The reality of international travel with your dog: How Bandido flew from Vietnam to the US

Oct 31, 2021

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Rewind a few months and my husband and I were happily living a pretty stress-free life in Da Nang, Vietnam, with our rescue pup, Bandido.

We had a great group of friends, an apartment we wouldn’t have been able to afford anywhere else and easy access to unbelievable nature.

That’s when things started to get a little messy.

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First, Vietnam started to mandate some changes with visas, making our current situation as foreigners living in the country not as stable as it once was. Due to these changes, we started to plan our next move. My husband and I have been traveling the world for nearly a decade, but this was the first time we’d be doing it with Bandido.

Bandido’s story

A woman holding a smiling dog
Pals from the beginning. (Photo courtesy of Kat Smith)

We rescued Bandido in July 2019, after a local organization found him and his siblings abandoned in a rice field in Hoi An, Vietnam. Luckily, all of his siblings were adopted and ended up with really caring families.

Bandido and all of his siblings are nervous pups. They’re loyal and adventurous but don’t always handle change as well as you’d hope, especially given we were gearing up for a huge change.

While we balanced the visa issues and weighed our options, we started getting Bandido ready for international travel, just in case.

This meant, getting him up to date on his vaccines, introducing him to his new travel crate and making sure he met all the guidelines set up by airlines.

In reality, while I was doing all this, I was feverishly looking for a way to get him out of Vietnam without needing to fly. I always envisioned us taking the longest train in the world from Vietnam to Portugal, stopping along the way, and taking the time for us to travel and really enjoy the journey.

As we’re all aware, COVID-19 had other plans for us. Vietnam has handled the virus with extreme caution since day one and hadn’t eased up by the time we were preparing to leave the country. That meant, fly out or stay in.

Getting ready to fly

dog laying on top of a crate
Bandido gets used to the crate before the flight. (Photo by Kat Smith)

I was still on the fence about what to do when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that they would soon temporarily ban pets from flying into the U.S. No announcement said how long that ban would be, so we decided not to risk it. We’d need to fly out … ASAP.

With that mandate coming in and our visas expiring, it meant we had two weeks to book flights and ensure Bandido was ready to go.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a fun two weeks.

It started with finding the perfect flight. Typically, I’m not worried about the “perfect” flight and can make do with any amount of layovers, but now with Bandido to worry about, I needed a flight that took off late and landed early, so he could avoid the hottest parts of the day, especially since we were having to fly in the summer. I also wanted minimal layovers and the fastest flight time.

Flying from Vietnam to Atlanta isn’t fast, regardless of which flight you book, but I was able to find a flight that met our requirements and was with Korean Air, an airline notoriously careful with pets.

Once the logistics were finally settled, we were ready to fly. Our route took us from Da Nang to Hanoi, Hanoi to Seoul, Seoul to Atlanta. (Here’s a review of first class on Korean Air’s Atlanta to Seoul route.)

The day of the flights

We used the flight from Da Nang to Hanoi as a sort of “training wheels” for Bandido and stayed the night in the city. We wanted to show him that after the flight, we’d be there to pick him up.

One thing that really caught us off guard was when we were checking in for the flights, the airlines had us sign a waiver saying that if anything happened to Bandido during the travels, it would not be their responsibility. It was something we had to sign if we wanted to fly and although it didn’t help my anxiety that day, I do understand why the airlines have it.

We were happy to see all the airline staff on Air Vietnam and Korean Air treated Bandido really well. They were gentle with his crate when we dropped him off and picked him up. They even gave me an update on how he was doing during our layover in Seoul.

While I can’t be sure how it felt to be Bandido flying in cargo, I do know he handled it like a champ. His crate was in great condition when he landed, meaning he didn’t try to chew his way out or destroy the sheet and clothes we had in there with him. He did take some nibbles out of his plastic food bowl so if you have the option, I’d opt for metal bowls instead.

Bandido is now on his next adventure, traveling with us in a converted van throughout the U.S. His anxiety is lessening with the new experiences, but he still prefers to be right by our side.

I know from experience that if you’re in a similar situation we were in, it won’t be very fun, but it should be worth it once the traveling is done with and you’re reunited with your dog on the other side.

4 things to know to book a flight for your dog

A dog in Hue, Vietnam
Bandido in Hue, Vietnam. (Photo by Kat Smith)

Here are some top things you need to keep track of when you’re booking an international flight for your dog:

Can you pet fly in cabin or cargo?

The answer to this question will most likely come down to your dog’s size.

Meaning: Can your dog fit in a carrier underneath the seat in front of you, just like a carry-on bag?

If “yes,” is your dog and carrier under 8kg (18 pounds)?

If “yes” again, your dog will most likely be able to fly in the cabin with you. Lucky you!

For the rest of us who answered “no” to either of those questions, that means our dogs must fly in cargo with the suitcases. This idea gave me gut-wrenching anxiety until the moment I picked Bandido up in Atlanta. As soon as we got Bandido out of his crate, it was like the past 24 hours never occurred. Talk about relief!

Plus, it helped to know that flights that accept pets in cargo will have air conditioning and cabin control for them, ensuring they’ll be safe in flight.

Does your airline allow pets to fly?

Not all airlines allow pets to fly in cabin or cargo so before you make any arrangements or get your heart set on a particular flight, check the airline’s regulations on flying with pets.

It’s worth noting that COVID-19 has changed some of these policies so even if your pet could previously fly with you, that doesn’t mean they still can.

Here are the pet travel policies of a variety of airlines:

Is there a “seat” left for your dog?

This is particularly for those of you with your dog in cargo. Airlines only allow a certain number of animals on each flight, so before you book your flight, call the airline. Make sure you have a flight already in mind and know the flight number. With this information, you’ll be told whether or not there will be space for your dog on the flight.

This is where the hustle comes in.

When I called, the airline employee told me there was only one space left for Bandido on the flight we preferred. They’re unable to hold any spaces and instead, I needed to book our flights online, then call back with my booking information for them to then add my dog to my booking.

I didn’t waste any time. I booked our flights immediately and called the airline employee right back. Luckily, the few minutes of stress was worth it and we were able to secure the last doggie “spot” on the flight.

Do you have all your pet’s information?

When you call back you’ll need to have this information ready:

  • Your flight confirmation number.
  • Dog breed.* This one was tricky since Bandido is mixed and all his paperwork simply said “mixed.” If you’re in a similar situation, speak with your vet and get them to help you decide on two breeds that your dog could be mixed with, not just one.
  • Vaccination records for your dog. The vaccines required will depend on the country you’re flying out of and into. Your vet will help you understand this.
  • Total weight of your dog plus its crate. We didn’t have a scale in our apartment so I made my best guess. When we checked in with the airline, I realized my guess was close, although not completely accurate. They didn’t seem bothered.

* Note that the dog breed is particularly important because not all breeds are allowed to fly on all airlines. Airlines are most strict when it comes to short-nose dogs. The airline employee recommended I give two breeds, instead of just one to ensure he was not mixed with a short-nose dog or a dog breed on their “no-fly” list.

After taking care of all of this, you’ll need to wait for the airline to confirm your request. Korean Air confirmed Bandido within 24 hours.

Bottom line

A dog and his owner sitting on top of a van
Bandido visits the Grand Tetons. (Photo courtesy of Kat Smith)

Traveling with your pet can be incredibly stressful but sometimes you have no alternatives. Bandido made the trip successfully and still looks forward to traveling with us — especially when it comes to road trips.

Featured photo by Kat Smith

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