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Traveling with pets: How to make sure Spot has the best trip possible

| Tuesday, May 1, 2018, 10:51 a.m.
It pays to do your research before traveling with your pet, be it by airplane, ship or automobile. Here, a tourist walks his dog along a beach in the bay of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua in 2014.
It pays to do your research before traveling with your pet, be it by airplane, ship or automobile. Here, a tourist walks his dog along a beach in the bay of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua in 2014.

In 2010, Pepper and Nikki Moustaki embarked on a European adventure that did not involve one plane ride. The pair sailed round trip from New York to Southampton, England, on the Queen Mary 2 and bounced around Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands in cars and trains.

During their two-month stay in Paris, they relied on their feet (or paws, in Pepper's case) and Metro to get around the City of Light.

Pepper, by the way, is a schnauzer, and Nikki is his person.

“Personally, I'm not a fan of flying. Just the stress of thinking about what could go wrong in the air ruins the beginning of what could be a great trip,” said Moustaki, a dog trainer and author who splits her time between New York City and Miami. “But I love taking my dog with me wherever I go. So I need to find suitable alternative means of travel.”

For pet owners, flying with their four-legged family members is the opposite of a relaxing belly rub. According to the Transportation Department, the major U.S. airlines flew more than a half-million animals last year; of those, two dozen died.

Animal rights organizations and advocates are not against the idea of pets on planes, but they urge owners to consider all forms of travel before booking a flight.

“In general, air travel is safe for your pets, but it's better to travel by train or car,” said Amy Nichols, vice president of companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States. “Think of what's best for the animal and not what you prefer.”

There are several options, on land and sea, that allow you to bypass that big bird in the sky. However, if you can't avoid flying, the experts have provided some tips to make the flight as safe, calm and comforting as possible - for all species involved. (Note: The critters discussed below are leisure pets; the rules covering service animals are different.)

To travel or stay at home

Not all pets travel well. Seniors, puppies and ailing dogs are better left at home, as are brachycephalic breeds, which often suffer from breathing difficulties. Most airlines ban snub-nosed dogs from the cargo hold.

Weather is also critical. You don't want to expose your animal to extreme temperatures at any point along the trip.

Many airlines won't fly pets in the belly of the plane if the temperatures are above 85 degrees or below 45 degrees. The carriers may also restrict travel in the summer and to certain hot destinations.

Also, remember that some international hotels prefer fans over air conditioning — not the best cooling device for an animal that doesn't sweat.

“Summer is not a good idea for any pet,” said Susan H. Smith, president of, a comprehensive guide for domestic and international pet travel.

For international trips, know the country's entry requirements for live animals. In other words, don't be a Johnny Depp. (Two years ago, the actor and his then-wife, Amber Heard, did not declare their two Yorkies to Australian customs officials. A Down Under drama ensued.)

Some countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia, quarantine incoming pets; others, such as Germany and Britain, ban certain breeds.

For all destinations, domestic and abroad, pack a copy of your pet's most current health report.

In Europe, you will need an E.U. health certificate issued by a U.S. Agriculture Department-accredited veterinarian and endorsed by your state USDA office. The document must contain vaccination and rabies records, plus proof of a tapeworm test, depending on the country. You must also microchip your pet, in case Bandit decides to run off with the Romanian circus.

By train

Since Amtrak introduced its pet travel program in Illinois in 2013, roughly 66,000 dogs and cats have hopped along by rail, including a record number of pets (5,322) last December. The $25 service is available on 35 routes in the East, West, Midwest and Northeast quadrants of the country, including such popular lines as the Capitol Limited, the California Zephyr, the Cardinal and the Northeast Regional. (Acela is weekend-only).

Trains on 10 itineraries feature a pet-friendly coach car. Amtrak allows only five to eight animals weighing no more than 20 pounds per trip, so book early and don't stuff your pet with peanut butter treats before the trip. The voyage can't exceed seven hours.

Our neighbors to the north are less liberal with their pet policies. On Via Rail Canada, cats, dogs and, yes, small rodents must travel in the baggage car. Unfortunately, not all trains offer baggage service.

On the plus side, baggage cars are heated, but, on the down side, most are not air-conditioned. For that reason, the railway pauses pet service on all trains but the Ocean (Montreal to Halifax) between June 1 and Sept. 30. The cost is $30 or $50, depending on cage size. On several routes, owners can visit their pets if accompanied by a railway authority.

By sea

Only one cruise line invites pets onboard: Cunard's Queen Mary 2. The ocean liner, which sails back and forth between New York and Southampton, England, offers 24 kennels for $800 to $1,000 a pop. A full-time Kennel Master oversees the feeding, walking and housecleaning of the four-legged cruisers, who receive a gift bag including a QM2-monogrammed coat and Frisbee, among other treats.

“Imagine a ship that offers the finest food, white glove service, amazing entertainment and incredible shore excursions,” Moustaki said. “Now imagine that you're taking this trip with your dog.”

Cunard does not accept all breeds. It prohibits some dogs because of size (Great Dane, Irish wolfhound, St. Bernard and malamute, among others) and others because of British restrictions (pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Braziliero).

For shorter sea sojourns, many ferries in Europe and the United States lower the gangway for pets. Depending on your style of land travel (car or train) and the company's rules, you can walk or drive onto to the boat with your pet.

Some companies require the animal to stay in the vehicle or a kennel; others invite them to come on deck and feel the sea breeze on their snouts, as long as they are leashed. In the United States, the list includes the North Carolina Ferry System, including the jaunt from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island; the Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket ferries; and the San Francisco Bay Ferry (carrier-only).

By car

Moustaki's dogs are her copilots. She and her pups have traveled between New York and Miami more than 60 times over two decades, in addition to rambling car adventures in California, Nevada and the Gulf States.

Her advice: Restrain your dog in the back seat with a harness, with the leash clipped on, in case Dash decides to dart out of the car during a pit stop. Pack such essentials as a non-spill water dish for the back seat, potty pads, plastic bags, a blanket and a towel, paper towels, treats and your dog's regular food. She also recommends a hands-free leash that wraps around your waist, so that you can carry your luggage without losing your grip on your pet.

Drivers will need to stop every few hours for a bathroom and water break. Nichols recommends every four to six hours for adults and more frequent stops for younger and older dogs. If your pet starts acting “spacey,” Nichols said dehydration could be the culprit.

In addition, though dogs love to stick their heads out and waggle their tongues, keep the windows shut. Debris could fly into their faces and eyes.

By plane

Commercial air offers three ways to transport pets: as carry-on, cargo or checked luggage. Keeping your pet within close reach (meaning, at your feet) is preferable, of course. However, the airlines limit the size of the carrier and therefore the animal.

In addition, some countries (South Africa, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, for instance) do not permit animals in the cabin; they must fly as cargo.

For carry-on creatures, Smith recommends a soft-sided carrier (vs. a hard case or whale-size purse) with a waterproof bottom, secure fasteners and good ventilation. The tiny-house guest should have enough room to stand up and spin around like a music-box dancer.

When choosing a seat for two, pick the window so you can inoculate your pet from disturbances in the aisle and your seat mates' bathroom needs. Also, many planes install entertainment boxes under the aisle-row seats, further limiting an already tight space.

Checked baggage or cargo

In a match between checked baggage and cargo, the former wins.

“I would advise the less time in the possession of the airline, the better,” Nichols said, “so checking your pet with luggage would be preferred over handing them over hours in advance.”

Sending your crated animal as luggage is often less expensive and stressful for both of you. For the checked bag scenario, simply bring your pup to the airport check-in counter with the rest of your luggage shortly before going through security. You will retrieve your pet in the baggage claim area, among the other oversized pieces of luggage, such as golf clubs and skies.

By comparison, if your pet travels as air cargo, you will have to drop off your dog four or more hours before takeoff at a facility that is often separate from the main terminal. Your loved one could sit in an un-air-conditioned cargo terminal for hours, waiting to be loaded.

In both scenarios, ask the gate agent before boarding if the ground crew has transferred your pet to the plane. The airline employee can check the manifest. If the cargo hold is filled, the airline could place your animal on a later flight — a troubling idea, to say the least. To lessen the odds of bumping, Smith recommends traveling during off-peak times: Tuesday through Thursday, in the spring or fall.

For the pampered pet

If you have the funds, you can charter a private plane for you and your pet version of Beyoncé.

Adam Steiger, president of Air Charter Advisors in Florida, said he fields about eight queries a day from people relocating with their pets or planning a vacation or visit to their second or fifth home. When asked for a sample route and price, he provided some recent examples: $35,000 for a family four with two dogs to fly one way from New York to Los Angeles and $12,000 for a quartet with two cats traveling from New York to Miami.

Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post travel writer.

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