How to Fly With a Dog and Not Piss Everyone Off

My dog’s name is Joe. He’s a Maltese. He weighs approximately 8.5lb. I take him everywhere I go -- seriously everywhere, like the grocery store clerks still don’t know he’s in my bag -- and have for nearly 10 years.

This includes flying the friendly skies, which I do several times a year with my white fluffy pup. If only the same rule for dog years applied to canine frequent flyer miles. Or, if only dogs could earn miles. The injustice!

In any case, I've learned a lot traveling with Joe. About life. About love. Mostly just about traveling with a dog. And since with experience comes knowledge, here is everything you need to know about flying with a canine.

Liz Newman/Thrillist

Book early. Repeat: Book. Early.

I’m notoriously bad at booking my flights early. It’s just so much commitment, how do I know what will happen in six months?!

This all changes when you have a dog, because if you don’t do this, you may not be able to fly AT ALL. I’ve taken the risk and almost missed a friend's wedding. I don’t recommend it.

Almost every airline has a limit on the number of canines that can fly on a plane at once, and it’s shockingly low (like, 2). No, I don’t know why this is; yes, I think it’s weird, too.

But since alerting them to this won’t help your case (I’ve tried!), booking early is essential -- your dog must be locked into one of those exclusive spots. When you book, make sure to check the “traveling with a pet” option. Don't forget. Oh, and this “luggage” will cost you far more than the checked variety. Standard rates for flying a carry-on dog are about $150 each way.

But wait, there is a loophole (and one that's being abused more and more these days): it’s called registering your dog as an Emotional Support Animal, and it means you never, ever have to book or even pay for your dog to fly. It does require some physician-signed paperwork, however. And not the kind you forged to get out of gym class.


Your dog carrier actually makes all the difference

What I’m about to say will sound a lot like a Luvs commercial, but it’s supposed to: you live, you learn, and then you don’t get a fancy dog carrier. When I first started traveling with Joe, everyone insisted I needed one of the stiffer (almost plastic) ones with soft straps and all the bells and whistles.

You don't. In fact, the carrier I now use is basically a duffle bag with mesh sides; most people actually assume it’s my gym bag until they see my workout clothes moving inside. It’s far more versatile than fancier versions because for one, it gives. The last thing you want when you’re hauling your own luggage is a brickish dog carrier that has to be held like a briefcase. Always opt for the over-the-shoulder, cross body option -- this is a total game changer; especially if you live in a bustling metropolis and need all the hands you can to flag cabs and hold onto to subway polls (or just your sanity) while traveling.

Also make sure your bag has some pockets for your dog’s gear: leash, collar, treats, water bowl (more on that later). You’ll want those easily accessible at all times.   

Get it all out (we mean pee)

On the day of the flight, take your dog on a longer-than-average walk. If your flight is at the crack of dawn, it can be a few more times around the block the night before. Bottom line: just budget enough time to ensure it exceeds your hasty “pee once, then we’re done here” pre-work walks.

When you arrive at the airport, hit up a poll or the designated “pet relief area” (that’s actually what they call it) outside the terminal, to give your pooch one last-ditch effort before the point of no return.

You don't always have to check in at the counter

Like most logical people, I try to streamline the hell that is the airport process as much as possible. This means attempting to roll with only carry-on luggage, pre-checking in on my phone, or using those kiosks -- so as to not even have to glance in the direction of the ticket counter lines.

Well, with a dog, you usually have to go to the counter. FAA regulations require your dog’s paperwork, including vaccinations and ID (sometimes referred to as “pooch passport”). In almost 10 years of flying with Joe, I've never shown any of this documentation and have zero idea what a pooch passport even is. But, keeping it in your dog’s carrier certainly can’t hurt -- especially now that you don’t have to go to the counter.

That’s right, in a desperate attempt to not miss a flight, I asked an airline employee if there was any way I could skip the line; he suggested I use one of the empty kiosks. Puzzled, I told him I had a dog and he replied verbatim: “It doesn’t matter, you can do that at the kiosks now. Just have his paperwork handy in case they ask for it at the gate.”

Spoiler Alert: They didn't ask for it.

Use those real puppy eyes to your advantage

Phew! You made it past the initial check-in, and you’re on to security. By God, I hope your dog is cute, because this could work highly in your favor. (Actually, even if your dog is ugly it's got potential). Take the dog out of the carrier when you’re in the line, or at least let it poke its head out.

“But Liz, FAA regulations clearly state you can never take your dog out of the carrier inside the airport!”

First of all, calm down. Secondly, this is your loophole. You have to take your dog out of the carrier, because they don’t go through the same security scanners as everyone else -- namely, the ones in which you stick your arms up in the air and it sounds like you’re about to be catapulted to the moon. And even though I’ve tried (because it’s flippin’ adorable), you can’t put your dog in a bin and send him through the conveyor belt with your carry-on, shoes, and laptop.

Still, take your pooch out earlier than necessary because TSA will often take notice -- either by way of audible  â€śawwwws” from others in line or because they actually catch a glimpse of your dog in all his puppy eyes glory. And what can result is being expedited to a separate security entrance (with a dog, you’ll always walk through the old-school doorway detectors). Your only extra level of security is a quick hand swipe to ensure your fluffy friend isn’t masquerading as a bomb, and you two will be downing a margarita at Chilli’s Too while those other chumps are still trying put their shoes back on with one hand.

Three words: Portable. Water. Bowl.

The same thing that makes us thirsty on planes will make your dog thirsty. And your dog’s panting becomes the equivalent of a baby crying, only you can actually do something about it.

I’ve used everything from bottle caps and barf bags as “water bowls." I've also waited for what feels like an eternity to get one of those little plastic cups from the beverage cart. I finally wised up and bought a collapsible cup that fits in the pocket of his bag.
Pro tip: Waiting for the beverage service to get water can take a while, and it's also a fucking tiny cup (and this is for you and your pooch!), so just bite the bullet and get an overpriced bottle at Hudson News before you board. You probably need Chex Mix anyway.

Give your dog a security blanket

The first time I left Joe at a doggy daycare (which coincidentally was also the LAST time I ever did so), the owner suggested I leave something behind that smells like me -- a t-shirt, blanket, etc. This effectively relaxes your dog in stressful situations.

That piece of advice has stood the test of time; I now stuff his carrier with several items I know will relax him, and this tactic benefits us both. Joe’s surrounded by my scent, and I get to pack all the sweaters I couldn’t fit in my suitcase!

Traveling with a big dog? You have an entire different set of rules.

My parents have a 90lb Rhodesian Ridgeback that they fly across the country every eight weeks or so. Seriously. This is a bear of epic proportions, and can include flying your dog on a different airline than your flight (not all airlines fly dogs with cargo), dropping the dog off at 5am the day of the flight (no matter when the flight actually leaves), and both owning and transporting a carrier bigger than most studio apartments. Oh, and it costs upwards of $2,000 round-trip depending on the size of your dog.

My advice for this: just drive.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Liz Newman is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and has never been bumped up to first class. Joe has, though. Follow her as she posts an insane amount of pictures of him on Twitter and Instagram at @lizn813