Traveling With Pets Over The Holidays

Brace yourselves: from late November until early January the vast majority of us face a particularly busy onslaught of holidays and events. Thanksgiving and all of the December holidays, combined with 2 seasonal breaks from work make for a lot of time spent on the road or in the air. Schlepping yourself (and kids!) is hard enough – throw pets into the mix and you’ve got a ‘Holiday Meltdown Level: Elevated’ type of situation.

Over Thanksgiving, Leroy (who is consulting on this article) is going to one of his favorite places on earth: The Fog City Dog Lodge. He plays all day with other dogs, and gets his own …(searching for appropriate word)…cell…every night where he can sleep in his kennel and play with his toys. His neurotic mother, flying from San Francisco to Chicago for the holiday, can watch him play all day on their doggie cam. Leroy has been to many dog boarding facilities on trips – from the Doggy Dude Ranch near Zion National Park to Dog Boarding in Yosemite – and he genuinely doesn’t seem to mind.

However, over Christmas I want to fly Leroy home to VT to meet my parents’ and sisters’ dogs – a looooong trip (fly a red-eye direct from SF to Boston, drive up to VT) and it is a HUGE can of worms. For starters, Leroy is too big (35 lbs) to fly in the cabin with me, so he has to go in as ‘checked luggage’ or ‘cargo’. The flight is already about 6 hours, so I need it to be direct, and there are no direct flights from San Francisco into Vermont (can’t risk him getting lost or shivering out on the tarmac). Finally, only certain airlines allow dogs flying as cargo due to the various health and safety issues surrounding live animals lodged in with checked luggage. I keep asking myself, “IS THIS¬† REALLY WORTH ALL THIS TROUBLE?” and frankly, I’m not yet sure. But regardless of what I decide to do, here is a useful list of all of the information I have found and compiled surrounding flying your pets over the holidays.

Which Airline Should I Fly?

There are a few places on the Internet that help a would-be traveler and their furry companion figure out which airlines allow what kind of pet travel. DogFriendly.com provides the following very useful chart, which can also be applied to feline travelers.

Cabin or Checked Luggage?

While I wish Leroy could ride right in my lap the whole time, he is a bit too big to fit under the seat. Generally speaking, any pet over 20 lbs must be checked as luggage or cargo. Fees range from about $100 to over $250, depending on the airline and the distance. We flew Leroy up to Alaska last summer and on Alaskan Airlines it was only $100 each way, which seemed very reasonable. Other airlines (United, I’m looking at YOU) charge significantly more.

Kennel Considerations

Airlines require that, no matter the size of the pet, the kennel must be big enough to allow it to stand up and turn around. Kennels are bulky and difficult to carry – we drilled holes in the top of ours and attached a rope handle. Makes life a lot easier! Even if it’s a big pain to drag around a huge crate (or even a small crate) it really helps when you reach your holiday destination, as your pet will have a familiar place to hang out.

On the outside of Leroy’s crate we put several stickers that said “Live Animal” and “This Side Up” – as well as his name in various places and a note that he’s very friendly. We got him a water bottle (much like a gerbil bottle, from the company Lixit) and a non-drip bowl for it to rest over. We also attached a ziplock bag full of his food on the outside, just in case there was an unexpected delay and TSA had to feed him.

On the inside we bought him a pad, and on top we put in his familiar old blankets and a few toys. He wasn’t happy about the situation (and neither were we) but at least we had peace of mind knowing we had done everything we could to make him comfortable. (NOTE: In general, vets do NOT recommend giving your pet tranquilizers, as these kinds of drugs can have very unpredictable results at high altitude.)

Health Requirements

Several Airlines require a health certificate obtained from your vet within 10-30 days of travel. In San Francisco these cost roughly $30-50, but I imagine it is somewhat cheaper most other places in the US. Be sure to obtain the health certificate close enough to your departure date that it will also cover your pet on the return trip!

Health certificates are required to ensure that your pet is healthy enough to accompany you on your trip. Certain breeds of dogs have short or snub noses which can make their breathing difficult in hot weather under normal circumstances: combine that with air travel and you might have a serious issue. I’m not sure which Leroy hates more: the vet, or flying itself – but I do know that he hates being left behind most of all.

Final thoughts

Whether or not to fly with your pet is a difficult decision, made more difficult by the financial and time-consuming considerations listed above. Pet Airways is an airline exclusively for animals – and though they are expensive and have very limited routes, they are a very safe and secure way to get your animal from A to B. Probably I am a crazy dog person who spends way too much time fretting over how to take Leroy with me on all my adventures – but I hope that this post will be helpful to those of you in the same boat this season or in the future. Have you flown with¬† your pet? I’d love to hear some recommendations!

UPDATE: Dog Jaunt is a GREAT blog about flying with small dogs in-cabin. Everything you ever wanted to know, and then some!

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