Four Legs + Places + Travels

Traveling on an airplane with a little dog.

Travel with a small dog -

I just got back from a trip home to New York to visit my family. As usual, Fritz came along, and he continues to amaze me with his adaptability and good spirits when put in all kinds of situations. He’s racked up a lot of frequent flier miles in the last five years, and he barely even gets grouchy after a red-eye, even without drinking coffee.

The first time I flew with Fritz, I was really worried about whether he’d throw up from airsickness, or be so anxious that he’d start barking during the flight—or even hurt himself trying to escape from his carrier. I asked his vet to prescribe a sedative and an anti-nausea medication just in case, but then I forgot to give him one and gave the other too early…and he was FINE. Since then, I’ve figured out how to make his travels more comfortable for both of us, and I thought I’d share some what I’ve learned in case it helps someone else traveling on an airplane with a little dog.

Travel with a small dog -

First of all, please do not lie about your dog being a service or emotional support animal if they’re not. Doing so is super unethical, and it ultimately makes it harder for people with a legitimate need for a service or emotional support animal to be taken seriously—not just while traveling, but in all aspects of their daily lives. Instead, book a flight with an airline that allows small dogs to travel with you in the cabin. Yes, that means they’ll have to be in a carrier under the seat in front of you. Yes, that means you’re going to have to pay extra to take them on the plane. And no, you won’t be able to hold them on your lap or let them sleep in the seat next to you during the flight.

Airlines have different policies when it comes to the types of animals allowed in the cabin, the maximum weight of the animal, the weight and size of the carrier, how many animals are allowed in the cabin per flight (and per person), and whether you’ll need any special paperwork or documentation. I usually fly on JetBlue, and they’re very clear about their guidelines. Because airlines typically limit the number of pets per flight, it’s really important to reserve their spot at the time you book your own tickets. JetBlue lets you add a pet as an option while booking (and pay in advance), but other airlines require that you buy your own tickets first and then call to attach a pet reservation to your confirmation number. I find that a little dicey (What if there are no spots left??), so in those instances I like to call the airline’s booking line and have a rep check to make sure there are pet spots available—then I ask them to hold while I book the ticket online, and then have them immediately add the pet reservation. Bizarrely, most airlines (JetBlue is an exception) don’t let you pay for your pet’s reservation until you arrive at the airport for your flight, so that’s something to keep in mind in terms of your available funds—and the extra time you might need at the check-in counter. Also, be sure you reserve a spot for your pet for both the flight to your destination AND your return flight home—unless, of course, you’re transporting a rescued pup to a new home or adopting a furbag and flying off into the sunset with him forever.

If you want to check on the pet regulations for various airlines, BringFido is a great starting point. Policies change, though, so be sure to check the airline’s website (most make their pet travel policies readily available). By the way, note that the regulations for traveling internationally with pets can vary wildly depending on the policies of the destination country. Be sure you’re looking at information that’s relevant to the kind of trip you’re planning.

The Carrier

Once you know the size limits for your chosen airline, you’ll need to make sure that the carrier you have is compliant. I wanted to get a carrier for Fritz that would also double as a car set, so I got him a Sleepypod Air (Fritz’s is black, which doesn’t appear to be available on their website, but you can get it on Amazon). Sleepypod does crash testing on their carriers, which can all be buckled into cars with a seat belt! I don’t drive with Fritz on my lap, because that’s not safe for him, me, or other drivers on the road.

I’ve taken a whole bunch of flights with Fritz in his Sleepypod (and have used it in the car countless times), and we both love it. My only complaint is that it can be a little tricky to maneuver the frame so it fits under some seats, but I love that it gives him the maximum amount of space possible.

Travel with a small dog -

Going Through Security

TSA regulations can seem arbitrary in their usefulness, and that’s no exception when traveling with a dog. The protocol is to take your dog out of their carrier, put all of your stuff (including their carrier, but not their leash/collar/harness) in bins on the conveyor belt as usual, then signal to a TSA agent that you have a dog. They’ll instruct you to walk through the regular metal detector (NOT the body scanner) while holding your dog, and then stand off to the side and wait for another TSA agent to give you a quick hand swab test, which I think is to test for explosives. That takes less than a minute, then you can go and collect your bins in a hurried panic and drag everything over to the bench in your socks while your dog tries to figure out what the hell is going on as more TSA agents laugh and point at him because he’s small. Then you stuff your dog back into the carrier and move on to your gate.

It’s worth mentioning that once you’ve gone through security, you won’t be able to take your dog back outside to do their business unless you want to go through security again. I always try to make sure that Fritz pees RIGHT before we go into the airport, and he’s never had a problem holding it until the other end of the trip. That said, many airports (including the Sunport in Albuquerque and the JetBlue terminal at JFK) now have indoor “pet relief areas” near the gates for this exact reason, so that’s another option. I also always try to book direct flights so Fritz doesn’t have to cross his legs during extended layovers.

Travel with a small dog -

After Arrival

As soon as I’m off the plane, I hustle as fast as I can to the baggage claim area. In every airport I’ve been to, the doors at baggage claim open to the passenger pickup area, and they open both ways. In other words, you can exit the airport and then turn around and go right back in. I take Fritz outside and let him pee immediately, before I even wait for my luggage. Airports expect this, and some even have a little fenced-off pet area near the passenger pickup!

Post-pee, Fritz and I go back into the airport to wait for our luggage. Once I have all of my bags, I haul everything over to a drinking fountain, fill up a collapsible bowl (these things are so handy), and let Fritz have as much of a drink as he wants. Once he’s taken care of, I pack him back into his carrier and move on to the next leg of our trip, a cab ride to Grand Central.

I usually go directly from Grand Central up to the Hudson Valley on Metro-North, and I like to use any waiting time to let Fritz have a meal. Grand Central is very dog-friendly, and so is Metro-North. No carrier required, even if you have big dog! As long as they’re leashed, you’re fine. Fritz and I like to wait in the Station Master’s Office near track 36, which is usually pretty empty and always very quiet. (There’s even a bathroom!!) The old oak benches are really beautiful, and a perfect setting for a chihuahua to enjoy breakfast.

I tried to cover as much ground as I could think of here, but I’m sure I’m forgetting something! If you have any questions about flying with a small dog—or traveling with a dog in general, whether it’s in a car, train, or subway, or even just staying in a hotel—please feel free to ask! Fritz will take any travel questions you might have for him, too.

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  • Reply StephanieZ March 5, 2020 at 6:36 am

    Traveling is the only time I wish my great dane was smaller. He can only come with me if I drive and even then its hard to find places that will allow all 150 lbs of him. Oh well, I call my vacations his vacations since he gets to hang with other people and do things that he wouldn’t necessarily do at home.

  • Reply Fiona March 5, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    Go Fritz. It’s an obvious one, but I presume you’re required to produce proof that he’s up to date with all his shots.

    • Anna Dorfman March 5, 2020 at 1:12 pm

      Nope! Not on any airline I’ve ever flown with him on (JetBlue, Delta, Southwest), but I’ve only flown domestic.

  • Reply Sid March 5, 2020 at 2:05 pm

    This is super useful. I really appreciate the practical tips about direct flights and where to let them pee. Do you carry anything with you to clean up if he does have an accident (other than baggies I mean – like wipes or something?)? My small dog is sketchy at holding her bladder consistently indoors and I was trying to figure out what the etiquette would be for those situations. I’ve also never heard another dog whining on planes but somehow I doubt mine would travel without loudly complaining about the injustice of being crated when everyone else had snacks. I imagine that would be really annoying for fellow passengers… I swear I didn’t worry this much about travelling with my human babies! 🙂

    • Anna Dorfman March 5, 2020 at 2:09 pm

      The first couple of times I traveled with Fritz I took a pack of pet-safe wipes (and a couple of wee-wee pads) just in case, but he hasn’t needed them. Would your dog put up with wearing a diaper? That might be helpful if she has trouble holding her bladder! As for snacks, Fritz is a real beggar much of the time, but during flights he seems to not really care? I do stick my hand into his carrier periodically to pet his head and sneak him a treat (I like to pack a little baggie of Charlee Bears in the side pocket of his carrier), but that might be more about comforting ME than him.

  • Reply Kit March 5, 2020 at 4:51 pm

    the procedure is pretty much identical for a cat, which means you need to have a harness and a leash on kitty for the part where you take them out of the carrier to go through the metal detector.

    i didn’t know to expect that the first time and had to hold my cat in a death grip until i could get him back in the carrier, as he desperately wanted to bolt. no fun for either of us!

    • Jennifer March 5, 2020 at 5:59 pm

      I had a similar experience with a cat, who was so freaked out she peed all over me, although she normally was a total cuddler. I then got to spend the entire flight smelling like cat pee, despite stripping off my shirt in the bathroom and wearing my coat buttoned all the way up for the flight. So for the first flight with your animal, maybe a change of clothes for you, too?

  • Reply Imogen March 5, 2020 at 5:01 pm

    Hi Anna, Thanks so much for writing about this (AND for stressing the importance of not trying to pass a pet off as an ESA.) I frequently fly JetBlue and am interested in the Sleepypod Air (22-inch long, 10-1/2-inch wide, 10-1/2-inch high). JetBlue’s carrier restrictions indicate 17″L x 12.5″W x 8.5″H. Since you’ve flown a lot with Fritz, I’m assuming JetBlue has never (taken out a tape measure and) given you a hard time about the length? I can’t imagine how stressful it would be…getting to the airport with my dog and being turned away over something like that but I do wonder if it happens to travelers. Go Fritz!

  • Reply Lewis March 6, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    I have had to go through the body scanner and hold my small (but very dense) pug above my head, haha.

    I forget what airlines we flew (it’s been a while since we’ve had to fly with our dogs), but we’ve always been told by the airline to have vaccine documentation as well as a health certificate from our vet from within the previous 10 days. Were we ever asked to show that information? No.

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