For many of us, the holidays mean spending time with family and close friends, even if it requires traveling. And for many travelers, pets are both family AND friends, so the thought of celebrating without these companions is unthinkable.
Animal experts, however, offer strong warnings about traveling with pets, particularly by air. And since much of the country will experience freezing weather conditions during this period, the holiday season can be especially challenging.
Flying with animals has become more complex than ever, and in an upcoming column I’ll address the specifics of several recent changes, particularly for service animals and emotional support animals. Below are some very broad guidelines for various sectors of travel that can help you better decide if this year it’s best for your furriest friends to remain behind with a trusted friend or relative, or at a reliable boarding service.
Thinking it through
First things first: The travel industry groups animals into very distinct categories, and each category contains numerous rules and caveats.
• Service animals
• Emotional support animals
• Pets accompanying travelers
• Pets traveling as baggage
• Animals (both pets and nonpets) traveling as cargo
As a general rule, service animals and emotional support animals are welcome on most forms of public transportation, including the 10 largest domestic scheduled airlines. But the rules for pets are much more complicated, and certain breeds – such as pug-nosed animals – are banned on many airlines. The most important advice, for all modes of travel, is to check with your veterinarian before planning any trips.
The nation’s leading animal rights organizations are quite clear in cautioning about the dangers of travel, especially air travel and most especially in aircraft cargo compartments. Consider the following warnings from experts:
• American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals states: “Unless your furry friend is small enough to ride under your seat, it’s best to avoid air travel.”
• People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offers blunt advice in bold type on its website: “We strongly advise against transporting your animal companion by air in the cargo area.”
• Humane Society of the United States is equally blunt on its website for those considering flying with pets: “Look for another option.”
• American Veterinary Medical Association echoes other experts by providing detailed Q&A on whether travel is right for your pet.
Here’s a breakdown.
A recent Airfarewatchdog poll of 1,500 travelers found that 47 percent flew with their pets in the past year. When asked why, 41 percent of that group stated they “simply can’t or don’t want to leave them behind.” Yet many should reconsider this, since in 2017 the U.S. Department of Transportation reported 24 animals died on U.S. commercial flights, while 15 were injured and one was lost. That’s a small percentage of the 507,000 carried – unless it’s your beloved pet.
But there’s a caveat: The DOT’s reports only cover animals traveling in baggage compartments, so there are no reliable figures on pets injured or killed in cabins. For example, the widely-publicized death of a French bulldog forced to travel in an overhead bin by a United Airlines flight attendant wasn’t included in the DOT report for last March.
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All 10 of the largest U.S. scheduled carriers allow pets in the cabin, but there are dozens and dozens of requirements and exceptions, so it’s absolutely vital to contact the airline in advance. There are varying rules for the number, size and breed of animals; approved pet carriers; proof of vaccination; booking and check-in requirements; bans on specific aircraft and destinations (especially outside the U.S.); etc. Fees range from $35 to $200 one way.
As for transporting pets in luggage holds, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian and United allow this, albeit with many restrictions, and for fees ranging from $60 to $225 one way. Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit do not allow pets outside the cabin. But even when certain animals are allowed, it’s still absolutely critical to check with your veterinarian first. The warnings from animal experts posted above apply to air travel more so than any other mode, and experts also don’t recommend tranquilizing animals for air travel.
Long road trips aren’t right for all pets. AVMA’s advice: “If your pet does not ride well in a car, consider leaving your pet at home, with friends or family or in a boarding facility.” If your animal is susceptible to carsickness, then it’s important to discuss this with your veterinarian in advance.
ASPCA offers practical suggestions for road tripping with your pet. These include:
• Prepping in advance by taking short drives and gradually lengthening them
• Using well-ventilated crates
• Never allowing pets in front seats, or sticking their heads out windows
• Using a back-seat buckled harness
• Packing a pet travel kit
• Never leaving an animal alone in a car, even in winter; the ASPCA notes, “In cold weather, a car can act as a refrigerator”
Amtrak provides a detailed page entitled “All Aboard, Pets.” The key policies are dogs and cats up to 20 pounds are allowed on trips of up to seven hours. While this applies to “most routes,” there are exceptions, including Auto Train and Acela Express on weekdays. The cost is either $26 or 800 Amtrak Guest Rewards points. There are numerous rules and restrictions and it’s first-come, first-served, so check out the page in advance of planning your trip. Reservations must be made in person at a staffed station or by phone at 800-USA-RAIL.
On Greyhound’s website, the “dos and don’ts” are very clear: “We don’t let animals on board (not even Greyhound puppies). The only exception is legitimate service animals riding together with a disabled person.”
The same rule applies at Peter Pan, but with exceptions. Other than service animals, pets aren’t usually permitted, but the bus line allows them on specific routes connecting certain cities in New England with Boston’s Logan Airport and Providence’s T.F. Green Airport. Passengers must be traveling directly, with no transfers en route. In addition, pets must be transported in suitable containers for the duration of the trip and the container must be “confined to the seating area of the customer.” Peter Pan explains this means it should “not take up the space of another seat or take space in the bus aisle.”
For personal boats, AVMA offers detailed suggestions on securing your pet, including proper-fitting personal flotation devices.
Most cruise lines forbid bringing pets on sailings. But there are exceptions: Cunard offers a “unique service” for dogs and cats with trans-Atlantic crossings on board the Queen Mary 2. The Kennel Programme operates in either direction between New York and Southampton, England, and is overseen by a Kennel Master providing feeding and walking. Reservations must be made in advance, and are subject to space availability. Information on fees is available at 800-728-6273.
The subject of allowing pets in hotels can be contentious, and travel blogs are filled with negative comments from travelers concerned about allergies, phobias, pet hair, smells and loud barking. That said, there are many major chains that welcome animals, though of course there also are lots of rules and exceptions.
There’s assistance online for finding the right hotel, including Petswelcome.com and BringFido.com. These sites offer lists of pet-friendly properties, along with details on their pet policies and even ratings. But always check with the hotel first to confirm those policies, and remember to ask detailed questions. You don’t want to find out your pet isn’t welcome when you’re checking in at the front desk. The same diligence is required if your accommodations are through Airbnb or home exchange programs.
Wanting to spend special moments such as holidays with those you love most is easily understood. But not all pets are conducive to traveling, particularly on airplanes, so it’s in their best interest to consider alternatives.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.