As someone who has taken her dog (Irén) on a plane more often than I would have liked, here is everything you need to know about what that entails, including regulations from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and lessons learned from experience. While you may find some of this information useful, all pets are different and you know yours better than anyone else, so always trust your instinct and adapt to your pet’s needs.
First and foremost, only fly with your pet if it is absolutely necessary. Flying can be very stressful for animals, especially if they have to go in cargo, so if you can spare them the journey, it’s better to leave them with a friend, family or at a pet hotel while you’re away.
If that is not an option, before you start looking for flights, check country specific requirements for vaccines and documents that your pet needs. Withing the EU, your pet only needs a passport, which is available at all veterinary clinics, usually for free, and an up-to-date rabies vaccine. Besides vaccines, the animals have to be at least 8 weeks old, weaned and in general good health. Always ask your veterinarian if it is safe for your dog to travel before making any plans.
Before booking any tickets, check if the airline you intend to fly with actually accepts pets and, if yes, under which conditions. It takes a bit of research, but make sure to carefully read the full requirements.
Each airline has different rules, but generally only cats and dogs are allowed, sometimes ferrets. Due to the respiratory issues some short snouted breeds have, combined with unfortunate incidents in the past, some airlines refuse to transport specific breeds, such as pugs or French bulldogs. Moreover, some may only take small animals that can be transported in the cabin and not accept pets that need to go in the cargo section.
When booking your tickets also find the information about the type of plane you’ll be flying in because some airlines only transport pets in cargo on certain types of aircraft. It has happened to me that I booked a ticket with my dog with an airline that operates flights on both Boeing and Airbus aircraft. While I can’t remember the exact models, the airline only takes pets in cargo when the flight is operated on a Boeing. Everything seemed to be going well, I went to the airport for my outbound journey and discovered that the plane for the return flight had been changed from a Boeing to an Airbus, meaning I would no longer be able to fly back with my dog. It took several call centre complaints until I was given a different return flight, with the assurance it would be on a Boeing. Had I not noticed myself the aircraft change, I would have just had a big surprise at the airport on my return trip, as I had to explain their own rules to airline employees and why they messed up my flights.
Regardless of whether your pet comes with you in the cabin or goes to cargo, double check weight limits. You may also be asked to pay a supplement at the airport if your pet, together with its crate, exceeds a certain weight.
Once you’ve got the tickets, find the right carrier or crate for your pet. IATA has strict regulations on carriers, from the materials they are made of, to the lock systems to the size and ventilation requirements, all meant to ensure animals can sit, stand or move comfortably inside.
Once you have the correct carrier, you should get your pet used to it before the trip. Crates for carrying pets in cargo are usually made of two halves. Only set up the bottom half first. Put your dog’s bed in it, maybe even their favourite toy. Exercise with them daily and reward them when they get in, until they start getting in by themselves.
Then add the top part and repeat the same process. For carriers that can be taken into the cabin, the training is similar, but you only have one step, with the whole carrier, instead of building it up. For the first time travelling, it’s good to start the training at least one month before your journey, so your pet has enough time to get used to the carrier or crate. For subsequent travels, getting the crate out at least 1-2 weeks before the journey should be enough.
4. On the day of travel
Giving your pets sedatives before travel is not advisable. However, if you do want to help your animal be a little less stressed, always ask your veterinarian first. Then, do a trial run one or two weeks before the day of travel to see exactly how your dog reacts to the sedatives. Keep in mind that your pet has to be awake when passing through security, so the trial run will also help you determine whether you’re giving the sedative before leaving the house or after getting to the airport. For Irén, mild, valerian-based sedatives are the best option to help her relax a bit, without falling asleep and without any side effects.
While getting to the airport a few good hours before your flight is always advisable, when you travel with your pet, try to avoid getting there too early. Sitting around in a crowded airport might be stressful for your companion, so keep the waiting time to a minimum. If you have a long flight ahead and you’re travelling with a dog, account for some extra time to take them on another walk at the airport before heading in.
If travelling with a small pet, make sure to have food with you as well as a recipient that you can put water in once you pass security. For pets transported in cargo, you need to place two recipients on the door of the crate, one for water and one for food, so airport or airline staff can fill them on long flights or in case of extended delays. You will also need to tie a transparent zip-lock bag with your dog’s food to the side of the crate.
For large dogs, you might have to go to a separate room, where the crate is passed through a large X-ray machine, similar to the ones your bags go through at security. Never leave your dog inside the crate while it passes through the machine. After your pet is back in the crate, airport handlers take over and you can proceed to security and to the gate as usual.
For smaller pets, you can go directly to security after check-in. Place your bags in the trays as usual, as well as your pet’s carrier. Again, never leave the animal in the carrier while passing through security. Either carry your four-legged companion or let them walk beside you while passing through the human scanners.
Once on the plane, put your pet’s carrier under the seat in front of you, as you would do with regular hand luggage during take-off and landing. While cruising, you may keep the carrier on your lap and, as long as you do not disturb the other passengers, slightly open it to comfort your pet or give them food and water. Never put the carrier in the above head compartments.
5. After landing
Once you’ve reached your destination, pets that are carried in cargo are usually brought out with special luggage, such as sports equipment, so you will have to find out where that is at the airport. However, one airline (not the same one as above) at just one airport, always put Irén on the conveyor belt after all the suitcases. My dog, with her carrier, weighs somewhere around 45 kilograms and I was travelling by myself. The conveyor belt kept moving at all times. Luckily, other kind passengers were willing to help me out.
Let your dog out of its crate or carrier as soon as possible, give it some water and take a short walk before getting into the car or train or whatever you are taking to get from the airport to your final destination. For cats, some might prefer sitting in their carriers the entire time, while others might prefer snuggling up to you. Again, you know your pet best.
Ultimately, travelling with your pet by plane is quite the adventure. It requires a lot of preparation, not to mention extra budged, and a lot of patience to deal with anything that might not go as planned. But what don’t we do for them?