I recently had a fabulous time flying with my dog, Buttercup. But in preparing for the trip, I found nothing but horror stories and heartbreaking posts on message boards all over the internet. Not helpful! I needed some friendly advice about how to best prepare for flying with a pet, and couldn’t find much. So, for anyone who is thinking of taking their pet with them on a trip, here’s how to make it happen safely!
1. Know Before You Go
The #1 thing that I would suggest, especially for your first flight, is to do your homework. Nothing helped me more than being prepared, knowing all of the airline’s policies, and having any and all of the gear that I thought might be helpful. Do not be shy about calling your airline with questions. I called maybe five separate times before the day of my flight. More airlines have good information on their websites, but it can be a little airline-industry-jargony (I was REALLY confused about cargo vs baggage) so make the call if you have any questions. Seriously.
2. Know What Will Keep You Grounded
Policies on whether a dog can go in-cabin or in baggage, or whether a dog can fly at all, vary by airline. We flew American, as we always do (HI AA YOU CAN GO AHEAD AND MAKE ME PLATINUM THX), and I found their policies at aa.com/pets. They allow pets, but restrict certain breeds (smashy-faced dogs and cats are not allowed, because of potential breathing issues). Buttercup is too tall and too big overall to go in the cabin (dogs need to be able to stand up and turn around in a 19in x 13in x 9in carrier that fits under the seat in front of you). So, Buttercup was going to have to go below, in checked baggage.
Very important for checked pets: ground temperatures. We were traveling in late May/early June, and the ground temp at take off and landing cannot be over 85 degrees at any point in your itinerary – which for us meant in Chicago or in Philadelphia. The website was a little vague on the specifics, so I called and called and called some more until I had all of the information I needed. I learned, for instance, that the temperature restrictions were limited to the time Butter would be waiting for take off or waiting to be deplaned -take off and landing. This was important in my case, because the day we landed was going to be too hot – but we were flying so early in the morning (my alarm went off at 3:45am, I wish this on no one), that the temperature at landing was still going to be a cool and safe 70 degrees.
So that’s a key thing. If you’re going to Miami from Chicago on an August afternoon, don’t plan to check your dog. It’s not safe and the airline – at least American – will turn you away. On both of our flights, they checked ground temps first thing before they let us proceed.
I kept seeing a lot of confusing information about transporting a pet as cargo and traveling with a pet in checked baggage. The quick answer to what the heck is the difference is basically cargo is for when you are NOT traveling with your pet (for instance, a rescue pet being shipped to a new owner) and checked baggage is for when you are your pet are on the same plane. American’s very specific term is “excess baggage.” I learned this from a very kind ticketing agent on my third or 20th call to the airline. She explained to me the differences, and very importantly, that she travels with her dog in baggage and while she is always very nervous, it has always gone well for them. Thank you so much, kind ticketing lady! So, Buttercup went into excess baggage. This area is climate controlled, pressurized, and well secured.
“I could never do that.”
I heard this a few times from fellow dog lovers as I was planning this trip. And I am guilty of thinking this and maybe even saying this myself in the past. I get it. Who wants to give up your dog into the hands of an airline, those institutions known for not always offering up the best in customer care? I was pretty much in this camp…until I started flying regularly for work. In my almost monthly flights over the last year, I have seen numerous bigger-than-cabin-size dogs in airports, presumably going into checked baggage. I recently watched a man pick up his two dogs in two carriers and wait for his ride away from O’Hare. My fear of flying with Buttercup, I was beginning to realize, was like my fear of flying itself. There are very real risks, but the numbers of actual incidents are low. Yes, we’ve all read the recent-ish horror stories of pets lost and killed on flights. But, relative to the number of pets flown every year, these stories are statistically tiny. Pets tend to fly safe. I saw evidence of this almost every time I flew.
And again, by doing my homework and taking all of the necessary precautions for Buttercup, I gave her the best possible chance for a safe experience.
3. Do These Things
SO here’s are the basic steps I took to prepare us for a great experience:
- Socialized and trained Buttercup to enjoy traveling in cars and to accept new people and new situations. She’s been in five star hotels and cheap motel chains, elevators, every kind of staircase, piers and docks, city streets and so on. She was comfortable walking on her leash in the airports, friendly with strangers and airline personnel, and listened to my commands, even with lots of distractions. Good girl!
- STOPPED GOOGLING “PETS ON PLANES HORROR STORIES”
- Learned what the best airline safe crate is, how it would be secured by the airline (cable ties everywhere!), bought one early, and acclimated her to it.
- Brought scissors in my carry-on bag (from the TSA site, I learned I could bring a pair with blades under 4″) so I could cut off the cable ties the airlines would use to secure the crate door as soon as we were reunited on the ground.
- Took her on a very long walk the night before the flight.
- Gave her a normal breakfast and offered her water up until she was taken to holding.
- Gave her two of these before the flight. I love these. They are all natural, and seem to relax and even make Buttercup sleepy without chemical sedation. Sedatives are frowned on by airlines, as some can cause respiratory distress. (If you do use sedatives prescribed by your vet, the airline will want to know this before you board.) The great thing about the calming treats was that I’d used them before (she’s super scared of thunderstorms), so I knew how they affect her. I would not recommend giving your dog something she’s never had before right before a flight.
- Got to the airport early so there would be ample time to take care of checking Buttercup and for getting myself through O’Hare’s variable security lines.
- Asked a million questions of the gate agents and baggage handlers who took care of her. I am normally a bit reserved but I was not shy. “Where does she go now? Have you checked your dog? Where can I expect to find her when we land? Will you make sure she’s okay. I’m scared!”
- Bought water after I was through security so I could offer her some as soon as we landed.
- Explained that I was traveling with my dog in excess baggage to the flight attendant and asked if she could make sure for me that Buttercup made it on. The FA on the outgoing flight was very, very kind about this and reassured me, asking me all about Butter. The one coming home never followed-up. In fact, I never saw her again. Maybe she parachuted off?
- Watched M*A*S*H on the flights. Very comforting.
- Tried to relax, knowing I’d done everything I could to make this a good trip for us.
Listen, I WAS SUPER SCARED to check Buttercup. It was not an easy choice. But, I looked at my options and it was, I think, the best choice for her. I was going to be away for ten days and have no nearby friends or family who can care for her. I have boarded her for long trips before, but when I weighed the risks and stress of Buttercup being out of my care for 10-11 days vs for the five hours or so it took for the 1.5 flight plus boarding and landing times both ways, it really wasn’t a contest. We had amazing hosts waiting for us on the other end, and we had the best trip, ever.