"When Cats Fly"
Updated: Mar 18
Aries and I have traveled by plane several times in the past 6 months and I’ll admit I was very nervous the first few trips. However, having several air miles under our belt, we’d like to share what we’ve learned and how we prepare for a successful airplane adventure.
Table of Contents:
Airlines & Pet Policy
We often have people ask us, “Airlines allow cats to fly? How do you do this?”
The answer is: Yes! Most airlines allow cats to travel. Aries has traveled on American, Spirit, Southwest, and Frontier. EACH of these airlines had similar pet policies but different airfare prices for your feline’s ticket. Most pet policy include something like the following:
“We at ___ airlines are committed to keeping your pet safe! To do this, we require your pet stay in their carrier at all times and the carrier to remain under the seat in front of you for the duration of your flight.”
So, it’s important to find a carrier that can fit under the seat. Average dimensions for a seat are (18 x 14 x 8), although some may be wider or narrower. Our favorite bag (Petami backpack) has fit comfortably under all plane seats we’ve encountered. Often, we’ll even have space on the sides and with its flexible frame, it can be adjusted to fit any space that is outside the average dimensions above.
The second part of the pet policy usually includes the fee. This varies from airline to airline but here are the prices we’ve paid in the last 6 months:
American Airlines ($125)
These prices are for one-way tickets, so round trip with American is $250. Each airline has a different method for accepting payment for your pet, which can be a bit confusing so, always make sure to check for your airlines policy. For example: When we traveled with American Airlines, we had to call in advance to reserve a spot for Aries on the plane (American only allows a certain amount of pets per flight) but we had to wait and pay his fee at the airport at check-in for our flight. But for traveling with Frontier, we called in advance and paid for his reservation over the phone which saved us a step on the day of our flight.
Knowing the specifics of each airline is important for preparing your travel day with your kitty. You’ll want to budget for extra time anyway but knowing if you have to pay their reservation at check-in or if it can be done in advance will also affect this.
The final aspect regarding airline pet policy is your pet’s health documents. Now, it’s a good idea to have your pets documents on-hand while traveling and I use an app called VitusVet for this purpose. It keeps all of Aries records in one place. Additionally, if you use Fuzzy+, a 24/7 vet service, they also keep your vet records on their app. We have not had to show Aries’s vet records at any point in our air travel yet however, flying into another country may require these health documents and it’s always a good idea to have them on-hand anyways!
That’s the general rundown of airlines and pet policies. Next, we’ll cover how we prepare for air travel (what we pack and why) and then do a step-by-step walkthrough of a day of air travel with your cat.
I like to be very prepared for any situation. I overthink every aspect of the travel day and anticipate scenarios from bad to worse to make sure I can handle anything. I’ve always traveled with Aries and I alone and try to make sure I only take enough luggage and items that my two hands can manage. Here’s what I pack and why:
His Adventure “Essentials”, as I like to call them. This includes his backpack, harness, collar, leash, and pet First-Aid kit. It’s pretty obvious why I pack these items, they’re important for his safety.
Treats. The reason for this add is two-fold:
1. it can be used to distract him from something rambunctious, and 2. it helps gauge his level of stress. A cat won’t eat when they’re stressed so, if I offer him his favorite Delectables Squeeze-ups and his eyes are focused somewhere else and he doesn’t eat the treat, I know he’s anxious. I’ll remove him from whatever is chaotic and find a quiet corner to pet him and offer the treat again.
Blanket. Not something most people think of to pack for their cat but it’s invaluable. For example: there was a particular flight we were waiting to board in which all the seating was filled so we were out in the walkway. His bag was heavy on my shoulders so I set him down on the floor. The busy foot traffic, rolling suitcases, and occasional golf cart really stressed him out. I noticed he was getting anxious and tossed a blanket over his backpack. I peaked in, moments later, and he was laying comfortably at the bottom of his backpack, having calmed down. This blanket has traveled with us on all air adventures since and is very useful for giving him privacy and security.
Pee Pad + wet wipes. I purchased a pack of pee pads from PetSmart while preparing for our first trip. I wasn’t sure about the bathroom situation (which I will address in the next section) and I wanted to be prepared. These are small pads that I set at the bottom of his backpack at the start of our trip. They smell extremely clean and are super absorbent (or so the label says). Aries has never actually used the bathroom while at the airport or in the air. This is partly due to my keeping him from eating 4 hours before we travel but he’s also a bit nervous and intuitive to know when and where to use the bathroom (once, he’d hopped in my cousins car and traveled 50 miles to Dallas and I had to go pick him up and return home. He’d spent several hours without using the bathroom and as we neared home he began to meow and appeared uncomfortable. He waited until I opened the door at home to dart out and find a spot to squat! I greatly appreciated him NOT going in my car!) the wet wipes serve a similar purpose, these are great in case of an accident or vomiting episode!
Calming supplements. I always have these with me but haven’t used them yet. I have gabapentin pills (prescribed by our vet for travel stress) as well as Feliway spray, a calming pheromone spray that allows your cat to feel safe and secure. Like I said, I travel with these but only to use in extremely stressful situations that I can’t remove myself or Aries from.
Current picture of him, Airtag, and a unique identifying feature. I have these things in case we ever get separated in the airport. I’d want to be able to hand out a few pictures of him for help finding him, track him with the Airtag and have a unique identifying feature, in case I need to prove he’s mine (it was hard to find something on a black cat but I found a little birth mark in one of his ears!)
As we continue traveling and adventuring, this list morphs and changes. We recognize a need for new items or the lack of usefulness of an item already packed. This is a good list to start from but be sure to remain attentive to your pet for what their specific travel needs are!
The Travel Day
Having prepared and packed, you and your feline friend are ready to fly! It is recommended not to feed your cat within 4 hours of traveling. This helps prevent accidents while traveling but having a pee pad is a great way to anticipate this issue, if you want to be extra safe.
Depending on the airline and baggage you might check, arriving at the airport can be a busy time. I often keep Aries on my front so that others don’t crowd from behind and smush into his backpack (some people don’t notice you are traveling with a cat, especially if they’re quiet). Once we have checked-in the next step is security. This tends to be the most challenging aspect of air travel but the key is to remain calm and be prepared! (Only one of the times we’ve flown have we gotten a private security screening, and it was because the security line was using dogs to sniff the passengers as they walked by and I was told that even though my cat would be fine around dogs, it might distract them from their jobs) so, when we don’t have a private security screening, here is how Aries and I get through security:
I keep Aries in his bag (usually on my back during security) while I manage loading my items on the belt. I take off my shoes, remove my electronics, etc. while he remains in the bag.
Once those item are on the belt, I grab an extra tray and set Aries bag in the tray, as it will need to pass through the x-ray machine.
I attach (or previously attached) a leash to Aries harness and carefully pull him out of the bag, into my arms (pro-tip: make sure your kitty’s nails are trimmed and/or wear long sleeves) Often, security is the busiest, nosiest area of the airport. With machines whirring and fans blowing, it’s very easy for your cat to get scared and try to jump out of your arms. Make sure you hold them firmly and have the leash wrapped around your arm as well.
You and your kitty will walk through the body scanner machine and hopefully nothing dings (make sure to empty your pockets! It’s a hassle to find what is causing the ding when you’re trying to hold a cat!)
Once on the other side of the machine, a TSA agent will need to swab your hands, checking for any explosive residue (I can’t imagine what kind of person would rig their cat as an explosive but I guess it’s happened 😭) the TSA agent will run a quick test and will let you by once you’ve cleared.
The first thing I look for is his backpack. Usually I just walk over and place him in front of the bag, which he eagerly and quickly gets into. Either way, you want to secure your kitty in their bag after you’re through the machines.
With your kitty on your back, collect your belongings and find a quiet corner to repack and put shoes on before continuing on to your gate.
And that’s all there is to it! It can be pretty intimidating but truthfully, it’s completely manageable. As I mentioned before, many people are surprised to see a cat in my bag going through security so, I’ve designed this patch to add to his backpack:
After security, you may want to go directly to your gate or a shop or wherever. Something I recommend for all first time feline travelers is find the Pet Relief Station. This is a indoor “dog park” for dogs to relieve themselves before boarding. I will admit, they are not very cat-friendly (no litter box, scratch tree, etc) which is something I hope will change as more people venture out with their cats! I still recommend checking it out because it could allow your cat sometime to stretch their legs before a flight, relieve themselves (if they’re brave!), or just indulge in the ever-present kitty curiosity!
When I arrive at my gate, I always look for a spot next to a big window. Aries enjoys the sunshine and being able to look out at things that are moving and happening. Usually, we’ll settle down to watch the planes taxi or the workers run around as we wait to board. I offer him treats and get snacks for myself.
The boarding process is rather simple. You stand in line, scan your ticket, and find your seat. Once there, you’ll need to fit the backpack under the seat in front of you. This is very easy to do if you are the first to your row, which i’m always hoping for. However, if you arrive and find others already in your row, try to fit the bag down there or politely ask someone to step out to make it easier. I’m always afraid I’ll end up sitting next to someone who hates cats or perhaps has an allergy to them so, as I meet my seat mates, I introduce Aries and just let them know he’s a seasoned traveler who likes to nap for the majority of the flight. Thankfully, we’ve only experienced very kind and friendly seat mates who have fallen in love with Aries!
The pivotal moment of air travel is take-off and landing. I have found that Aries prefers landing over take-off, based on his body position. Usually as people board and find their seats, he stretches out and is very relaxed. As we taxi for take-off, he curls up and presses against the mesh of the backpack. If i’m petting him, he tries to squeeze his way out of the bag into my lap (not allowed for both his safety, and mine). He is not very vocal and does not meow or screech at take-off but he obviously becomes more tense. There is no great way to counteract the stress of take-off but if you want to try and offer treats, go for it. This could also help equalize ear pressure as we gain altitude, if they are willing to eat the treat (Aries often does not eat the treat). Once we reach cruising altitude, Aries visibility relaxes again. He stretched out, is receptive of pets and pats, and will eat treats. The landing is easier than take off because there’s usually less noise (until the wheels contact) and he’s less aware that we are descending and only feels the of kilter touch-down momentarily before we stabilize.
I leave Aries under his seat until it’s our turn to disembark. I offer treats and pets as we wait. He’s usually really happy to get love and attention. I pull him out from under the seat and head off the plane!
Hope this was helpful! If you have any additional questions, feel free to drop it in the comments or send us a message @theHikeLifeCat on instagram!