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The Complete Guide to Traveling with Pets on Airlines

By Lisa Overman

dog pet carrierIn this article, I want to focus on some of the best tips and essential supplies when it comes to air travel with pets. Many of the tips apply to road trips, too.

Using these strategies helps you save money and prepare for trips, whether you’re traveling around the world or just around town. These tried and true tips and strategies really work; I’ve traveled internationally with pets since 1996.

Learn more about animal trip tips, so you can effectively budget for your next trip with your pet.

Pet Travel Supplies

You can buy an astonishing amount of gear and supplies to make traveling with pets less expensive and more manageable. When I began traveling with my pets, we didn’t have the fancy bags, gizmos, and travel options we have today. As consumers expressed their frustration at the difficulty of traveling with pets, retailers paid attention and came up with some neat tools to allow us to travel easily with our pets.

You may not find these supplies while traveling, or if you can find them during your travels, they will probably cost more. Stock up on some of these finds for pet-friendly travel supplies before you leave, to save money and time during your trip:

1. Pet Waste Bags
You must have pet waste bags on hand for air travel. Prepare for your pet to need to go to the bathroom while either at the airport or on the plane. Get a durable product, and make sure you have enough bags to last for the entire trip. Biodegradable, self-sealing BowZer Bags sell in a quantity of 60 bags. You can stuff BowZer Bags in your pocket, or you can purchase a BowZer Buddy pouch that clips on your belt or purse and holds the bags.

2. Natural Calming Medications
Medications help relax nervous pets or pets that get anxious in unfamiliar environments. I prefer natural products rather than prescription medications. Try Rescue Remedy for Pets, a natural medication made of five flower essences and that comes in a small bottle with an eye dropper. The product soothes and calms pets naturally. You can add Rescue Remedy for Pets to your pet’s drinking water, or apply the natural medicine directly with the eye dropper under your pet’s tongue.

My other favorite calming product claims to mimic a “natural comforting facial pheromone of your animal,” allowing your pet to adjust to a new environment. You can use Comfort Zone Feliway Diffusers for cats. Feliway also offers a spray and pet wipe product for dogs and cats. I’ve used Comfort Zone Feliway Diffuser multiple times, and it has worked extremely well with my cat. These exceptional products calm your pet in a variety of situations.

3. Toys
Catnip toys provide natural calming for your cat. Cat nip is a dried flowering herb that contains natural oils. The scent of cat nip attracts cats, which like rolling around and playing in the herb. Cats quickly experience a relaxed, euphoric feeling from cat nip. Inexpensive cat nip-filled toys don’t make a mess, and quickly help your cat relax during their flight.

The Yeowww! organic catnip banana toy was a big hit with my cat. If you travel with a dog, bring a chew toy or beloved stuffed animal to increase your pet’s sense of security during your travels.

4. Water Containers
You need to have airline-approved water containers when flying with your pet. I suggest Lixit Dog Waterer; this airline-approved water bottle attaches to your pet’s carrier. The Lixit Dog Waterer allows your pet to lick the special tube tip, and drink water during the flight.

5. Water Bowls
For travel to and from the airport, or just around town, your pet needs a water bowl that doesn’t spill or slosh water around. I love the Road Refresher Dog Bowl because the design limits the amount of water that can slosh out of the bowl. The Road Refresher bowl contains a floating disk which allows your pet to drink easily, and prevents excess water from slopping out. The bowl comes with two types of fixing pads that attach on carpet and smooth surfaces, ideal for travel.

6. Backpacks
Pet backpacks can serve the essential purpose of holding your pet’s supplies in a compact, easy-to-access location. Whether you fly or drive, your pet needs treats, waste bags, water, and other supplies for walks and social outings. Motley Mutt Backpacks offer something your pet can wear, while providing a central place for your pet supplies.

7. Pet Clean-Up Materials
When you travel with a pet, you have to prepare for the fact that your pet will potty in the kennel. I recommend Eco Care Puppy Training Pads; the pads have a super absorbent pad that turns pet urine into a gel within the pad, reducing your clean-up time and eliminating pet urine odor. Eco Care Puppy Training Pads are made with 85% recyclable materials.

8. Pet Warmth and Comfort Supplies
When you fly with a pet, consider your pet’s comfort and warmth. When you place your pet’s kennel under the seat in front of you, you expose your pet to cold drafts. The Precision Pet SnooZZy Flat Mat Pet Bed comes in several sizes and easily fits inside the smallest pet kennel, to keep your pet warm. The flat Midwest Paw Print Reversible Fleece Bed washes easily and fits conveniently in your pet’s kennel in the cabin.

cat pet carrier

Pet Carriers

The essential pet carrier comes in various materials, including industrial strength metal and durable plastic. For small pets, you have the option of a rectangular cloth or mesh zippered bag.

If you travel by air, check the airline’s pet carrier requirements. Regulations vary from airline to airline, and change periodically; basic guidelines state that your pet can stand up and turn around, have water available, and enjoy proper ventilation.

Cloth and Mesh Carriers

When traveling by air with a small pet, try using a soft-sided mesh, ventilated zippered carrier. You can easily manage this carrier as you travel through security and through the airport with your pet. These carriers also fit easily under your seat. Some models offer zippered openings, which allow you to easily touch and pet your animal in-flight.

Some of the top options available for pet carriers include:

  1. The Bergan Comfort Carrier is made of mesh and fabric, and offers excellent ventilation. The carrier provides multiple zippered openings, a travel pocket, a removable fleece mat, and a padded shoulder strap for easy travel with your pet. Designed for smaller pets, the Bergan Comfort Carrier can carry pets weighing up to 22 pounds.
  2. The Sherpa Original Pet Carrier is convenient and offers one unique option that I love – the carrier shoulder strap doubles as a leash. The Sherpa Original Pet carrier is made of quilted nylon and mesh panels, and comes with a removable, faux lambskin liner. This carrier offers similar zippered openings and pockets to give you excellent access to your pet while flying. The pockets offer a great place to store treats or wet wipes. The Sherpa comes in three sizes, all fairly small, with the largest size approved for a pet weighing up to 22 pounds.
  3. The Sherpa Delta Deluxe Carrier offers excellent ventilation, multiple zippered openings, and a shoulder strap that doubles as a leash. The Sherpa Delta Deluxe comes in medium size for pets up to 16 lbs and includes a removable faux lambskin liner.

Hard-Sided Plastic Kennels

Airlines have strict guidelines for pet carriers used for pets traveling in cargo. Airlines require pet owners to use a hard-sided plastic kennel that provides ventilation through both side panels, and through the door. They also require that the kennel have a front opening, as opposed to top opening. You must use a sturdy kennel in cargo, constructed with bolts.

I have listed a few of my favorite airline-approved kennels below:

  1. The Petmate Kennel Cab comes in four sizes, and is constructed of heavy-duty plastic with a metal grate door. The kennel offers ventilation on three sides and also comes with a water cup. The kennel offers a floor perimeter moat, which helps keep your pet dry if they potty in the kennel.
  2. The Petmate Vari Kennel Ultra Fashion has five sizes available, including extra-large. It offers heavy-duty construction, metal grated vents on two sides, and a metal grate door. In addition, this kennel has a floor moat to help prevent your pet from getting wet in case of accidents or water bottle leakage.
  3. If your dog is a large dog like mine, it needs an oversized, sturdy kennel like the Petmate Sky Kennel. The Petmate Sky Kennel offers heavy-duty materials and construction to keep your pet safe. My dog weighs in at 125 pounds, and is 28 inches high. I am going to purchase the Petmate Sky Kennel in the largest size for our upcoming trip to Italy. The largest model measures 48 inches long, 32 inches wide, and 35 inches high, allowing ample room for a large dog to stand up and turn around. If you’re not sure what size kennel will work best for your pet, take a look at this handy pet carrier size guide.
dog pet carrier plastic

Miscellaneous Supplies

Once you’ve packed your essential pet travel items and found a good carrier, consider bringing some miscellaneous supplies to make your trip easier. You can save money when you prepare for almost any event, and your pet can have a fun, enjoyable vacation.

Plan ahead of time so you have everything you need to make your trip comfortable for your pet and to avoid paying overinflated prices for basic supplies while you travel. Bring the following essential items and supplies to ensure a stress-free trip when flying with pets:

  1. Dry Pet Food. Stock up on dry pet food at a discount pet superstore before embarking on your trip. Bring enough non-perishable dry pet food in pre-measured Ziploc bags to last for the duration of the trip.
  2. Pet Treats. Pet treats nourish and soothe your pet during a long trip. Find healthy pet treats at a discount pet superstore or online.
  3. Pet Medication. Keep medications with you in your carry-on bag for safety, and in case of a flight delay. Bring a list of prescription medications in case of emergency. If your veterinarian has approved the use of over-the-counter medications for your pet, include those in your carry-on bag too.
  4. Wet Wipes. Bring a box of wet wipes when traveling with any pet. Use wipes for cleaning your pet’s kennel, for cleaning up accidents, and for cleaning your hands after handling your pet.
  5. Hand Sanitizer. Hand sanitizer costs more at airport stores. Bring a small bottle in your handbag or carry-on luggage to feel fresh after cleaning up spills or accidents.
  6. Pet Hair Roller. Bring a pet hair roller when traveling. Pet hair seems to multiply when you want to look fresh, so carry a travel-sized pet hair roller to always look your best.
  7. Microchip Information. If you haven’t had your pet microchipped yet, make sure to have this done before you travel. Also make sure that your pet’s travel tags mention that your pet has a microchip. In addition, I recommend writing down your pet’s AVID number on your pet travel documents.
  8. Immunization Records. Some airlines require immunization records. Each airline has different regulations, so make sure to have your pet’s shot records handy.

If Your Pet Is Flying Cargo

Now that you have a list of supplies, prepare to bring your pet to the airport. You have two options when traveling with pets: you can keep your pet in the cabin, or your pet can travel in the cargo hold of the airplane.

Depending upon the airplane’s policy, and the size of your pet, you may not have a choice. You may have to check your pet into the cargo hold for travel to your destination. Some things to keep in mind if your pet is flying cargo:

  • You have to leave your pet at the pet cargo area of the airport. Here, airline personnel check your pet in and transport your pet to the plane. When you make your reservation, ask exactly where your pet needs to go, and how early your pet needs to arrive. I suggest a practice run to the pet cargo area a few days before your flight, to confirm its exact location. It may be difficult to find the pet cargo area, and you don’t need any additional stress and confusion as you prepare to depart with your pet.
  • If your pet flies cargo and has a layover, airport personnel transport your pet from the first flight to the connection. At the connection, airport personnel give your pet food and water. The airport personnel add water to the small attached bowls that sit on the door of your pet’s carrier, next to the water bottle you filled before departure. Make sure airline personnel can find the food; tape a Ziploc bag of food to the top of your pet carrier.
  • Make a detailed label in bold print and tape it to the carrier top. Cover the label completely with waterproof, durable tape. The label should include the following information: pet’s name, owner’s name, destination, and phone number. In addition, you can add a labeled photo to the carrier.
  • Include a phone number on the label where airline personnel can reach you when you arrive at your destination. If you travel to a foreign country, list contact information in both languages. Use an online translator if you don’t know the local language. If you plan to use your cell phone while traveling, include backup phone numbers in case your phone doesn’t work.
  • Include a second tag on your pet’s collar with your name, destination address, and phone number. This protects both you and your pet, providing vital information to airline personnel.
  • Freeze a water bottle and place the bottle on your pet’s carrier water clip. This helps prevent dripping, and keeps the water cold for the majority of the travel journey.
  • When you arrive at your destination, you can pick your pet up at the airline office near the baggage claim. In my experience, the airline staff at various airlines has always efficiently and quickly verified my paperwork, allowing us to quickly get on our way.
  • Keep your pet hydrated when you travel. Have a bottle of water and a small dish handy, so your pet can have a drink immediately after going for a walk.

Flying with Your Pet in the Airline Cabin

When you arrive at airport security, remove your pet from the carrier, so the carrier can go through the X-ray. Your pet will be outside of the carrier in an area often filled with noise and confusion. This foreign atmosphere can stress a pet. Thus, I suggest using a leash to help your pet stay safe.

Once you get through security and you board the plane, you can keep your pet in a carrier underneath the seat. This allows you to stay close to your pet and to check on your pet’s needs during the flight. I suggest two items for your cabin carrier: a puppy pad liner that absorbs any accidents, and a small, pet-sized blanket that prevents your pet from getting chilled.

In addition, bring the following items in the outside pocket of your carry-on, for use on the plane and upon arrival: wet wipes, a Ziploc bag of food, and an empty Ziploc bag for unexpected pet accidents.

dog vacation

International Air Travel With Your Pet

Each country has its own regulations for pet entry. Check the airline’s website for details about traveling internationally with pets and review the guidelines posts on the country’s embassy website.

Pets traveling internationally must have immunizations, health certificates, and microchips. Other countries, including Canada, Japan, and countries in Europe, use a different type of microchip known as an ISO chip. Some international microchip readers cannot read U.S. microchips. Know which countries require an ISO-compliant chip, and have one implanted in your pet before traveling if necessary.

If you want to avoid having an extra implant, you may purchase a portable U.S. microchip reader and take it in your carry-on bag. That U.S. microchip reader allows customs officials to read your pet’s microchip when you and your pet enter the country. The portable readers can cost hundreds of dollars, so save money by renting a microchip reader online, or by implanting the ISO-compliant chip in your pet.

Flight Guidelines for Pets

Several airlines offer the basic options of cabin or cargo travel for your pet, while two airlines allow animals to fly only in the cabin, requiring your pet to fit into a carrier that rides under your seat. Plan ahead and contact the airline to confirm their specific pet requirements, before making a reservation.

Continental Airlines

Continental offers a Pet Safe Program which includes pet transportation in air-conditioned vans to and from the airplane. Airline personnel take your pet from the van to the airplane in the last minutes before takeoff to keep your pet comfortable and relaxed, in a climate-controlled space. Continental has no flight restrictions preventing animals from flying on excessively hot or cold days on their flights. In addition, if you fly through Newark or Houston, Continental offers full service pet kenneling for pets in transit.

Continental allows passengers to bring a pet on-board in lieu of a carry-on bag, and restricts animals to one pet per passenger. Continental Airlines charges passengers $125 each way or $250 round trip for carry-on or cargo travel. Kittens and puppies must be at least eight weeks old to travel on Continental Airlines. Continental allows passengers to carry on soft-sided carriers that measure 18 inches long, 11 inches wide, and 11 inches high, and hard case carriers with dimensions of 17.5 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 7.5 inches high for pets traveling in the cabin.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest allows small dogs and cats in the cabin. They do not allow pets in cargo. Southwest charges $75 each way to travel with a pet in-cabin. The airline allows up to two animals of the same species in a single carrier, providing they can both stand up and turn around.

Southwest’s website provides seat dimensions rather than carrier dimensions. Check with the airline before making a reservation for your pet. In addition, Southwest Airline doesn’t require a health certificate for your pet to travel. When traveling on Southwest Airlines your pet travel fee is non-refundable if you don’t take your flight.

United Airlines

United allows customers to travel in the cabin with one small dog or cat. Dogs and cats must be six months old, and the airline only allows one pet per kennel. Puppies and kittens must be at least 8 weeks old and two puppies or kittens of the same species may fly in the same kennel together. Your pet carrier takes the place of one carry-on item for your flight. Maximum kennel size for travel within the cabin is 17.5 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 7.5 inches high.

United Airlines charges a $125 pet fee for pets flying in the cabin, and $250 for pets traveling cargo. The airline has very specific rules for cargo travel during the summer. The airline places limits on certain breeds and destinations, such as Bahrain and Kuwait, due to the high summer temperatures. Check the United Airlines website for specific details about their rules during the summer months.

Delta Airlines

Delta offers Delta Pet First service, and charges $125 each way for both cabin and cargo pet travel, within the U.S., Canada, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Delta charges a $200 one-way fee for other destinations. Delta restricts passengers to one pet on board, except when two pets of the same species can travel in the same carrier. The two pets must be small enough to stand up and turn around and Delta only charges a fee for one of the pets.

Delta has varying kennel size requirements depending upon the flight and the aircraft. The Delta website explains that some states require a health certificate for pets to travel. If you fly through Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas or Salt Lake City, Delta offers animal holding facilities for pets. Delta accepts pets on a first-come, first-serve basis on their flights, so speak to a representative as soon as possible about your travel plans.

For the safety of your pet, Delta does not allow pets to fly in the baggage or cargo hold from May 15 to September 15, due to high temperatures. You can read more about this restriction on the Delta website. Animals that fly in the cargo hold on Delta require a health certificate.

Delta offers a year-round service known as the Delta Dash Program for pets flying alone. This program offers year-round service, unless Delta determines that temperatures are unsafe for pets. The fee for the Delta Dash program starts at $178 each way within the U.S. and an additional fee is charged based on your pet’s weight.

AirTran

AirTran allows pets in the cabin for a fee of $69 each way for both cabin and cargo. Your pet must fit under the seat and be able to stand up and turn around in its carrier. On AirTran flights, you can bring kennels measuring up to 8.5 inches high, 17 inches long, and 12 inches wide. Air Tran allows one pet per paying customer. Air Tran doesn’t allow pets in cargo or on their international flights.

American Airlines

AA allows pets in the cabin and in the cargo hold. American Airlines charges customers flying with pets in the cabin a $125 one-way fee and charges customers with pets flying in the cargo hold $175 each way.

American Airlines allows pet carriers with the following size dimensions: 19 inches long, 13 inches wide, and 9 inches high. Soft-sided pet carriers may exceed these dimensions slightly because they collapse.

American Airlines has the following restrictions for traveling with your pets. Pets must be at least eight weeks old to travel, and pets traveling in cargo may not exceed a weight limit of 100 pounds, including the pet carrier. If outside temperatures are below 45 degrees or above 85 degrees, animals may not fly in cargo. American Airlines allows only one pet per customer on flights. If you have two pets of the same species, and their combined weight doesn’t exceed 20 pounds, your pets can ride in a single kennel together. Lastly, the airline restricts animals in the cabin on some international flights.

JetBlue

JetBlue offers the JetPaws Pet Program. This program includes a free downloadable e-book with pet travel tips, and provides a special pet carrier tag for use on your flight, and 300 TrueBlue travel points each way for your pet’s flight.

Your pet and the carrier may not exceed a total of 20 pounds, and pet carrier dimensions may not exceed 17 inches long, 12.5 inches wide, and 8.5 inches high. A customer may bring only one pet per flight and your pet replaces your carry-on item.

JetBlue charges a $100 one-way fee for flying with a pet for both cabin and cargo, and requires that passengers submit proof of vaccinations, and bring a health certificate and an identification tag. Pets are not allowed on flights to Barbados, Jamaica, and St. Lucia.

Pet Airways

If you want to make sure your pet has a more enjoyable flying experience, consider Pet Airways, which flies in and out of nine major cities within the U.S. Pet Airways only carries pets on their flights, and pets fly in the cabin, with an attendant checking on them every fifteen minutes. Consider Pet Airways if they fly to and from your desired destination. Prices range from $99 to $249 each way.

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources you can use as you prepare for travel with your pet:

Final Word

Using these travel tips and insights, you can feel confident traveling and moving with your pet. Whether you travel across the country or around the world, make the process easier and less expensive by planning ahead. Traveling with pets expands your experiences and theirs too.

My animals have become friendlier and calmer after the years of travel they’ve experienced. Traveling internationally with my pets changed the way I live my life. Before you travel on any airline, review the guidelines for traveling with pets on the airline’s website. Take your pets to the veterinarian for check-ups before you travel. If your pets have any issues or problems, including an illness or old age, carefully consider whether they should travel with you.

If you have any questions about an airline’s policy, call them to discuss your concerns before you plan your travels. In addition to packing supplies for the trip, think about what supplies you need once you arrive at your destination. Items from home can help decrease your footprint wherever you stay, reduce travel expenses, and help you and your pet to relax and enjoy your trip.

Have you ever traveled in the air with your beloved pet? What essential items do you pack to prepare?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Lisa Overman
Lisa Overman is an international traveler and writer. She writes on tropical destinations for Wanderlust and Lipstick. She is a former expat who spent four years in Germany. She also spent six years living on islands in the Pacific. She has her own website, LisaOverman.com where she writes on grief and loss.

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