Gretel and I were invited to attend the PetSafe Paw Print Blogger Summit in Knoxville, TN last month. I had never flown with a dog in-cabin (or at all) before and Gretel had never been on an airplane. I always thought my first flight with her would be a short test flight but I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
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 the experience with an open mind and flexible attitude. I learned 9 important lessons during our trip.
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1. 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 is 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.
2. Don’t rely on treat toys or long-lasting chews to keep your pup distracted while flying
I know that some dogs are hesitant to eat or drink when outside of the home but Gretel is not one of them. 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. 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. She didn’t need it to stay calm and quiet but it gave me peace of mind to know I had an option if she started to freak out.
UPDATE: I’ve definitely learned to give Gretel natural calming chews when we fly or travel under potentially stressful circumstances. I’ve tried a lot of natural remedies and the only one that worked with her is the VetriScience Composure Chews. I do 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.
3. Your dog might get really cold on the cabin floor….or really hot
I was warned before we left that it can get really cold for a dog on the floor. I did what was recommended to me and put one blanket inside the carrier and brought another to cover it with to keep the draft out. The flight we were on didn’t seem to have the floor air so there was no circulation down there. For a normal dog that might be the perfect situation because it would be “room temperature” on the floor but Gretel was gasping to escape the heat within an hour. In hindsight, I was not surprised. Gretel has a fast metabolism and it frequently hot to the touch. You are supposed to keep your dog inside the carrier (all parts) during the flight but I has 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.
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 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 total travel time was about 6 hours and she held it the whole time. 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.
5. Keep the pet-fee receipt handy when boarding
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. I’ll keep the receipt handy from now on just in case.
I paid $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.
7. Get a health certificate whether the airline requires it or not
Because of a fire in Chicago, my flight was re-routed to miss that mess. The return re-routing couldn’t be made until I was already in Knoxville and, as it turns out, one of my travel legs was with a different carrier…that did require a valid health certificate according to policy. I was relieved I had I had got a health certificate for Gretel (initially just because I was confused whether I needed one or not and wanted to be safe). The certificate from my vet was only $35 and totally worth the peace of mind in case flights get changed.
Normally I am a struct 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
This was my first time flying with Gretel. Worried at first, I kept checking on her. Often. She was becoming visibly agitated and it concerned me. On the way back, 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 half the size of the space under the other seats. It’s too small to fit standard carriers underneath (unless it was reeely small).
When I found out that Gretel was going to fly with me I turned to our Facebook fans for advice. They gave me a bunch of great tips for flying with a dog. I definitely think that their tips really helped but I still felt like I was pretty unprepared for the reality of the experience. Their tips, along with these 9 lessons I learned, will make any future trips much more seamless for us.