Friday Flyin’: Your Complete Guide To Flying With Pets

Take your wombat with you on a plane? If it's an emotional-support wombat you might be able to get away with it.
Take your wombat with you on a plane? If it’s an emotional-support wombat you might be able to get away with it.

By Sharyn Alden 

On a recent United flight between Washington, D.C., and Chicago, a woman wheeled a small carrier down the aisle to a seat across from mine. She bent over and made small talk to her tiny piece of luggage. I figured she was frazzled, yielding to stress, talking to herself like … well, like a lot of travelers do from time to time.

Then the head of an orange Pomeranian popped out of the luggage. The owner chatted with the pooch a little more, zipped the carrier closed with the dog inside and pushed the whole thing under the seat in front of her.

There was complete quiet from the floor traveler for the next two hours. I complemented her on her pet’s flying behavior. She told me he’s like an unofficial mascot of the airline because he flies so often.

Not everyone is as savvy as this traveler (or her dog), so here’s what to know about bringing a small dog or cat on your flight.

Access. Not all airlines allow pets in the cabin, and not all flights allow pets. American Airlines doesn’t allow pets on certain Airbus flights, or on any flights operated by its regional partner, Air Wisconsin. But it does allow pets on most other flights within the 48 contiguous states that are shorter than 12 hours. (By the way, that 12 hours includes the time it takes to clear customs at the arrival destination.)

Each airline sets a limit on the number of pets allowed inside the cabin. For example, on United the maximum is four pets on any flight in Economy seating. American accepts up to seven kennels in the cabin (not including service animals) with a maximum of one in First Class. This rarely comes into play (Editor’s Note: except on flights to New York during Westchester Kennel Club show week), but when it does, it can throw travel plans into an uproar.

Airlines also differ on the types of pets they’ll allow onboard. United gives a thumbs-up to rabbits and household birds on its flights. And then, of course, there’s the emotional-support turkey.

Cost. Most airlines allow a pet carry-on as well as one piece of carry-on luggage — but pets, unlike infants, aren’t going to fly free. For instance, United Airlines’ PetSafe program charges a one-way $125 service fee for each pet and an additional $125 fee for each stop in the U.S. that lasts more than four hours.

Health. The American Humane Society recommends not flying with pets unless it’s absolutely necessary, and they strongly suggest bringing the pet inside the cabin. In the cargo hold it’s possible your pet will be exposed to extreme temperatures and poor ventilation.

Flying can be doubly dangerous for brachycephalic pets – pets with “pushed-in” faces like pugs and Persian cats — because their short nasal passages make them vulnerable to oxygen deprivation and heatstroke.

Since May 2005, the U.S. Department of Transportation has required most passenger-carrying airlines in the U.S. to file monthly reports on lost, injured, or dead pets. You can see the latest reports at the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Reports site.

Other tips. Also remember to:

  • Look for direct flights whenever possible to alleviate your pet’s stress.
  • Don’t assume your airline automatically allows pets in the cabin. Ask before you book.
  • Ask if young pets are allowed. American requires cats and dogs to be at least eight weeks old, and they must stay in front of you the entire flight.
  • Ask about pet health and immunization requirements.
  • Ask what type of under-seat carrier is required.
  • Know how far in advance you have to book your pet’s flight, and what size requirements they have. Remember, the airline-approved pet carrier has to fit under your seat.
  • Don’t assume you can zip through security without screening your pet’s carrier. Find out if your pet needs to be taken out of the kennel. Ask if you can have a special screening so he doesn’t have to be taken in and out of the carrier.

Shipping your pet as cargo. If you’re shipping your pet as cargo, look for an airline that supports the American Veterinarian Medical Association’s protocol on sedation. United, for example, does not accept animals that have been sedated.

Find out when you need to arrive at the airport. Usually two to three hours ahead of the flight is standard for domestic flights.

Know in advance the airline’s requirements on kennels. This is crucial because if you’ve measured your dog wrong, he might not be able to fly.

Your pet’s kennel needs to have enough room for him to stand or sit without his head or ears touching the top. Words to the wise: Do a dry run at home a few times to make sure you have the right kennel size. This will help your pet get familiar with his traveling home.

Most airlines require kennels to be metal with plastic or fiberglass doors. United prohibits kennels with door openings on top, or kennels that have twist locks that aren’t sturdily supported by metal nuts and bolts.

It’s easy to want to bring Rover’s favorite bones and squeaky toys. Forget it. Most airlines won’t allow them inside the kennel. Thick blankets, bedding, straw or hay are also prohibited.

Here’s a checklist of a few dos and don’ts before shipping your pet.

  • Don’t give your pet tranquilizers — even over-the-counter brands.
  • Don’t feed your pet four to six hours before your flight.
  • Don’t ship stub-nosed pets like bulldogs or Pekingese.
  • If you’re on the same flight as your pet, notify the captain or cabin crew that your pet is in the cargo hold. Knowing pets are on board may be helpful all around especially if there are flight delays.
  • Choose flights that match the weather. In summer, look for direct flights that avoid the heat of day. In winter, afternoon flights are best.
  • Have two sets of ID on your pet’s collar and on the outside of the kennel: permanent contact info and information on where you’re staying.
  • Make sure your pet’s nails have been clipped.
  • Keep a photo of your pet with you no matter if he is flying inside the cabin with you or inside the cargo hold.

There’s a lot to consider when flying with pets, which is why many pet owners leave their pets home with a pet sitter or in a kennel when they travel. Still, there are times when that isn’t the best option.

In those cases, now you know what to do.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at

Editor’s Note: Take care of yourself when you travel at least as well as you take care of your pet. Choose travel insurance from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here