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Flying with Pets

Elaine N. Schoch is an avid traveler who is busy exploring the world, usually with her two kids in tow. She shares her adventures, travel advice and tips on CarpeTravel.com and @elaineschoch.

Traveling with two kids under the age of five is hard but toss in a dog who is flying in-cabin with you and it can be a true traveling circus. Or so I found when at the last minute we had to add our 11-year-old dog to the travel mix. And so began the mad rush to determine just how to fly with our dog, and because it had been years since I last flew with her I was not up to speed on airline pet policies. Thankfully, most do still allow small pets – dogs, cats, rabbits and birds – to fly in-cabin with you, but the fees for doing so aren’t nearly as nice. The average cost for flying in-cabin with your pet is $100 to $300 each way. (I  flew United and the in-cabin pet service charges came to $250 roundtrip.)

Here are several things you need to be aware of if you plan to fly domestically with your pet in-cabin.

Booking Travel for Your Pet

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Most airlines will require you to speak with a representative to book your pet's flight rather than booking it online because many have limitations on how many pets there are per cabin. Typically, it is two pets per cabin, one per passenger. While some airlines will allow you to book online, it’s a rather tedious process: You must complete a PDF, then email or fax it in and then wait three business days to confirm your pet can fly with you. I highly suggest you call and speak with someone to expedite things, make sure there is in fact room for your pet, and confirm all health documentation is accurate.

Airline Veterinary Certificate

Different airlines require different health certifications for pets traveling domestically both in-cabin and as cargo. Don’t just ask a representative on the phone but rather check online as well. For instance, the people on the phone for United told me I needed both a health certificate (a vet must do a physical on your pet) and a vaccination report. However, online it didn’t state I needed either, so when I noted this to the representative she double-checked, and since I was flying domestically, my dog didn’t need the physical. (That last step can take up to 10 days to be processed.) I was told the documentation needed for the pet actually depends on the flight route and that each state has different rules. The point is, check with a real person on the phone and on the airlines' pet policy page.

Checking in Your Pet

Unfortunately, you can’t print a boarding pass out for your pet like you do for yourself. You must actually go to the check-in counter and have an agent print a pass that attaches to your pet carrier. Again, this is dependent on the state you're traveling to. For instance, we received a printed pass in Denver and didn't need one in Dallas.

Security Screening with Pets

When your pet is flying in-cabin with you they, too, must adhere to TSA’s security screening. It’s really a painless process though: Simply remove your pet from its travel case and carry them through the metal detector with you. The carrier will need to be run through the x-ray machine. This may sound obvious but don’t take your pet out of the carrier until you have removed your shoes, emptied your pockets, and put all your items in the tray to go through the scanner since having your hands free for your pet will be useful. If your pet scares easily or is an escape artist you can ask for their case (with them in it) to be wanded and/or for a private room - where they’re safe and can’t escape - to have everything scanned.

Pet Container Requirements

For those of you worried about the number of carry-on bags allowed when you are traveling with your pet, have no fear. An in-cabin pet may be carried in addition to a carry-on bag. Now, finding the right bag might be a bit more challenging as your pet must be able to stand up and turn around in the carrier.

The rules regarding approved types of containers for pets flying in-cabin and as cargo were created by the International Air Transport Association and, for the most part, have been accepted by the world's airlines. The kennel must fit completely under the seat in front of you. The maximum hard-case kennel dimensions in inches are 17.5 (length) x 12 (width)  x 7.5 (height); and for soft-sided kennels, the dimensions are 18 (length) x 11 (width) x 11 (height).

I own a great container that expands, so when unzipped, one of the sides unfolds to create a little pop-out area. This was great as we were able to expand the case to give our dog a bit more room to stretch out in.

Tips on Traveling with Your Pet

  • Try to take direct flights.
  • Have your vaccination records with you, even if you’re told you won’t need them. It’s better to have your vet print out the records than be told your pet can’t board the flight.
  • Carry treats to help ease your pets fears and to keep them calm.  
  • Have a fold-up water bowl to provide your pet a few drinks, especially while in-flight.
  • Have sedatives ready but don't give your pet any unless you've already discussed with your vet the appropriate dosage. Sedatives can make it difficult for your pet to adjust to temperature changes and turbulence, and they may impede breathing. They also tend to last at least eight hours so plan “nap time” accordingly or you may be up much later in the evening than you’d prefer. You may also want to have a test run with the sedatives prior to your travels to ensure your pet doesn’t have any adverse reactions.
  • Be prepared for lots of smiles from other travelers, especially kids.

Have you flown with your pet in-cabin? Anything we missed here that travelers need to know?

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(Photo: Pomerianian in Pet Case via Shutterstock)

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