Going Coastal: Taking A Cat On A Plane

Java on his way to California

We had to jump through hoops to travel with a cat on a plane.

When our adult son moved to California with more baggage than even a strapping young man could manage, we volunteered to bring his 10-year-old Himalayan cat, Java, a month later. Turns out we needed much of that month to plan travelling with a cat on a plane. Here’s what we learned from our research and experience:

Tips for taking a cat on a plane

-Visit the vet within 30 days of departure to make sure your pet is healthy enough for travel and to obtain documented proof of required vaccinations (which may be asked for at check-in). Most vets don’t advise the use of animal tranquilizers. For obvious reasons, don’t feed your pet or offer water during the hour before travel.

-Cats (or small dogs) can fly with a ticketed passenger either as checked cargo in the belly of the plane or as carry-on. However, certain breeds (that are brachycephalic or snub-nosed) cannot be checked. Most animal lovers prefer to travel with their “best friends” in the cabin (because it is safer) but need to determine if the pet qualifies based on its age, breed and size. Generally, the total weight of a carry-on animal cannot exceed 20 pounds with the carrier.

-Pets must remain in hard-sided kennels or soft-sided carriers that are ventilated and leak-proof, which will need to be stowed under the seat in front of the passenger at all times. Acclimate your pet to the carrier before you leave home. The cramped space under seats makes a strong case for purchasing a flexible, soft-sided carrier with mesh sides. Rules vary widely across airlines in terms of the permitted size dimensions of the carrier.

Java in his carrier stowed under the seat in front
Java in his carrier stowed under the seat in front

-Travelers with pets cannot occupy bulkhead or emergency rows. Window seats generally offer more under-seat space than middle or aisle (some airlines require travelers with pets to reserve a window seat). The pet and carrier count against your carry-on allowance.

-Before you book, ask the airline whether you can take your pet on a particular flight. If you compare airlines, you’ll find that the rules for traveling with pets vary based on the configuration of the plane, class of service and destination. Book early because the number of pets allowed per flight is limited.

-To assure that both you and your pet get ticketed, you may have to call the airline (rather than purchase a ticket online) to simultaneously make arrangements and pay a non-refundable reservation fee for the pet (generally between $100-$125) and to secure a reservation and suitable seat for yourself. (You may incur an additional fee for booking by phone)

-For TSA screening, you will be required to remove your pet from its carrier; you can request that TSA screen your pet in a private area. Make sure your pet has an identification tag and leash (in case the animal gets frightened and bolts). After passing through security, pets must remain in carriers and aren’t permitted in airline clubs or lounges.

Because pet policies differ for every airline, check specific websites in advance of your trip. Traveling internationally is even more complex with different policies, additional paperwork, additional fees and greater risks. In case you’re curious, Java now lives in Sunnyvale. He handled the stress of air travel without a whimper and we didn’t need to purchase too many cocktails onboard for ourselves.

Java taking one last look at New York City
Java taking one last look at New York City (Photo credit: Lauren Kraus)

Links to pet policies for some major airline carriers

[A version of this article by Irene S. Levine appeared in the Sunday travel section of the Chicago Tribune  on October 4, 2015 and in the Hartford Courant and Aviation Pros.]

Links updated on January 19, 2020.


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