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A Comprehensive Guide to Flying with Pets in the US

Brandon Schultz
By 
Brandon Schultz
Freelance Writer
6 min read
Last updated 
October 22, 2020

Whether you’re relocating, visiting family, or headed toward a fabulous getaway, there are plenty of reasons you may want to take your pet on an upcoming flight. 

The host of questions raised by pet travel could stress even the most seasoned flyer, but the good news is that, while there truly are mountains of considerations beforehand, the actual process of flying with your furbaby is simple. The keys are to choose the right airline for your specific needs, book properly, and pack appropriately. 

On travel day, your only job is to relax, doing as little as possible so your pet doesn’t absorb any perceived anxiety from your own fretting and fussing. To help ensure you don’t overlook any important considerations and to streamline the planning process for a smooth journey, we’ve outlined all the details in this comprehensive guide to flying with pets.

Please note that requirements and rules for service animals and emotional support animals differ from those for pets. This guide is strictly for pets. 

Prepping for travel 

First, determine if your pet is eligible to fly in the cabin

Before fretting over airline rules and purchasing every possible comfort for your pet’s potential flight, you need to determine if your furry friend is allowed to join you in the cabin. 

Cats and small dogs are invited onboard all major U.S-based airlines (including budget airlines), and a few, like United Airlines and Spirit Airlines, extend the invitation to rabbits and most household birds. Frontier Airlines currently has the most inclusive policy, accepting additional small animals, like hamsters and guinea pigs. 

Consider size limitations

Most airlines have additional weight limitations that include your pet’s carrier (leading many travelers astray when their carriers push pets over the combined weight limit) and all require that your pet fits comfortably in a carrier than fits under the seat in front of you. 

“Comfortably” is usually defined by the airlines as the ability to stand and turn without touching the top or sides of the carrier, which can be next to impossible for any but the smallest dogs, regardless of the airline’s posted weight limit. 

As under-seat space continues to shrink with tech advancements that see individual outlets, USB ports, and other amenities clogging up this otherwise unused area, seats on some newer planes only have around ten inches of height clearance, and not many dogs can stand inside a carrier in these cramped quarters. 

While most airlines post carrier size limits in their policies, these are merely maximums and don’t guarantee that a compliant carrier will fit under the seat you end up assigned to, which is a primary reason almost every airline requires you to call when reserving a flight for a pet. Of the most commonly flown airlines in the US, only United Airlines and JetBlue allow you to reserve a flight for a pet online. Don’t worry about paying now and asking later: You have 24 hours to cancel any flight with a US-based airline for any reason without penalty. 

Keep in mind that business class and first class seats offer more personal space, but these cabins often come with less under-seat space, making it more difficult (and sometimes impossible) to snag a pet reservation here. On several aircrafts, the only way to fly with your pet is to take a seat in the economy cabin. 

Age requirements

A less commonly relevant, but still very important, consideration for eligibility is your pet’s age; there’s no upper limit, but all airlines have a minimum. American Airlines has the most lenient policy with an 8-week age minimum, and most airlines fall somewhere between there and 16 weeks. 

Vaccinations

Finally, your pet will need to be properly vaccinated before traveling. You will usually have to confirm this verbally when booking and some airlines are strict about proof—United Airlines, for example, requires a health certificate from your pet’s veterinarian, as well as proof of current rabies vaccination, at least 30 days old, for dogs. 

Important: If you’re entering the United States from abroad, proof of rabies vaccination will be required on any airline, and additional vaccinations may be required based on your departure point. You want your pet to be healthy and safe regardless of how lenient the airline’s confirmation policy is, so your best bet is always to visit your vet before traveling and bring your pet’s updated records along on flight day, just in case. 

There are a couple of additional quirky considerations for pet eligibility in-cabin. Many US-based airlines restrict brachycephalic or snub-nosed dogs breeds from joining you onboard. Additionally, some airlines, like United Airlines, forbid pets from flying with unaccompanied minors. While most pet policies are exhaustively described on airline websites, all considerations will be accounted for when calling to book a pet reservation, so you shouldn’t encounter any hiccups on flight day. 

If you find that your pet is ineligible to enter the cabin with you, there are alternatives. Many pets are permitted to be checked, boarded and stowed like luggage, but with much more special treatment and in a separate area reserved for live cargo. Both the eligibility and booking requirements for checked pets are entirely different from in-flight pets, so only consider the following for pets joining you in the cabin. 

Choosing a flight

Direct flights are ideal when traveling with pets. The less time your pet spends confined to a carrier the better. If you do need to schedule a considerable layover, dog owners should aim for stops at more pet-friendly airports, and cat owners should pack a disposable travel litter box with a baggie full of litter for use in an airport restroom stall. 

Booking your pet’s reservation

As mentioned above, you’ll need to call for a pet reservation on nearly all airlines with the notable exception of United Airlines, JetBlue, and a few overseas airlines. There are limits to the number of pets permitted in each cabin, so even if your pet meets all the eligibility requirements, there may not be space left for your otherwise approved pet. Being “eligible” does not guarantee a reservation. 

Before you call, measure your pet’s carrier (length, width, and height) so the airline can determine which seats could accommodate your pet. Don’t be tempted to guess; if you’re wrong and it won’t fit, you and your pet may not be boarding. Pet approval and reservation are always contingent upon a successful inspection by airline staff on the day of the flight, and your pet may still be denied boarding for any reason. This is why you must always check-in at the airport when traveling with a pet. 

Expect to pay around $125 each way for your pet to join you in the cabin on major carriers, though Southwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines are still below $100. 

cat inside carrier

Buying the right carrier

Your carrier is the key to a successful journey. Because your pet will spend the entire journey in it, this is the item most worth a considerable investment. 

While hard-shell carriers are permitted on all airlines, it’s much more difficult to fit them under seats, and airline policies are non-negotiable on measurement restrictions for these inflexible kennels. Soft-sided cases, on the other hand, are far more malleable and are so much better at adapting to onboard spaces so airlines are less firm about their dimensions. Look for a carrier with plenty of ventilation—like this option from Wild One—and consider options that offer privacy for pets who are prone to anxiety or haven’t flown before. Some airlines sell their own branded carriers; many others recommend the soft-sided Sherpa carriers.

Packing food and water 

While you don’t want to overfill your pet’s belly or bladder when he or she will spend a long period of time confined to a carrier, you should always be prepared for unexpected delays or cancellations that will require unplanned feedings, and you never want to dehydrate your pet, especially while flying. 

Bring an empty water bottle and fill it once you’re through airport security. If your pet hasn’t flown before or generally urinates frequently, line your carrier with absorbent, disposable pads, and pack wipes and paper towels for easy cleanup. 

Most airlines consider your pet carrier to be your underseat personal item, so you can still bring a carryon if your fare allows it. 

Medication 

For pets with anxiety, or parents concerned about pets that haven’t flown before, don’t make any medication decisions on your own: Consult your vet. The pet market is flooded with CBD products alleging calming effects on pets, but there is no solid science to date behind these claims, and some studies have shown the opposite to be true. 

Always discuss any new medications, tinctures, oils, or enhanced treats with your vet before introducing them to your pet. With the exception of service animals, most small pets respond more to your own behavior and emotions than anything else, so it’s most important for you to treat the day as a routine event in order for your pet to stay calm.

Practice runs 

To make the idea of travel feel routine for your furbaby, be sure you’ve introduced the carrier as far before the trip as possible. Leave the carrier open and place it in an area your pet loves to hang out for either naps or play. Let it become one of his or her belongings with familiar scents and casual connotations. 

Once your pet is happy to be around, and in, the carrier, take walks or drives around the neighborhood with your pet inside. Destinations should be fun places like a park, or even just neutral places like simply returning home after a trip to nowhere. This can help reinforce the idea that going in the carrier leads to fun, or at least to nothing, rather than unknown or negative experiences. For this reason, it’s ideal to use a travel carrier separate from the one used for visits to the vet. 

Finally, don’t forget about comfort items. Pack some treats to feed your pet intermittently and include a favorite soft toy or two in the carrier for familiarity and fun. Keep in mind that this isn’t the time to pack toys with bells or other noisy components—like babies, most people will find your pet adorable but they won’t want to hear them throughout the entire flight. 

small dog at airport in carrier

What to do on travel day

Your goal is to keep this day as typical as possible for your pet, so do your best not to fuss more than usual today. Any change, even showering a pet with more attention, is an indicator that something is off and will add to a heightened sense of alertness for your pet. 

That said, if you’ll be flying for a particularly long time or leaving the home just after a typical feeding time, consider feeding less this time, or even skipping a meal if it won’t be too long before your pet can eat again, but discuss this decision with your vet first. If your pet will become anxious, or even carsick on the way to the airport, it may be useful to reduce the risk of vomiting or an upset stomach, but don’t make this call without your vet’s professional advice. If you’re using a car service to get to the airport, be sure to confirm a pet-friendly car when booking, and do not remove your pet from the carrier en route. 

At the airport

At most airports, your pet must remain in the carrier at all times, with the exception of using pet-relief areas and when passing through security. All pets need to check-in at the airline’s counter; there’s no heading straight to security with a digital boarding pass when pets are involved, so arrive early enough to account for waiting in line. 

>> Read about the most pet-friendly airports in the US.

Security 

At security, your pet will need to come out of the carrier, which will go through the x-ray machine, and you can either carry or walk your pet through the metal detector. 

Your pet is never required to go through the x-ray machine, so ask to speak with another agent if someone suggests this. At the gate, let an agent know that you’re traveling with a pet, and ask to pre-board for extra time getting your pet’s carrier tucked away under the seat—this is much harder to do when a row is already full. 

On board

Once again, the goal for your pet is to keep this day normal, so keep fussing to a minimum. Tuck your pet comfortably under the seat in front of you (never in an overhead bin), drop a few treats in the carrier, and do your best to leave your pet reasonably unbothered for the duration. 

You may not take your pet out of the carrier at any time onboard, no matter how persistently a pup whines or a kitty mews, or even when the person next to you begs for cuddles. Conversely, if your neighbor doesn’t like animals or is allergic, it is not your obligation to change seats. In the rare case of a miscommunication or a curmudgeonly neighbor, call the attendant and politely explain the situation; the other passenger will be offered an alternative seat. Your only job onboard is to stay as relaxed as possible so that you and your pet arrive at your destination happily, ready for the adventure ahead. 

Scott's Cheap Flights may earn affiliate commission from some of the links in this article. 

Last Updated 
October 20, 2020
A Comprehensive Guide to Flying with Pets in the US
Brandon Schultz
Freelance Writer

Brandon is a travel and lifestyle writer who loves everything from luxury resort getaways to couchsurfing adventures. He's a Forbes Travel Expert, The Savvy Traveller advice columnist for Outpost Magazine, and contributes to more than a dozen publications. Brandon is the author of four books, including three cookbooks and Bookstore Cats.

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