Ask Trip Coach: Top Tips for Traveling With Your Pet

Sometimes dogs and cats need a getaway, too. With the right planning, you can include every member of the family on your next vacation. Our Trip Coach shows you how.

By Brad Tuttle, Tuesday, Jan 18, 2011, 12:00 AM

Ask Trip Coach (Illustration by Chris Gash)

READERS' TOP QUESTIONS

What's one tip anyone traveling with pets should know?
Whether you're renting a beach house in Florida or road-tripping across the Rockies, there's one essential item you should always add to your packing list: an updated copy of your dog's or cat's rabies vaccination certificate. It may not be glamorous, but you'll be glad you have it if your pet needs to see a new vet, gets bitten by another animal, or maybe even bites someone itself. When it comes to unexpected situations, never underestimate the power of good documentation.

Can I bring my pet to a hotel?
While nearly every hotel claims to be pet-friendly, individual policies are more complicated. Some chains enforce weight limits, while others, like Loews and Kimpton, have no restrictions—even Great Danes get the go-ahead. Some charge for pets (usually $10 and up per night at a Quality Inn); some require a security deposit (around $15 at Super 8, $50 at most Quality Inns); and some charge nothing at all (Red Roof Inn, Loews, Kimpton). For specific pet policies at chain hotels across the U.S., check out the New York–based website petswelcome.com. But that's just the beginning of the fine print. Quirky local laws can affect policies too. For example, pit bulls aren't allowed anywhere in the Canadian province of Ontario. The bottom line? Call ahead and call early: Most hotels limit the number of rooms that accommodate pets, so even if there are vacancies, that doesn't mean you and Fido are guaranteed one. The early dog gets the room.

What about bringing pets on planes?
As with hotels, airline policies are not at all standardized. The only constant is the size restriction: To travel as a carry-on, pets must be small enough to stand up and turn around in a carrier that fits comfortably under an airline seat. In that regard, Southwest is considered one of the most pet-friendly airlines because it charges just $75 each way for a carry-on, compared with $125 on, say, United. If your pet can't fit in a small enough carrier, however, things get a bit more complicated. In that case, you'll need to hand it over to the airline either as checked luggage, which is generally limited to pets under 50 pounds (the transfer occurs at check-in), or as cargo (pets must be dropped off at a separate airport area designated for cargo before you check in). Southwest, AirTran, JetBlue, Spirit, US Airways, and Virgin America allow pets in carry-on bags only, though most other airlines are happy to accommodate them as checked luggage or cargo—but you'll pay for it. The price tag can be as much as $250 each way (United, again). The website bringfido.com/travel offers a comprehensive rundown of major airlines' pet policies.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of carry-on and cargo?
"A lot of our readers just won't check their pets as cargo," explains Len Kain, editor of dogfriendly.com. "Many are uncomfortable with the idea of shipping their pets like luggage, and people worry about delays." The reality, though, is that it's perfectly safe. Like passenger cabins, all cargo areas are temperature-controlled and pressurized, and airline staffers are trained to handle animals. To prep your pet preflight, just give it a lot of exercise before you head to the airport—and resist the urge to resort to drugging. Most vets don't recommend it. "For the most part, your pet will probably sleep no matter what," says Susan Smith, editor and founder of pettravel.com. "The humming sound of the plane is soothing."

Is there anything I should consider before taking my pet abroad?
International travel is where your pet meets government bureaucracy—and that means serious red tape. Take the U.K., for instance: If you didn't plan ahead and flew with your dog into London Heathrow, Fido would be kept in quarantine for six months—not quite the vacation you'd planned. Ditto in Japan, where even if you do follow the protocol, which involves implanted microchips (for tracking), blood tests, and proof of rabies vaccinations, pets may still be quarantined for up to 12 hours. Each country has subtly different rules, so you may need to repeat the process if you're going to cross multiple borders. Most countries require owners to begin planning their trip well in advance. The U.K. calls for a microchip, blood tests conducted at least six months before travel, and an official tick and tapeworm check 24 to 48 hours before the flight. If any of the requirements aren't met, the dog gets quarantined automatically. Countries such as Italy and France are easier on foreign pets; they typically ask for a microchip, a recent veterinarian's health report, and proof that the animal has been vaccinated for rabies at least 21 days and no more than one year in advance. To unravel the various rules and regulations, get in touch with the embassy of the country you're visiting (use travel.state.gov to find contact info) and start preparing for the trip six to eight months ahead of time.

Are there any places that simply don't allow pets?
Every park has its own rules, but generally National Park Service sites aren't as pet-friendly as you might think. Pets are barred from most trails and campgrounds, including those in Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon National Parks. The same goes for most national monuments, like the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, and the Washington Monument. Check nps.gov for guidelines. Also, pets are often banned or allowed limited access on many U.S. public beaches, especially during peak season. Petfriendlytravel.com/dog_beaches lists specific rules for dog-friendly beaches across the U.S.

What if I can't take my pet along for some parts of the trip?
Don't just leave your companion at the hotel. "Some properties simply don't allow it," says Heather Hunter, a spokeswoman for AAA who works on Traveling With Your Pet: The AAA PetBook. Hunter recommends calling ahead to check on that property's policy. If leaving a pet unattended is allowed, though, be sure to notify housekeeping and crate the animal while you're out. The housekeepers will appreciate it, and you could save yourself a bundle: Even the mildest creatures have been known to wreak havoc when left alone in unfamiliar territory. After all, would you want to be left alone all day? If your hotel doesn't allow solo pets, ask the concierge to help you find a local dog sitter, kennel, or special "pet hotel" (basically a day camp for dogs and cats). National retailer PetSmart offers doggy day care and overnight programs, and petsitters.org lists professionals around the country.

PETS ON THE GO