit. ... They spend time with them."

Gary Grulich, customer-relations employee for Southwest Airlines, says children must be at least 5 years old to fly alone on Southwest, and they can only travel on direct or non-stop flights.

Most airlines charge an escort fee for unaccompanied minors.

Like most travel providers, Southwest requires that parents or guardians of an unaccompanied child provide their names, addresses and telephone numbers to the carrier as well as the same information from the people who will meet the child at the end of the trip. They will not release the child to anyone other than the people identified.

Once on board an American Airlines flight, children can choose their meals from a special children's menu and enjoy games and an audio channel with classic children's stories.

And there are a handful of established air carriers that go from nice to nifty with regard to their treatment of young passengers.

Just as Air Canada has a Skyrider club for children, Delta has its Fantastic Flyers club.

Fantastic Flyers has more than 800,000 members from 155 countries. They receive a quarterly magazine, special in-flight meals upon request, a poster, patches, stickers, an official membership card and an annual birthday card from Dusty the Delta Air Lion.

Newly enrolled members of the Fantastic Flyer program also receive special discounts, coupons and other benefits during the year. To enroll, call (800) 392-KIDS if your child is between the ages of 2 and 12.

Skyriders get treated like VIPs from the moment they check in. They receive ID tags, stickers and airport maps.

These young jet-setters also receive a travel logbook, an official travel certificate and, after the journey is over, the "Aerogram," a biannual newsletter for young jet-setters, and a personalized birthday postcard.

Amtrak allows unaccompanied minors ages 8 to 11 to travel alone if the trip is made during the day and the station at both ends of the trip is open and staffed.

Maureen Garrity, spokeswoman for Amtrak, said that an employee talks with the child before the trip starts, warning them to stay in their seat, not to take out any money and to tell a conductor if anyone talks to them.

The social climate is such that Greyhound is re-examining its policy regarding unaccompanied minors, which is fairly complicated but allows unaccompanied minors 8 and older to travel alone, with several restrictions.

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