traveling with a large dog - pet airline approved carrier

I recently traveled to California with my large dog and it’s hard to believe that it had been over a year since either of us had flown on a plane. In preparation for my trip, I came across a lot of unreliable and conflicting information online regarding airline pet policies for larger dogs that are not service animals. Now that I have done my due diligence and was successful in flying with my dog as a carry-on, I wanted to share my experiences and tips.   

But first…a few important notes and disclaimers: 

  • Although this is not a sponsored review, this post does contain affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something, I may earn a commission.
  • I briefly mention other airlines, however, my post is focused on my experiences flying domestically within the U.S. on Delta Airlines. 
  • My dog flew with me in cabin as a carry-on pet, so this post will not discuss other options for transporting your pet (e.g., as cargo).
  • My dog is a 31-lb mini goldendoodle and his measurements are approximately 20″ L x 16″ W.  
  • This blog post merely recounts my experiences traveling with my dog and I am not making any guarantees or promises as to the specific outcome or results you can expect from using the information presented in this blog post.  

Tip 1: Find an Airline That Does Not Have a Pet Weight Limit 

This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are three airlines that I was able to independently confirm do not have carry-on pet weight restrictions for domestic travel within the U.S. 

1. Delta

  • Checked Pet Fee: $125 each way
  • Carry On Pet Requirements:
    • Your pet must be small enough to fit comfortably in a kennel without touching or protruding from the sides of the kennel and with the ability to move around.
    • Maximum carry-on kennel dimensions are determined by your flight. You must contact Delta Reservations to determine the appropriate kennel size.
      • I discuss this in great detail in Tip 2, but I cannot stress how important it is to call Delta to confirm the under the seat dimensions for your specific flight so that you can be sure that your pet carrier fits. I flew on a Boeing 757-200.
    • Your pet must remain inside the kennel (with door secured) while in a Delta boarding area (during boarding and deplaning), a Delta airport lounge and while onboard the aircraft.
      • While I would never endorse anything but strict adherence to these policies, I will say that, in reality, how strongly these policies are enforced really depends on the flight attendants that you get. On my outgoing flight, my flight attendant was pretty strict so Gus had to stay inside the carrier the entire time. On our flight back, the flight attendants were way more chill.

2. United Airlines
3. Southwest Airlines

Tip 2: Find an Airline Approved Pet Carrier for Large Dogs

This is the exact carrier I used. I purchased a large for Gus. Gus weighs 31 pounds and his measurements are approximately 20″ L (measuring from the back of his neck to his tail) x 16″ W. I know there is nothing more frustrating than reading a review online that simply states “This carrier worked for my 15-lb dog” without giving any relevant or remotely helpful information, so I tried to be as specific as possible about Gus’ measurements. 

Call Delta to confirm the maximum carry-on carrier dimensions for your specific flight. You cannot rely solely on the reviews that you see on Amazon, even if the reviewers have also flown Delta because each flight is different. I flew Delta Comfort+ just so that I would have extra legroom.   

When searching for a carrier, it is important to make sure your pet is able to fit inside the carrier completely zipped up
. As I noted above, how strongly this policy will be enforced may vary, but you want to be sure that your pet can fit comfortably inside in case you have a strict flight attendant.   

Don’t let the carrier specifications that you see online prevent you from testing out the carrier for yourself
. Gus technically was too large for the carrier I purchased based on the guidance I found online, but it actually ended up working out. At the end of the day, exercise your best judgment. If your dog is not comfortable in the carrier, do not force them into it. Gus eventually fell asleep in his carrier on flight, but that would have never been possible if it were too small for him. 

Spend time getting your pet accustomed to being in the carrier before you travel
. The days leading up to my trip, I got Gus accustomed to being in the carrier by first luring him inside with treats. Once he got inside, I would drop little bits of treats deep inside the carrier so he would search for them and in the process get accustomed to being curled up inside. I also had him sit under my home office desk for a few hours each day as I worked to get him used to sleeping and feeling comfortable in a position that was similar to that of being under the seat on an airplane.

Tip 3: Add Your Pet to Your Reservation 

With Delta, I did not need to provide any medical information for Gus. However, I had his vet send me his vaccination history just in case. 

You are not able to add your pet to your reservation when you book your flight and will need to call Delta in order to do so in advance of your flight. This process took over 8 hours to get someone from customer service, so do not put this off until the last minute.

With Delta, you will pay the pet fee once you get to the airport. It is $125 each way.

You will be unable to check in early if you are traveling with your pet on Delta. Be sure to give yourself extra time at the airport, especially if you also have checked baggage. 

Tip 4: Prepare for Travel Day

As I noted above, get to the airport extra early because you may not be able to check in early if you are flying with a pet. I was not able to with Delta.

Make sure to feed your dog a light meal a few hours before your flight. I had an early morning flight, so I fed Gus a larger dinner the night before and gave him a light breakfast on travel day. He thankfully didn’t have any accidents on either of our flights. 

Make sure to take your dog on a potty break before getting to the airport and run them around to get some energy out. I neglected to do the latter and Gus was extremely anxious the moment we got to the airport. Some people recommend using pet CBD to calm your dog’s nerves, but the brand that I used unfortunately seemed to have the opposite effect on Gus, so we opted not to give him any CBD on our flight back to NYC and he was just fine.

Pack dog cleansing wipes, poop bags, and potty pads because accidents are bound to happen. Gus had one accident at the airport (even after two potty breaks), so be prepared. Both JFK and SFO airports luckily have animal relief areas.  

Pack small treats (or treats that you can easily break into small pieces) so that you can distract your dog if they start barking on flight. As I mentioned in Tip 2, I also used the treats to lure Gus into the carrier. These treats were lifesavers.  

Pack a chew toy or something to keep your dog busy / mentally stimulated on longer flights. I discuss how clutch similar dog toys have been for keeping Gus occupied when I’m busy working from home here.

Bring a portable dog water bottle. Delta does not provide any dog bowls. If you have a connecting flight and need to feed your dog during your layover, these portable dog food bowls are great.

MISCELLANEOUS TRAVEL TIPS  

If your flight is longer than 5 hours, I really recommend considering connecting flights. Direct flights sound great in theory, but it’s really tough (especially for larger dogs) to be cramped up for that long without potty breaks.  

I recommend choosing a window or aisle seat, especially if your dog is already very anxious. There are so many distractions when you sit in the aisle seat and you and your dog will be disrupted every time the passengers in your row need to get out.

If you are flying by yourself, I would also limit your food and beverage intake so you don’t need restroom breaks. I was fortunate enough to sit in between two dog lovers who graciously offered to watch Gus if I needed to take a restroom break.

If you want the extra legroom but do not want to pay the price for Delta Comfort+, select the first row in economy directly behind the last row of Delta Comfort+ (It was row 26 on my flight Boeing 757-200). You don’t get the same amount of legroom, but it beats regular economy.

Try to stay calm if things don’t go as smoothly as you would like. This is probably the first time your dog is flying in a very long time (or ever), so it is perfectly normal for them to get anxious with all the sensory overload. Our dogs feed off of our energy, so try to stay calm for them. 

If You’re Reading This, You’re Amazing for Making it to the End.

I can’t guarantee that you will have the exact same results that I had, but hopefully, you’ll be able to utilize some of the tips and recommendations I offered in this post when planning your next trip with a large dog. Good luck!