My dog is my best friend. I certainly don’t travel with her everywhere but I do like having the option to bring her along with me when I take shorter domestic trips. I currently live in Houston, TX but most my family lives in Denver, CO so having the ability to fly with my dog makes visiting friends and family back in Colorado so much easier.
The first time I flew with my dog, I was really nervous. I scoured the internet for tips & tricks to make flying with my dog easier but I couldn’t find any. Do not fear, for Miss Dixie has taken maybe a dozen flights and the two of us are now seasoned travelers!
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My dog Dixie weighs 12lbs. She’s a really little dog and that makes it easier to travel with her. I’ve traveled with her on both Southwest & United so I can only speak to my experience on those carriers.
Additionally, the advice in this article is written based assumptions that your dog:
- will be flown in-cabin,
- is small enough to fit under the seat,
- is NOT an emotional support animal,
- has good enough behavior to stay multiple hours in a small crate.
Caveats before flying with your dog
Never fly with your dog without speaking to your vet first! Certain breeds shouldn’t fly due to breathing difficulties. Some health issues may pose a hazard on an airplane, as well.
Your dog will also need to be up-to-date on all their vaccinations, although Southwest and United never checked my paperwork. They could check the paperwork, however, so best to be completely vaccinated.
Talk to your vet before booking your trip!
Booking your doggy flight
I recommend you reserve your dog “seat” as soon as possible – preferably when you book your own flight.
Both Southwest and United limit the number of in-cabin pets to 6 so there’s a chance that your flight may not have a spot for your doggy companion. Luckily you can cancel your flight for free within 24 hours of booking (it’s US law!), so you should do it all same-day to minimize headache.
United sometimes allows me to book online but I usually have to call and speak with an agent for both airlines.
And, very important: write down your confirmation number! This protects you in case the airline “loses” your dog’s reservation. This happened to me on a recent United flight and they originally wanted to deny me boarding (even after I checked Dixie in with an agent…).
Preparing for your flight
I’m gonna keep saying it… talk to your vet first.
Assuming you’ve gotten that out of the way, you’re going to want to do a few things to prepare for your flight.
Get your vaccination paperwork handy
Have proof of all vaccinations somewhat handy, just in case.
Buy an airline friendly doggy carrier
There are some obvious and not so obvious things to consider when shopping for your doggy carrier. The first and most obvious criteria: it needs to be small enough to fit under ALL airline seats and it needs to fit your dog. Research airline restrictions BEFORE buying!
What else is important?
In my experience, my two favorite features of my dog carrier are the zipper top access and the pocket.
The zipper top access is nice because that makes it easier to get my dog in and out. I can just set her in instead of force her in, which is important to me.
The pocket ends up being really nice because you can store any necessities in it, like treats, a collapsible water bowl, your phone, your tablet, etc.
I bought this carrier and I like it for the most part. The expandable compartments sound nice in theory but in practice I never use them. The strap is uncomfortable when I have to carry her long ways, too. Otherwise, no complaints – and it always fits!
Have your dog practice being in the carrier
You don’t want your dog’s first time in the carrier at the airport. That will be very stressful and scary for them. I recommend putting them in the carrier and driving to a dog park or other high-value places. This teaches them that something fun exists on the other side!
Buy some anti-anxieties and try them ahead of time
I have tried so many different anti anxieties for Miss Dixie and some have worked better than others.
Truth be told, CBD treats are the best for her. They seem to work quickly and consistently but that may not always be the case for your dog. Amazon has so many different options so get some veterinarian recommendations and read reviews. You may have to try a few different ones!
Dixie also flies with a Thunder Jacket and half a Benadryl. The dosage recommended by her vet is 1 mg per pound of body weight so half a tablet works well for her. This combination almost always gets her to sleep through the entire flight.
Try this before flying so you can see if anything doesn’t agree with your furiend. But, again… never give medication without consulting a vet!
Get your dog tired!
Your carrier is bought, your bags are packed, and it’s the day of your departure. The next important step is getting your dog tired.
If I have an evening flight, I take Dixie to daycare. If it’s a morning flight, I wake up early and take her on a long walk. And before leaving I give her half of an anti-anxiety.
Get your pupper tired and make sure that they’ve taken lots of potty breaks!
Pack high-value treats, extra anti-anxieties, and a collapsible water dish
Pack your dog’s absolute favorite treats. They may be too stressed to eat a mediocre treat but having an awesome one may be comforting.
It’s always good to have extra anti-anxieties, too – most can be double dosed without any issues (but read the label to verify!)
And come prepared with a collapsible water dish. I really like the ones with carabiners so they can easily attach to the carrier.
At the airport
After arriving at the airport, your first step is to get checked in.
With both Southwest and United you’ll need to check in with a specialized gate agent. There’s usually a long line labeled something to the effect of Special Accommodations. This line takes longer, without fail, so plan for it.
I have Silver status with United so I get to check in in the Premier Access line. This means I can skip the “Special” line and get checked in faster.
They will check YOU in as normal and then fill out a little paper “boarding pass” for your dog. It takes down your dog’s confirmation number, name, breed, and other important information. This pass gets attached directly to the carrier.
After checking in it’s time to go through security. Go through whatever normal line YOU usually go through. Your dog gets the same privileges as you: Clear, TSA Pre-Check, Premier Access, etc.
Once you get to the security conveyor belt, get all your items prepared. Once you’ve prepared to go through security, pull your dog out of their crate and carry them through the metal detector. Your dog does NOT go through the X-Ray machine in their crate, they go through security with you.
Most airports have potty areas for dogs but most of these potty areas are labeled “Service Animal Relief Areas.” Your dog can use these areas as well. Before you travel it’s worth looking at a map of your terminal to see if this amenity is available.
It’s kind of a gross little room with fake grass near a sprayer. Dixie is so well potty trained that she doesn’t want to use these areas, but it’s worth a shot.
I always let my dog chill in her little carrier with the top open so she doesn’t feel constrained. I give her lots of pets and lots of love to try and calm down any anxiety she may be feeling.
Once we’re at the boarding area I give her the other half of her anti-anxiety. If she seems extra anxious, I may up her dose a bit or give her half of her Benadryl.
I make sure she has some water and, when boarding is announced, I strap her into her Thunder Jacket and put her back in her carrier.
When you board nearly every airline representative will ask to see your dog’s boarding tag. Just be prepared and show it as you board.
Seating on the airplane
Honestly I much prefer flying with Southwest if I have my dog with me, despite my status with United.
The free-for-all boarding is actually ideal for finding a seat that is comfortable for my dog. Different aircraft seats have different features and this allows me to find one that isn’t abnormally narrow or otherwise obstructed.
United is weird. The middle seat usually has the most foot room but I don’t like sitting in the middle seat. The aisle seat lately seems to be the narrowest with some electronics strapped to the support. Window seats are hard because it’s a pain lugging Dixie in her carrier over two other people and jamming her in the foot area.
On Southwest my dog almost always gets to go in horizontally but United it’s usually long-wise, which really reduces my foot space.
Research seat sizes before you go. You can always ask a Flight Attendant to be moved (or trade spaces with your unlucky neighbor in the middle seat!l)
Once you land
The hard part is over!
This is just one last piece of advice – if you’re renting a car, you are going to want to pack and use a seat cover. I didn’t use one with my first rental and got billed $120 for a cleaning fee. Dogs were allowed but apparently she left too much fur behind.
I really like this cover. It covers everything, is easily packable, and still lets my dog wear her seatbelt. Since using it I’ve never been billed for extra cleaning fees.
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