When I first heard that Rockit and I had qualified for the NACSW 2014 National Invitational, I felt very honored, but assumed we would not be attending since it required us to travel clear across the country. I started to work out the logistics of driving, but there were just way too many items on the “con” side of the column. I also conferred with my fellow competitor Kathe Baxter, who would have to travel with her Norweigian Elkhound from New York. It was Amy Herot who convinced us to talk with a few seasoned travelers about the possibility of flying, and to really consider this as an option.
We decided to bite the bullet, and along the way, learned quite a bit about flying with a dog in cargo. I want to share all the information I gathered so others might benefit. After all, it’s not too early to start planning for next year’s Nationals in Colorado!
Some of this information is from sites I found on the internet, some of it is from NACSW instructors Jill Marie O’Brien, Penny Scott Fox and Kim Buchanan. Thank you all for your help and support! Another helpful resource is this page from PetTravel.com.
Flying your dog – the Basics
- You can only fly dogs during certain times of the year; check with the airline first
- The cargo area is climate controlled and pressurized, just like the cabin where people fly
- Get a direct flight if possible (even if it means flying to an airport that’s farther away from your destination)
- Try to fly first thing in the morning or in the evening
- Book your flight and cargo as far in advance as possible
- Your dog must be crate trained, and ideally is used to traveling in a moving vehicle within a crate
- You CANNOT sedate your dog before flying
- You will need a certificate of health from your vet within 10 days of flying
- You may also need a rabies vaccination certificate
- If you are flying round-trip with your dog, be sure to get the certificate within 10 days of your return flight, if possible.
- If you can get someone to fly with you and help, do it!
- Be sure to get confirmation from the flight attendant that your dog has been boarded. If they do not give it you can stand up and refuse to sit down until they confirm. BE AN ADVOCATE FOR YOUR DOG HERE.
- It’s not cheap. The cost is based on the weight of your dog plus crate, so the larger the dog, the more it will cost. My dog is 40 lbs and it cost about $365 each way to fly her from Boston to San Francisco.
Check out the ATA guidelines for pet travel crates before buying anything. I bought theMarchioro crate from Amazon as well as the travel bowls, which are required. Both water and food bowls must be attached to the inside of the front door and be refillable from the outside of the crate without opening the door. If possible, add bright stickers to make it easy to identify your crate (the cargo folks may paste stuff over them).
If you think your dog will chew up the travel bowls (mine did), buy a second set for the return flight.
The crate doors must be secured with zip ties after the dog is inside. You will need holes in the top and bottom lip of the crate to put zip ties through. If you don’t have them, the cargo people might drill them for you. When I left Boston they must have ran the zip ties through the side grill because they did not drill any holes. But when I dropped her at the San Francisco airport, the guy at the desk whipped out his drill and put these holes in my crate:
Thankfully he did a nice job. I recommend putting them in yourself if you can, as these crates are expensive and you don’t want some hack going at it with a drill.
Crate wheels are optional. They need to come off when you drop off your dog. I purchased them but did not end up using them, since I did not have to wheel her through the airport at all. The Marchioro crate has a cool storage bin at the top that you can use for the wheels.
Check with your airline to see what’s allowed in crate. Most likely it will only be bedding or blankets/towels. Remember that your dog will not be supervised while in cargo, so don’t put anything in that you wouldn’t want them to have without supervision.
What is the process like?
You will drop your dog off in the cargo facility. Be sure to find out the location and hours of each facility. Usually they are located very close to the airport, and often close to the car rental places. When you drop off your dog they will check the health certificate, then ask you to put the dog in the crate so they can weigh it. Once it’s weighed they’ll tell you how much it costs and you’ll have to pay at the facility. Have a credit card ready. They will also ask you for a photo id.
You’ll need to take the wheels off, if applicable, attach your water/food bowls, remove your dog’s collar (choking hazard), and put your dog in the crate. Depending on the airline, you might not be able to have a toy or kong in there. Bedding should be absorbent in case water spills or the dog has an accident. I do not recommend leaving a bone or chew item (bully stick, rawhide, etc.) in with the dog, even if the airline allowed it, as your dog will be unsupervised and these could present a choking hazard.
The cargo folks will zip tie the crate doors (to prevent the doors from flying open in the case of severe turbulence). If you are concerned about your dog chewing stuff in the crate, ask them to make sure the zip tie ends are not poking through the crate where the dog can access them. They will then put the crate on a dolly or carry it into the storage area. At this point you might start to cry. Go ahead, let it out. Your dog may start barking. That’s okay, they’re used to it in cargo.
Once you are done at cargo you will head to the airport and get yourself checked in and on the plane. If you can get a view of the plane’s cargo side, you may be able to see your dog being loaded. After you board the plane, let the flight attendants know that you have a dog in cargo and that you want confirmation that it is on board before you take off. As I mentioned above, be an advocate for your dog here!
Once the plane has landed, you will need to get your luggage and rental car, if applicable, and head straight to the cargo facility. Be sure to have your photo ID ready. They will bring the dog out to the waiting area, still in the crate. It’s a good idea to have some good scissors handy (the guy in Boston had trouble with his and had to use mine; I ended up losing my good clippers because I forgot them there). Be sure to take your dog outside quickly to go potty. You can go back in to collect the crate if you need to make two trips. Again it’s nice to have a companion here to help out, if possible.
Parking may or may not be readily available at cargo. Be prepared to run in and run out as quickly as possible. The process took about 20-25 minutes at both ends for me.
United’s PetSafe program
If you can fly on United, do it. The dog is shuttled from cargo to plane in a climate controlled van that is easily recognizable. When I watched dogs being unloaded from another flight, they were placed gently onto a luggage carrier and then quickly moved into the van. The driver pulled away immediately and headed back to cargo. Both times when I went to pick up my dog she was right there, I did not have to wait. The animals are boarded after the luggage, at the last minute, and are unloaded first when the plane lands.
On our return flight from San Francisco, I watched Rockit being boarded. She went right from the van to the cargo conveyer belt.
One baggage handler stopped and poured some water into her bowl, and another was standing next to her crate at the bottom of the belt.
I didn’t see her go up because I had to board the plane, but my friends could hear her barking once she was loaded. The flight attendant also gave me confirmation that she was on board.
Be sure to review the checklist if you fly United:https://www.united.com/web/format/pdf/travel/animals/live-animal-checklist.pdf
Renting a car
If you are renting a car, be sure it is big enough to hold your crate. We rented the Ford Escape, which I don’t recommend if you have a medium or larger size dog (plus it was junk). Caravans are a good option. Be sure to scope out where the car rental place is in relation to the cargo facility on both ends. Usually they will be pretty close together.
The overall experience
Generally speaking, the trip went very well. We flew from Boston to San Francisco, drove up to Santa Rosa, and stayed for a week. Rockit chewed up everything in her crate, including the two plastic water dishes, during the flight. She also did a little damage to the inside of the crate. She is a shredder when we travel in the car, so I expected some damage. But she did not injure herself, and she was quite fine when she came out of the crate. I think she fared a little better on the return flight, which was about an hour shorter (she only chewed one bowl).
We were very lucky to have no delays or major glitches. I also did lots of planning and preparation to make sure I had everything in order. I was very nervous about how she would handle it, but she is a well-traveled dog. She flew from Puerto Rico to Boston as a puppy, and has traveled to many places in her six + years of living with me. Before flying to California, she had been to Canada, New York City, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maine and Connecticut. She’s been on a plane, a boat, and too many car trips to count. So I felt pretty confident that she would be okay, and she fared even better than I expected.
If you are thinking about flying with your dog, do as much research and planning as you can, and talk to people who have done it (recently), if possible. Be sure to consider your dog’s health, age and temperament. And if you decide to go, don’t get too stressed about it. As with any travel, there’s always a risk involved. Your job is to minimize those risks and then envision a positive outcome.
Happy and safe travels!
Anne & Rockit