How to travel with your cat on an airplane? (part 1)

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(Photo by Ian Powers)

Have you thought about taking your furry pal on a long-haul trip by air? You don’t know what to expect or how to prepare. I was in the same boat until I traveled with my 5-year-old gray Abyssinian Tabby named Jordan on a 20-hour journey across the Atlantic.

This is my personal experience and the most important steps to remember in a journey with your adorable family member of the animal kingdom.

Let’s say this from the very begging! Be emotionally prepared that your cat will undergo a very stressful journey. The unfamiliar environment and the loud noise that your cat will experience are the two most common single factors to cause high levels of stress in cats.

Be prepared for a few months of planning, preparation, and serious considerations for a successful trip. 

Opt-in for the car ride

Taking your cat on a long car ride is better. It is less stressful compared to hopping on an airplane. A car limits the noise and unfamiliar people that your little baby has to experience during the ride.

Only you familiar people your pet may be in the car with you. It will make the cat feel secure and confident. Also, you don’t have to keep the cat in a kennel all the time.

To prepare for the car ride cover the seats and the floors with protective blankets. Put a portable litter box on the floor behind one of the front seats. Have a roll of paper towels and some wet wipes just in case you need them. Make regular stops so your kitty can relax, have a bite, use the restroom, and take a break.

On-board or animal cargo

If flying is your only option keep in mind that a successful flight with a cat begins long before the day of travel.

You have only two options to transport your cat: on board in the cabin or as cargo. My genuine advice is to take your cat with you in the cabin of the plane! No matter how many arguments that putting your pet in the cargo is safe, there are many examples to the contrary.

Your furry loved one is allowed on board only if she can fit comfortably in a travel carrier that is designed to go under the seat in front of you. Measure her height, length, and weight to determine if she’s suited for an airline pet-approved carrier. But even if your cat is a bit taller or larger. They can still travel in a carrier.

Airlines that allow pets on board have detailed information on their websites regarding traveling with pets. Here are some major US and European airlines that outline such information:

United AirlinesAmerican AirlinesDelta AirlinesLufthansa AirlinesBritish AirwaysAir France

If your cat is larger or heavier it may be necessary to travel as animal cargo as it will not fit under the seat in front of you. There are many companies specialized in transporting pets as cargo and you can seek their professional help and assistance for the journey.

The animal carrier

Most pet carriers come in different sizes such as small, medium, or large. Your pet must fit in the carrier comfortably. Take your time and don’t overlook product details and reviews so you can find a pet carrier that suits your furry companion’s needs best.

Look specifically for the size and type of carrier airlines recommend for travel. You have to have a soft-sided carrier as it can fit easily in the space under the seat in front of you.

Purchase the carrier in advance of your trip. Leave it open and accessible for your cat in the house. It is important to teach her that the carrier is a great place to hang out. Playing or even feeding in the carrier can help her get used to it. The more she gets used to it the better it will feel during the long trip.

The carrier I use is Maskeyon Airline and TSA approved pet carrier. It has 4 large soft expandable and collapsible sides with removable fleece pads and pockets. At the airport or on the plane you can expand any side and make the space for your cat double. She will be thankful for that extra space.

For your trip, you have to have a portable litter box as well as water and food bowls. The accessories you have to purchase separately.

Book your flight over the phone

Before booking your flight consider the flowing:

  • Your pet requires a separate flight ticket that you cannot book online. Call the airline directly to book the flight for you and your pet.
  • When you call the airline explain specifically that you want to bring your pet onboard with you in the cabin.
  • Airlines charge extra for pets on board.
  • Airlines will allow only two cats or two dogs per flight.
  • You are allowed to carry only one animal per carrier
  • A passenger can have only one animal on board with them. 

How to book a flight over the phone?

If an available spot for a pet is available on your desired flight proceed with the reservation. The ticketing agent on the phone will guide you through the process. Don’t underestimate the fact that other passengers might also want to travel with their pets on the same flight. As soon as the flight reaches 2 cats or 2 dogs per flight, no further pets will be allowed to board that flight. So timing is crucial in the process of booking.

Chose the best flight

Depending on

  • the destination,
  • time for travel, and
  • availability of flights

you have to decide whether to fly a direct flight or one with multiple stops.

To make the right decision take into consideration the following points:

  1. How long is the flight?
  2. How many flight transfers (layovers) there are?
  3. How long is the layover time between flights?

For flights up to 6 hours trying to fly direct is best. Six hours on an airplane is manageable for both you and your cat. If no direct flights are available then you have to take a stopover.

For flights over 6 hours book a flight with at least one stopover. Flights from the US to Europe and Asia can last 10 or more hours. Then, book with at least two stopovers.

The stopovers on the ground give you and your cat the chance to relax, use the bathroom, and have a quick bite.

Fly with only one airline

Regardless of the length of the flight or the number of layovers do your best to fly with only one airline. Book with the airline you know and trust. Just in case of any unforeseen changes to your itinerary it is easier to deal with just one airline than multiple carriers that do not talk to each other.

Keep in mind that any flight changes will affect the availability of pets on board for each new or rescheduled flight.

You pay for your pet companion separately from your flight booking. Therefore, traveling with different airlines will require payments for your pet to each of these airlines. Flying with one airline, on the other hand, will cost you only one pet fee for the entire trip. However, some airlines are exceptions. They might ask you to pay for each leg of the flight.

When you fly with only one airline it is easy to confirm if there is a spot for your pet on each of your flights. With two or more separate airlines, for each leg of your flight, you’ll have to call these airlines separately to arrange a spot for your pet.

What happens if the airline denies a spot for your pet due to availability?

If you already have made a reservation, cancel it as soon as possible. Usually canceling within 24 hours of making the reservation will not incur penalty fees. Start a new reservation from scratch. Remember that you are not simply canceling your reservation but the pet’s, too.

Keep in mind that some airlines will ask you to pay for your pet in advance. Other airlines will make you pay only after they examine the pet and its paperwork at the airport upon checking in.

As an example, Lufthansa Airlines, one of the largest in Europe doesn’t ask passengers with pets to pay in advance. Similarly, United Airlines, a major airline in the US accepts pets only after their paperwork is reviewed at the airport. If your pet’s travel documents are in compliance and the pet carrier size agrees with the airline policies, United will allow the pet on board.

Prepare the necessary documents for travel

Regardless of traveling domestically or internationally, it’s your responsibility to determine what paperwork you have to prepare prior to the travel. This may include current vaccination records, a chip device, and a health travel certificate. Talk to your local veterinarian for details. 

An excellent starting point is the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The website is very easy to navigate. Once you open the website, look for “Take your pet from the United States to a foreign country (Export)” or “Travel with your pet state to state (Interstate)” depending on your situation.

If you take your pet out of the country, select the destination country under the “Choose your destination country” drop-down menu and click “View Requirements.” You’ll learn about the steps you need to take and the documents associated with each step before your trip.

However, you won’t be able to prepare the documents yourself. You’ll need to look for a vet clinic that has a USDA-accredited veterinarian. Only a USDA-accredited veterinarian will be able to get all of your paperwork sorted out.

The veterinarian will look into the required vaccinations and prepare your pet’s health certificate. You need to carry the certificate with you during the trip. Without it, your pet won’t be able to travel.

In Europe, all pets traveling abroad have to have a passport. The passport is issued by your veterinarian and they’d know what information to write down.

Your pet must have a chip that is internationally compliant. Your veterinarian will tell you if the chip your pet already has is internationally approved. 

Start looking for a USDA-accredited veterinarian as soon as you know that you’ll be traveling. Do a Google search of your local veterinarian clinics or simply ask your current veterinarian. Tell them you want to travel abroad with your pet and ask if they can help you out.

Once your paperwork is ready, you and your furry companion are ready for your journey.

Find out what to do on the day and during your travel in Part 2. 


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Ian Powers is a travel blogger and nature enthusiast. Ian has over 20 years of aviation travel experience.

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