Guide to flying with pets (and getting rewarded for it)
Need to fly with Fido? You should know that many airlines are tightening the leash on emotional support animals in the main cabin. But on the flip side, some airlines offer perks for flying pets.
Every day, thousands of travellers take to the skies with their pets for a variety of reasons.
In the United States, over 2 million animals fly on planes each year. Flying your dog, cat or other critters can be complicated, expensive and stressful. But many people need to travel with their pets because they are:
- Making a big U.S. or international move.
- Going on an extended trip.
- Relocating for military service.
- Travelling with an emotional support or service animal.
The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to make room for service animals that perform specific tasks for, or give emotional support to, people with disabilities. But some airlines are getting stricter about emotional support animals in the wake of incidents ranging from a little girl who was nipped by an emotional support dog to a woman who tried in vain to fly with her emotional support peacock. Delta states customers have even tried to fly with “comfort” snakes and even spiders.
“The airlines are tired of people who don’t really meet the requirements for an emotional support animal because they’re the ones who cause problems,” says Sally Smith, a licensed vet tech and owner of Airborne Animals, a New Jersey company that moves pets around the world.
As of March 2018, Delta and United now require extra documents from passengers flying with emotional support animals. Almost all airlines ask for a letter or signed form from a certified mental health professional.
Delta and United, however, now also require a signed veterinary health form, current vaccination records and confirmation that the animal has been trained to behave in public. Passengers who provide proper paperwork can fly with their animal in the cabin without paying a penny for their pet’s passage.
For other travellers, a few airlines help offset the sometimes substantial cost by offering rewards for travelling with an animal companion. In fact, JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic and United offer pet rewards programs:
With JetBlue’s JetPaws program, members of the airline’s frequent-flyer club earn 300 points each time they board with their pet. There are conditions, of course. There’s a $100 fee, and pets must fly in a closed carrier that fits beneath the seat with their owner. The combined weight of the pet and carrier must not exceed 20 pounds. There’s a limit of one pet per passenger per flight, and pets count as a personal carry-on.
Virgin Atlantic Flying Paws
With Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Paws program, pet owners receive 1,000 club miles per pet for shorter flights and 2,000 for longer ones. The fee depends on the size of the carrier, and the destination. Because Virgin prohibits pets in the cabin, all dogs and cats must travel in cargo. That’s not all bad news: The cargo hold is climate-controlled, just like first class, and dogs and cats of all sizes are welcome to fly solo.
United Airlines PetSafe Program
The United Airlines PetSafe Program offers 500 United MileagePlus award miles for each pet shipped within the United States, and 1,000 award miles for each pet sent to an international destination. This applies only to pets shipped as cargo through the PetSafe program, not pets that fly in the cabin with their owners. Rates depend on the weight of the pet plus carrier and the distance of the trip. For example, it would cost about $350 to ship a 60-pound dog to Portland, Oregon, from anywhere in the U.S., and just under $850 to send the same pooch to Paris from U.S. destinations.
Flying an airline with no perks for pets?
Not all airlines throw a bone to travellers with pets, but if you are flying an animal companion on an airline with no pets reward program, there are other ways to make the journey pay off.
- Pick a credit card that offers maximum points for travel spending.
It’s important to use the right card to maximize your reward for paying Fifi’s fare. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers 3x points, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers 2x points, for travel purchases. Payment of airline pet fees for in-cabin or checked-bag travel should count as travel, says Tiffany Funk of travel reward service PointsPros.If you plan to ship your pet as cargo, you should check before you pay. “Depending on the airline, those may code differently,” Funk says. “That’s going to be carrier-specific, so, unfortunately, there isn’t a blanket answer.”
- Consider using a card with a travel credit.
Some premium cards such as the Platinum Card from American Express offer travel credits that reimburse you for the first couple of hundred dollars you spend each year on things such as incidental airline fees, which typically includes fees for pets travelling in the cabin or as checked baggage. Pay your fee with one of those cards and get it credited back to you.
- Use the fee toward minimum spend.
If you’re shipping your pet as cargo, which likely will be more expensive than flying with your pet in the cabin or as a checked bag, it might be a good time to open a new rewards card that offers a big sign-up bonus. If you’re paying $1,000 to send Sir Wagsalot to England, that alone would get you one-third of the way to meeting a typical minimum spending requirement.
What you should know about flying with pets
Rewards programs aside, the skies aren’t always friendly to passengers with a furry, feathery or scaly companion. Here’s what you should know if you need to travel with your pet.
Moving or travelling with your pet
You have three basic options that vary based on the airline, the breed and size of your pet and even the season:
- Fly with your pet in the cabin.
This may be your best choice if you have a cat, small dog or other pint-sized pet the airline will allow onboard. The maximum weight depends on the airline but typically tops out at 20 to 25 pounds, including the carrier, which must be able to fit under the seat in front of you. For some airlines, such as JetBlue and Southwest, this is your only option because they do not fly pets as checked bags or cargo. There is typically a charge for in-cabin pets ranging from $35 to $125, depending on the airline and type of flight.Reserve space for your pet as early as possible. Most airlines limit the total number of pet carriers per flight, and it’s first come, first served.
- Fly with your pet as checked baggage.
Some airlines offer the option to check your pet as a bag in an approved carrier for a fee ranging from about $75 to $250, depending on the airline. If you go this route, your pet flies in the same airplane as you in a pressurized and climate-controlled compartment down below. Most airlines have a weight limit for pets flying as checked bags, typically between 70 and 150 pounds for the pet and carrier. Larger pets can be flown as cargo.Some airlines don’t offer the option to fly pets as checked baggage, and those that do typically have breed restrictions. That’s because some dogs and cats with short noses may be more likely to suffer breathing problems, while dog breeds with strong jaws might be able to chew their way out of a standard strength carrier.Check restrictions before you book, and tell the airline you plan to check a pet. There will be special requirements to follow, such as using the correct type of carrier and arriving at the airport early.
- Fly your pet as cargo.
Another option is to fly your pet as cargo, which is similar to flying with your pet as checked baggage except that your pet’s transport is not tied to your ticket. Also, you drop your pet off at the cargo area of the airport rather than at your gate. Though the term “cargo” might make any loving pet owner wince, this can be safer than flying your pet as checked baggage. Depending on the airline, cargo handlers are likely to be better trained in handling animals than baggage handlers, Smith says. However, flying a pet as cargo is generally more expensive than other options. Depending on the airline, the cost will be tied to the size of the carrier or the weight of the pet and carrier, as well as the length of the trip. It can range from $200 for flying a small pet domestically to $2,000 or more for flying a larger animal internationally.
If you are flying with an in-cabin pet or checking your pet as baggage, you have to make arrangements directly with the airline, Smith says. If you’re flying your pet as cargo, you can use a professional pet shipping company.
In fact, certain airlines don’t accept animals directly from the public for international shipment, she says. Why? Because the requirements for paperwork, health records, crate specifications and other details can overwhelm a pet owner not familiar with shipping pets.
“There are way too many things that could go wrong,” she says.
Flying with a service or emotional support animal
If you have a trained service animal or an emotional support animal and bring proper documentation, you can fly with your animal in the cabin as long as it doesn’t cause a ruckus or block the aisles.
So what’s the difference between a trained service animal and an emotional support or psychiatric service animal? A trained service animal has learned to perform one or more specific tasks for a person with a disability, which can include a psychiatric disorder.
For example, a service dog might pick up items, pull a wheelchair or warn of a seizure. An emotional support animal does not perform specific tasks but may comfort a person with conditions such as anxiety or depression.
Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act that covers U.S. life on the ground, the ACAA recognizes both types of animals as service animals.
However, the ACAA does allow airlines to ask for additional documentation for emotional support animals as well as for psychiatric service dogs, which may be trained service animals.
In contrast, airlines can’t request additional documentation from passengers with (non-psychiatric) trained service dogs unless their verbal assurances that the animal is a service animal are deemed “not credible.”
Airlines are allowed to turn away any animal that is too big to safely travel in the cabin, disrupts cabin service, poses a health or safety risk or isn’t allowed to enter a foreign country. And airlines also can reject certain types of creatures, including snakes, spiders, rats, ferrets, sugar gliders and other exotic animals.
If you plan to fly with a pet, or a service or emotional support animal, it’s crucial to check restrictions and requirements before you book and notify the airline as early as possible to reduce your chance of having your animal turned away at the ticket counter, like that peacock.
And if you’re shipping a pet internationally, it’s a good idea to start planning about six months early, Smith says. “You can’t just call someone two days ahead of time and say, ‘Can you book my pet?’” she says.