The Pet Travel Beginners Guide: 5 Things You Need to Buy Before You Fly

Thinking about getting on an airplane with your pet for the first time? Here are the products you need to buy before your trip to make everything go smoothly.
Updated September 9, 2021

by Dani Fankhauser

The modern wonder of air travel allows us to cross the country or even the globe in a single day. Though we may not be skilled at reading their minds, it is possible our pets share our jetsetter dreams and want to come along. 

In the wake of the pandemic, I flew with my “COVID puppy” for the first time; though when I say COVID puppy, I actually mean my 11-year-old chihuahua rescue, whom I adopted during the pandemic and hasn’t been a puppy for a very long time. Chances are she’s been on a plane before, but we hadn’t gone together, so this trip was my first time boarding an airplane with a dog. I was a pet travel beginner and, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely a pet travel beginner as well.

There are many reasons for bringing your pet on a trip. Some pets have separation anxiety and don’t want to stay home alone, only visited by a dog walker. Some don’t like pet hotels, around other animals in an unfamiliar place. Many humans, including myself, have their own separation anxiety and simply want to bring their pet with them on vacation or a work trip. While airlines do charge a fee for bringing an animal on a flight, this usually pales in comparison to the cost of a pet sitter. 

In asking friends (some of whom are in the veterinary world) what to expect and doing some research, I learned many crucial tips about the process, starting with what to do when planning your trip all the way to the day of the travel, and what to keep in mind while you’re at your destination. 

What do you need to do to bring your pet on an airplane? 

Bringing a pet on a flight is unfortunately a bit more complicated than upgrading your seat or adding a checked bag. Every airline has different rules on whether pets are allowed in the cabin, what size and material their crate can be made out of, how many pets are allowed in each flight, and how large the pet can be. Some airlines will require veterinary paperwork, proof of vaccines, or an acclimation certificate

Some breeds, including bulldogs, pugs, Boston Terriers, and Persian cats, are simply not allowed to fly due to hereditary issues that make them vulnerable to breathing problems at high elevation. 

For international travel, you must check both the airline and country for requirements around blood tests and immunizations both for destination and starting point. 

Buy: A pet-friendly travel carrier 

the pet travel beginners guide 5 things you need to buy before you fly

Airline compliant travel carrier at Wild One, $125 at press time

Some carriers that are designed for air travel include the Wild One Travel Carrier (pictured above, and our top pick), Petmate Sky Kennel, Sleepypod Air, and the Sherpa Delta Airline-Approved Dog & Cat Carrier Bag available on Chewy. When choosing the right size, remember the carrier should be big enough for your pet to stand up and turn around, but small enough to fit under the seat and fit airline requirements. If you regularly fly on more than one airline, you should check the requirements of each one to ensure you don’t have to buy a carrier twice.  

Pets larger than around 20 pounds (remember, this will vary by airline) cannot go with you in the cabin and would need to travel in cargo, and airlines will have a different set of requirements for cargo crates. Know that the temperature control and ventilation are not well-monitored, so the hotter and colder months of the year are not recommended for flying a pet in cargo. You may want to do further research on how to alert baggage and airline crew of your pet to ensure their safety if you must transport them in cargo. If not, consider traveling by car, which is safer. 

Once you’ve chosen your airline, confirmed you have the right travel carrier, and picked your flight, it’s time to call the airline to secure a spot for your pet. As of 2021, most (if not all) airlines have stopped offering this function on their website. Also, airline staff must check that the flight has space for a pet (depending on the airline, the cap could be between two to five). Nonstop flights will be simpler to book. If one leg of a connecting flight is already fully booked, that could throw off your whole itinerary. The airline customer service may ask questions about your pet, such as breed, age, and size. 

Lastly, be sure to confirm your accommodations are pet friendly as well. Some hotels charge an additional fee per stay or per night. If you are staying with friends or family, be sure they are happy to have your pet stay as well. 

On flight day, it is recommended to get some exercise for your pet before heading to the airport. You should also have your pet skip a meal; just give them a larger portion once you arrive. 

At airport check-in, you’ll also check in your pet, and pay the fee if you haven’t already. When you go through airport security, be ready to take your pet out of its carrier so you can put the carrier through the X-ray machine. Airport security may ask you to put your pet’s leash and harness through the X-ray machine as well, so be ready to guide or carry your dog or cat leash-less. 

Once you’re inside the airport terminal, find the pet relief area closest to your gate. Since you likely traveled to get to the airport, it’s best to give your dog a potty break before the flight. The relief areas are often near the restrooms. Aside from the relief area, your pet must stay inside their carrier while in the airport and on the airplane. 

Buy: Calming aids for your pet

the pet travel beginners guide 5 things you need to buy before you fly

CBD Oil Tincture for Dogs at cbdMD, $20 at press time

If your pet experiences anxiety in new places or when traveling, you may get a supplement to help them feel at ease. cbdMD (pictured above, our top recommendation) has supplements for pets that can be eaten as a chew or taken as an oil which can be used daily or for a specific situation such as fireworks or air travel. Pet experts warn to stay away from using a tranquilizer for air travel as it can hinder breathing while in the air. 

Some non-oral options for calm include the Thundershirt, a vest that applies gentle pressure to help your pet feel less anxiety or fear. Another option is a calming collar, available from Sentry Pet Care or Adaptil, which releases pheromones to help your pet calm down. 

These accessories will make travel much smoother and set your pet up to be a long-term jetsetter. But, once you make it through your flight, your trip has only just begun. Don’t forget to buy the supplies you need for the duration of your vacation.

What do you need to stay with your pet at a hotel?

You’ve confirmed your hotel, Airbnb, or friend’s house is pet friendly and have brought your pet’s favorite foods, food dishes, and poop bags. Your pet sleeps on the favorite blanket you packed or something borrowed. You also brought treats so your pet can make friends with new people. 

Buy: Bedding, food, and waste supplies

the pet travel beginners guide 5 things you need to buy before you fly

Frisco Sherpa Orthopedic Bolster Cat & Dog Bed at Chewy, $22 at press time

Some supplies you will want to buy ahead of time for travel include pee pads, collapsible water and food dishes, all of which can be found on Chewy and Petco. Some items you may already have that you will need to pack are poop bags or a litter box, treats, and bedding (like your dog’s favorite blanket). In order to cut down on luggage, I purchased an inexpensive dog bed from Chewy (pictured above) and had it delivered to my family’s home, where I would be staying. Another way to cut down on your checked luggage weight is to purchase your pet’s food from an online website and have it shipped to your destination.

If your trip will be taking you and your furry friend outdoors, a prevention medication for flea, tick, and heartworm is recommended.

Buy: Travel Tag

the pet travel beginners guide 5 things you need to buy before you fly

Leather AirTag Collar at Keepaws, $60 as of press time

Keeping track of your pet will be of utmost importance, especially if you’re in a new place that your pet will be eager to explore. You may buy a temporary travel tag for your pet to wear during the trip that lists your cell phone number, your destination address, and local phone numbers (e.g., the hotel phone number). You may also get a smart tag, such as Apple’s AirTagsTile, or SmartTag, which you can connect to your phone’s Bluetooth to locate your pet if they go missing. A microchip, if your pet doesn’t already have it, will help your pet be identified faster if found.

Now, consider how you’ll be getting around at your destination. The carrier you used on the plane will work fine for a train as well, but if you will be taking taxis or driving a car, it is recommended you get a carrier or harness that’s been crash-tested, like Sleepypod. In a car crash, a pet can turn into a projectile, harming itself or others, or in the aftermath, get scared and run into traffic. A crash-tested harness attaches to a seatbelt so your pet stays as safe as you. 

You can also research veterinarians and emergency pet care at your destination. The hope is you won’t need it, but in the case of a sick pup, it’s better to have this info on-hand so you don’t double down on stress. 

Buy: Pet cleaning supplies

the pet travel beginners guide 5 things you need to buy before you fly

Pet Odor Eliminator Spray at Angry Orange, $21 at press time

To make your vacation smooth and leave your destination better than you found it, you might purchase a pet hair roller or a towel to lay on a couch to limit your pet’s shedding footprint, and these can easily be found at Chewy and Petco. If your pet is prone to accidents, you might also get an all-purpose cleaner that’s designed for pet stains and odors, like the one from Angry Orange (our pick, pictured above).

Lastly, review your planned activities and check if restaurants, hikes, and other fun plans are pet-friendly. If your pup came all this way, they’ll want to see the sites, too!

The wrap-up

Traveling with a pet isn’t the easiest thing to do (as the previous 1,700 or so words have illustrated), but all of the extra work can definitely be worth it — and not just for the fantastic Instagram photos you’ll get out of your pet seeing the world. Your pet is a big part of your life, and while it’s complicated to bring them along on important trips in your life, it’s certainly not impossible. Just take all the necessary preparations in advance, buy what you need with lots of lead time, and get ready to make your trip even more memorable by bringing along the best possible travel companion.