Pack your pup: How to travel around Italy with a small dog

Dec 18, 2021

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“You need another ticket! You cannot board like this!”

The woman in charge of admitting passengers onto the ferry from Naples to Ischia, Italy, is screaming at me. Waving her finger at my dog Poppy and shaking her head, she continues: “Cane needs a ticket.”

Ah gotcha, the dog needs a ticket for the ferry. I send my friend Monica, who is traveling with us, back to the kiosk to fetch an animal fare ticket and we are on our way. This is honestly the first hurdle I’ve come across since departing from Denver for Rome with my 12-pound Chiweenie named Poppy (@jetsetpup on Instagram) the week prior. Everything else from the international flight to entering the country had gone way easier than I had expected.

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Dog waiting on a dock for the ferry
Poppy waits for the ferry. (Photo by Becca Blond)

It’s easy to take a small dog to Italy

With a little planning, it is very easy to take a small dog to Italy from the U.S. My pup Poppy is a psychiatric service animal trained to assist me with the panic attacks I’ve experienced regularly since I was a child. But as a small dog, she is also pet-friendly when it comes to flying in airline cabins. And so for the purpose of this article, with the exception of the flight, I traveled like Poppy was a pet to bring you the most accurate information on taking an Italian vacation with your best four-legged friend.

A little dog in a travel bag, about to board a flight
Photo by Becca Blond

Before you hop on a plane with your pet, however, you’ll need to do some prep work. Unless your pup has a valid EU Pet Passport, to enter Italy with a dog from the U.S. you will need an EU Health Certificate. This can be filled out by an accredited veterinarian where you live, but then must be sent to your local USDA veterinarian’s office for endorsement and then returned to you before departure. The certificate is only valid for 10 days from the date of issue by the official USDA veterinarian for entry into the EU. It can take the USDA vet up to two days to process the certificate, so plan accordingly to make sure you make the window.

To obtain the health certificate your dog must also be microchipped and have a valid rabies certification. Poppy’s vet in Denver issues these certificates and makes the process easy by including sending the forms to the USDA. The return FedEx shipping envelope is included in their fee, which was around $200. But check with your vet as this varies. Once in the EU, your dog can travel between countries in the Schengen Area for up to four months.

The health certificate is usually checked by your airline prior to boarding and then at customs when entering Italy. When I cleared immigration, however, there was no one at customs checking forms. I carried my form with me for the rest of the trip in case I was asked for it.

Italians love dogs

A dog enjoys breakfast on a terrace in Italy
(Photo by Becca Blond)

Once inside Italy, the country is extremely dog friendly and you’ll find pups are welcomed in many more places than they are in the U.S. This includes most outdoor dining areas, hotels and on trains and ferries. Italians also genuinely love dogs and Poppy had fans almost immediately.

My trip began with a week in Tuscany followed by a few nights in Rome and then a week on the magical island of Ischia off the coast of Naples. I found the combination of destinations the perfect dog-friendly holiday.

In Tuscany, we stayed in the countryside about 30 minutes outside Florence at two properties owned by the son and grandchildren of fashion designer Salvatore Ferragamo, Il Borro and Viesca Toscana. Both properties are extremely welcoming to dogs and the Ferragamos themselves can only be described as serious dog lovers.

When I dined with Salvatore Ferragamo, the fashion designer’s first grandson and the CEO of the luxury Relais & Chateau Il Borro hotel and wine estate where I stayed, he insisted on sending a car to grab Poppy from the room so she could join us for lunch.

“But she must come,” Ferragamo told me. “I will have them send a car to your room to get her. Will she be OK with that?”

Poppy is a princess who adores attention, so yes, she was perfectly OK with that.

A small dog enjoying the Italian sunset
(Photo by Becca Blond)

At lunch, while we chatted about wine, sustainable luxury and his family’s latest hotel venture, Viesca Toscana (the 170-acre estate and 16th-century manor house that once belonged to his grandparents and can now be rented by guests), Ferragamo held Poppy in his lap and fed her bites of prosciutto and bread dipped in house-made organic olive oil.

“I love dogs. We all love dogs in this family,” he said with a grin, then whipped out his phone to show me pictures of his pup.

Both properties were paradise for pups with plenty of space to run around and no outdoor spaces off-limits to their explorations. Occupying a medieval village dating back to the 13th-century that is connected to the estate’s restaurants, spa and swimming pool by a stone bridge, Il Borro’s pastel hues, gardens and ancient buildings are perfectly suited for an Instagram photoshoot should you be looking to up your dog’s social media game as well.

La Dolce Vita in Ischia

Just 45 minutes by ferry from Naples, the island of Ischia was perhaps Poppy’s favorite destination of all. To reach Naples we traveled by train from Rome. The trip takes just over an hour and tickets cost $60 each way. Dogs do not need a ticket to ride the train in Italy and while they are supposed to be contained in a carrier of some kind, no one asked us to place Poppy in one (she did get a lot of compliments for her good looks and perfect ears by other passengers and Italian rail employees).

Once in Naples, you’ll need to catch a taxi from the train station to the port where you can purchase ferry tickets to Ischia. This is the only part of the trip that required Poppy to have a ticket. The dog ferry ticket costs less than $6, however, so it is quite affordable. Human ferry tickets are around $15. On the ferry, I held Poppy on my lap and no one asked me to put her in a carrier, although I had one just to be safe.

A dog on a ferry in Italy
Poppy rides the ferry. (Photo by Becca Blond)

With its clear, calm water and mix of gold sand and black pebble beaches, the volcanic island of Ischia offers dogs who like to swim the sweet life. Despite being mostly Chihuahua, Poppy enjoys dipping her paws into the sea and is quite a strong swimmer. She was happy to frolic on the sand near our hotel where she even befriended another Chihuahua mix whose family owned one of the shops on the beach.

My favorite place to stay in Ischia is the Regina Isabella Resort in the charming small town of Lacco Ameno, right on the beachfront. A stay here feels like walking on to a Hollywood movie set from the 1950s in all the best ways, with opulent crystal chandeliers, vases of fresh flowers, elegant furnishings, gold gilding and servers in white tuxedos. I couldn’t get enough of the hand-painted blue tiles in my room in the Royal Wing that also had two balconies overlooking the sea and Poppy loved sitting on the cushioned chaise lounge watching the world go by.

The service here is in a league of its own and our every whim was catered to. The staff remembered my drink preferences and Poppy’s name. When it was time for breakfast or dinner at their main restaurant, DolceVita, a special table was set up outside for my friend Monica and myself so Poppy could dine with us as dogs are not allowed inside the restaurant itself.

For more of a garden estate experience with opportunities for you and your dog to get in some serious steps, check out Botania Relais & Spa on a hill above Lacco Ameno town. The focus here is on relaxation and the thermal baths and health spa and children must be at least 12-years-old to stay. Dogs of any age are welcome, however.

Roaming Rome, an urban pup paradise

Our last stop before flying out was Italy’s Holy City. If your dog likes to roam, Rome is a perfect city to do so. Compact and walkable, it’s easy to walk between all the main attractions so you don’t have to worry about taking a taxi with your pup — although I had no trouble bringing Poppy in a taxi when I called one to take me from the train station to the airport at the end of the trip.

In Rome, we stayed at the Sofitel Villa Borghese, which has a great location at the top of one of Rome’s seven hills adjacent to the Villa Borghese, a large park area perfect for a morning walk on grass with your pup. The luxe hotel has a French elegant vibe throughout and the rooms, while small, are chic with luxe furnishings and very comfy beds, plus a gorgeous rooftop restaurant, Settimo. The hotel is just a 10-minute walk from the capital city’s main attractions and shopping streets including the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. Within 25-minutes of walking, you will reach St. Peter’s Square and the Sistine Chapel.

Poppy loved her treatment at the Sofitel, which included a comfy dog bed and lots of compliments from the staff.

A dog and his bed at an Italian hotel
(Photo by Becca Blond)

Flying with a dog

A dog takes an airplane ride to Italy
Poppy in flight. (Photo by Becca Blond)

From my home base in Denver, I flew on United to Newark and then from Newark directly to Rome. For the flight itself, Poppy flew as a service animal because I needed her working to assist me with the panic attacks that are most often triggered on airline flights. (I know I’m in the wrong career for this type of anxiety). As such, I didn’t pay an extra fee for her to fly on United and she wasn’t required to be in a carrier that fit under my seat.

Service animals are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for individuals with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental health disabilities. There are no breed restrictions or weight limitations to fly with a trained service animal, but the Department of Transportation requires me to fill out a behavior attestation form before I travel that attests to my need for a service animal along with Poppy’s training, weight, breed rabies vaccination dates and veterinarian information. Lying on these forms can result in felony charges. The policy has gotten much stricter since the DOT banned Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) from flying in January 2021.

Additionally, because the flight was more than eight hours long, I had to fill out a form stating Poppy could either refrain from using the bathroom on the plane or providing a potty plan (like a pee pad or carrier — Poppy is able to hold it). United goes out of its way to make flights comfortable for travelers with disabilities, whether these are mental health-related or physical, and we were seated in a special row of Economy Plus.

Had Poppy been flying as a pet, she would have needed to be inside an approved hard or soft-sided kennel carrier that could fit completely under the seat in front of us. This requirement limits the size of dogs that can fly as the kennels must not be more than 18 inches long, 11 inches wide and 11 inches high and the animal must be able to stand up and turn around comfortably.

Unlike many airlines, United Airlines allows you to reserve a flight for your pet online rather than having to call the airline. This means you can book your dog or cat’s spot at the same time as your ticket, a plus since only four to six pets can travel in-cabin per flight (depending on the size of the plane). The fee for pets to fly is $125 each way, and you will be assigned to a specific seat that can accommodate your dog’s (or cat’s) carrier.

Bottom line

As I hope I’ve illustrated here, traveling with a well-trained dog — even internationally — is not nearly as difficult as you might imagine. If you’ve dreamed of traveling with your canine companion, there are ways to plan that perfect overseas trip.

Featured photo by Becca Blond

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