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Pets As Checked Baggage: 10 Things You Need To Know Before the Trip

An estimated two million pets take to the skies each year, many traveling with their owners.  If your pet is small enough he may fit in a pet carrier that can be safely stowed in-cabin.  However, for many larger pets, in-cabin travel isn’t an option.  What’s a vacation-bound Golden Retriever or a Border Collie headed for a herding trial to do?

Luckily, there are some flight options for larger dogs traveling with their owners. If you are traveling with your dog many airlines will accept him as checked baggage and and he can accompany you on the flight.  He won’t actually be placed with the baggage on the plane.  Instead, he will be loaded into a pressurized, heated area of the plane where it is safe for pets to travel.

1. Getting Started (or Stopped)

As you might expect when dealing with air travel, there are many variables.  Some airlines will take dogs as checked baggage and some won’t, so be sure that the airline you are using will accept your dog.  The cost for taking your dog with you as checked baggage will vary from one airline to the next.  You can consider $75 as the starting fee for most airline carriers.  Some airlines will not accept dogs during summer months due to concerns about dogs overheating.  They have a heat embargo.  This embargo may only apply in certain cities or on certain routes so you should make sure that your trip will not be affected when you make your reservation.  If the temperature on the ground will be 85 degrees or more at the time of take-off or arrival, then the airline will not accept dogs. You can count on airlines sticking to this rule.  They will be fined by the FAA if they break it.

If you have a brachycephalic breed (short-nosed), such as a Boxer, Bulldog or other dog with a shortened muzzle, then you may have difficulty finding flights at other times.  Many airlines have concerns about flying these dogs due to fears about respiratory difficulties on planes.  You probably won’t be able to fly your dog in summer at all.

Many airlines also have restrictions about the size of the dog they will accept.  In some cases, if the dog and the crate together weight 100 pounds or more, they will refuse to ship your dog as baggage.  If you are booking a flight on a smaller plane they may not be able to accommodate airline crates larger than a 400 size.  Some airlines will not carry the 700 size crate.  So, be sure to discuss your dog’s size and weight with an airline representative when you book your flight to make sure they can accept him and his crate.

2. The Crate

The airline crate is all-important when you are thinking of taking your dog with you as checked baggage.  The crate is supposed to be large enough for your dog to stand, turn around and lie down comfortably.  There have been occasions when airline representatives have refused to accept dogs if they don’t think the crate is large enough.  Some airlines have their own crates which they will sell you if they don’t think yours is big enough.  (These crates cost much more than you normally pay for a crate so it’s best to make sure that your crate is appropriate before you go to the airport.)

Crates for flying must be “airline approved.”  Normal airline approved crates can be purchased at pet stores, online and through catalogs.  They are normally hard plastic with plenty of ventilation.  They also have a lip or rim around the sides to prevent other crates or cargo from pushing up against them and blocking the dog’s air.  They also have a wire grate door and a hard plastic floor.  These crates should say that they are “airline approved” when you purchase them.  Airline approved crates are not hard to find.  They usually run in cost from around $25-100, depending on size and style.

3. Preparing the Crate

You should prepare your dog’s crate for the flight by placing some soft, absorbent material in the bottom.  This is required by the FAA and USDA.  A blanket or newspapers are fine.  You should also place two plastic cups in the crate for food and water.  These cups should come with the crate when you buy it.  Most people don’t feed their dog when they travel since it could make their dog sick to eat during travel, or it could get messy, but the bowls need to be present.  If your dog has a long flight the flight attendants can give your dog some water during the trip, theoretically.  It’s also possible to freeze some ice to place in your dog’s water bowl so he’ll have some water during the trip.

It’s usually best not to place anything else in the crate during the trip. If your dog swallowed something, such as a toy, there wouldn’t be anyone nearby in the cargo area to help him.

4. Making Your Reservation

When you make your flight reservation it’s not usually required that you make any kind of reservation for your dog if he’s flying as checked baggage.  However, you should talk to the representative about your dog, his crate and other concerns to make sure everything is in order.  Go to the airline’s web site and look up their requirements for flying with a dog.  You don’t want to have any surprises when you reach the ticket counter which could delay your trip.

5. Health Certificate and Other Documents

Before you travel with your pet you’ll need to have a health certificate signed by your dog’s veterinarian within 10 days of your trip.  Health certificates are required by most states when you cross state lines.  Your dog will need to be up-to-date on his vaccinations, particularly his rabies vaccination.

If your pet will be traveling in the winter he may also need a statement of acclimation or acclimation certificate from your veterinarian.  This is a simple, signed statement from your veterinarian that says he’s examined your pet and your pet can fly at temperatures between 45 and 20 degrees.

You should also carry with you copies of your dog’s important documents such as his registration papers, bill of sale or other papers which show that he belongs to you.  If he is microchipped then you should take your microchip contact information.  Make sure that your dog is also wearing some form of identification such as tags with your address and phone number.  In the event that your dog should get loose you will want him to be easily identified and you will want to be able to prove ownership.

6. Getting Ready for the Trip

If your dog is not already crate-trained then you should help him get used to his crate starting a few days before the trip.  Bring the crate into your home and place it in a prominent part of the house.  Leave the door open.  Place some treats and toys inside and encourage your dog to check it out.  You may even wish to feed your dog inside the crate.  Praise your dog for going inside.  Let him relax and become accustomed to the crate.  You can let him get used to the crate for 3-5 days before the trip.  This will help reduce any anxiety he may feel when you take him to the airport.

7. Reconfirm

Make sure you call the airline and reconfirm your flight 24 hours before you are scheduled to fly.  Check up on any questions you have about flying with your dog.

8. At the Airport

Technically, the USDA and FAA state that dogs should be fed at least four hours before a flight, although many people prefer not to feed their dogs before flying so they won’t get sick.  You can feed your dog lightly four hours before your flight.  Do give your dog water.  He can have water whenever he wants it.

Be sure to walk and exercise your pet before you check in at the airport.  If you’ve had a long drive to the airport you should find a grassy area and walk your pet at the airport.  Be sure to hold tightly to your pet’s leash.

You should allow extra time to check in with your dog, but do not arrive four hours early.  It’s best to arrive about two hours before your flight leaves.  You need to take your dog to the ticket counter to check in.  If you have a large crate you can use a sky cab to help get it to the counter.

Take your time in filling out your dog’s paperwork.  You should be prepared and bring with you any phone numbers, addresses or other information you need that you don’t have memorized.

9. Putting Your Dog in the Crate

While you’re completing your paperwork your dog is usually being put in the crate if he’s not already inside.  This is usually a time that tugs on the owner’s heart.  Even though you will be on the same flight together you will be separated for a short time.  Your dog will probably look very sad.  He may bark or cry.  Try to stay cheerful.  You will see him again in just a couple of hours.

Once you’re on the plane you can try to watch out the window to see your dog being loaded on the plane.  Some people like to ask the flight attendant to let them know when their dog is safely loaded on the plane.  It can make you feel better to know that your dog is safely on board.

10. Other Flying Alternatives

If your dog has to fly without you he can still reach his destination.  He may fly as cargo on many major airlines.  You will do most of the same things described here, except you will make a reservation for him to fly as cargo and take him to the cargo office instead of the ticket counter to board the plane.  Cargo can often accommodate larger dogs and their crates, although the price can be quite high.  Cargo does cost more than flying with a dog as checked baggage.  It’s often as expensive as buying a seat on the plane.

You can also check into flying your pet on a pet airline.  Pet Airways launched in 2009 and serves nine U.S. cities:  New York, Baltimore/Washington DC, Chicago, Omaha, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver, and Los Angeles.  They have a $150 minimum fee.  They are planning to expand to serve 25 cities in 2011.  You can make flight reservations online and your pets are checked into a pet lounge when they arrive at the airport instead of an airport holding area.  The airline staff walks pets before take-off.  Pets are monitored throughout the flight by the airline staff and checked every 15 minutes.   Pets fly in the cabin in their carriers.  The cabin is climate-controlled and pressurized for the comfort of the pets.

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