Choosing a pet carrier that will be approved by your airline is a process that requires careful thought and precision. You need to think carefully how you want your pet to travel, and you need to measure your pet to get the exact measurements needed. The rules vary from airline to airline, but each one is very strict and leaves no room for error. Pet carriers are built with these strict standards in mind, but the buyer is still responsible for making sure their chosen carrier complies with airline regulations.
Keeping your pet safe and comfortable are the two most important criteria for traveling with your pet(s). Happy pet, happy trip. (Imagine your pup running loose in a panic on a plane inflight. It’s happened.)
Check airline pet policies first
The very first thing you must do is check if your chosen airline allows pets to travel on board. This is the time to check your airline’s pet policies. Airline rules for traveling with pets varies, but most of the major airlines will allow small dogs and cats to accompany adult passengers in the cabin. (The exceptions are when traveling to the U.K., Australia, Japan, South Africa, Hong Kong and several other countries. These require pets be transported as cargo, regardless of size.)
If your pet is small, you need to check if they allow pets to travel in the cabin. If the pet is too large, they will have to travel in the cargo hold in a special carrier designed for this purpose.
Plan to do this well in advance of your trip, as many airlines only allow a certain number of pets on each flight.
Which type of carrier?
Your next step is to choose the type of carrier you want. Do you want a soft-sided carrier? These are designed for small pets to fit under airplane seats. If your dog is too large (and even one inch past the maximum allowed measurement can be considered “too large”), he/she will have to be placed in a hard-sided crate in the cargo hold. Here is where measurements are critical.
Perhaps you want a carrier with wheels to make between-flight times easier. Make sure the wheels are detachable, which can greatly influence whether the carrier can fit under the seat. Detached wheels can be stored in the overhead bin.
Many carriers come with shoulder straps, which can make life easier for the pet parent. Make sure they’re padded for obvious reasons. Even the tiniest pups can get heavy quickly.
Determine the space allowances
This is the time to determine the specifics allowed for your pup’s size and weight. Again, there are slight variances from airline to airline, so check with your specific airline first. The general rule of thumb allows a dog 18” from tip of nose to base of tail, and about 11-12 pounds to accompany his human. Each airline will give you their specifics.
Keep in mind that the weight allowed includes the weight of the carrier. Therefore, choose a carrier that’s as lightweight as possible so that you have a little weight “to spare.” If you don’t choose a rolling carrier, or one that attaches to luggage, having a lightweight pet carrier will also be easier on you as you’re carrying your darling dog through the terminal.
Also keep in mind that most airlines consider a dog’s erect ears as part of the height limitation. They won’t allow a pup’s ears to be bent for the flight. If your dog has floppy ears, then measure to the top of its head.
Standard pet carrier requirements
The carrier must fit under the seat in front of you and include the following features:
- Secure closures (zippers, not snaps). Carriers with lockable zippers are ideal, but zipper locks can be purchased separately.
- Proper ventilation. At least 2 sides of the carrier should have mesh “windows.”
- A waterproof bottom. Many carriers include padded inserts for the pup’s comfort, but it would be wise to take a few “potty pads” along, just in case.
- Full enclosure. Your pet must be fully contained and cannot travel on board with its head sticking out of the carrier.
- Sufficient interior space. Airlines require that pets be able to stand up and turn around comfortably within their carriers. Squashed pets that can’t move will not pass muster with the ticket or security gate agents
- Bite- and rip-proof. If you have an aggressive dog, make sure the carrier you choose is immune to his/her aggression. Or bring duct tape just in case.
As a side note, make sure you travel with a metal-free collar and leash. You will be required to remove your dog from the carrier at all security checkpoints, and many pet carriers come with short tethers attached to the inside to keep your pup from bolting when the closure is opened. Chasing a dog through the terminal will not be the highlight of your trip, so be aware of carriers that don’t include a tether as a feature.
Features to consider
Most (but not all) airline-approved pet carriers feature multiple points of entry. They are often at each end of the carrier. But the best carriers also offer an opening at the top, which is perfect for stressed pups who can’t be encouraged (or pushed) into either of the end openings. The top zipped openings allow the pup to be gently lowered inside with no stress.
Some carriers have sides that can be unzipped and expanded outward. This allows your pup more space to stretch out between flights (inflight expansions are forbidden); however, the extra materials often reduce visibility for your pet.
The view outside
Some pets want to see what’s going on at all times. Pet carriers with lots of mesh windows will make these pups happy. On the other hand, some animals are quite shy and would prefer a more snug, enclosed carrier. One option is to put a towel or blanket over the excess windows, if you don’t mind walking around with a towel- or blanket-covered pet carrier.
And if you frequently travel in cold, wet weather, consider using a carrier with fewer windows as well.
Consider pockets your best friend on a trip with your pet. Most soft-side carriers feature at least one pocket, often two or more. If you haven’t reached the weight limit with the pet carrier, you can carry treats, medications, leash, etc. in the carrier’s pocket(s). If you’ve reached the weight limit, then be sure to carry these items in your carry-on bag.
To enjoy the trip as much as possible, you must ensure that the pet carrier has a firm, sturdy and washable floorboard. Carriers with weak floorboards will fold up like a hammock with your pet in the middle. Not fun for either of you. If the floorboard is a bit on the weak side, you can bolster it with stiff cardboard, which won’t add much weight.
The floorboard also needs to be washable. Most carriers provide washable comfort pads (some are hand wash only), but you could also provide a soft towel to add a little more absorbency to the floor. It would also add a bit of “home smell” as well, which can be comforting to your pet.
For a brief guide to some of the major airline policies regarding pet travel, please see the chart below. Note: this is only a guide. All requirements are subject to change at any time. You must check with your airline for specific requirements before you travel with your pet.
|Airline||Pet carrier size||Max number of pet carriers per flight||Fees (subject to change and limitations)|
|American||19″ x 13″ x 9″||American – 7, Amer. Eagle – 5||$125 one way|
|United||17.5”x12”x7.5”||Check w/airline||$125 one way|
|Delta||Check underseat dimensions on individual aircraft||Main cabin – 4, 1st. Class – 2, Business – 2||$125 one way|
|Frontier||14”x18”x8”||N/A||$75 one way|
|Southwest||18.5”x13.5”x8.5”||6||$95 one way|
American Airlines – https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/special-assistance/pets.jsp
Delta – https://www.delta.com/us/en/pet-travel/overview
United – https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/travel/animals.html
Airline pet policies – https://www.pettravel.com/airline_rules.cfm