Holiday Travel with Your Dog

A lightweight dog crate is ideal for travel. Set one up in the car to keep your dog safe while on the road,
then take it out and use it at your destination.
Photo via

To grandmother’s house you go for the holidays: why not bring the beloved family dog, too? It’s only natural you’d want to include her in the holiday fun, after all. And if she goes, she’s in good company: millions of doggies take to the roads (and skies, and even rails) with their families for vacation travel annually. But travel can be tricky for our companion animals and for us, especially this time of year. Read on for tips to help minimize stress for everybody—on two legs and four—when you choose to travel with your dog during the holidays.

We need to see your doggie papers, please.
Before you travel out of state with your dog on any kind of vessel, the United States Department of Agriculture requires you to obtain and carry a health certificate declaring your dog disease-free. You’ll have to take her to the vet to get one, but most health certificates are good for about a month. This is also the perfect chance to ask the vet about sedatives or other remedies for a travel-anxious dog.

Is there enough room at the inn?
Unless you really want to sleep in the barn, ask yourself these questions first if you plan to bring your dog with you to a family member’s home for the holidays:

  • How will your dog tolerate the noise and excitement of a family gathering?
  • Does your family like your dog?
  • Does your family have another dog or dogs? How well will your dog get along with them?

Find out ahead of time whether anybody is nervous and talk about the best way to make introductions. Supervise your dog always but especially around children, and ask your host to keep dangerous objects and food out of harm’s way while you’re there: holiday celebrations overflow with all kinds of hazards to dogs and other pets.

If you will stay in a dog-friendly hotel, make your reservation by phone with an agent instead of booking your room online, and do it early—the holidays are busy. Ask the agent these questions:

  • Are there weight or breed restrictions?
  • Does the hotel use its designated smoking rooms as its dog-friendly rooms?
  • Is it possible to get a room on the ground floor, or adjacent to an elevator or stairwell?
  • Will the hotel allow you to leave your dog alone in the room?

Don’t leave your dog alone in the hotel room if she’s likely to panic in your absence. But if you can reliably leave her, tell the front desk she’s there and give them your cell number for emergencies.

Planes, Trains, & Automobiles: How will you and your dog get there?
Car travel with a dog is arguably less stressful for her than other modalities, especially if she’s already a road warrior. If your car is packed with holiday presents and edibles, devise a strategy to keep your pooch out of them: they are potentially hazardous to her health. Then observe the same car travel rules you would any time you travel with her.

Tips for Holiday Car Travel with Your Dog

  • Exercise your dog before you go: it’ll help calm her for the ride.
  • Restrain your dog using a harness system that works with the car’s seat belts, or in a travel crate large enough for her to stand up and turn around (crate train her before your trip). Remove her collar when you crate her—it’s a strangulation hazard. And never put her in the front seat.
  • Give her access to water, keep her out of the sun, and avoid leaving her in the car alone for lengthy spells—extreme temperatures are deadly.
  • Take frequent breaks for her to stretch her legs and do her doings; keep her leashed outside the car always, and make sure she is properly identified with a personalized collar, current tags, and a microchip.
  • Bring familiar toys and blankets to help alleviate stress. Try aromatherapy for a travel-anxious dog: apply some calming lavender oil to your fingers and massage it deeply into the base of her head or top of her spine.
  • Don’t feed a dog who gets carsick before or during travel; instead offer her small, protein-rich snacks periodically.
  • Bring just enough of her familiar dog food from home for your holiday trip; feed her the same portion sizes she’s used to, and stick to the same feeding schedule if you can.
  • Pack a canine first-aid kit, and note the contact info for the emergency vet clinic in your destination town.
  • Give her some quiet time and a soft spot to crash when you get there.

Renting a car for holiday travel? All major rental car companies allow pets, but book at least two weeks ahead to ensure you’re not smooshing your Great Pyrenees into a Honda Fit.

One (Tiny Dog) if by Air
That’s all you’re allowed in the cabin of most airlines: your dog must fit into a crate that will slide under the seat in front of you. If she’s too big, down she goes into the plane’s cargo hold. But you’ll have made the proper arrangements for her well in advance of your flight. The bottom line: call the airline and find out the rules. TSA controls what gets to the gate in the airport terminal, but individual airlines set their own policies for pets aboard aircraft. Book your ticket by phone with an agent and ask copious questions to avoid unpleasant surprises on travel day. And make sure you understand your airline’s paperwork requirements when you book the flight: they may ask to see your dog’s health certificate as many as ten days before you fly.


Tips for Holiday Air Travel with Your Dog

General Wisdom:

  • Book early; airlines maintain flight quotas for animals and the holidays are busy.
  • Expect to pay for the privilege of air travel with your dog: in-cabin flight fees start around $125 one way, cargo tickets can be more costly.
  • Be advised most vets discourage the use of tranquilizers for anxious dogs on planes because they can be deadly at high altitudes; if your pooch is stressed, try alternative remedies to calm her.
  • Familiarize yourself with the pet-relief areas outside the airports where you’ll travel and give your dog the chance to “go” as close to your departure time as possible: once inside the terminal and through security, she won’t have any other chances ‘til you reach your destination. Then crate her before you go inside the airport to help insulate her from the chaos around her.

If you must ship your dog as cargo:

  • Avoid travel in extreme cold or heat. This might be challenging during the holidays, but the most dangerous part of air travel for your dog is exposure to the elements on the tarmac, and hot or cold temperatures inside the cargo hold while the plane waits to take off.
  • Make sure she’s well hydrated, but don’t feed your dog for six hours before your flight. And try not to make a scene when you hand her off to the airline: this will only ratchet up her travel anxiety.

If she’s flying with you in the cabin:

  • Bring enough food, water, and meds for your pup for travel delays and emergencies. Dry dog food is allowed in the cabin, wet food must be checked at security. Bring an empty plastic pet travel bottle and fill it after you’ve gone through airport security.
  • Hold your dog in your arms and walk through the scanner with her—do not send her down the X-ray belt in her crate.

Air travel caveat: Hawaii is a land unto itself, with very strict quarantine rules; refer to the State of Hawaii Animal Industry Division for more about bringing a pet to the islands.

Riding the Rails with Your Dog
Amtrak recently began allowing pets on some trains. Its rules are similar to airline rules for in-cabin travel for dogs (read: your very small dog must ride in a crate that fits under the seat). But unlike most airlines, Amtrak does not allow dogs as checked luggage; visit their website for specifics.

If you can bring your dog along for your holiday celebrations, that’s great for a couple of reasons: you won’t miss each other, and you won’t worry about her care in your absence. She knew the instant your bags came out of the closet what was up—how can you deny those beseeching eyes and that heartfelt, tail-wagging enthusiasm? But it’s also important to know your dog and be realistic about traveling with her: in spite of her assertions to the contrary, she may finally be happier at home for the holidays.

One thought on “Holiday Travel with Your Dog”

  1. It seems odd and a little unnerving because you’re not flying with your dog, or at least you’re not guaranteed to fly with your dog, but I’ve heard flying dogs too big for the cabin is actually safer as live animal air cargo than as “checked baggage,” where the animal has to stay on the same itinerary as the passenger/owner. Source:

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