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Tips for travel with (and without) pets

Leaving a pet at home can be as expensive as traveling with one. How to decide.

By Karen Datko Aug 11, 2010 6:21PM

This Deal of the Day comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


Pet owners planning a trip face a tough decision: leave their four-legged friend at home, or bring him along. Either choice is expensive and potentially dangerous.


Last week, seven puppies died in the cargo hold of an American Airlines plane heading from Tulsa, Okla., to Chicago. The airline says it is investigating possible causes, including pre-existing health conditions and heat stroke.


The American incident was not an isolated one. Airlines have reported 11 animal deaths, three injuries and two losses this year through May, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.


Traveling by air is "relatively safe -- but relatively doesn't go far enough when it's your dog," says Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, a science adviser for The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


Safe or unsafe, air travel for pets does not come cheap. One-way cargo transport fees start at $150.


Pet sitters and boarding services, where rates can easily top $50 per day, are not necessarily safer. Earlier this summer, a New York City couple filed a $1 million lawsuit against a boarding service after they returned home in July 2009 to find their dog unresponsive, alleging that the company drove their dog home in a van without air conditioning.


Here's how to find safe, affordable options for your pet when traveling:


On the road

Nearly one in five Americans say they usually take their pets with them when they travel, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Buses, trains and cruises do not typically accept pets on board, so that leaves flying and driving as the only options. Try these tips to cut costs in the air and at your destination:

Reconsider. "Are you going somewhere that your pet is going to enjoy being?" Zawistowski says. It's not cost-effective or enjoyable to bring your pet somewhere it will be uncomfortable, bored or unwelcome. Consider itinerary, weather and the destination's pet-friendliness. Also consider the temperament of your pet. "Cats almost never travel well," he says.


Visit the vet. Factor the cost of a visit into your vacation budget. Air and car travel puts plenty of stress on pets, and making sure they're fit to travel can save you from a bigger vet bill down the line, says Paul Mann, the founder of Fetch! Pet Care. Most airlines also require a health certificate and proof of vaccinations issued within 10 days of your flight.


Put safety first. Flying with a pet in cargo isn't ideal -- that's where nearly all mishaps occur, says Betsy Saul, a co-founder of adoption site If you must check a pet, review the airline's track record of animal deaths and other problems. The Department of Transportation offers a month-by-month analysis. "Zero is the magic number," she says. "Even one death is too many."


Most airlines won't accept pets as cargo in extreme temperatures, but it's still the owner's responsibility to use good judgment, Saul says. Monitor the current and expected temperatures. Avoid travel for your pet if the conditions aren't ideal.


Compare fares. Fees vary by airline and how the pet travels (see chart below). Dogs weighing more than 20 pounds, as well as more exotic animals like snakes and birds, usually must travel in the cargo hold as checked baggage -- a pricier and less safe option.

For those animals, one option is Pet Airways. The pet-only airline, which flies its animal passengers in the main cabin, has added four cities since its debut last summer. Fares start at $99 for one-way for service to Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Omaha and Washington, D.C.


Pet Fees for Domestic Travel (One Way)



Checked Baggage/Cargo

* Data from individual airlines.



Not permitted.






$149 and up, based on weight of the animal.









Not permitted.



Not permitted.






Not permitted.

US Airways 


Not permitted.

Virgin America


Not permitted.


Book ASAP. Airlines allow just a few pets aboard, so you'll need to book early to grab a spot. If you miss Delta's four spots in coach, for example, the choices are to trade up to business or first class, each of which has two more spots available, or pick another flight. Look for a nonstop flight with a record of few delays to limit costs and your pet's discomfort.


Rack up miles. JetBlue and Continental offer frequent-flier miles for pet passengers, added to their human companion's account.


Book pet-friendly hotels. Ask about pet fees when booking, as well as any breed or size restrictions. Many chains, including Best Western, let pets stay free. Even those that do charge may be willing to waive the fee. "With the economy the way it is, hotels are just happy to get customers," Mann says.

At home

The average dog owner spent $273 last year on boarding, while cat owners spent an average $255, according to the American Pet Supply Association. Here's how to get the most for your money:


Break down charges. For kennels and sitters, get a detailed breakdown of the services included, as well as other options. "Many kennels are moving in the direction of being full-service spa facilities for pets," Zawistowski says. You may be able to negotiate a lower charge for bringing your pet's regular food to the kennel or forgoing sitter extras like mail pickup.


Sitters are usually cheaper, he says. Petaholics in New York charges $40 per night to board a cat. A 30-minute daily visit from a company sitter costs half that, and includes feeding, litter box maintenance and cat playtime, as well as mail pickup, plant watering and trash removal. But people who want a lot of extra services -- such as playtimes and activities for a social dog -- may find kennels the better option.


Review references. Choose a caregiver that's insured and has a clean background and good references, Mann says. Ask your veterinarian and pet-owning friends for recommendations. Schedule a pre-travel visit -- in-home for sitters, on-site for boarders -- to ensure you and your pet will be comfortable.


Book ASAP. Popular kennels and sitters book up fast for holidays and other peak travel times, Zawistowski says. Make arrangements as soon as you finalize travel plans to avoid getting shut out or paying last-minute premiums.


Check for discounts. Sitters and boarding facilities offer discounts and even loyalty programs. Midwest boarding chain Pet Suites of America offers a free day of boarding or day care (worth up to $41) for new clients, while Merry Murphy Pet Sitters in Charlotte, N.C., has discount package rates for regular clients (as low as $12 per day instead of $15).


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