Traveling with a canine companion can be tough, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave your furry friend behind. Fortunately, there are some surefire travel strategies that make flying with a dog a downright easy experience. Oh, and if you haven't already, make sure to add biscuits to your carry-on packing list.
1. Start With a Short Flight
Expert Kelly Carter, author of The Dog Lover's Guide to Travel: Best Destinations, Hotels, Events, and Advice to Please Your Pet — and You, recommends that you start with a short flight (she uses the easy trek from New York to Boston as an example) to see how well your pup adjusts to life on a plane. After all, you don’t want to end up on an international flight, find out mid-ascent that your dog has a flying phobia, and subject them to 20 hours of terror (and other travelers to 20 hours of howling). To make flying easier for your four-legged friend, start small with a short trip and see how they do before, say, taking them to Australia.
Remy, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, on board a Virgin America flight to San Francisco, CA.
2. Decide on an Airline
If your best friend and his carrier are under the maximum weight limit (usually 20 pounds), and he can fit comfortably under the seat while in his carrier, he can fly with you in the cabin on Virgin America, JetBlue, United, Southwest, Delta, and US Airways. Here's a full list of airlines that allow small pets in the cabin. JetBlue is a great option for bringing Fido on board. By upgrading to an Even More Space seat, you'll ensure he's able to stretch his 4 paws, while you (attempt to) stretch your legs, too. Unfortunately, if he's over the weight limit and too large to sit at your feet, cargo transport is the only other airline option.
3. If He's Joining You in the Cabin, Select a Carrier that Fits Under Your Seat
All airlines require pets to stay in their carrier and under the seat during take off and landing, so it's important that your carrier can stay under the seat (as much as it can). In my personal experience, Virgin America and JetBlue are fine with you holding the carrier in your lap while in flight. I travel with Remy frequently, and after researching and testing a few different carriers, I decided on a large SturdiBag for his first transcontinental flight. The top is flexible and moves up and down. While it looks large and provides plenty of room when not under the seat, it shrinks down to fit easily under the seat on a Virgin America flight. I also tested it out on JetBlue… and the bag was a success!
4. Invest in a ThunderShirt
Thunderworks calls their ThunderShirt the “best dog anxiety treatment” and many dog owners (including aforementioned expert, Kelly Carter) would agree, finding that it works wonders when you’re flying with Fido. What the “shirt” does is apply gentle pressure and simulate the sensation of being swaddled, which does wonders for creating a calming effect.
5. Make Their Carrier Comfortable
Another way to increase your pet’s comfort level and reduce their anxiety is to make their carrier as comfortable as possible—especially if they’re too big to fly with you on board. Celebrity dog trainer Tamar Geller recommends you do this is by throwing in one of your dog’s favorite toys—preferably an “occupier,” or one that they like to chew on—to keep them busy and distracted. She also suggests sleeping in a t-shirt and adding that to the crate, which is a great way to provide them with a familiar, comforting smell. Finally, make sure you think of physical comfort. Most carriers have hard bottoms, and for a long flight, it’s important to line them with padding. It’s also, of course, crucial to consider the size of the carrier and find one that provides your pup plenty of room. The Black Sherpa Pet Carrier (see below) comes complete with a soft and cushy faux lambskin liner.
6. Remember: Practice Makes Perfect
Another excellent practice for pet air travel (that’s recommended by both The Humane Society and BringFido.com) is getting your dog accommodated to their carrier—and the feeling of being transported while contained—in advance. Do a few trial runs in the weeks preceding your trip and put them into their carrier/crate for short jaunts around town in the car. This ensures that they won’t suffer extreme anxiety when they’re suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar situation and contained for a longer period of time on the flight.
7. Attach Important Information
One important safety (and convenience) measure is keeping important information both attached to your dog and clearly displayed on the crate. This will help avoid confusion and also ensure that you’ll be easy to reach if any emergencies or complications arise. Tripswithpets.com recommends that you attach a travel label to your carrier with the following information: your name, the name of your final destination or contact person, home and final destination addresses, as well as your home, cell, and final destination phone numbers. On a similar note, it’s also a good idea to carry a current photo of your pet, so that if they get lost, the airline and airport staffs will be able to search effectively.
8. Book Early and Book Smart
Although they’re both pretty straightforward strategies, we can’t omit two crucial tips for flying with a dog: book early and fly direct if at all possible. Booking early makes it more likely that the plane’s cargo area or cabin area won’t be full—think of it as making a reservation for your pet—and that you’ll have no problem with your pet transport. Some airlines limit the number of pets in the cabin. Meanwhile, the importance of flying direct can’t be ignored. The more transfers and complications you add to your flight, the more stress your dog is likely to experience, so getting them on the plane and situated only one time for only one flight is always optimal.
9. Prep Your Pet
You want your dog to be as comfortable as possible in all capacities before they get on the plane, and this starts with making sure that they’ve had their nails trimmed, eaten, gotten some exercise, and gone to the bathroom. PawNation recommends feeding your dog four hours before the flight and attaching a bag of their food to the outside of the carrier so that—if there’s a long delay—an airline employee can feed them if necessary. And finally, when it comes to prepping your dog for the plane—although you probably have good intentions—one thing to avoid is tranquilizing them. The Humane Society and many other travel experts discourage sedating your dogs unless strongly recommended (and prescribed) by their veterinarian. Although you may think you’re reducing their stress, the possible complications are definitely not worth the risk, so be smart and don’t drug up your dog.