If you're thinking of flying with your pet, I have one word of advice: Don't.
Yes, if you really have to, it's possible. But it's more expensive and more trouble than ever, and you have two main choices: cramming your beloved little beast into a tiny box that gets shoved under an airline seat for hours at a time, or subjecting her to the indignities of being treated as baggage by apathetic strangers.
I'm saying this as the owner of two cats, who would be much happier having a friendly neighbor come by every day or so when I'm out of town then endure a traumatic journey only to end up in a freakishly unfamiliar location. Dogs, of course, are more adaptable, and many dogs love to ride in cars. Hint, hint.
By the way, none of this applies to certified service and emotional-support animals, who must travel with you and thus have different, looser rules surrounding them. Please don't try to arbitrarily argue that your pet is an emotional-support animal; the airline will ask for special papers, and your ruse will end there. Yes, you can get fake "service animal" papers for your dog online, but if you do that, you are evil.
An extremely limited class of "celebrity animals" are also allowed to ride as ordinary passengers. We can guarantee that your animal is not a celebrity animal.
Pet Travel Policies of Major U.S. Airlines
|Airline||Pets Accepted in Cabin||In-Cabin Pet Fee||Pets as baggage?||Checked Pet Fee|
|AirTran||Dogs, cats, birds||69||No||N/A|
|Alaska||Dogs, cats, birds, rabbits||100||Dogs, cats, ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, birds, non-poisonous reptiles, pot bellied pigs, rabbits, and tropical fish||100|
|American||Dogs, cats||100||Dogs, cats||150|
|Continental||Dogs, cats, birds, rabbits||125||No||N/A|
|Delta||Dogs, cats, birds||125||Dogs, cats, birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, and hamsters||200|
|Spirit||Dogs, cats, birds||100||No||N/A|
|United||Dogs, cats, canaries, finches or parakeets||125||Dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs||250|
|US Airways||Dogs, cats, birds||100||Only the US Airways Shuttle||N/A|
Prepping Your Pet for Travel
Before you travel with your pet, she needs her shots! All pets crossing state borders are required by the U.S. government to have a health certificate, signed by a vet. Your best bet is to get the certificate within 10 days of travel. Some airlines claim not to care (Continental), some say 10 days (Delta), some say 30 days for carry-on pets and 10 days for cargo pets (United) -- just get the darned certificate. Your vet will know what it is.
Specific destinations have more intense health requirements. And if you plan to travel internationally, the health requirements vary city by city. Some of these health requirements may require weeks of preparation -- your pet may have to be microchipped, for instance, or get shots four weeks before travel. PetRelocation.com (www.petrelocation.com) has a map of pet import requirements to guide you.
Make pet reservations as early as you can. Airlines generally allow only a limited number of pets per plane, and it's first come, first serve.
When you get to the airport, if you have a dog, take her for a walk if you can. Many airports have pet "relief areas" where your dog can stretch her legs and relieve herself before things get cramped and miserable. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Southwest Airlines all have lists of pet relief areas at the airports they serve.
By the way, two airlines actually give you frequent-flier miles for traveling with pets. JetBlue wins a big prize here for delivering 300 TrueBlue points every time you travel with a pet. Continental gives miles for packing your pets as cargo using their PetSafe program.
Under The Seat and Dreaming
By far the best way to fly with your pet is as carry-on luggage. Of course, you can only do this with a limited array of animals -- generally they have to be a cat, dog or bird, under 20 pounds and able to be fit into a small regulation-size soft-sided case under the seat in front of you. Alaska, Delta, Southwest, and Spirit let you pack two very small animals into one kennel.
Each airline has slightly different size guidelines. Southwest allows kennels that are 19"L x 14"W x 8.25"H, but AirTran requires 17x12x8.5", and larger airlines such as Delta and American require you to call them and ask about the specific plane you'll be flying on. Your pet will generally count as your carry-on bag. If you don't have an appropriate case, airlines will often sell you one for $45-55 with a jaunty airline logo on it. Ask in advance, of course.
Your pet must be at least eight weeks old, and must be non-aggressive (and not in heat -- spay and neuter, cat owners!)
Gadling's Heather Poole (http://hpoole.wordpress.com), a flight attendant for a major airline, has a great list of tips for flying with a pet in the main cabin. Her list includes putting an ID tag on your pet and lining your carrier with absorbent pads in case of an "accident." Check it out and follow her advice.
One last thing: during the flight, please, please, please do not remove your pet from her carrier. Think about it: you're in a tiny metal tube with recirculated air, and someone is probably allergic. (If you're flying on Delta, that person will be me.)
Treating Your Beloved as Baggage
I have absolutely zero faith in the promises of airlines who say they'll treat your pet well when you check her as luggage. The emptiness of their pledges can be shown by the miserable offer of $200 in travel vouchers that Delta Air Lines made recently to a young man whose dog they lost. After a storm of media attention, Delta raised their offer to $980 and apologized profusely. But face it: the airlines don't care about your pet as much as you do.
Of top U.S.-based airlines, only Alaska, American, Delta, and United still take animals as checked baggage. All four airlines put restrictions on which kinds of animals they take, too: most notably, ferret owners are stuck with Alaska Airlines. Fees range from $100-250 each way depending on the airline.
There are restrictions on which kinds of animals can be shipped as baggage, where they can be shipped (almost never Hawaii, and foreign countries each have their own complex rules) and when they can be shipped. Most airlines won't accept pets as baggage if the temperature at either end of your trip isn't between 20-85°C, or 75° for snub-nosed dogs and cats. Delta won't accept any pets as baggage at all between May 15 and September 15; United won't accept snub-nosed dogs between June 1 and September 30.
If that hasn't dissuaded you, PetFlight.com lists incidents where pets have died or been injured when being shipped as either baggage or cargo; the incidents come pretty much monthly.
Yes, there's an advantage to bringing your pet as baggage: she'll fly on the same plane as you, which means none of the inconvenience of having to schedule, drop off and pick up a cargo shipment.
Go Go Cargo
For many larger or exotic animals, the only option is to ship your pet as cargo, or with an approved animal shipping service. The fanciest of the bunch is Pet Airways (www.petairways.com), who fly pet-only planes with schedules and "potty breaks" designed to reduce the trauma of traveling, but all the major airlines have cargo shipping services for pets.
Shipping your pet as same-day cargo (or via Pet Airways) can even cost less than checked baggage. Pet Airways' fares start at $149 for relatively short flights. Continental Airlines' special pet cargo service, PetSafe, will ship a small pet anywhere in the country for $149. (Larger pets cost more.)
The big catch is that your pet is flying on a different flight than you are, which could complicate your vacation. You'll have to drop your pet off at the cargo area of the airport. In the case of Pet Airways, you may have to drop your pet off at an entirely different airport -- in the New York area, for instance, they only serve Republic Airport in Farmingdale, NY, which is about halfway between JFK and Islip airports.
In general, assume you're knocking out an entire day to deal with pet shipment issues. Flying your pet from New York to Fort Lauderdale via Pet Airways, for instance, involves a drop-off at Farmingdale Airport around 7am and a pickup at Fort Lauderdale about 13 hours later.
Sound annoying? You bet. That nice neighbor is looking like a better and better option.
Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his Frommers.com columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and daughter, who frequently accompany him on his trips.
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