May 30, 2012 -- Celebrities make traveling with pets look so easy. But is it? What does it cost? What products do you need? And is it worth the hassle?
To answer these pressing questions I enlist the help of Nikki, a 9-pound Chihuahua terrier. She's a foster dog from the Tony LaRussa Animal Rescue Foundation and she seems a willing flight companion.
First the ticket: you have to pay extra for an onboard pet, usually $60 to $125. The animal needs a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection to show that it's up to date on vaccinations and generally healthy. You get this from your vet and it's worth calling as soon as you can to get that in the works.
Next the logistics of what to carry the dog in. Carriers have changed a lot. No longer are you relegated to hard plastic crates with wire-mesh doors. Lisa Gill of Conde Nast Traveler magazine brings more than four 4 different styles of carriers (special thanks to Wag.com for providing review units of the carriers).
First we looked at the classic soft-sided carrier; the Sherpa ($70). It has lots of mesh and plenty of head-room, and it fits the requirements. "All carriers must be airline approved and uncrushable, but you have to think not just about the dog's comfort but your own," Gill said. And the Sherpa was boxy and a little unwieldy for me to schlep through the airport.
The next option is the Petvoyage Trolley ($73) with both wheels and backpack straps. We also look at the bright orange Teafco Argo ($99), which is very sturdy but is a little too small for Nikki.
I settle on the Sleepy-Pod Air ($149), which is roomy and comfy inside, but the big selling point is that it can be carried by the shoulder strap or latched onto my roll-aboard bag.
Gill also advises: "Be sure to get your dog very familiar and comfortable with the crate before you go. This has to be a happy place for your pup."
On the day of travel the big jobs are to give your dog a good walk (but don't dehydrate her) and feed her at her regular times because she won't be able to eat or drink on the plane.
At the airport, I struggled to manage Nikki and all my other luggage, so a big lesson: pack light. You need to check your dog in and they need their own boarding pass to get through security and on the plane. Also, your dog in its carrier counts as one of your two pieces of carry-on luggage.
Before going through the security line, it's time to take Nikki out for her last chance to heed nature's call. Many airports now have pet-relief areas that are great for dogs headed out on long flights. But they are often located a far cry from the airport's central areas (for obvious reasons) and you really need to allocate a good 30 minutes of extra time to afford your dog a chance to go.
We head to security and I remember one of Gill's warnings: "Don't put the carrier with the dog in it on the conveyor belt." No problem, I can carry her through but then I notice that all the people in my line are headed for the Backscatter X-ray machine where you stand spread eagle with your hands above your head. With a dog, this could be awkward. Luckily, the TSA agent shuttles me to the traditional walk-through scanner where I can easily hold Nikki. And a bonus, her collar doesn't set off the alarm.
After security there's more of the luggage shuffling, putting items back in my roll-aboard bag, putting Nikki back in her carrier and affixing the carrier to my wheelie-bag. We make it to the plane and with the sandwich and drink I'm now holding, my hands are too full, and it's a struggle to board and get into my seat.
Nikki goes under the seat and even though I'm not supposed to take her out, I need to put her sweater on, so I wrestle the turtleneck over her head inside the partially zipped carrier.
Nikki goes under the seat and it's wheels up. This blessed dog makes not one peep the entire flight, she sleeps a little, she moves a few times, but generally she is a saint.
Once we arrive in New York, it's another shuffle with the luggage and a sprint to the doggie-relief area.
All in all, we had as pain-free of a travel experience with a pet as one could have, but the take away for me, too much hassle. I get it if you're moving or you need to transport the pet.
But I think of travel as a care-free, getaway from logistics. Travelling with pets adds more variables, more responsibilities and, for me, it's just not worth it.