Going Coastal: Taking A Cat On A Plane

Published on: October 6, 2015 | Last Updated on January 19, 2020
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.


  • Reply
    Paula McInerney
    October 11, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    That is a lot of effort, though I am sure worth it. Did you know that if the animal is an Emotional Support Animal then you don’t have to worry about so much. Just a letter from a doctor or therapist …apparently. I do hear however, that there have been cases of people having a chook as their emotional support animal and it sits on a seat next to another passenger.

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      October 12, 2015 at 12:18 pm

      Yikes! I had to look up “chook” but when I did…

      • Reply
        October 12, 2015 at 4:13 pm

        Me too!

        Great article, Irene and so informative. I can’t wait until it hits the hard copy! Java’s a star…like his mom. 🙂

  • Reply
    [email protected]
    October 12, 2015 at 5:54 am

    As far as I’m aware, we can’t have our pets with us in the cabin in Australia. You are so lucky to have been able to take Java with you. I’ve seen quite a few dogs on flights in Europe and instantly think of our poor old dog at home who would have loved a trip or two…Maybe I can claim her as an emotional support animal!

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      October 12, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      I came across a website that lists the different airline policies: See the link above.
      According to the chart, Quantas doesn’t allow pets in the cabin.

      I wouldn’t recommend flying with pets unless it is a necessity. It’s costly and creates “wear and tear” on the pet and the owner. I couldn’t wait for our flight to end because I was so nervous about Java.

  • Reply
    Janice Chung
    October 12, 2015 at 10:26 am

    Your article was great. I have been debating for a long time whether I should take my Burmese cat to France. Your information provided more information for me to consider. One thing I was disappointed with was: you can’t take a pet if you are in business class (at least for the flights I was looking to take from Toronto to Paris).

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      October 12, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      I think it’s because there is no room under the seats.

  • Reply
    Kay Dougherty
    October 12, 2015 at 10:28 am

    I flew with my beloved and recently departed ancient kitty a couple times. It was within the U.S. so I just bought her her “kitty ticket” and put her in her carry-on and took her. Luckily she was amazingly well behaved (probably better than I was). I did learn though that booking ahead of time is very important. There’s a max (can’t remember if it’s 3 or 4) pets per flight and legitimate service animals (not “emotional support animals”) always get priority. So the airlines reserve one of the “pet spaces” in case a blind person or someone else with a service animal shows up. Makes sense and means don’t wait until the last minute or you might have to pick another flight (says the voice of experience).

  • Reply
    Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel)
    October 12, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    I love the line “in case the animal gets frightened and bolts” ..that would have been our cat, Viva. Not only was she incredibly noisy but she was a slasher. If she escaped you would need someone in a flak jacket to try to capture her. We used to have to use oven mitts when trying to get her into the carrier. Java looks much more elegant and better behaved. Great info for cat owners and cat lovers, Irene!

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      October 12, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      It would be easy for any pet to get startled going through TSA — especially if they’ve never gone out of the house.:-)

  • Reply
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    October 13, 2015 at 12:49 am

    Pete went through this process several years ago bringing his deceased sister’s cat from California to Minnesota, and we were amazed at all the hoops to jump! He was bringing her cremated remains, too, and between the two types of special circumstances, let’s just say the trip was complicated. Taking a cat on a plane is not for the faint-hearted.

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      October 13, 2015 at 8:50 am

      Yes, I totally agree that it is nothing to be done on a whim. Java was making a permanent move.

  • Reply
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    October 13, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    What a helpful post! I have friends that flew their two cats coast to coast for a move, but I don’t think I’ll ever have to do that. Java is gorgeous. Perhaps you’d like to do another post on the topic of flying two infant twins, a 2-year-old, and a husband and wife coast to coast? My daughter is interested. 🙂

  • Reply
    Jackie Smith
    October 15, 2015 at 1:01 am

    Loved this Irene. During our first foreign fling of home ownership in Mexico, just outside Puerto Vallarta, we drove there from Seattle and back with our two cats in August! That was nearly 18 years ago now and we can finally laugh about the experience!

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      October 15, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      That must have been some long drive, with or without two cats:-)

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