In Dog Parenthood, Travel

When Spark(s) Fly: Traveling with an In-Cabin Pet

As expats and travel enthusiasts, flying is an inevitable and frequent part of our typical routine. David’s job requires him to fly for up to 60% of the year. I studied abroad twice in college and traveled extensively with my family growing up. Today I often accompany David on trips. We also head home to the Midwest several times a year and travel internationally as a couple, too.

When we adopted our dog Spark in 2017, however, things got just a little more complicated. Not wanting to leave our new puppy behind in San Francisco when we headed home to Michigan for the holidays, we researched how to fly with her in-cabin. Here’s what we found out.

This post focuses on flying with an in-cabin pet. If you’d like to learn more about bringing a pet abroad, check out this post about our experience moving Spark to London.

1. Size Restrictions

The good news for us is that Spark is small, weighing fifteen pounds (and much less in 2017), so she is permitted to fly in-cabin with us. An “in-cabin pet” is a dog or cat that rides in a carrying case under the seat in front of his or her human companion.

For larger animals, the in-cabin option is off the table and owners have to consider cargo options. This is a major reason why we chose a small breed of dog, knowing we’d want her to accompany us on our various journeys.

You can check airline-specific size restrictions by Googling your airline and “in-cabin pet” to make sure your pet will qualify. We fly United Airlines with Spark and here are its in-cabin pet regulations.

2. Age Restrictions

Spark’s first flight was direct from San Francisco to Detroit for the Thanksgiving holiday. By this time she was five months old and potty-trained, so we felt she would be able to tolerate the flight.

In addition to size, airlines also restrict the age of those pets traveling in-cabin. Both dogs and cats must be over eight weeks of age, so make sure to plan any travel with your pet for after the eight-week mark.

Depending on your pet’s health and individual needs, it might be advisable to wait until they are quite a bit older, too. Keep in mind that a long day of travel can be very tiring for a young animal. There’s also the added stress of not being able to take them out to go to the bathroom, to feed them easily, or the risk of dehydration.

3. Breed Restrictions

As we had hoped, Spark tolerated her first flight extremely well. She slept most of the way and didn’t have any accidents or other problems during the five-hour journey.

If you have a bulldog, pug, or other short-nosed or brachycephalic breed, however, he or she may not tolerate flying well. Check with the airline and your vet whether your pet should fly. Due to the respiratory systems of these breeds, they can risk health problems in-flight.

4. Carrying Case Restrictions

Instead of indicating the actual size of dogs permitted to fly on their planes, most airlines simply provide parameters for the dimensions of your dog or cat’s carrying case. Since these dimensions vary from airline to airline, make sure to look up those for the airline you’re flying before choosing a carrying case.

Keep in mind that your pet will count as one of your two carry-on bags—this means you will have only one additional piece of carry-on luggage in your possession during the flight. For us, this meant that Spark’s carrying case needed to double as extra in-flight storage.

In other words—look for a carrying case with pockets! Most carrying cases do not have many pockets, which not only means you can’t store your own stuff in this bag at all, but you also lack essential storage for your pet’s flying essentials like a leash, water, paperwork, treats, etc.

We ended up choosing the Sleepypod Air because it has so many large pockets in which we keep everything from Spark’s leash to her water bottle to our iPad. When looking for the right carrying case, we also took these factors into consideration:


Your pet will need to be able to relax in their case so make sure it’s comfortable and sturdy for them. But also make sure it’s comfortable when you’re carrying it through the airport. A pet carrier with a soft interior such as a fleece or sherpa lining will keep your pet cozy while a padded carrying strap will keep your shoulders from getting sore.


It’s important that your pet be able to sleep in their case, which is more likely to happen if they’re in a dark cozy environment. Look for a case with the option of “blacking out” the mesh area but still allows plenty of air flow.

Spark’s case has a black insert that you can put in to block out light during flights or when walking through the airport, as the crowds may overwhelm your pet. Spark, although extremely social, is definitely calmer when she’s inside her dark Sleepypod in busy airport settings.


Your pet is new to flying and he or she will be in a small case for many hours. There’s a chance that even the most potty-trained dog might have an accident during travel. In order to keep them dry, comfortable, and odor-free, look for a potty-resistant insert for your carrying case.

We bought these inserts for Spark, which fit perfectly inside her Sleepypod Air. They’re amazingly absorbent and keep your pet and the carrying case dry and clean.

5. Health Restrictions

Make sure to visit your vet before flying anywhere with your pet. It’s a good idea to get a check-up to make sure your pet is healthy enough to fly—it can be stressful for them!

Although your airline may or may not ask for it, it’s a good idea to have your vet process a traveling certificate for your pet. It will cost you a bit of money (between $10 and $30 probably) but is very worth it. The certificate will also certify that your pet’s rabies vaccination is up to date—a requirement for flying in the U.S. This certificate must be dated within ten days of travel, so plan accordingly.

This is a document you should take with you to the airport as it will show that your pet has been cleared for travel by a qualified veterinarian. It can come in handy with airport employees, many of whom (in our experience) aren’t super up-to-date on in-cabin pet flying procedures.

There are further restrictions when flying outside of the country, you can read about some of those here.

So there you have it. If you follow all of these restrictions and plan ahead, flying in-cabin with your pet should be a pleasant experience overall.

Stressed about your pet’s wellbeing or behavior during the flight? Stay tuned for tips and tricks on how to help your four-legged friend have the best flight possible.

We’d love to hear about your flying four-legged friends! Leave us some love in the comments below.

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1 Comment

  1. Robert Cleereman
    1 month ago

    I think this is a great blog – very well written, informative, and entertaining. Please keep them coming!


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