How to Choose an On-Board Pet Carrier
Hurricane Irma was about to hit Florida in September last year, and my father-in-law's house in Tampa was predicted to be flooded. He was facing a mandatory evacuation, with two cats. Shortly before he left his house to evacuate on Southwest Airlines, he made a frantic phone call to his son and me. Could he fly with the pet carriers he had? Would they fit under the seat?
Although some airlines waived pet fees and most were lenient regarding pet carrier dimensions and policies during the evacuation — leading to a sort of "Noah's Ark" — these are questions many pet owners have when traveling with their pet in cabin during normal operations.
A reader recently wrote in to ask how to determine what pet carriers will fit under seats on particular aircraft. Although it's theoretically possible to determine the exact under-seat dimensions, relying on a particular underseat size isn't a good idea since an aircraft swap, the unexpected presence of an in-flight entertainment box or irregular operations could ruin your plans. Instead, for travel with a pet in cabin I recommend to:
- Use a carrier that's no larger than the smallest dimensions allowed by any airlines you might fly
- Use a soft-sided carrier, as this can slightly compress if needed. Some airlines allow slightly larger dimensions for soft-sided carriers while others flat-out require soft-sided carriers.
Each airline has specific policies regarding carriers for pets traveling in cabin. These policies usually include objective regulations for maximum carrier dimensions and weight of the carrier with the pet inside. Airline policies often also include more subjective regulations, such as:
- Adequate size: The animal must be able to turn around completely and lie down.
- Leak-proof: The flooring must be leak-proof
- Bite-proof: The animal shouldn't be able to bite through the carrier
- Breathable: Air should be able to enter the carrier freely
My husband, TPG writer JT Genter, and I recently started traveling with our cat, Grace, so I looked into many types of pet carriers before we left for Europe. Here's what I considered when choosing a pet carrier for air travel.
Accepted By Airlines
A carrier is useless for air travel if it's not accepted by the airline you're flying. Luckily, airlines that allow pets in cabin usually have detailed information on their websites. If you have any questions, ask them when you call to reserve your pet's space in the cabin.
Although you shouldn't have any issues if you follow the policies on the airline's website, Sherpa offers a "Guaranteed on Board" program for domestic US flights, domestic Canadian flights and flights between the US and Canada on covered airlines (which strangely still includes defunct AirTran). If you're denied boarding due to your Sherpa carrier on an eligible flight, they'll refund the cost of your flight and pet fee.
If your pet is an escape artist or just playful, you may need to get a carrier that has zippers that can be locked. Some carriers simply have clips or clasps that can secure the zippers once the animal is in the carrier while others feature zippers that can be locked with a luggage lock.
If your pet might attempt to claw, scratch or bite its way out of the carrier in stressful situations, you'll want to make sure the carrier's mesh is durable. If you have any doubts, keep an eye on the carrier and — as extreme as it may seem — bring some duct tape to secure the carrier if an escape is attempted mid-flight. Even better: see how your pet reacts to being in the carrier before the day of its first flight.
Pet carrier doors are usually either half or full zip on one or both ends of the carrier. Some carriers have a zipper on top of the carrier as well. If your pet doesn't willingly enter or exit the carrier, a zipper on top of the carrier can be handy for placing and retrieving the pet. Being able to easily remove your pet from the carrier at security check points reduces stress for everyone involved.
Sturdy, Washable Floorboard
The floorboard of the carrier should be sturdy so the carrier doesn't turn into a hammock when it's being carried.
Having a washable floorboard is useful if your pet has an accident — but it's also useful for cleaning fur and food from the carrier. Some carriers come with a machine-washable pad, but you could also wrap a favorite blanket from home around the floorboard for extra comfort and easier cleaning.
Some carriers have one or more expandable sections. These sections can be unzipped to allow more space for the pet during flight by expanding into your legroom. Unfortunately, the extra material in these expandable sections adds weight to the carrier and usually obscures the pet's view from inside the carrier. As such, expandability will only be attractive for some pets and owners.
Some pets like to see what's going on outside their carrier. These pets will prefer a carrier with many mesh sides. However, shy pets may feel safer in a carrier that feels more enclosed.
Another aspect to consider: weather. If you're going to be traveling consistently in cold or rainy areas, you'll want a carrier that's less open to rain and wind.
Different carriers can be carried differently. Most carriers feature a handle and some include a shoulder strap. Some carriers also offer an attachment for sitting on top of a rolling suitcase with a double-bar. Other carry-on pet carriers are on wheels. And some offer backpack straps, although most backpack carriers don't look very comfortable for the pet.
Some carriers are also designed to work with a seatbelt to secure the carrier in a seat while traveling by car. Consider how you're going to travel, what other luggage you'll have and the weight of your pet when deciding what carrying options you'll want and need.
You might want to carry some essentials like pet food, snacks, wipes and medications with the carrier. If your pet's weight isn't already close to the maximum weight allowed by your airline, then pockets on the carrier may be a perfect place for these items.
If you aren't going to carry these supplies in the pet carrier, make sure you have room for them in your carry-on baggage.
Most airlines require the carrier with your pet to be less than a particular weight — often between 5kg (11lbs) and 8kg (17.6lbs).
Unless your pet is lightweight or you're using a rolling carrier or one that rests on top of a rolling suitcase, go with the lightest carrier that has the features you need. Based on my experience carrying Grace around Europe for the last couple months, you'll appreciate any weight saved.
At this point, you might be wondering what pet carrier I'm currently using. After doing lots of research and reading plenty of reviews, I narrowed my choices to the following carriers.
Sherpa Original Deluxe Carrier
The Sherpa Original Deluxe Carrier is extremely popular on pet travel forums. It has many excellent features including top and side entry, mesh panels for ventilation, locking zippers, a patented spring wire frame, a rear pocket, padded hand carry straps, an adjustable shoulder strap, a machine-washable liner and a seatbelt and luggage attachment strap.
The small version of this carrier is "Guaranteed on Board" on most US and Canadian airlines while the medium version is "Guaranteed on Board" on American Airlines, United Airlines and Air Canada. The small version, designed for pets of 8lbs or less, is 15" long by 10" wide by 8.5" high and weights 3.4lbs. The medium version, designed for pets of 16lbs or less, is 17" long by 11" wide by 10.5" high and weights 4.2lbs.
I was set on buying the medium version of this carrier until I picked one up in a store. It was at this point that I decided 4.2lbs is simply too heavy for a pet carrier.
Mr. Peanuts Platinum Line Airline Approved Tote
The Mr. Peanuts Platinum Line Airline Approved Tote is another popular carrier. The carrier features an open air top, breathable mesh windows on top and four sides, zipper safety clasps, a zippered storage pocket, a padded shoulder strap and handle, removable bedding with 0.25" plywood base, washable nylon, a leash tether inside the carrier, a luggage strap and a safety seat belt buckle attachment.
This carrier is 18" long by 10.5" wide by 11" high, weighs 2.8lbs and is recommended for pets up to 15lbs. Mr. Peanut's says the carrier meets the in-cabin requirements of Delta, Southwest, United, American and Virgin.
The carrier contains many of the same features as the Sherpa Original Deluxe Carrier at a lower weight. However, it has less visibility for the pet while in the carrier. Mr. Peanuts also offers some carriers that are still relatively light-weight but also have one or two expandable sections.
Bergan Petite / Comfort Pet Carriers
In the end, we decided to use the Bergan Petite Pet Carrier we purchased in 2010 because (1) Grace fits well in the carrier, (2) it's very light and (3) it offers Grace excellent visibility. Unfortunately, Bergan no longer sells this carrier, but the most similar option is the Bergan Comfort Carrier.
The Bergan Comfort Carrier has fewer features than the Sherpa or Mr. Peanut's carriers and some users report that the carrier walls tend to fall inward. However, the carrier weighs under 1.9lbs. Plus, in our experience, Grace doesn't seem to mind the walls falling inward slightly.
The small version is 16" long by 8" wide by 11" high while the larger version is 19" long by 10" wide by 13" high. Both sizes are said to be "airline compatible."
Traveling with a pet requires extra planning and diligence to reduce stress and keep your your pet safe. One of the many steps on your check-list should be to find a carrier that satisfies the airline's requirements and is comfortable for both you and your pet.