If you’re planning a flight with your pup, you may wonder whether that cute little face will be the perfect passenger or a high-maintenance mess. Knowing your dog is key to pre-travel planning.
Seasoned traveler Hilary Sloan, of New York City, who has flown her small dog Ella Bean all over the U.S. and Europe, shares her vet’s advice: “If your dog is a dog that has a meltdown every time you put him in a car, traveling is not going to be fun. If your dog thinks every trip inside their bag is an adventure, and they just go to sleep and are happy to be with you, traveling with your dog can be a tremendous amount of fun.”
While this advice might serve to prepare you for your dog’s baseline disposition during travel, there are ways to make the experience more comfortable and less stressful for any pup and their owner. If you think a flight is definitely in your future, check out this guide to the general rules, cost and helpful tips.
Preparing for travel
What to know ahead of booking a flight
All of the major airlines — including Delta, American, United, Jet Blue, Southwest and Spirit — welcome pets on board. Each airline has their own requirements but in general, per Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, your pet can travel in-cabin if he or she fits in an approved carrier under the seat in front of you.
Since rules vary, it’s good practice to communicate directly with your airline if there are questions along the way.
“Contacting the airline to get the most up to date information is really important,” says Lindsay Hamrick, director of policy for companion animals for the Humane Society of the United States.
You’ll also do well to book at least a few months ahead of time, because many airlines only allow a certain number of pets on each plane, and spots are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
What you’ll pay for in-cabin, cargo and service animals
Prices hover around the $125 mark each way for pets traveling in-cabin. If your dog is larger and unable to fit in a carrier under the seat in front of you, most of the major airlines will ship your pet as cargo. Prices will vary.
Different rules apply to service animals. Because they assist people with disabilities, they fly for free if they meet the airline’s requirements, and they don’t need to be confined to a carrier.
Requirements for in-cabin dogs
Dogs usually need to be around 8 weeks old for domestic travel or 15 weeks old for international flights.
Few airline carriers list a weight requirement on their websites but instead provide carrier sizing rules. So make sure yours is within range before you travel.
Pet carrier rules
In the flight cabin, small dogs are essentially considered carry-on baggage, so you must follow all of the FAA’s carry-on baggage rules. In general, your pet is required to be in an approved, ventilated carrier for the duration of the flight and must be able to stand up and turn around in the carrier with ease.
Domestic vs. international travel with dogs
Airline carriers will instruct you to know the entrance requirements for each state on your itinerary. For instance, in California, dogs over 4 months old must have a certificate of current rabies vaccination. In Illinois, you must have a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection issued within 30 days, showing freedom from disease. You can find state-specific information on the USDA’s website.
If you are traveling outside the U.S., it’s best to work with a USDA-certified veterinarian to complete the necessary paperwork, which includes international health certificates. Plan at least two to three months ahead of your departure date, says New York City veterinarian Dr. Lisa Lippman.
Acclimate your pup to their carrier
First and foremost, make sure your pet is familiar with the carrier or crate they’ll be traveling in long before you depart. According to Chewy.com, you should work on creating positive associations between dogs and their crates. This can be done by placing treats inside and taking your dog for smaller trips (on errands around town, for instance) in the carrier.
What you need to know at the airport
If your pet will be flying in-cabin, check these pre-flight must-dos off your list:
Get a sense of the layout
Research where the pet relief areas are so you aren’t walking around aimlessly when you arrive.
Stop feeding your dog four to six hours before travel.
“Let their stomach settle so that they don’t have anything in their stomach if they do feel sick on the plane,” says Hamrick.
Go potty beforehand
“Empty the bladder as close as possible to getting on the flight,” Sloan says, adding that accidents don’t typically occur on the plane. “[The duration of] a European flight, including security, etc., is not that much longer than sleeping overnight and not going to the bathroom — that’s how I look at it.”
Going through security can often be very chaotic and stressful, so try to stay calm. You will be required to remove your dog from the carrier as it goes through the X-ray machine. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says you must use a leash, and remember to remove the leash when carrying your pet through the metal detector.
While the experts agree that in-cabin is the safest place for your dog, sometimes cargo is your only option. If this is the route you land on, you’ll want to make sure to do the following:
Get to the airport early
Because air travel can be unpredictable, give yourself plenty of time. Hamrick recommends two hours for domestic flights. International flights tend to be more complex, so check with your carrier for a timing recommendation.
This is important “to make sure you reach all the deadlines to get your dog on the same flight [as you],” Hamrick says. “Because you do want to be there when they are unloaded at the other airport.”
Provide access to water
“Making sure they have adequate water available to them at all times is really crucial,” Hamrick says of dogs in cargo. “Well-made crates come with a connecting bowl that won’t spill as much during flight.”
Make identification a priority
The HSUS advises pet owners whose pups are traveling in cargo do the following: have your dog wear an ID tag and rabies tag, make sure the dog’s microchip information is up to date, put identifying information on your crate and carry a picture of your pet with you as you travel in case you are separated.
What to know once you’re in the air
The safest place for your pet to be during a flight is confined to their carrier under the seat in front of you. Here are some additional, expert-approved words of wisdom that might come in handy after takeoff:
Do what you can to keep your dog calm
This is especially important for brachycephalic breeds (which have condensed snouts that often cause respiratory distress), who can panic themselves into airway obstruction, Lippman says. You can help by “keeping them cool, maybe even bringing a little hand-held fan and making sure that they have water accessible at all times,” she says.
Look for signs of stress
Severe panting, agitation, vocalizing, urinating, defecating or exhibiting unusual behaviors are all signs that something could be wrong with your dog on a flight. If you see these signs, Lippman says it’s best to keep them safe, talk to them calmly, offer water if you see panting and turn off lights, if possible.
The bottom line
Once you land, get to that pet relief area STAT. But most importantly, just enjoy your time together.
While traveling with your pup might require a bit of extra legwork, it’s well worth it in the end.
“We love traveling with our dog, because you end up meeting more people and having more interesting conversations along the way,” Sloan says. “She makes the experience more fun.”