The Most Pet-Friendly Airlines in 2023

Alaska, Southwest and Frontier top our list, but regardless of airline, flying with a pet will be expensive.
Sam Kemmis
Sally French
By Sally French and  Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Meghan Coyle

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Traveling with a pet can be stressful and expensive, period. And some airlines make it especially so. Some airlines that used to happily ship your pet in cargo will transport them no more. Your emotional support animal likely can no longer fly for free. COVID-19 upended many facets of the travel industry, and flying with pets is no exception.

We analyzed nine U.S. airlines on 12 variables to find the most pet-friendly airlines. We combed through the fine print, fees and policies of all the major airlines to find which ones charge the lowest fees, are the most flexible in terms of what pets you can bring and how well they handle pet transport.

And the reality is, flying with pets is a bleak undertaking with any airline. Airlines were rated on a five-point scale, yet only one scored higher than a four (that’s our winner, Alaska). Only one other airline, Southwest, scored a 3 — and everything else fell below that.

While none are exactly great, here are the best airlines for traveling with a pet.

The official rankings

We analyzed the same nine U.S. airlines that were reviewed as part of NerdWallet's greater Best Of Airlines rankings. Pet rankings were based on factors including whether pets are allowed, the average pet fee and airline safety records to determine what airline is best for pet travel.

Here are the airlines we reviewed and the overall rankings of each:

Which airlines are pet-friendly? The simple answer is Alaska, Southwest and Frontier offer the best overall experiences for flyers with pets, according to NerdWallet's analysis.

Here's a snapshot of some of the data we collected to help you plan for flying with dogs, cats and other pets.

Cost for main cabin pet transportation

Number of pets allowed per passenger

Types of animals allowed in main cabin

Alaska Airlines

$100 (per carrier, with up to 2 per carrier).

4 (if you purchase an adjacent seat, otherwise two).

Dogs, cats, rabbits and household birds.

American Airlines

$125.

2.

Cat or dog.

Delta Air Lines

$95 for tickets issued on/after Feb. 28, 2022.

1 (Two if between the age of 10 weeks and 6 months and they can fit in a single carrier).

Dogs, cats and household birds.

Frontier Airlines

$99.

1.

Domesticated dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters or small household birds.

Hawaiian Airlines

$125 between Hawaii and North America. $60 within Hawaii.

1 (Two puppies or kittens of the same breed or litter between 8 weeks and 6 months old, weighing 25 pounds or less).

Cat or dog.

JetBlue Airways

$125.

2 (Only one pet per carrier. You can travel with two pets, but you must book and pay for the second seat and pet fee).

Cat or dog (maximum of six pets per flight; not available in Mint).

Southwest Airlines

$95 (refundable).

2 (if in the same carrier).

Cat or dog (maximum of six pets per flight).

Spirit Airlines

$125 each way, plus an additional $125 charge for each stopover of more than four hours within the U.S.

2 (if in the same carrier).

Dogs, cats, rabbits and household birds.

United Airlines

$125 each way, plus an additional $125 charge for each stopover of more than four hours within the U.S.

2 (with purchase of a second ticket).

Cat or dog.

The average pet fee across airlines is $113 — airlines typically charge from $95 to $125 each way per pet. You'll find lower pet fees at brands like Delta, Southwest, Frontier and Alaska.

The best airlines for pets

1. Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines is the best airline for traveling with a pet. It had among the lowest fees and the most flexible pet policy in terms of what types of pets you can bring.

Traveling the main cabin

Alaska has among the lowest pet fees for the main cabin, charging $100 each way per kennel or carrier. Since up to two pets of the same species and similar size may travel in the same carrier, that’s just $50 per pet if traveling with two.

Theoretically, you can fly with up to four pets. The Alaska pet policy lets you bring up to two pet carriers in the main cabin, but that gets pricey as you’ll have to purchase the adjacent seat too. But at least if you’ve got quite a menagerie to transport, it’s possible.

While many airlines restrict main cabin pets to cats and dogs only, Alaska is more flexible, allowing rabbits and household birds, too.

Like most airlines, your pet carrier also counts toward your carry-on bag allotment, so plan to check bags — or pack light.

Traveling in checked baggage or cargo

If your pet is too large to fit under the seat, it can travel in the climate-controlled baggage compartment within the U.S. for $100.

Plus, Alaska will transport not just dogs, cats, birds and rabbits in checked baggage or cargo, but also ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, non-poisonous reptiles, pot-bellied pigs and tropical fish. Fees to transport pets as Alaska pet cargo vary by route and your pet’s size and start at $250.

Lounging before your flight

If you’re heading to an Alaska lounge, your pet can come too — as long as it’s well-behaved. The lounges, which are accessible to passengers with certain levels of elite status or people who purchase a separate membership, accept quiet service animals and pets in carry-on kennels. Some Alaska lounges are also accessible to Priority Pass members.

Photo courtesy of Southwest.

2. Southwest Airlines

While Alaska scored a 4, only one other airline, Southwest, scored a 3. Frontier was the third-place winner. Here’s what it’s like flying on those airlines with pets, why they scored higher than the rest, and the reasons why they still have challenges:

Southwest: Refunds extend to pets, too

Pros: The Southwest pet fee is $95 each way, per pet carrier, which is among the cheapest pet fees you’ll find.

Southwest has long been considered one of the most flexible airlines out there. Even with the cheapest fare class, you can change your flight at no cost (aside from the fare difference). Or, cancel outright and receive travel funds toward a future flight that delightfully never expire.

While you can use your own carrier (assuming it fits within the maximum dimensions), you can be sure it’ll be approved by using a Southwest-branded pet carrier, available for purchase for $58 from Southwest’s store.

(Photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines)

Most airlines require you that make reservations in advance, but Southwest makes it especially easy by offering plenty of options to make that reservation, including via phone or through Twitter direct message.

Cons: Only small pets are allowed. Southwest won’t let your pet fly in the baggage compartment or cargo, which means in the main cabin only. And for your pet to fly in the main cabin, it must fit in a pet carrier underneath the seat, with a maximum size of 18.5 inches by 8.5 inches by 13.5 inches.

If your pet is larger than that, you’ll need to fly with another airline.

Learn more about Southwest's pet policy here.

3. Frontier Airlines

Frontier is a great airline to fly for more than just cats and dogs.

Pros: Frontier doesn’t often win many awards, but it does handle pets better than many other airlines. One big reason is that while other airlines will fly cats and dogs only, Frontier accepts rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, and small household birds, too (though international flights still limit pets to cats and dogs only).

Pet fees are a nonrefundable $99 per pet, per direction.

Cons: Like with Southwest, only small pets are allowed. Frontier also won’t let your pet fly in the baggage compartment or cargo (main cabin only) and the pet must remain underneath your seat. With Frontier, maximum pet container dimensions are a tad smaller than Southwest’s at 18 inches by 14 inches by 8 inches.

The challenges of traveling with pets

Read the fine print before attempting to travel with pets on a plane.

Even with the most pet-friendly airlines, there are still many restrictions around a pet’s size and how free (or confined to the kennel) they can be when traveling within the main cabin. Some individual routes or aircraft have their own unique limitations beyond the standard airline pet policy. Rules can even vary by state, so your experience flying with the same airlines to another could differ.

Plus, beyond fees, you’ll likely also incur a bunch of paperwork and phone calls before your pet can fly. Here are a few road bumps to watch out for:

You must reserve a spot in advance — so your pet’s travels aren't guaranteed (even if your seat is booked)

Even on the best airline for flying with pets, Alaska, it’s not a guarantee that your pet can fly. That’s because all airlines limit the overall number of pets allowed in the main cabin and cargo. For example, Alaska’s first-class cabin can accommodate only one pet carrier per flight, and the main cabin accommodates up to five.

You’ll generally need to contact the airline to reserve a space for your pet. Always confirm space is available before booking your own seat, as you don’t want to deal with the headache of canceling should there be no room for your pet.

Most airlines force you to pick up the phone and call to reserve your space, which might entail a long hold time. But Southwest scored some extra points in our rankings because it has many ways to reserve your pet’s spot, including via Facebook and Twitter. Southwest encourages sending a direct message on Twitter to @Southwestair or via Facebook private message your confirmation number to reserve your pet’s spot.

Emotional support animals are no longer recognized as service animals

In past years, you may have traveled with your emotional support animal for free. That’s no longer the case. These days, all pets are subject to pet policies and fees on all of the major airlines we reviewed.

That’s due to a December 2020 ruling from the U.S. Department of Transportation that eliminated a requirement that airlines allow emotional support animals free of charge. By early 2021, all of the major airlines announced that they would no longer recognize emotional support animal air travel.

Certified service animals are still permitted at no additional cost under the Air Carrier Access Act.

Fewer airlines will transport your pets in cargo or checked baggage

Of the major U.S. airlines, only Alaska, American and Hawaiian will transport pets in checked baggage and/or cargo.

In the early days of the pandemic, United suspended its pet cargo services and has yet to resume them. Other major airlines, including Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines, never accepted pets in cargo.

Other reasons airlines might not let your pet fly

Flying, even on our highly ranked airlines, can be annoyingly uncertain. Other reasons airlines may not let your pet fly include:

It’s the holiday season: Some airlines don’t accept pets in the baggage or cargo compartments during the holidays. On Alaska, pets aren’t accepted in baggage or cargo for the entire period from Nov. 15 to Jan. 10.

Your pet is a certain breed: Most airlines won't transport brachycephalic or "short-nosed" dogs and cats in cargo, though they might still be allowed in carry-on.

“Veterinary experts say that short-nosed animals commonly have abnormalities that can compromise their breathing,” according to Alaska. “Stress associated with flight can make those conditions worse.”

If you’re flying with one of those breeds, which includes pit bulls, Boston terriers and many types of bulldogs and pugs, check the airline’s specific policy.

You don’t have proper paperwork: Most airlines require a valid health certificate issued by your vet, certifying that your pet is fit to fly. Most airlines also require proper vaccines.

Some only require it for cargo, but not main cabin flying. Check with your airline before boarding.

Your pet isn’t behaving: Most airlines will deny boarding to misbehaving pets. The definition of a poorly behaved pet can be subjective, but most airlines outline growling, excessive whining or barking, or urinating or defecating in the cabin or gate area as reasons.

Even if your pet is an angel at home, don’t assume it will behave the same way at an airport. Have a backup plan if there’s any chance your pet will be unpredictable on a plane.

Airlines that allow dogs, cats and other pets, recapped

Animal air travel is far from a walk in the park. Sometimes, the fee to store your pet under the seat in front of you (while sacrificing your own precious legroom) is pricier than your own airfare. Before arriving at the airport, expect paperwork to sign and phone calls to make. Upon arrival, there’s a chance you’ll be denied boarding if the gate agent hears or sees any disruptive behavior.

If you must fly with a pet, but the restrictions feel burdensome, consider skipping the commercial aircraft entirely. Some private and semi-private jets allow pets to roam freely, won’t clamp down on breeds or sizes, and won’t make you wrestle your way through security with a pet in tow.

When it comes to air travel with pets, you don’t exactly have your pick of the litter. Alaska was the best of the bunch, but even animal travel on Alaska has limitations. Know what you’re getting into before planning a flight with a pet. And accept that sometimes a road trip (or even a private jet) might be better.

Methodology: How we made our pet-friendly airline rankings

We gave each airline a score from 1 to 5 across 12 categories. Some categories received more weight than others (e.g., we gave more weight to the number of death, loss and accident reports since safety is paramount compared with saving $10 on a lower fee to fly your pet in cargo).

Here are our complete rankings.

Here are the primary factors we considered:

  • Cost for main cabin: How much does it cost to bring pets in the main cabin?

  • Refunds, accessibility and ease: Were pet fees refundable? What sorts of limits are there on allowing pets in lounges? How easy is it to book a space for your pet on the flight?

  • Number of pets allowed per passenger: If pets were allowed in the main cabin, how many you can bring?

  • Types of animals allowed in the main cabin: Can you fly with a pet bird? We gave higher points when species other than cats and dogs are allowed.

  • Allow pets in cargo: Whether pets are allowed to travel in cargo, in any capacity.

  • Cost for cargo, if even possible: Whether pets are allowed in checked baggage or cargo, and, if so, how much it costs.

  • Injuries, deaths or lost pets: We looked at Department of Transportation data from June 2021 to May 2022 for reports of deaths, injuries or losses of pets shipped via cargo. We normalized the data relative to overall passenger count to avoid penalizing larger airlines that might have more reports because they transport more animals.

We didn't factor in pet-friendly international airlines, as those policies can also vary significantly.


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