Airlines aren’t just cramming more people onto flights nowadays—they’re also accommodating a growing number of dogs.
Flying with a dog raises a lot of questions, though, especially for first-timers. How does traveling with a non-service, non-emotional support dog work, exactly? How much does it cost? Is it safe?
For starters, bringing your pup along is definitely more complicated (and expensive) than flying solo, but it can be done—so long as you do your research ahead of time. Luckily, we’ve done much of that work and laid it out here, so you don’t have to. (Note that COVID-19 has also made flying with pets more challenging, as some airlines have temporarily suspended their pet transportation programs during the pandemic.)
Here’s everything you need to know about flying with a dog, from how to book the flight, to what kind of paperwork is required.
This article was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with new information.
First, weigh the pros and cons of flying
Right off the bat, think long and hard about whether it’s essential to bring your dog on a plane. “In general, I recommend not flying with a pet unless absolutely necessary,” says Justine Lee, veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance. “Ideally, pets should not fly unless an owner is moving permanently or taking a long trip—two to four weeks minimum.”
Think about it: Flying can be a stressful experience for your dog. It removes them from comfortable and familiar surroundings, then forces them into a situation with loud noises, bright lights, thousands of people, changes in air pressure and cabin temperature, and a limited ability to use the bathroom.
Unless you have a really good reason for bringing your pet with you during your travels, it may be best to leave them home. Consider hiring a pet-sitter, asking a friend or family member to watch your dog, or boarding them at a licensed facility. You might feel bummed out for a few days, but it’s likely better for your pet in the long run.
Cargo or carry-on?
Where your dog is allowed to spend the flight will depend on their size—but it may be a determining factor in whether or not you bring them.
Though rules vary from airline to airline, your dog can typically only fly in the cabin—a.k.a. as a carry-on—if they are small enough to fit in a carrier under the seat in front of you. Any larger than that, and your pup will have to travel in the cargo hold, with the luggage and freight. Most airlines describe this as “shipping” your pet. (Yikes.)
While airlines say they try their best to make dogs comfortable in the cargo hold, it’s an unpleasant experience for your pet—in addition to being separated from you, items might shift around or fall during the flight, which can be loud and scary.
And sure, plenty of animals fly in cargo every year, without incident, but there are a lot of unknown variables that you have no control over once you hand your pet off to airline personnel. Consider it this way: Baggage handlers are just trying to get their jobs done and get everything loaded onto the plane, period. They’re not guaranteed to pay special attention or care to your dog in their kennel. Lots of travelers have shared horror stories about their pets being injured, becoming very sick, or even dying after flying in the cargo hold. So, again, seriously consider if the potential risks are worth it.
Pack an appropriate carrier
Wherever your pet will spend the flight, you’ll need to bring along an appropriate pet carrier or crate. The International Air Transport Association, whose guidelines most airlines follow, has a list of pet carrier requirements (we’ve even rounded up our favorite airline-approved pet carriers). Generally speaking, your crate needs to be durable and have plenty of ventilation, strong handles, and a leak-proof bottom. You should also clearly mark your pet carrier with the words “Live Animal” and arrows that show which way is up, with a label containing your name, phone number, address, and destination contact information.
How much does it cost?
You’ll typically pay around $125 each way for your pet to fly in the cabin with you, though it varies by airline. The cost of shipping your pet in the cargo hold depends on the combined weight of your dog and their crate, as well as how far they’ll be flying—most airlines offer online calculators for getting an estimate.
Review all of the rules
As you might imagine, airlines have tons of rules and guidelines for flying with your pets. It’s important that you read them thoroughly so your pet isn’t turned away during boarding.