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Flying With Your Dog in the United States

A few fun facts:

  • Kefi is not a service dog.

  • Airlines don’t allow ESAs (Emotional Support Animals) anymore.

  • Cargo holding her isn’t something we are willing to do.

  • Also she’s 26 pounds. And she is an oddly-shaped little thing with short lil’ legs and a long body.

So how do we get our dog across the country from Los Angeles to New York City? At one point, it seemed our only option was to drive (expensive). Or charter a private jet (more expensive, but honestly not a bad option for those with larger dogs – more on that below).


But then it turned out that flying with a dog (domestic at least) is totally doable and actually quite fun. So here’s what we learned in our first flight with our dog from LAX to EWR (a roughly 5 hour non-stop flight).

 

TABLES OF CONTENTS

 

Step 1: Research Airline Pet Policies

Be sure to do your own research on flying with a dog and decide which airline is best for you. In the end, we decided to go with Spirit for a few reasons:

  • They have a generous weight requirements (40 lbs)

  • They have Big Front Seats on many of their flights for a (totally worth it) extra cost, and, spoiler alert, they are the PERFECT size for our preferred pet backpack carrier

  • We’ve generally read that they are very chill about their pet policy – can now confirm this to be true

  • Also, they’re cheap. And we reallllllly like saving money

As of September 2023, here’s the quick facts on Spirit’s Pet Policy:

  • $125 each way

  • Domestic US only

  • 40 pound weight limit

  • 18“ x 14” x 9” maximum carrier dimensions (yes, I know, you’re all wondering how ‘strict’ this is... more on that below)

Big Front Seats (row 2) on Spirit Airlines

Step 2: Book Your Flight

Once you're ready to book your flight, consider the following:

  • Select the Right Seat: Spirit Airlines offers "Big Front Seats”, which can provide extra space and comfort for you and your pet (must book row 2 though as row 1 doesn’t have under seat stowage).

  • Plan for Extra Baggage: Most airlines count your pet as your carry-on, so be sure to book the right amount of extra bags as needed!

  • Book: Check out Google Flights and specifically their flight tracker alerts!

  • Book Your Pet: Especially if you’ve booked via a third-party app, you may not have been able to add your pet to your reservation yet. Be sure to confirm your flight through the direct airline website and add your pet to the reservation (Spirit lets you do this online, other airlines may request that you call). Airlines have maximum limits of the number of pets they can accept on board, so I’d recommend doing this within 24 hours of booking your flight so if the flight is sold out you can cancel for free if need be.

  • Pro-tip for my fellow credit card points people: Chase Travel Rewards and Spirit are the perfect pair – in my experience, some airlines/hotels have higher rates on the Chase Travel Rewards center meaning that your points could be wasted there, but Spirit fares have always been the same for me. So this could be the perfect use of those points!

Step 3: Preparing for the Trip

There are two key things to start thinking about early and be prepared for – your pet’s health & your pet’s carrier.


Pet Health & A Vet Visit

Schedule a check-up with your vet to check on the following:

  • That your pet is fit for travel. For domestic travel, a health certificate typically isn’t needed, but double-check this and ask at the vet as needed.

  • Make sure vaccinations are up-to-date and you have all the extra meds and prescriptions you need to last the duration of the trip..speaking of which..

  • Talk to your vet about your pet’s stress levels and possible drugs (prescription or otherwise) that can help. We ended up using Trazodone with Kefi, but definitely talk to your vet about your own pet’s needs.

​Los Angeles Vet Recommendation: Mohawk Alley Animal Hospital in Echo Park

They do require you to be an existing client in order to proceed with the International Health Certificate Exam & Process. All in, we paid about $200 for Kefi's annual physical exam and 1-year rabies shot (which made her an "existing client"). Then we paid about $400 all in for the Health Certificate (which included the exam/consultation itself, shipping costs, and any USDA fees).


Pet Carriers

Amber once declared to Alexi, “I am never talking about pet carriers again.” in the midst of a heated…chat. Yet, here she is writing about pet carriers. And my god, am I glad Alexi brought up this topic again that one fateful day in the middle of moving out, stressing out, and freaking out. Because that’s the day we decided to use a backpack style carrier and it CHANGED OUR LIFE. Seriously, if you read no more, just go buy this (paid link) Pecute Pet Backpack Carrier (size large w/ the mesh window).


If you do want to read more though, let me tell you..we did extensive research on pet carriers. We also did extensive freaking out about the fact that there are basically no pet carriers that perfectly fit airline recommended dimensions. But in-short, after searching Facebook Groups, Reddit, everywhere AND after actually trying out 9 different carriers (yes... 9), we decided on the Pecute Backpack Carrier for a few reasons:

  • We tried duffels, and they just didn’t work for us. They’re so awkward to carry, especially as Kefi isn’t exactly light. We even tried the ones with wheels, and they were so cumbersome to maneuver and switch from wheel to carry.

  • We knew we’d be carrying her on the NYC subway and other places where backpack style would be much easier.

  • It’s expandable AND it has so many various openings that no matter its orientation we’d have a way to get her in/out or let her head pop out for a bit. The mesh window version in particular has that extra opening too which came in handy when turned on its side to let her head out.

  • It’s easy to lay it down to fit under the airplane seat.

  • Lots of storage pockets for extra Heartgard, poop bags, bully sticks, etc.

  • The dimensions work (almost). The size large carrier is 13.4" x 10.6" x 17.3". Which means 2 of the 3 dimensions fit within Spirits guidelines (14” x 9” x 18”) and the other dimension was only 1.6” too large. This was worth the risk considering most carriers don’t fit within this guideline at all.

    • We debated on the XL Pecute carrier, but the size L ended up working well for Kefi AND we didn’t want to push it on the dimensions too much. We needed to make sure we got on this flight.

    • In the end, we didn’t need to worry so much about the size. Honestly, nobody looked twice (or even once..) in our direction when boarding or when getting her settled by our feet. If you’re really worried, you could bring a spare backup carrier that 100% fits the dimensions, but we opted against this to save space.

Snug as a bug in a.... Pecute Pet Backpack Carrier (Size Large).

REMINDER: Kefi is 26 pounds. She is a squatty lil’ babe, with short legs and a long body. She was snug, but she was able to turn around and maneuver enough to get herself comfortable. And in the end, she ended up even laying inside the expanded carrier on her own some days. Here’s how we made that happen:


Trazodone + Pecute Trial

We knew it was going to be important to trial these 2 new factors of Kefi’s lil’ life: the carrier and the drugs. So we practiced a lot! And started early – at least 2 months in advance.


Trazodone was a new drug for her, so we started by giving her extremely small doses until we figured out what worked for her (but didn’t totally zombie-fy her). We did so by:

  • Dosing her 2 hours in advance of a “stressful” situation. For her, this is car rides.

  • We’d jump in the car and go for a drive.

  • Once we realized she was more chill than usual, we knew we had the dosage right. For her, this ended up being 100 mg. (But again, check with your vet, and start small.)

Then we started getting her used to the pet carrier:

  • We kept it slow at first, feeding her meals in her carrier (still open), giving her bully sticks in the carrier (still open), until finally starting to close the door while she chewed.

  • We made sure to never “shove” her inside – we always led her in with treats nudging a bit at times, but never shoving.

  • We always used the word “crate” as her associated command word, using it often in a positive way (“good girl in your crate”) so eventually she’d go in on command.

  • Doing this, she never really cried in the carrier at all – again, we did this very slowly, increasing intensity (by closing the door, or leaving her in longer) only after a few days of repeated activity.

Then we merged the two – the Trazedone and the carrier. This is the process we used, doing this minimum once a week prior to our trip. We wanted to recreate the experience on the plane ride as accurately as possible, so we:

  • Dosed her 2 hours in advance of a car ride with 100mg of Trazodone

  • Started the car 10 minutes in advance of car ride to cool it down (hello, LA summer)

  • Started the “crate” command and process – getting her inside with a treat, zipping her up completely (head inside), carrying her out of the house and into car, situating the carrier on the floor of the back seat, and sitting next to her (while the other one of us drives)

  • We’d then give her treats and/or a bully stick while we sat in the backseat or give her a pat inside the carrier to calm her a bit if she was crying

  • While she did whine a bit, this was very much under control especially by the third or fourth trip prolonging the time a bit more each week

Truly, everybody from the TSA agents to the lady that sits right next to you at the airport even though there’s plenty of open seats elsewhere commented on how “good” Kefi was behaving. And this was absolutely because of this process. Also, drugs.


Final Preparation

As your travel date approaches, make sure you have all the essentials ready:

  • Required Documentation: Ensure you have all necessary documents which could include your dog's health certificate, proof of vaccinations, and any other required paperwork.

  • Pack Essentials: Don't forget to pack your dog's essentials like food, water, leash, and waste bags. It's also a good idea to bring a blanket or towel for added comfort.

  • Medication Plan: With our vet, we planned Kefi’s trazodone dosage leading up to and during the trip and scheduled every dose in our shared Google Calendar.

Other handy lil’ items (paid links):

  • Water Bottle w/ Portable Dog Bowls: This is one of my favorite purchases ever. We got this incredible water bottle that has two detachable bowls for food and water. And it’s actually leak-proof too. So humans have water. Dog has water. And dog has food. Everywhere we go. Amazing. Buy this thing now.

  • Food Storage Dry Bag: We got about 10 days worth of dog food in this baby.

  • Treat Pouch: We wanted something to store treats with easy access so this clippable lil bag has worked wonders. We take it everywhere we go.

  • Bully Stick Holder: Okay I was skeptical that anything could keep Kefi from a bully stick. But they are her preferred high value treat and worked wonders in getting her comfortable in her carrier. So for peace of mind, we finally decided to try out a holder device, and it’s honestly worked pretty well. This one in particular worked the best. (Note: She has still managed to pull the stick out once or twice, so always keep an eye on your pet!!!)

Kefi at the airport. As you can see, NOT a big fan of the Pet Relief Area.

Step 4: Travel Day

Here’s our schedule for the day of travel from LAX to EWR (a ~5 hour flight):

  • The day before: Schedule Uber Pet to get us to the airport 2.5 hours ahead of flight.

  • 10 hours before flight: Gave Kefi her trazodone dosage (for her, this was 100mg)

  • 3.5 hours before flight: One last potty break before getting in the Uber Pet. In the car, she remained out of the carrier and just sat on our laps.

  • 2.5 hours before flight: Arrived at the airport and went through security. One of us handled all the baggage and one of us handled the dog. We simply had to remove her collars and leash and hold her through the security. Then we just put her back on leash and walked her through the airport the entire time prior to boarding.

  • 2 hours before flight: Once we got through TSA and settled in at the gate, we gave Kefi another trazodone dosage (another 100mg). We also tried the Pet Relief Area to no avail – she hated it. I would not rely on your dog ‘going’ once you’re inside the airport.

  • Boarding: This is when we finally put the dog in the carrier (fully enclosed). And we just boarded as per usual and then got settled in our seats.

  • During flight: We gave her a bully stick for the take-off. Once the seatbelt sign went off, we expanded the carrier to give her more room. Then once, we started our descent, we zipped her back up and gave treats.

  • Arrival: As soon as we stepped off the jet bridge and into EWR, we let her out of the carrier and walked her through baggage claim and out of the airport. And as soon as we exited the airport, we found a patch of dirt out by the taxis for her to relieve herself.

Generally, we did great! Flying with a dog was a LOT easier than we were expecting. There were a few little whines from Kefi, but nothing your neighbors would hear over the airplane noise. And eventually, she even took a long nap.


And that’s it! We made it to New York…well…New Jersey..but more on our NY adventure soon!


Other questions & concerns


Your dog’s too big (over 40 lbs / 18 kg) and you're scared of cargo hold.

Look into private charters. Spoiler alert: they’re expensive. Like $10k expensive. But comfort and peace of mind are invaluable. The best place to start is this wonderful Facebook Group "Chartered Air Travel with Pets". Folks there can also help direct you to other FB groups that may be more specific to your location too.


Check out the many "Flying with a Dog" related Facebook Groups.

We are SO glad to have found a few incredibly useful groups that have provided so much value and support. Especially as we went on to travel to Europe, the Facebook Group "US Pets to UK via Chunnel & Alternate Routes" was immensely helpful.


(Note: I am an Amazon Associate so if you shop through my links, I may earn a commission!)


2 Comments


Guest
Nov 04, 2023

Now you can start a travel agency for pets. You were probably already thinking of that. Love you guys, Aunt Diane

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Amber Baumer
Amber Baumer
Nov 09, 2023
Replying to

Oh yes, more posts like this one coming soon! Especially the international flight was a lot to plan, so more on that soon! Hoping it's helpful to the many other folks trying to plan trips like ours!

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