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Everything to Know About Flying With A Dog

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 11/2/2020 Matt Meltzer, Katherine LaGrave, Sarah Kuta
a dog sitting on a bench © Getty

Airlines aren’t just cramming more people onto flights nowadays—they’re also accommodating a growing number of dogs. 

Flying with a dog raises a lot of questions, though, especially for first-timers. How does traveling with a non-service, non-emotional support dog work, exactly? How much does it cost? Is it safe?

For starters, bringing your pup along is definitely more complicated (and expensive) than flying solo, but it can be done—so long as you do your research ahead of time. Luckily, we've done much of that work and laid it out here, so you don't have to. (Note that COVID-19 has also made flying with pets more challenging, as some airlines have temporarily suspended their pet transportation programs during the pandemic.)

Here's everything you need to know about flying with a dog, from how to book the flight, to what kind of paperwork is required.

This article was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with new information.

First, weigh the pros and cons of flying

Right off the bat, think long and hard about whether it’s essential to bring your dog on a plane. “In general, I recommend not flying with a pet unless absolutely necessary,” says Justine Lee, veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance. “Ideally, pets should not fly unless an owner is moving permanently or taking a long trip—two to four weeks minimum.”

Think about it: Flying can be a stressful experience for your dog. It removes them from comfortable and familiar surroundings, then forces them into a situation with loud noises, bright lights, thousands of people, changes in air pressure and cabin temperature, and a limited ability to use the bathroom.

Unless you have a really good reason for bringing your pet with you during your travels, it may be best to leave them home. Consider hiring a pet-sitter, asking a friend or family member to watch your dog, or boarding them at a licensed facility. You might feel bummed out for a few days, but it’s likely better for your pet in the long run.

Cargo or carry-on?

Where your dog is allowed to spend the flight will depend on their size—but it may be a determining factor in whether or not you bring them.

Though rules vary from airline to airline, your dog can typically only fly in the cabin—a.k.a. as a carry-on—if they are small enough to fit in a carrier under the seat in front of you. Any larger than that, and your pup will have to travel in the cargo hold, with the luggage and freight. Most airlines describe this as “shipping” your pet. (Yikes.)

While airlines say they try their best to make dogs comfortable in the cargo hold, it’s an unpleasant experience for your pet—in addition to being separated from you, items might shift around or fall during the flight, which can be loud and scary.

And sure, plenty of animals fly in cargo every year, without incident, but there are a lot of unknown variables that you have no control over once you hand your pet off to airline personnel. Consider it this way: Baggage handlers are just trying to get their jobs done and get everything loaded onto the plane, period. They’re not guaranteed to pay special attention or care to your dog in their kennel. Lots of travelers have shared horror stories about their pets being injured, becoming very sick, or even dying after flying in the cargo hold. So, again, seriously consider if the potential risks are worth it. 

Pack an appropriate carrier

Wherever your pet will spend the flight, you’ll need to bring along an appropriate pet carrier or crate. The International Air Transport Association, whose guidelines most airlines follow, has a list of pet carrier requirements (we've even rounded up our favorite airline-approved pet carriers). Generally speaking, your crate needs to be durable and have plenty of ventilation, strong handles, and a leak-proof bottom. You should also clearly mark your pet carrier with the words “Live Animal” and arrows that show which way is up, with a label containing your name, phone number, address, and destination contact information.

How much does it cost?

You’ll typically pay around $125 each way for your pet to fly in the cabin with you, though it varies by airline. The cost of shipping your pet in the cargo hold depends on the combined weight of your dog and their crate, as well as how far they’ll be flying—most airlines offer online calculators for getting an estimate.

Review all of the rules

As you might imagine, airlines have tons of rules and guidelines for flying with your pets. It’s important that you read them thoroughly so your pet isn't turned away during boarding.

Check with your preferred airline to see which dog breeds they allow on-board. Breeds with snubbed noses (like pugs) are typically banned from the cargo hold because their facial structure can make it hard for them to breathe normally. Bully breeds, like pit bulls, may also be completely banned from flying.

Choose your flight wisely

Look for non-stop flights with no transfers, and avoid flying during holiday periods when airlines—and airports—are busier than normal, to minimize the risk of anything going wrong.

If your pet has to fly in cargo, you’ll need to be mindful of the weather at your destination. If you’re traveling somewhere warm, look for early morning or late evening flights when the temps aren't so high; in cooler climates, earmark flights in the middle of the day, when temps are warmest.

Also keep in mind that airlines will not let your pet fly if temperatures get too hot or too cold at any destination along your journey. If this happens, you’ll have to scramble to make other plans.

Get in touch with your airline

Most airlines only allow a few dogs per flight, so call and make sure the plane has space for you and your dog before you book. (For this reason, always be sure to make reservations for you and your pet at the same time.) Here are the pet travel pages for Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska Airways.

Take your dog for a health check

Once your dog has its ticket, head to the vet and get a health certificate stating it is healthy enough to fly and up-to-date on its immunizations. The certificate is only good for 30 days, and you’ll need it for both your departure and return. (Many airlines require that your dog's clean bill of health be no more than 10 days old.) If the duration of your trip is longer than your certificate will be valid for, you’ll need to schedule a vet visit while you’re on vacation to meet the requirements of your return flight.

Consider your destination

If you’re traveling internationally (or even to some U.S. states like Hawaii), start looking into local animal importation laws the minute you think about inviting your dog along (just ask Johnny Depp, who ran into trouble bringing his Yorkshire terriers into Australia).

Many destinations have painfully complicated processes and long quarantine periods—which could mean you'd be separated from your pet for most or all of your trip. Note that some destinations do not allow pets to fly in the cabin, period, even if your dog is small enough to be a carry-on.

Thoroughly research the departing airport and the arrival airport so you know exactly where the pet relief areas are, if they have them. “Every time I fly with my dog, I look at the terminal map— both the one I'm leaving from and the one I'm landing at—to see if there is a pet relief area,” says Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer with Rover. “This way, if my flight is delayed, I can give him another chance to go. And as soon as we land, I know where to head.”

Prep your dog beforehand

You should always consult with your vet about food, water, and medication before flying with your pet. Experts are divided on whether you should sedate or tranquilize your pets prior to the flight (even the American Veterinary Medical Association doesn’t have a crystal clear answer), so weigh the pros and cons with an expert who is familiar with you and your animal. Also know that there are health risks involved with sedation, and some airlines prohibit sedation or require a veterinarian’s note.

Medical concerns aside, familiarize your dog with its crate or carrier well in advance of your trip. You might even consider taking them to the airport’s departure area a few times so they become more comfortable with this new, strange place.

Follow these steps at the airport

Be sure to get to the airport extra early so you don’t feel rushed.

If your pet is flying cargo, most airlines require that you arrive at least three hours before the departure time for domestic flights and at least five hours before international flights. You’ll likely need to take your pet to a separate cargo drop-off location at the airport (this is where you’ll pick up your pet after the flight, too), so review your departure and arrival airport maps ahead of time.

If your pet is small enough to fly with you as a carry-on, you’ll go to the passenger check-in desk, where an agent will ask to see all of your dog’s required paperwork. Once you’ve got the all-clear and paid the pet carry-on fee, you’ll head to security. Deal with your shoes, jacket, laptop, and other items before tending to your dog. Then, remove the dog from its kennel and carry it through security while the kennel goes through the X-ray machine. (To speed things up, you may want to remove your pet's collar or harness so it doesn’t set off the metal detector.)

If you’re checking the dog, make sure to attach a current photo of it to the carrier, as well as a small bag of food so airline personnel can feed it in case of a long delay. Make sure you have a current photo of your dog in your phone, too, so it’s easier to identify should the airline “misplace” your pet—it's not likely, but you'd rather be prepared than not. (Getting your pet microchipped can also help in the event that your pet gets lost.)

Pick your dog up immediately upon arrival

Once you arrive, grab your checked baggage and head straight to your airline’s specified cargo location. Airlines say dogs are typically available two hours after the flight’s arrival, and they must be picked up within four hours or they’ll be taken to a veterinarian or boarding facility.

Whether your pet flew in cargo or as a carry-on, take your dog for a walk right away. (If you're flying with your dog in the cabin and have a layover, stretch your legs—and your pup's—at a pet relief area in the airport.) Though the journey can be complicated, you'll breathe easier once you've both arrived safe and sound.

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