3 C’s Simplify Complex Rules for Flying With Pets

Gregory Karp
By Gregory Karp 
Edited by Paul Soucy

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Amidst COVID, new DOT rules around emotional support animals and the generally changing traveling landscape bringing a pet on a flight can be complicated. Flyers traveling with their animals this year must navigate a slew of rules that differ by carrier. But most of what you need to research are three C’s: cabin vs. cargo, crates and cost.

Besides taking Fido or Fluffy to your veterinarian for a preflight checkup, be sure to learn about:

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Cabin vs. cargo

If your pet in its carrier can fit under the seat in front of you, it can ride in the airplane cabin for a fee, essentially as carry-on luggage, according to many U.S. airlines’ rules. That includes pets weighing about 20 pounds or less. You can’t buy an extra seat for a bigger pet.

The other way to take your pet — and the only way for bigger animals — is as shipping cargo, like checked luggage.

Airlines have been flying pets as cargo for years. Even so, the Humane Society of the United States advises against pets being kept anywhere but in the cabin for safety reasons. And some airlines will not transport animals as cargo. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, for example, offer only in-cabin flights for small dogs and cats.

Not all animals — not even all dogs and cats — are eligible to fly. For example, after a series of well-publicized pet mishaps, United Airlines recently modified its cargo pet-transport program to exclude some breeds of dogs and cats prone to health problems when flying.

And in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, even more airlines stopped offering cargo transport services for pets.


Airlines have detailed requirements for the box your pet rides in, often called a crate, carrier or kennel. Generally, it must be large enough for your pet to stand up and turn around inside.

Airlines and animal experts say to reduce stress, it’s important to acclimate your pet to the crate before flying.


Air travel with a pet usually involves a pet fee, which can be hefty. Several of the biggest domestic airlines charge $125 each way for an in-cabin pet. And because your in-cabin pet often counts as your carry-on bag, you might have to pay to check your roller bag.

Flying a pet as cargo often costs more; for example, you’ll pay $200 each way on American Airlines when pets are checked as luggage. On United, shipping costs with its PetSafe program are based on the combined weight of the pet and its crate, which can be hundreds of dollars.

Additional expenses include the cost of a pet carrier and a recommended preflight veterinary visit.

Requirements for flying internationally with your pet are more complex and typically require even more planning. And don't count on calling your pet an emotional support animal and expecting that it can fly for free. A policy update from the U.S. Department of Transportation, or DOT, states that emotional support animals are no longer considered service animals, and airlines aren't required to treat them as such. That means emotional support animals previously allowed on airplanes are no longer guaranteed to fly for free.

Though, if your pet is a service animal, it won't be subject to the same costs and requirements as pets or emotional support animals. Contact your airline for details on how to fly with these kinds of animals.

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