Tips and Tricks for Air Travel With Your Dog

small dog inside a hard plastic pet carrier placed underneath an airplane seat

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Dogs are a part of the family and it can be a tough decision to leave them behind, especially if you’re traveling somewhere you know they’d love. Many folks also have support animals for medical reasons and need to have their pet by them. Road trips are easy—dogs can come along in the car, but what do you do if you need to fly on an airplane? What are the rules and costs? Where will your dog go to relieve himself? Can Fido sit on your lap in the cabin? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about air travel with your furry friend. 

Traveling in the Cabin or Cargo Hold

In general, having your animal with you in the cabin is safer than putting your dog in a crate in cargo. However, the size and weight of your dog, its temperament, and the allotted space available, may make the decision for you based on the different policies of the individual airlines. You’ll need to double-check the procedures before you book your flights. In many cases, pets over 20 pounds will need to go into the cargo hold if the particular airline has a pressurized and temperature-controlled cargo that is safe for pets. Some airlines, like Delta, either allow pets to travel in the cabin or shipped on a separate plane via the Delta Cargo service. That said, many airlines have suspended cargo pet travel due to restrictions.

Whether you choose cabin or cargo, choose a direct flight if possible, to make the experience less stressful for your pet. Longer travel times, on multiple flights, exposes your pet to extra handling and opens up a greater risk for something to go wrong. Planes get delayed, canceled, and changed all of the time and it’s best to take out some of the variables where you can.  

Book Flights Early

The first thing you need to know is that space is often limited in the cabin for pets. Book as early as possible to ensure that you get one of the coveted spots. Also, keep in mind, most airlines do not allow pets to travel in the exit row as this space needs to be open for passengers in case of emergency.

When selecting your flights, consider the weather and time of year. If your pet will be in cargo in the winter, fly during the day when the cargo hold will be the warmest; if you’re traveling in the summer, fly early or late in the day to avoid extreme heat.

Expect to Pay Extra Fees

When flying with your dog, whether she’s in cargo, the cabin, or a larger cargo plane, you should plan on additional expenditures. United Airlines, for example, charges $125 each way plus an additional $125 service fee for each stopover longer than four hours. You’ll also have to buy an extra ticket for your pet if you bring the animal aboard. For other airlines, putting your pet in the cargo will require even heftier fees.

Arrive at the Airport Early

Make sure you get to the airport early enough to exercise your pet before boarding. You’ll want to visit the relief area—all airports have animal relief areas—so that your pet isn’t uncomfortable during the flight. You may want to hold off on feeding your dog or giving water, depending on how long your flights are. If you’re giving your pet a veterinarian-prescribed sedative, you’ll need to make sure the timing works for the best advantage.

If your dog is traveling through cargo, likely you’ll need to drop it off at a designated location, which is different from your usual check-in or boarding location, a couple of hours prior to your flight. You’ll have to pick up your animal in a specific location as well, which is usually different from where you pick up your checked luggage.

Also, please note, pets do not travel through the airport x-ray machine with your carry-on luggage. When you arrive at security, take your pet out of the carrier, send the empty carrier through the machine, and then walk through security with your pet. Afterward, you’ll place your pet back in the carrier. At the airport, dogs, unless they’re a registered service animal, must stay in their carrier the whole time unless they’re in the animal relief area.

Know the Federal Regulations and Airline Policies

There are no set across-the-board rules for passengers who want to travel with their pets on airplanes. You’ll need to check with your airline carrier to find out exactly what the procedures are. The Federal Aviation Administration permits each individual airline to make the decisions on whether or not to allow passengers to travel with their pets in the cabin, where your pet kennel will be considered carry-on baggage and must follow normal baggage rules for size and weight.

Some policies, however, are implemented for all carriers. The Department of Transportation, for example, requires all U.S. airlines to allow passengers to fly with their service animals in the cabin. As of Jan. 11, the DOT defines a service animal as a dog that's trained to do tasks or work to benefit a person with a disability. They are considered working animals and they do not have to be confined in a carrier while onboard the aircraft.

Pets younger than eight weeks old are not allowed to fly per federal regulations. Some carriers, like United Airlines, require that the kittens and puppies be at least 16 weeks old.

Some carriers do not permit dogs in the cargo area, while others do not allow dogs in the cabin and some airlines don't allow certain breeds, like pit bulls, to travel in the cabin regardless of size.

Each airline also has special rules about the size of kennels permitted. In most cases, the carrier has to be able to fit under the seat in front of you, or at your feet, yet be large enough that your pet can stand up and turn around. This clearly means that small pets are much easier to travel with than larger ones.

Safety Precautions

If your pet is elderly, weak, sick, or otherwise fragile, you may want to reconsider flying with your pet and choose an alternative mode of transportation. It’s better to go on a long road trip or travel by train than it is to put your pet in unnecessary danger. Be sure to check with your veterinarian prior to traveling as some breeds might not handle the travel stress as well as others.

If there’s an emergency, oxygen won’t be available for your pet as it will be reserved for passengers only.

Also, keep in mind, pets have died traveling in cargo holds before. United Airlines, for example, was under fire for their well-publicized mishandling of a pet that died in the overhead luggage bin, without airflow, during a flight. While it’s awful to read about, it’s important to be informed so that you may best protect your pet when traveling.

Emotional Support and Service Animals

In December 2020, the Department of Transportation declared that emotional support animals are considered pets, only dogs are eligible as service animals, and that airlines can cap the number of service animals allowed per passenger. (For more information on the ruling check out our article on the announcement.) In response to this ruling, which goes into effect Jan. 11, several major airlines are no longer accepting emotional support animals and non-canine service animals.

Policies vary widely by airline so be sure to read the fine print closely. But in general, emotional support animals will now have to travel as either carry-on or checked pets and service animals may need to have a DOT Service Animal Air Transportation Form.

Other Items to Consider

Make sure that your pet’s identification and vaccination tags are up-to-date with current contact details. You may want to consider having your pet microchipped, which is important if your pet loses her collar and gets away from you, and may be required on some international flights.

Look up the information for where there’s an on-call veterinarian in the location you’ll be traveling to and log the details into your mobile phone so that you have it in case of emergency.

Take the time, ahead of your trip, to acquaint your pet with the carrier that he will be traveling in—either in the cargo hold or in the cabin. You’ll want to make sure that your pet is comfortable and acclimated to being confined for hours at a time.

What to Pack

In addition to pre-flight health certificates provided by a licensed veterinarian, make sure to have all of the current vaccination details at-hand. You’ll want to bring along any current medications or prescriptions. Pack a travel water bowl so that you can keep your pet hydrated. Comfort items for your pet may include a familiar smelling blanket, a soft toy (avoid noisy squeak toys so that you won’t disturb other passengers), or something to chew on like a raw hide or bone. In general, however, you'll want to keep the items in the crate at a minimum for safety and comfort.

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