Jake’s on a Plane: Air Travel with Your Pet

Eric and Jake on airplane

Jake scored the window seat on this flight to JFK Airport in New York.

Recently, I attended a volunteer orientation at Spokane Humane Society, where I learned that more than 75% of their adoptable pets are surrendered by humans from the local community. A leading reason for these pet surrenders involve the humans moving out of state. While I was surprised to learn these facts, it occurred to me, do humans not know that pets can fly out of state too? Do you want to travel with your pet, or do you want to be the most knowledgeable person at cocktail parties about pet air travel?  Then read on to learn everything you need to know and help keep human-pet families together!

My current dog is Jake, my BFF and soulmate, and he travels with me almost everywhere.  Jake is an enthusiastic Labrador/Rhodesian love sponge who instantly bonded with me at Seattle Humane in August 2015.  Since adopting each other, Jake and I have worked on basic commands, and he has blossomed into a well behaved, model traveler.

The good news is, if you have the will to travel with or transport your pet by air, there’s a way!  The options available to you depend on several factors, such as the costs you are willing to pay, the personality, training and size of your pet, and whether you meet federal guidelines involving physiological, psychological, or emotional disabilities.

Your pet can fly with one or more of these options: as (1) a carry-on pet, (2) checked baggage or cargo, or (3) a service dog or emotional support animal (ESA).  The hyperlinks in the table below detail the costs and conditions involved in each of these three categories on the major airlines in the continental US.  Service dogs and ESAs ride free on all airlines, with all information detailed in the hyperlinks below.

Airline Carry-On Pets Pets Checked as Baggage or Cargo Service Dogs and ESAs Call Before You Travel
Alaska $100.00 per carrier $100, checked Details 1-800-503-0101
American $125 per carrier $200, checked Details 1-800-433-7300
Delta $125 per carrier Cost varies, cargo
Details 1-404-209-3434
Southwest $95 per carrier Does not accept Details 1-800-435-9792
United $125 per carrier Cost varies, cargo
Details 1-800-228-2744

Where not otherwise cited, all facts referenced in this article are cited to the above hyperlinks. 

Carry-On Pets

If your pet is a small dog or cat, you have the most options when it comes to air travel.  That’s because all airlines allow in-cabin travel with a small dog or cat in a carrier for a small fee of between $95 and $125 on one-way travel in the continental US.  To qualify for carry-on, your pet must be small enough to fit comfortably inside a carrier no larger than 18.5” long x 8.5” high x 13.5” wide, and must remain in the carrier underneath the seat in front of you for the full duration of your flight.  Southwest sells a soft-sided carry-on carrier that you can purchase online or at the ticket counter for $58.  Many carriers have breed restrictions and require advance arrangements, so be sure to research the individual circumstances applicable to your pet and airline when planning your travel.

Pets Checked as Baggage and Cargo

If your pet won’t fit into a small carrier and you don’t qualify to travel with a service dog or ESA, your pet will need to fly as checked baggage or air cargo. This category involves the most variation between carriers. Alaska Airlines has the simplest policies and least expensive fees, and will allow you to check any size dog as baggage in a carrier for $100. Southwest does not allow animals to travel as cargo or checked luggage. American charges $200 for pets to ride as checked baggage. United’s PetSafe air cargo program charges for pet transportation based on weight, with rates as high as $699 for extra-large dogs to US destinations.  Delta appears to charge the highest rates, with fares of more than $1000 to some destinations.  As of the date of this article, Delta quoted me $592 to ship an 80 pound dog in an extra-large carrier from Spokane to New York’s JFK airport.  All airlines except Alaska require advance arrangements for this service.

Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

What’s the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal?  You need to know because airlines will ask which you are claiming if you show up to the ticket counter with a dog on a leash.  The most important thing to know is that the right to travel with a service dog or ESA applies to the human rather than the animal.  Applicable U.S. laws (Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Fair Housing Act, and Air Carrier Access Act) do not require either type of animal to be registered or certified.  These laws entitle both service dogs and ESAs to fly in the cabin of an aircraft at no additional charge, and also to reside in housing that otherwise prohibits pets, without breed restrictions.

Service animals are restricted to dogs, and in rare cases, miniature horses (I’ve never heard of anyone attempting to travel with a service horse, so we’ll refer to service animals as service dogs). There are no species or breed restrictions for ESAs, and I’ve heard stories of people on aircraft with emotional support ducks, cats and miniature pigs, in addition to dogs.

A service dog is trained to assist an Individual with a disability that substantially limits the individual’s ability to perform a major life activity without assistance.  For example, my sister has Type 1 diabetes and needs to travel with a service dog that can smell when her blood sugar is out of balance.  I have a friend with epilepsy who has a dog that can sense when he is about to have a seizure.  Blind people also commonly have seeing-eye dogs.  On the other hand, an ESA is not required to be trained to perform a specific activity.  So a service dog is a working service animal under the ADA, while an emotional support animal is only required to be a well behaved traveling companion.

Jake and I on the airport shuttle at LaGuardia airport. My lips are sealed tightly to avoid Jake’s tongue.

Jake and I on the airport shuttle at LaGuardia airport. My lips are sealed tightly to avoid Jake’s tongue.

The major difference between service dogs and ESAs is that service dogs are legally entitled to go more places than ESAs. Service dogs are entitled to accompany a disabled person into any publicly accessible area, including taxis, Ubers, restaurants, theaters, stores, amusement parks, and just about everywhere else.  ESAs, conversely, aren’t legally entitled to enter places other than airports and housing. This doesn’t mean you won’t be allowed to take your ESA into these other places, it just means that they are not required by law to allow your pet.  And by always being respectful and nice to everyone I meet, I’ve never been denied access to ground transportation, hotels or other publicly accessible areas while traveling with Jake.

Jake at the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott. Jake prefers to lie horizontally and hog the bed so I book hotel rooms with two beds.

Jake at the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott. Jake prefers to lie horizontally and hog the bed so I book hotel rooms with two beds.

Federal law does not require a person to show written proof that they are disabled or entitled to travel with a service dog.  But if you don’t qualify for a service dog and want to fly with an ESA, you will need a properly formatted prescription letter from a licensed mental health professional.

Business employees do not have the right to ask a person with an animal what disability the person is claiming.  But they are allowed to ask if your animal is a service dog and also what activities your dog is trained to perform.  While not required for travel, you can outfit your dog with a vest or patch to proactively identify your dog and help avoid questions from service and transportation employees. Your service dog or ESA is also not required to have any official certification or identification. I prefer to equip my dog with a travel harness rather than a marked vest, and for him to wear a collar medallion that identifies him as a service dog.

The main requirement for a service dog or ESA is that they must obey basic commands and not act aggressively toward other animals or people.  Delta Airlines gives these simple requirements:  “it is expected that a service [or emotional support] animal behave in public and follow the direction of its owner.”  This cannot be overstated:  your dog must be friendly, well behaved and able to obey basic commands to travel outside of a carrier in an airport and on a flight. And you should expect small children to run up to your dog at the airport, because nothing at the airport is more interesting than your dog. On my last trip, Jake was suddenly swarmed by several 2-3 year olds who stuck fingers in his ears. Fortunately, Jake greets all children with licks and kisses, even with small fingers in his ears.

Other Considerations

Jake securely buckled in and ready for liftoff.

Jake securely buckled in and ready for liftoff.

Where does my dog sit on the plane – best case scenario:  I’ve not found an FAA rule on this point – but when an extra airline seat is available – either because the flight is not full, or I’ve purchased an extra seat with frequent flyer miles, or used a companion fare from an airline credit card to obtain the extra seat – I’ve never been prevented from buckling my dog into a seat.  Perhaps this is because I’m able to explain to my flight attendant that buckling Jake into a seat belt harness is much safer and more secure than leaving him unrestrained on the floor. If there is a sudden drop in altitude from turbulence, for example, the laws of physics dictate that everyone on the flight will be safer if my 80 pound dog is securely strapped in versus unrestrained on the floor.  I use this harness to buckle Jake into car and airline seats – his torso is secured by the harness, and the seatbelt loops through the rear of the harness to secure him from behind.  Jake loves to travel in a seat this way, and unlike other passengers, sits up and pays attention to the flight attendant during the pre-flight safety briefing.

Where does my dog sit on the plane – typical scenario:  When booking travel, I always call ahead to make sure Jake and I get a bulkhead seat. Based on a sense of fairness, I have no problem paying a little extra for a bulkhead seat, but airlines will usually provide one at no extra charge to anyone traveling with a service dog or ESA. Airline rules require that animals cannot travel in exit rows, and must travel on the floor in front of their handler. In a bulkhead seat, Jake has plenty of room to curl up in front of me. I bring a blanket for Jake to lie on, as the floors of the aircraft can be cold. I also bring Jake’s favorite toy and plenty of snacks to occupy him, especially during takeoff and landing when the engine sounds are loud. My vet tells me that dogs do not have the ear pressure issues that humans have, so they don’t need to chew when ascending or descending.

Jake traveling on the floor in an aisle seat of a regular row after our planned flight was cancelled and no bulkhead seat was available. Is Jake the best boy in the world, or what?

Jake traveling on the floor in an aisle seat of a regular row after our planned flight was cancelled and no bulkhead seat was available. Is Jake the best boy in the world, or what?

Where does my dog sit on the plane – worst case scenario: The only time I wasn’t able to get a bulkhead seat with my ESA is when my flight was cancelled and rescheduled, and no bulkhead seats were available on the replacement flight. In this scenario, my choice was to take another flight or accept the circumstances and be grateful to get home. I chose the latter.  As I learned, it’s one thing to travel with an 80 pound dog in a bulkhead row, and quite another in a regular row.  So with no bulkhead row or extra seat available, Jake spent five hours underneath my aisle seat in a regular row. You don’t see much of Jake in this photo except for a short section of his body, because lying down, he occupies the full space in front of and beneath my seat.

Doggie relaxers:  According to American Airlines, the American Veterinary Medical Association discourages sedatives for dogs, due to nausea, respiratory and cardiovascular problems that may result from altitude pressure. But all dogs are different, and you should have this discussion with your vet, especially if your dog has no prior air travel experience and could possibly become anxious on a long flight. After our discussion, my vet gave me a prescription for Acepromazine, with instructions to give my dog a half tablet two days before travelling so I could check his reaction.  This sample dosage caused Jake to become even more mellow that he already is, with no negative reaction.  At the airport and on his flight, Jake was on his best behavior, so I didn’t need to use his prescription during travel.  But I was still glad that I had the prescription because it gave me comfort to know that I had it if Jake needed it.

Questions from other travelers:  Accept the fact that your dog will attract a lot of attention at the airport and you will be asked personal questions by other travelers.  I personally would never ask a woman if she was pregnant or why someone is traveling with a service dog, but you should decide how you will answer this question when asked, because you will be asked. My policy is to always truthfully respond to all questions when asked, since I am not embarrassed of the truth and enjoy talking to people about the joy they can experience with a rescued pet.

When discussing the rules for service dogs and ESAs with other travelers, people have told me  “I’m not sure I would be comfortable handing a prescription letter to someone at the airport ticket counter”.  My responses include:

  • I’ve already revealed my personal business to the world, so what’s one more person at the airline ticket counter.
  • The feeling of liberation and freedom I experienced after I stopped caring what others think about me was profound and life-changing, you may want to consider trying that.
  • I feel less disabled knowing that my dog is happy traveling with me and will never be surrendered to a shelter if have to move out of state.
  • I would never improperly claim the right to travel with a service dog without being entitled to do that, but I am legally entitled to travel with my dog and we are both happiest when we travel together.

Adopting a dog for air travel:  If you do not have a dog but want to travel with one and have limited or no dog training experience, consider looking through local shelters for a dog rated “E” for everyone. All reputable shelters screen dogs before placing them for adoption and will be able to introduce you to dogs that are best for your family and lifestyle, including dogs that are appropriate for homes with cats and small children. With patience and love, just about all dogs are trainable to be well behaved and follow basic commands. I prefer to adopt adolescent and senior dogs rather than puppies, because:

  • Puppies are cute and get adopted from shelters faster than older dogs.  But an older dog will know that you saved his or her life and will reward you by becoming the most loyal friend you’ve ever had.
  • Many older dogs are already partially trained and require a lot less work than a puppy.  Many older dogs have already learned basic commands such as sit, stay and down, which are the main skills a dog needs for air travel. And most older shelter dogs are already house trained.  So work with your local shelter and find the best dog for you!

Regardless of which dog you adopt, follow your shelter’s advice and enroll in at least a “basic manners” class as soon as possible after adoption. Investing quality time with your dog, and spending at least 5 minutes per day to learn basic behavior commands, will significantly strengthen the bond between you and your dog and will make your travel experiences less worrisome and more fun.

Get your pet a checkup and health certificate before you travel:  Before an airline will accept your dog as checked baggage or cargo, they must see a recent health certificate supplied by your veterinarian. Health certificates are not required for traveling with a service dog or ESA. But no matter how you travel with your dog, I recommend that you see your vet before you travel and get a health certificate. Health certificates are generally valid for ten days after being issued. Your vet is required to examine your pet in person and make sure that all of your pet’s vaccinations are current before they issue the certificate. The certificate certifies that your pet in good health and can make the trip safely.  Also, make sure your dog is chipped and wearing a collar with an identification tag. Jake’s collar has medallions with his county dog license, rabies vaccine, and chip information.

Travel with an attitude of gratitude rather than a sense of entitlement: Finally, always be friendly, calm and patient in interactions with airport and other service personnel when traveling with your pet. Know that you are traveling under special circumstances and the nice people at the airport genuinely want to help you and provide a pleasant travel experience for you and your pet.  Based on my career in sales, I can tell you for certain that people will go much farther to help you when you are kind to them and they feel a personal connection with you rather than a mere employment obligation to assist you. When I travel with my dog, I like to think of myself as an ambassador for everyone who needs to travel with a companion animal. I try to model my interactions with others in the same way my dog acts when given a treat.  So when someone provides me with a kindness, I try to repay them with sincere gratitude, but without licks and kisses.