(note: we’ll only address domestic travel)
Here’s an eye-popping statistic: according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, over two million live animals travel by air in the United States each year.
If you’re like us, your dog is part of your family and you want to take them on your vacations if at all possible. If your vacation involves flying, this presents a challenge if you have a large breed dog.
The situation for small dogs is considerably easier. Most domestic airlines allow dogs under 20 pounds to fly in the cabin with you – at an additional charge, of course! Typically, this charge ranges from $50 to $300, based on the airline and the route traveled.
For large dogs, it’s more complicated and the costs go higher, while choices are fewer. In fact, as of this writing, only three domestic carriers will transport large dogs on commercial flights:
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
Before the pandemic, Delta and United accepted large dogs in cargo, but in 2020 they suspended this service.
Unfortunately, large dogs must fly in the cargo section rather than the main cabin.
The only exception to large dogs in the cabin is for service dogs. Qualified service dogs may fly with you in the cabin, usually free of charge. However, note that emotional support animals no longer qualify for this and must fly in cargo.
It’s important that you check each airline for its pet travel policies. They must adhere to the parameters of the Federal Animal Welfare Act, which has become more restrictive in recent years.
Costs to fly your large dog on a commercial flight
There are several costs related to flying your dog other than just the airfare.
Dogs larger than 20 pounds must fly in the cargo area, which is a temperature-controlled, pressurized compartment located under the airplane. The airfare cost depends on the size and weight of your pet plus the crate it must be placed in.
This cost can vary greatly by airline, based on these factors. For estimation purposes, assume an average cost for a 75-pound dog of $250 – $500. You’ll have to check with your airline for the specific route you’re taking to find exactly where in this range you fit.
We won’t cover international flights, but they can cost twice as much or more and have additional restrictions. Some international locations may not allow dogs into the country at all.
Also, it’s best to choose a non-stop flight to minimize the number of times your pet is transferred, as well as the number of temperature changes it will have to endure.
All dogs must fly in crates, both in the cabin and in cargo. For large dogs flying in cargo, a hard metal, wood, or fiberglass crate that meets IATA regulations is required. Your dog must be able to stand, turn around, and comfortably lie down, with at least two inches of clearance at the top of its head when standing up in a natural position.
Please don’t economize with one of the cheaper crates, as they are less safe and can have weak doors that pop open easily. You really don’t want your dog to get out and wander the cargo area!
Also, each crate must have a live animal sticker, feeding instructions, and bowls attached to the door (one more reason to have a solidly built door that won’t open by accident).
For large dogs, a crate for flying can cost from $75 up to $200, depending on size and material.
Transportation to the airport
It may not always be practical for your dog to ride with you to the airport. In this case, you may want to hire a professional pet taxi.
We checked some local pet taxi services. A typical average cost for a 60-pound dog is $35 for the first 5 miles, plus $2 per mile after that. Add $10 for dogs over 60 pounds, and $25 for after-hours. Your cost may vary based on your location.
All airlines now require an up-to-date health certificate, signed by a veterinarian, before your dog can fly. If vaccinations aren’t current, they will need to be administered at that time.
The average cost is about $75 for the health certificate exam, plus $22-$25 each for any vaccinations required.
We all know that airlines lose luggage, so why take a chance that they could lose your dog? Please get your dog microchipped if they aren’t already. The cost will run between $50 and $60.
Special Warning: Do NOT tranquilize your dog for flying. Both the Independent Pet and Animal Transportation Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association recommend against tranquilizing any pet for flying.
Tranquilizers are now considered to be the number one cause of death in shipped animals, so please don’t let this happen to your pup. It may be upset by all the change, but it will at least arrive safely. Remember: emergency medical pet care will not be available on flights.
Instead of tranquilizers, you can help calm your dog before boarding by taking it on a long walk. In addition, feed your dog, allow it to relieve itself, and make sure there is food and water inside the crate.
This won’t relieve all the stress caused by flying but will at least help.
Weight limits for large dogs by airline
The combined weight of both the pet and the carrier cannot exceed 150 pounds.
The combined weight of the pet and carrier cannot excel 100 pounds.
The most restrictive: the combined weight of pet and carrier cannot exceed 70 pounds.
Keep in mind that a carrier for a big dog of, say, 90-125 pounds, will be 48”x32”x35” and can weigh 45 – 50 pounds when empty! For a 50-90 pound dog, the carrier can weigh about 25 to 30 pounds when empty.
This means that the largest dog you’ll be able to take on an airplane will probably have to weigh no more than 100 pounds on Alaska, 75 pounds on American, and 50 pounds on Hawaiian.
This means that if your dog weighs more than 100 pounds, it will not be able to fly on a commercial airline.
Is it safe for your dog to fly on a commercial airline?
For small dogs, yes – they fly in the cabin.
For large dogs that have to fly in cargo, there are definitely some risks.
So much so, that we agree with IPATA (the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association) that you should only fly your dog in cargo commercially if absolutely necessary.
The better alternative is to leave your big dog at home with a trusted relative, friend, or professional dog sitter.
Here are some risks related to flying dogs commercially in cargo:
- It’s stressful. The cargo area is turbulent and filled with strange sounds, sights, and smells.
- Injury is possible: Some dogs injure themselves trying to chew or claw their way out of the carrier. Others may bang their head repeatedly against the door.
- Escape is possible. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally a dog that is not secured properly escapes from their carrier. This opens another avenue for injury as they wander around the cargo hold, particularly during landing.
- Possibility of death. Although this is extremely rare, fatalities have occurred during commercial flights. This is a particular risk for the brachycephalic breeds, which are dogs with flat faces or snub noses (e.g. Boxers, Bulldogs, etc). This is why these breeds are prohibited from flying by most airlines.
For all of the above reasons, we recommend that you do not fly your large dog commercially in the cargo hold. Whether you arrange for the flight or hire a pet transfer company to handle all arrangements, our recommendation is the same.
But wait! All is not lost – there is another option for flying that we’ll discuss below.
Charter flights for your dog
Yes, we said charter flights!
The new Department of Transportation regulation prohibited bringing pets on board as emotional support animals, which eliminated the ability to have large dogs travel in the cabin. This actually created an increase in charter flight bookings for pets.
In fact, the private jet company VistaJet reported that it had an 85% increase in the number of animals flying on its jets in the past two years.
That said, this is an incredibly expensive option that most people can’t afford. As an example, another private jet company reported that it cost $30,000 for a customer in California to book a private jet to pick up her new dog in Pennsylvania and fly it home!
But this isn’t the type of charter flight service we want to discuss.
What we’re talking about is called “Shared Private Charters for Pets”. This is where pet owners join together to share the cost of hiring a private jet to fly their pets. This makes for a much more affordable option.
These are usually groups on Facebook or other social media that work together to share information on dates and destinations. They then directly book with a private jet company, eliminating the middle man. This is what makes it affordable.
Smaller jets, say 10 to 30 passengers, are usually used and they can be surprisingly affordable. For example, common routes such as between New York and Florida can be had for about $1,000. Longer routes are of course more and shorter flights less, but you get the picture.
We can’t stress enough what a huge advantage it is to have your dog in the cabin with you. Plus, there are no size or weight restrictions! Your 150-pound Newfoundland will be as welcome as a four-pound Chihuahua.
Advantages of Charter Flights for Your Large Dog
While they may not be for everybody – for example, you have to coordinate dates and times with other people – charter flights offer huge advantages over commercial flights:
- There are no restrictions on the size or breed of your dog
- Your dog is safely inside the cabin with you
- No long lines or TSA checks at the airport
- You’re with your dog at all times – no need to place its care in the hands of a stranger
- No seasonal embargoes (commercial airlines don’t allow dogs in cargo when the temperature on the tarmac is greater than 84 degrees).
If you can afford it, this is the only method of air travel we recommend. It effectively eliminates all of the dangers and disadvantages of using commercial airlines.
For a more complete discussion of shared private charters for pets, see here.
Alternatives to Flying
There are three transportation alternatives to flying:
- Drive your car
- Take a bus
- Take a train
Of these three, transporting your big dog by car is the only viable alternative. It is also the best – and safest – way for your dog to travel, in our opinion.
Both buses and trains only allow service animals. The only exception is local commuter trains, which all have their own individual rules.