A First-Timer's Guide to Flying with a Carry-On Pet

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A First-Timer’s Guide to Flying with a Carry-On Pet

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With careful and proactive planning, flying with a carry-on pet has never been easier on major U.S. airlines. Take it from me.

If you're anything like me, your pet just makes life better. I love bringing my Aussiedoodle Wallie with me to parks, restaurants, bars, and on walks. But until recently, I hadn't shared my love of travel with him. That changed this month when I took Wallie from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Orlando (MCO) – and thanks to months of research, his first flight went off without a hitch. 

Learn from me. If you want to make your small pup or cat a part of your next trip, consult this first-timer's guide to flying with your pet.

 

Dog in Florida

 

 

What to Consider Before Flying with Your Pet

On its face, bringing your small companion with you on your next flight seems pretty straightforward. Yet leaving your pet behind can still be the best option. Be sure to make a few key considerations before booking your pet on your next journey.

 

Is Your Pet Healthy Enough to Fly?

Always check with your pet's veterinarian before allowing them to take to the skies. If you're anything like me, your veterinary knowledge is limited, so I won't pretend to know what canine or feline afflictions can be exacerbated by air travel. You don't want to learn that lesson the hard way.

About 20 days before our flight with Wallie, during a regularly scheduled vet appointment, I simply asked our vet if he was fit to fly. It was a simple yes, and we had our official blessing.

 

Does Your Pet Have the Temperament to Fly?

This consideration is crucial, and you're going to have to be really honest with yourself. I know your dog or cat is a perfect angel and can do no harm, but you have to make the following assessments:

  1. Can your pet remain calm and happy in a confined space for multiple hours at a time?
  2. Can your pet remain calm and happy in a crowded, noisy environment where they will encounter all types of children, people, and other pets?
  3. Is your dog especially noisy? Smelly? Hyperactive?

Before our flight with Wallie, we spent hours getting him acclimated to his carrier. What we didn't consider was how he would do in said carrier in a crowded airport environment. Luckily, he stayed calm and happy the entire journey. But don't count on luck like we did!

 

How Long is Your Trip?

Our journey with Wallie from Minneapolis to Orlando was six hours start to finish.

That includes a three-hour, nonstop flight as well as a 10-minute Uber ride to the airport and time in the airport itself. It was a very manageable situation for us. But by the end of the flight, Wallie started getting a little antsy.

Make sure you consider how long your travels are before booking your pet on the flight. If you're looking at a six-hour transcontinental flight, will your pet be OK for that long? If not, you might want to find a one-stop fare to break up the trip for them. Even then, you're adding total time to your journey.

This will, of course, vary from pet to pet. I know people who make transatlantic flights with their pets routinely without issue. Others wouldn't dream of taking their cat or dog on a short flight.

 

How Big is Your Pet?

Wallie clocks in at about 18 pounds and really fills up his pet carrier when he's inside of it, which puts him right on the cusp of discomfort when he travels. This is an important consideration for us, but I often see miniature cats and dogs flying very comfortably because of their size.

Our dog Wallie is just barely small enough to fly in the cabin: The restrictions vary from airline to airline, but carriers must be fairly small … and that means your pet must be, too. At 18 pounds (or 20 pounds total with the carrier), he fits comfortably but quite snugly into his carrier.

 

Wallie in carrier overhead scaled e1640032991877

 

Depending on the airline and plane size, your pet carrier can only be a certain size. There are some planes in which Wallie would not be able to fit. The Delta Airbus A321-200 we flew to Orlando had plenty of room below the seats in front of us, but if we flew to a different city on a regional partner jet, there is a chance he wouldn't have fit.

On its pet travel page, Delta refers travelers to its full fleet list so you can determine what planes are large enough for your pet. The airline recommends a carrier that is 18″ x 11″ x 11″ to fit in most planes.

 

Booking a Pet on Delta

Once you've decided to bring your pet along, you'll have to (1) book your desired flights and (2) book your pet's spot on said flights with the airline.

In our experience with Delta, this was a relatively easy process. You cannot do it online like you can for a lap infant, so you'll have to either call Delta Customer Service or use their handy text message customer service feature like we did. Here's our correspondence:

 

Booking a pet with Delta Customer Service

 

The customer service representative responded to us within 10 minutes and asked us some simple questions. About an hour later, a “Delta specialist” picked up the conversation in the same text message.

 

Booking a pet on Delta

 

The long wait time was the toughest part, but the text messaging feature is a great way to lessen that burden – no more hold music! I was able to walk Wallie while we waited for the representative, who was able to book us no problem.

While you do not owe Delta any money when you make this reservation, it's important to note that you will have to pay $125 each way for your flight when you arrive at the airport and check the dog in. That fee is $200 for international flights (plus the U.S. Virgin Islands).

 

Pet Policies By Airline

The rules and restrictions regarding in-cabin pet travel vary airline-to-airline, so make sure you read through them thoroughly before flying.

Here are some of the important rules and fees by airline.

 

Alaska Airlines Pet Policy

Fees (each way): $100

Maximum carrier size (length x width x height): Hard-sided 17″ x 11″ x 7.5″, soft-sided 17″ x 11″ x 9.5″

Other bags: You may have either another carry-on or a personal item, but not both with your pet carrier.

See Alaska's full policy here. 

 

American Airlines Pet Policy

Fees (each way): $125

Maximum carrier size (length x width x height): Mainline flights 19″ x 13″ x 9″, regional flights on American Eagle 16″ x 12″ x 8″

Other bags: You are only permitted to have a personal item along with your pet carrier. No carry-on bags are allowed if you bring your pet.

See American's full policy here.

 

Delta Air Lines Pet Policy

Fees (each way): $150 ($200 for international flights, including the U.S.V.I.)

Recommended carrier size (length x width x height): 18″ x 11″ x 11″ fits most aircraft, but verify with customer service after booking.

Other bags: Your pet carrier counts as your carry-on baggage on Delta. You are allowed a personal item along with your pet carrier.

See Delta's full policy here.

 

JetBlue Pet Policy

Fees (each way): $125

Maximum carrier size (length x width x height): 17″ x 12.5″ x 8.5″ (combined weight of carrier and pet may not exceed 20 pounds)

Other bags: Carry-on bags are not permitted along with pet carriers if you booked a Blue Basic fare, JetBlue's basic economy.

See JetBlue's full policy here.

 

Southwest Airlines Pet Policy

Fees (each way): $95

Maximum carrier size (length x width x height): 18.5″ x 8.5″ x 13.5″ (Southwest sells its own Southwest-branded carrier for $58 that is 17″ x 9.5″ x 10″ at every airport ticket counter)

Other bags: Pets are considered either a personal item or a carry-on item, so you are allowed one other bag of your choice along with your pet.

Note: Southwest does not allow carry-on pets on any international flight.

See Southwest's full policy here.

 

United Airlines Pet Policy

Fees (each way): $125

Maximum carrier size (length x width x height): Hard-sided 17.5″ x 12 x 7.5″, soft-sided 18″ x 11″ x 11″

Other bags: You can bring your pet carrier on in addition to your carry-on bag allowance.

See United's full policy here.

 

What Kind of Ticket to Buy?

We highly recommend travelers upgrade to Main Cabin fares in any situation for the added flexibility and the ability to choose your seat on the plane. And that's especially important when traveling with your pet.

According to Delta, pets cannot accompany you in the bulkhead row, in an emergency exit row, any other row marked “no stowage”, in flatbed seats, in certain rows on Airbus planes, in some center seats on other Airbus planes, or in Delta One.

For our flight to Orlando, we were careful to choose a non-bulkhead, Main Cabin row with a window and a middle seat to insulate Wallie from the action in the aisle.

 

Tips to Choose a Pet Travel Carrier

Choosing the right pet carrier is important for the comfort and safety of your cat or dog.

For the bougie pets in your life, you could spend hundreds on travel carriers. Fortunately, we found a fairly inexpensive option that worked perfectly for our recent trip.

Before we settled on what bag we liked the most at the best price point, we looked into a few other options first. This included a pet carrier rolling bag, a pet carrier backpack, and a very, very fancy Away travel pet carrier that was out of our price range.

The choice we landed on was a soft-sided carrier from the company Sherpa on Amazon for $39.99.

Here's the carrier without Wallie inside. As you can see, it's well ventilated and pretty big. Plus, it's soft-sided so it can collapse a little bit to fit under most airplane seats.

 

Sherpa pet carrier

Clocking in at 18 pounds, Wallie is on the larger end of dogs that are fit to fly in-cabin. As you can see, when he sits all the way up, he sticks out of that carrier. But when he lays down, he is more than comfortable inside.

 

Sherpa dog carrier

 

Sherpa dog carrier

Tip: The dog paw print blanket does not come with the Sherpa carrier. It's Wallie's favorite blanket that smells like him that he's had since he was a puppy. We think it probably helped calm him down during flight. 

We think the Sherpa carrier is very effective, comfortable, and at a great value.

 

Pet Travel Checklist

Here are some items you shouldn't forget before flying with your pet:

  • Travel water bowl and water
  • Treats (I'd recommend bringing more than one kind in case they get bored of one)
  • Leash & collar
  • Toy or blanket from home
  • Bones or chew toys (dogs' ears react like ours do in rapidly changing altitudes, so give them something to chew on. Just no squeakers!)
  • Poop bags for pet relief areas
  • Calming treats (if needed for anxious dogs)
  • Small amount of food for long flights

 

What to Expect When Traveling with a Pet

Pet-to-pet, airport-to-airport, things are likely to be slightly different for you on your travel journey with your furry companion. If you don't know what to expect, here is how our flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Orlando (MCO) went earlier this month

 

Getting to the Airport

We live just a few miles from our hometown airport, so we got an Uber Pets to get us to Terminal 1 quickly.

The trip was almost free, too, thanks to my American Express Uber credits from the Platinum Card® from American Express.

 

Checking In

Despite receiving an email one day before our flight asking us to check in as usual, we were given an error on the Delta App. That's because you have to check-in in person with a Delta agent when you have a carry-on pet.

 

Checking in carry-on pet with Delta

 

The very friendly Delta agent checked us in and took my payment of $125. We also had to check a bag for our six-day trip because Wallie counted toward our carry-on bag limit. The agent then gave us a green tag for his bag with his information on it and sent us on our way.

Another awesome perk of my Amex Platinum Card: My $125 carry-on pet fee counted toward my Amex airline credits because I had selected Delta as my preferred airline. I was interested to see if it included the pet fees … and it does!

 

Delta reimbursement

 

Navigating the Airport

After leaving the ticketing area, we headed into the TSA PreCheck security line and breezed through.

When you get to the screening line, you have to take your pet out of its carrier and carry them through the sensor while their carrier goes through the x-ray machine like the rest of your baggage.

Once through, Wallie was put back into his carrier and we went on our way in search of a pet relief area. MSP has three of them after security and three of them pre-security in Terminal 1. Terminal 2 has one pre-security and one after.

We chose the pet relief area just behind the MSP Mall on the main floor underneath the Escape Lounge in Terminal 1.

 

Pet relief area MSP

 

Despite the confusing signage, the “nursing mothers” room and the “pet relief” area are not one in the same. The pet relief area is behind this door. Inside is a small hallway leading to a sink, beside which is a small patch of astroturf with a full-sized fire hydrant in the middle.

 

Pet relief area MSP

 

Wallie was thoroughly uninterested in the pet relief area, even when we tried again an hour later. He held it until we arrived in Orlando and took him to a patch of dirt outside the baggage claim.

Between pet relief area visits, we stopped by the Escape Lounge MSP to grab a bite to eat. Dogs are allowed in lounges, including Delta Sky Clubs, so long as they stay inside their pet carrier.

 

On the Plane

Once we walked over to the gate, we boarded the plane like normal and took our seats. Wallie's Sherpa carrier fit underneath our seat like a charm. Just keep in mind this won't always be the case depending on your carrier and what type of plane you're flying.

 

Dog carrier on plane

 

To calm him down in the new situation, we opened a small hole in the front zipper of his carrier and fed him treats periodically. Fortunately, he was relaxed for nearly the entire three-hour flight. At one point, we allowed him to pop up quickly for air as he was getting a little hot, but we made sure he went back into his carrier quickly as the rules require.

The landing jolted him a little bit, and after that, he was a little antsy. He cried a few times as people were standing up to leave the plane out of anxiousness.

But other than that, he was not a nuisance throughout the duration of the flight.

 

Arriving in Orlando

When we got off the plane, we struggled to find a pet relief area in Orlando airport. We decided it would be best to just take him to baggage claim and let him go outside while one of us waited for the bag.

Once outside, he was able to get out of his carrier and walk around on the leash for a little while, which he was very excited about.

We were picked up by family outside baggage claim and our pet travel journey ended!

 

Bottom Line

The process of bringing your pet on board is fairly easy to navigate with the right pet, but there are important considerations to make before, during, and after your journey with your furry friend.

From choosing the best pet travel carrier to pre-planning your pet relief area pit stops, your experience can be relatively painless if you plan ahead.

 

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

22 Responses

  • Be aware of where you are going. Pets are not allowed to travel in the cabin on flights to the UK. So we looked at other options.. Paris and AMS and going by ferry or train to UK and that was quite complicated. Eurostar does not take pets. There were some services that would do it, but they were crazy expensive. So in the we will be keeping my girlfriends daughters cat a bit longer. Lucky he is a real sweetie.

    • Good point, David! My experience was a domestic flight, but international travelers should look into the specific restrictions where they are going. A friend of mine from the UK who was home last summer with her pet had to do something just like this. She flew to Paris and hired someone to drive them to London afterward. Not an ideal journey, for sure.

  • There is no explicit mention in the article as to if you dog/pet must be a qualified “service animal” to travel.
    Or can any dog meeting the particular airlines pet rules be allowed to fly?

    • Hi Jim! Wallie is not a qualified “service animal”, but he is small enough to travel as a carry-on pet underneath the seat in front of me. The maximum animal size varies from airline-to-airline, but in general, as long as your pet and its carrier are under 20 total pounds, you can pay for them to come on the plane with you. Thanks for reading!

  • Thanks for this great guide. I do take one issue with the story tho and that is how you intro it in the email header, I find it incredibly misleading.
    Specifically:
    “And we found that booking Wallie on our Delta flights was easier than we thought (and free thanks to my credit card).”

    This caught my eye as I’d never heard of such a benefit. Upon further reading your pet fee wasn’t free. You used your Amex travel credit to cover the cost. A free checked bag benefit is actually free. But this is not and I expect better editorial judgement from TT.
    Please avoid misleading statements such as this in the future.
    The correct way to communicate this in the header is that the fee qualifies for the Amex travel credit. It’s not free.
    Thank you.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Joey. You’re absolutely right – we should have been more clear about which benefit we were referencing in that email. We’ll keep this in mind going forward and will make sure we don’t repeat that mistake again.

  • Just wanted to share a recent experience from traveling with my dog, Pearl. Pearl is a 4 year old, 16 pound terrier mix who fits comfortably in the types of carriers you described. She has flown numerous times as an in cabin pet across several airlines. Just this weekend we were traveling on American Airlines and they refused to let her on the plane. At check in, the agent wanted to see Pearl in her carrier. So we put her in and she immediately laid down. The agent said because she “cannot sit upright and turnaround,” she would not allow Pearl to go on the plane. Mind you, the carriers are about 9” tall, meaning that any animal traveling as an in cabin pet would have to be shorter than 9” while seated. Even a tiny chihuahua or cat would likely be taller than 9”. So beware of American Airlines when traveling with a pet. United and Alaska Airlines have had no issues at all with Pearl.

    • I agree. Do not fly American Airlines. Fly Delta, Spirit or Alaska. Their per policies are very accommodating. I too missed my flight with AA. They are not a pet friendly airline. I believe their policies are designed to prevent pets from traveling on purpose. They are impossible to meet.

    • I agree. Do not fly American Airlines. Fly Delta, Spirit or Alaska. Their per policies are very accommodating. I too missed my flight with AA. They are not a pet friendly airline. I believe their policies are designed to prevent pets from traveling on purpose. They are impossible to meet.

  • Not to be a wet blanket, I’m surprised Wally was allowed to travel in the plane’s cabin simply because he couldn’t stand or turn around in his carrier. Most airlines, Delta included, state that requirement in their pet policies.

  • Regarding a pet getting hot during flight in cage. I travel with a small battery fan that I sit in front of the cage and run on low. Perfect for comfort under seat in cage

  • While this article includes helpful tips, my 15 pound Havapoo was denied on our American Airlines flight in March of 2022. Our carrier was within their published guidelines (and I confirmed twice with an AA agent that we were all set with his ticket and size of carrier). However, upon check-in AA representatives required me to take our dog out of the carrier to measure his height. Even though we had trained him to “turn around in the carrier,” they would not allow him to fly because his head was higher than the top of the carrier. They would not budge. It made for a very stressful experience, as I needed to quickly find someone to watch our dog and have that person come to the airport to pick up our dog. A note to all readers: If your dog cannot stand up in the carrier WITHOUT his/her head touching the top of the carrier, I strongly encourage you to reconsider flying with your dog, especially if flying American Airlines.

    • American Airlines is the absolute worst airline to fly with a pet (After what we went through and the way we were treated I would have to say absolutely the worst airline!). We just tried to fly last week, we followed all the guidelines even had a note from our vet with our the dogs weight and all of her vaccinations, we had flown with her several times before without a problem on other airlines.When we went to check in, keep in mind we have gotten a ticket for our dog as well, they told me they had to see my dog do a circle in the carrier. How do you command a dog to do a circle! After about 15 minutes of trying to get the poor dog to do this and she did it- the horrible ticketing agent told me that in her opinion my dog did not look comfortable doing it she now had to do it again standing up and not touching anything. Let’s just say it was not a fun 40 minutes and ended it with my mom having to come to the airport to pick up my dog. There was another couple next to us with a 13 pound dog who went through the exact same thing. The American Airlines agents were terrorizing us even though we followed all of the rules on their website. When we went to board the plane we were told that our seats were invalid, the original ticketing agent who would not let us bring the dog on the flight went into our reservation after we went through security and sabotage our tickets, she removed our seats. We had tickets and seats but she removed them on the backend! We spoke to the head of American Airlines at the airport who couldn’t believe this happened, he looked on the computer and saw this is what she had done, he said they will investigate. Keep in mind we were traveling with three young kids. It was absolutely horrible! We flew out the next morning on United airlines. The other couple with a 13 pound dog also had to go home and they also flew out with their dog the next morning on United without a problem. American Airlines traumatized us and our kids, it was absolutely horrible!! Not only is this the worst airline to fly with dogs it is they absolutely worst airline!

  • Thank you for easing my anxiety. I’ve got a six month old beagle, VegaJane. Traveling for first time.

  • Don’t fly on American Airlines with a pet, they have the most horrible customer service. My wife was travelling with a small pet that she paid $125 to carry with her. On the outbound flight, the check in agent thought the carrier could only be 8 inches tall when the 8 inch limit is for width. Fortunately we had a tiny carrier with us or she wouldn’t have been allowed on the flight. THe agent was clueless and poorly trained.
    On the return flight that passed through DFW airport, one of the gate staff accused my wife of trying to sneak the dog on the plain. This was after my wife showed her the receipt that American Airlines had given her when she paid when she checked in for the first leg of the flight. The gate agent said that the receipt was fake or that my wife had cancelled her credit card after paying for the pet. The gate agent then told her that the only way she could get on the flight was to pay the pet fee a second time. That is called extortion. Pay the $125 fee a second time or be stranded in Dallas. The gate agent was rude, accused my wife of a crime and then extorted money from her. In my opinion, this was a criminal act and the person should lose their job.

  • Thank you for this through step by step! I have a new dog that I’m hopi g to take on future domestic trips. This is very helpful, and I know to stay off American Airlines! (Well I kind of knew that anyway ☺️)

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