UPDATED: April 29, 2018
I’ve flown with my dog Gretel 4 times.
I don’t claim to be an absolute expert on flying with a dog in cabin but I am pretty savvy when it comes to traveling with a dog and I learn fast from experience (plus our Facebook followers gave me a bunch of great tips and advice).
I’ve flown varying length and distances with Gretel. One was a direct flight but the others had layovers. The total travel time ranged from 4 hours to around 10 hours.
Our first flight was from Seattle to the PetSafe Paw Print Blogger Summit in Knoxville, TN. I had never flown with a dog in-cabin (or at all) before and Gretel had never been on an airplane.
I did a lot of research during the few weeks before we left. For most of our flights, Gretel’s airline pet carrier was a Sleppypod Air (read our review HERE). On our most recent flight, Gretel traveled in the Kurgo Explorer Small Dog Carrier. Both worked really well for us.
Although I read a ton of tips from other people, I also knew that every person, dog, and situation is different so I went into each experience with an open mind and flexible attitude (albeit a little nervous, admittedly). Each time, I have learned something new.
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9 Important lessons I’ve Learned while Flying With a Dog
1. You might get to board the plane first…. especially if you act like you are supposed to
I’ve paid between $100 and $125 to fly with Gretel each way. You bet I was right up there when they announced boarding for elderly, families with children, and people needing additional time to board.
Honestly, I DID need the extra time so I was not rushed by others waiting in the isle while trying to squeeze Gretel’s carrier under the seat (after my first attempt I could tell it would have been REALLY inconvenient for my seat mates if I had waited until they were in their place).
I put myself at the front of the line out of principle too. I only flew with one airline so I can’t guarantee that all will allow you to do it but I say, for that price, you should at least try to take advantage of the privilege of boarding first.
Also of note: You will definitely (on all of the airlines I’ve flown anyway) get to board with that first wave of people who “need extra time or assistance” if you are traveling with a pet stroller and checking it at the gate.
2. Pockets on the outside of your pet carrier are indispensable
I knew that Gretel counted as either my carry on bag or personal item (purse) so I would only be able to bring one bag besides her. What I didn’t think about is that there was no room under the seat once I put her under there so no matter what kind of “second bag” I had, it had to go into the overhead bin.
That meant all of my stuff was up there too.
While you CAN get up mid flight and get one or two things out of your bag, it’s a hassle if not impossible. You probably want your Kindle, noise-cancelling headphones, a magazine, or something with you during takeoff, landing, and during the flight.
Sticking them in a pocket on the outside of the carrier before you board the plane is the way to go.
3. Don’t rely on treat toys or long-lasting chews to keep your pup distracted while flying
Some dogs are hesitant to eat or drink when outside of the home and stressed.
That’s not usually true with Gretel because she is very food motivated. I usually give her stuffed treat toys when we are dining a restaurant patio to keep her busy.
I stuffed her PetSafe Busy Buddy® Waggle™ to the brim hoping it would take her the whole flight to get through it but she wouldn’t touch it. I guess she was so concerned with what was going on around her that it overcame her food drive.
My vet gave me some Xanex for Gretel before we left for the trip just in case of extreme emergency. However, airlines don’t want you to sedate your pet in flight, and I prefer to use natural methods when I can.
I’ve tried a lot of natural remedies for anxiety over the years and the only one that worked for her is the VetriScience Composure Chews. I do have to give her 2 or 3 times the recommended dose before I see a clear a difference in her state of mind but it’s not harmful to give her a little more than it says on the package.
Luckily, that has been enough to keep her from freaking out and quiet so I didn’t need the Xanex.
4. Your dog might get really cold on the cabin floor….or really hot
I was warned that it can get really cold for a dog on the floor. People recommended putting one blanket inside the carrier bringing another to cover it to keep the draft out.
However, all of the flights we’ve been on didn’t have good air circulation on the floor.
For a normal dog that might be the perfect situation because it would be “room temperature” on the floor but Gretel was overheating a little within an hour. In hindsight, I was not surprised. Gretel has a fast metabolism and it frequently hot to the touch.
You’re supposed to keep your dog inside the carrier (all parts) during the flight but I had to let her stick her upper half out of the carrier for a bit so she could cool down. Next time, in addition to the blanket, I will bring a small cooling mat to put inside the crate if she starts to get too hot.
5. Not all dogs will go to the bathroom during the trip
I was lucky enough to find an air-side potty station but these are, at best, a piece of fake grass on a plastic frame. It doesn’t look anything like the real “outside” and smells strongly of urine – other dog’s urine to be exact.
Gretel definitely had to interest in going potty there. I gave her the opportunity to go on a potty pad that I placed on the floor of the handicapped bathroom stall but she had no idea what I was asking her to do since she has never used a potty pad before.
Our maximum travel time has been around 10 hours and she held it the whole time. I wasn’t too worried because I know she can hold it that long at home in her dog crate.
Next time, if we had a much longer flight, I might consider putting a dog diaper on her. I am not sure she would like that though.
6. Keep the pet-fee receipt handy when boarding
One one of my flights, I had no problem breezing past 3 attendants when boarding but the 4th one – the last one of course – asked to see proof that I had paid for Gretel.
I looked at her funny because I was at the flight check in counter and they wouldn’t have let me past that point without paying for her so I didn’t see how I could have NOT paid.
The lady wasn’t really happy with my displeasure of having to dig through my entire bag for the receipt but explained that with express checking, and no checked bag, I could have blasted right past the check in desk to security without paying.
Now I keep the receipt handy but have never been asked for it again.
7. Get a health certificate whether the airline requires it or not
The first time we flew, I verified with the airline that I didn’t need a health certificate for Gretel. Out of paranoia, I got one anyway and it turned out to be a good choice.
Because of a fire in Chicago, our return flight was re-routed to. The re-routing required that one of my travel legs was with a different airline…that did require a valid health certificate according to policy.
I was relieved I had a health certificate for Gretel! Otherwise, I would have had to scramble to find a local vet that would see her and issue a health certificate. I didn’t have a rental car so that would have been a stressful and almost impossible feat.
The certificate from my vet was only $35 and totally worth the peace of mind in case flights get changed.
Normally, I am a strict rule-follower but this is one time that I am going to say it’s ok to break the rule.
The policy for all airports I know of is “no dogs allowed” so they are supposed to stay in their carrier. Service dogs, of course, are allowed to walk freely beside their owners.
Imagine being cramped in a tiny space for 6 hours in a strange setting.
I let Gretel out of her carrier before we got on the airplane and during our layover. I didn’t flaunt her around the airport – only let her out at our gate and kept her close to me and our bags – but I figured the worst that would happen is someone would ask me to put her back in the bag.
Several airport staff passed us and saw her but no one said anything.
9. Don’t be a worry wort
I was a nervous wreck the first time I flew with with Gretel. I’m pretty sure I checked on her every 5 minutes.
She was becoming visibly agitated and it concerned me. However, I wasn’t sure if she was stressed because of the travel itself or because I was stressed and she could feel it. Also, I realize I wasn’t giving her the opportunity to sleep.
On the return flight, I stuck her under the seat and left her while reading my book. She didn’t make a peep. The second way was more pleasant for the both of us.
If it’s your dog’s first time flying, it’s only natural (and safe) to check them often to make sure they are safe. However, it’s best to disrupt them as little as possible so reduce the disturbances once you are familiar with your dog’s behavior.
BONUS TIP: #10 Book a middle or window seat
I’ve learned that this is actually one of the most important things to consider. The space under the aisle seat on airline varies by plane size and make but it’s often significantly smaller than the space under the other seats.
On all of our flights, it looked too small to fit standard carriers underneath (unless it was reeely small).
Booking a window or middle seat is usually the safest. You’ll have to call ahead and let the airline know you’re bringing a pet so you can always ask for their advice too if you’re unsure.
Their tips, along with these 9 lessons I learned, will make any future trips much more seamless for us.