We love traveling with our pets. In fact, more than 30 million Americans include their pets in vacation plans each year, toting them along both domestically and internationally, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. So, a multi-functional carrier is the most essential lifestyle-to-go accessory for high-flying pets.
There are dozens of styles to choose from, but it’s important to not be influenced entirely by fashion and to choose the right bag — and when flying economy, comfort is key.
Gayle Martz, formerly a flight attendant, revolutionized the pet-travel industry when she lobbied airlines back in the ’90s to allow four-legged companions to travel in-cabin, and she went on to design a range of soft-sided bags named after her beloved Lhasa Apso, Sherpa. Now she runs the Sherpa Pet Group, and Sherpa bags have become synonymous with air travel as they all conform to size restrictions set out by several major airlines, including American, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, US Airways and Air Alaska. Many other pet luggage manufacturers have followed suit.
It’s important to plan in advance when flying with pets and to check individual airline policies regarding bag sizes. Rules are always subject to change. For example, Air Canada at one point allowed pets in the cabin, but no longer offers the service.
Check the right size
Apart from the size restrictions imposed by airlines, it’s important to ensure that your pet fits in comfortably and has enough room to stand up and turn around.
While soft-sided bags fit well under the seat, they need to be sturdy in construction to ensure pet safety at all times. Bags that open both on top and at least on one side are very practical. It’s always easy to surreptitiously unzip a side flap and allow your critter a little more leg room.
Bags with mesh sides give pets lots of excellent ventilation. However an additional feature such as a roll down flaps will give the pet privacy and shield them from all the chaos that is a part of travel security and airline check-in.
Your can never have enough pockets
“Pet carriers are fast becoming general hold-alls for pet parents too,” says Janet McCulley CEO of Muttropolis Dog and Cat Boutiques in Solana Beach, Calif. “Even the sleekest designs offer extra spaces for keys, phones and other basics. And that’s a huge plus when you are traveling.”
In fact, a pet carrier can never have too many pockets to take care of documentation, medication and even a water bottle and treats. Removable, washable faux sheep skin inserts are very practical, too, as they can be used as a pet bed at your destination. If your pet is particularly nervous about traveling, line the bottom of the carrier with a puppy pee pad that will absorb any accidents en route and keep your pet dry.
If you are worried about extreme temperatures, consider a bag with a special pouch that will hold an ice bag for extra coolness or a heated gel pad that will provide extreme warmth during the journey.
Most airline-approved carriers come standard with a leash clip. This is an excellent feature because while you are waiting to board, you can open a side flap and securely attach your pet giving them the option to snooze in the bag or stretch their legs without wandering off. In many instances, shoulder straps also double as an instant leash.
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Bags on wheels are excellent when you have other hand luggage to contend with. However, it’s essential to rely on them only when you're walking on flat surfaces — such as inside the airline terminal. Sidewalks and pavement can give your pet a bumpy ride and can make them unsettled and nervous before a trip.
These days there are backpacks for pets too. While it’s a nice hands-free option for air travel, there’s the disadvantage of having your pet behind you as you stand in long lines and other travelers are often attempted to come too close. It's often difficult to control a situation over your shoulder. However, if your pet doesn’t mind inquisitive strangers, it’s a practical choice to consider.
Always take out your pet carrier in advance of a trip to ensure that all the zippers are working properly and that the interior liner is clean and ready to go. Most pets quickly get used to traveling in a carrier, but if you are planning to introduce a new one, leave it lying around your home for a couple of days ahead of your trip and allow him or her to sniff it out and venture inside.
Most airline carriers can be used to tote pets around on shopping trips and sightseeing excursions too. But if you have room in your luggage, it’s a good idea to take a second, more lightweight tote for mid-trip outings.
Note: For air travel during the upcoming summer months, it’s a good idea to book flights either in the early morning or in the evening to avoid high temperatures. Always try to book nonstop flights to avoid potentially traumatic transfers or delays. And where possible, avoid heavy traffic times such as weekends and holidays.
Elderly pets need to relieve themselves more often. It may be a good idea to put on a pet diaper during the actual flight.
Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet lifestyle writer. She is the recent recipient of the Humane Society of the United States' Pets for Life Award. Her work appears in many national and international publications.
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