Photo: Woman on airplane with dog

Some fliers have a bone to pick with the airlines.

Photography by Brian Finke, Getty Images

By Christopher Elliott

From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

It might be something of a half-truth to say that travel has gone to the dogs. In fact, it’s also gone to the cats, the hamsters, and the occasional snake.

Pets rule our world. Six out of ten American households have a pet. We take our animal companions—that’s what the more enlightened among us call them—everywhere: to the mall, to church, and yes, on trips great and small.

America’s pets are perhaps the planet’s most peripatetic. More than half of all pet owners (60 percent) brought a dog or cat on a trip in 2010, according to the most recent figures, and the percentage is climbing. “People have an expectation that they should be able to take their pets wherever they go,” says Rachel Farris, director of operations for PetRelocation.com, an Austin, Texas, pet-moving company.

There are pet-friendly hotels. (“Pets are considered a part of the family,” Marriott says on its website, promising, “you can rest assured that your furry friends will enjoy a relaxing, comfortable stay.”) Pets are welcome in many restaurants, though usually outside. At Cones and Bones, in Lansing, Michigan, dogs can come in for a nondairy treat while their owners choose their ice cream flavors. There’s even an airline for animals, Pet Airways, that will carry your beloved pet to a handful of destinations, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, and New York. Its motto: “Your pet is not luggage.”

But some have questioned the assumption that man’s best friend should travel—and specifically fly in the same cramped cabin as fare-paying humans. And that’s led to a new kind of conflict. On one side are pet owners who insist they have a right to take their four-legged friends anywhere; on the other are passengers inconvenienced, and at times even injured, by the little fur balls. (We’re not talking here about the many animals that fly in the hold, at risk of being turned into a hot dog in summer and a Popsicle in winter. I’ll save that one for another column.)

When it comes to pets versus people, who’s the alpha dog? I frequently get dispatches from the front lines of this territorial dispute. Shannon Clair, a marketing assistant from Lenexa, Kansas, who says she loves animals, describes her allergies as “exquisite”—even the slightest hint of dander makes her eyes swell shut. But she says that some traveling pet owners are far from understanding when she requests they keep their animals away. “People sure get irritated with me for being allergic to their precious pets.”

Straddling the fence—and not necessarily wanting to take sides—are the airlines, which have nevertheless made their planes more attractive to pets and their human companions (flying pets mean extra money for the airlines, after all). For example, JetBlue and Continental offer special programs, which include free online guides, tips on “petiquette,” and even frequent flier miles for your animal companion. Even no-nonsense Southwest, in a surprise move in 2009, opened its cabins to dogs and cats. Most domestic airlines allow cats and small dogs in the cabin if kept in a carrier that fits under the seat. Some limit the age or number of pets.

Disclosure: I live with three Bengal cats named Clio, Lia, and Pollux. They’re talkers, as we who are owned by cats would say. And while they have nothing against animals traveling, they themselves would prefer to stay home with Rondoe, the cat sitter. As for whether human travelers deserve to have an allergy-free, noise-free, and bite-free trip, they don’t much care. Then again, what do I know? I talk to cats.

I’m not saying Fido or Fluffy ought to be banned from traveling, just that it’s time to think of pet travel in a more humane way. There are legitimate reasons to take animals on a trip, to be sure. Service animals do vitally impor­t­ant work. The travel industry is correct (and actually required by law) to allow passengers with disabilities to bring these animals. If you’re relocating, you need to be able to take your pet along, and airlines, hotels, and car rental companies should make reasonable accommodations. And if you and Rover decide to hop in an RV and see the country, I’m not going to stop you.

But where there’s a conflict between pets and people, I’m siding with the humans (sorry, kitties). The long-haired Norwegian forest cat in seat 12A doesn’t have more rights than the road warrior with asthma, coughing his lungs out in 17D. I’m entitled to fly without getting an earful from your yipping Maltese, who is “usually so quiet.”

Airlines have a role to play as peacemakers or, if necessary, enforcers. Airlines need more people-centered policies. Currently, if a pet is qualified to be on a flight, there aren’t many other rules governing the behavior of the animal and its owner. Procedures are usually at the flight crew’s discretion. If an animal is disruptive or causes discomfort to a human passenger, I’ve heard it can go either way—sometimes the animal and owner get kicked off; other times the aggrieved passenger leaves. That needs to change.

How many of us take the welfare of those around us into consideration when we make the decision to bring our pet on a trip? Vacations are uniquely human, and maybe they should stay that way. If my cats really could talk, that’s what they’d tell you.

Editor at large Christopher Elliott addresses readers’ travel problems. E-mail your story to celliott@ngs.org.

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