Flying With Pets and Service Animals: The Not-So-Friendly Skies

As if air travel weren’t stressful enough, people who want to bring their pets on flights must meet strict requirements and pay extra. But sending your dog as baggage or freight can be even worse.

Traveling by air with a pet can be a real pain. If your dog or cat won’t fit in a carrier under the seat, you have to check the animal as baggage (when that’s allowed) or ship it as cargo. Either way, there are lots of restrictions, hassles, and risks. And whether you bring Fido or Fluffy in the cabin or trust your beloved companion animal to baggage handlers, you’ll pay extra.

Pets Onboard

If your dog or cat is small enough to be comfortable in a pet carrier that fits under an airplane seat, you can take it with you in the cabin for a fee (usually about $100 or $125). Many airlines also allow rabbits and some household birds, but they don’t let unaccompanied minors (children under 18) travel with pets.

Your pet will have to stay in the carrier throughout the flight, and it will count as a carry-on bag. You can find out the exact measurements of the under-seat space from the airline. Many airlines will rent or sell you a kennel that will fit.

You should make advance reservations to bring a pet on board. Most airlines allow only a few animals in the cabin per flight, and they make room on a first-come, first-serve basis. Also, you may not be able to sit in certain seats. So don’t wait until the last minute, and always check the airline’s website for its rules on travel with animals.

If you have a disability, the rules are different for flying with service dogs and emotional support animals.

Checking Pets as Baggage

If your pet can’t come in the cabin with you, some airlines will allow you to put it on the same flight as checked baggage. The fees vary. Here again, you need to give the airline advance notice and check for specific rules, including:

  • carrier and identification requirements
  • breed bans
  • limits on the animal’s size and age
  • seasonal restrictions, as well as destinations where pets can’t go in baggage
  • requirements for food and water on long flights
  • health certificates, and
  • approval from a vet for any sedation.

A lot can go wrong when pets become baggage. For example:

  • Even though animals usually kept in a pressurized cargo area with temperature control, the temperature can fluctuate dramatically if the plane is delayed on the ground.
  • Just as airlines routinely misplace baggage, pets can get lost or left behind during a stopover. Obviously, the results are worse for a terrified, thirsty, and hungry animal than for a suitcase full of clothes.
  • Animals can be hurt or killed when carriers are tipped or crushed during transport.

Shipping Pets as Air Cargo

You may have to consider shipping your pet as air cargo if the other options aren’t available to you. This is very expensive, with all the restrictions and drawbacks of checking your pet as baggage. The same preparations and precautions apply as well.

Tips for Avoiding Problems

When you have to send your pet as baggage or cargo, you can take some steps to help prevent mishaps:

  • Try to book a nonstop flight on an airline and route with a good on-time record. Try to avoid traveling at times when it will be too hot or cold.
  • Ask a flight attendant for confirmation from the baggage handlers that the dog is onboard—or talk to the baggage people yourself. If there's an extended delay, ask that the dog be taken off the plane. Be polite, but be persistent.
  • Well in advance, get an approved crate that meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements for size and construction, and give your pet time to get used to being inside. (Airline websites provide details on crate specifications.)
  • Your dog should be wearing an identification tag—with your contact information and destination. You should also attach a tag on the carrier with your name, contact info, and any special instructions.
  • Don't feed your animal for four hours before the flight, but give it water right up to the travel time. Leave food and dishes in the crate, along with instructions so that airline employees can feed and water your pet if there’s a long delay or extended layover.
  • Get adequate liability coverage for your dog from the airline or an outside insurer. Note that airlines have limits on liability insurance for baggage, but you should be able to declare a higher value (with a higher fee).

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