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Reader’s report: Update on traveling with a large small dog, in an XL SturdiBag carrier

Once you get the routine down, it’s easy for those of us with small dogs (say, under 10 lbs.) to fly together in-cabin. Heck, it’s pretty straightforward to fly with a biggish small dog like Chloe, who weighs between 13 and 15 lbs. and measures 12″ tall at her shoulders — though on a number of occasions I’ve had to be a vigorous advocate for the large SturdiBag carrier. But what about those of us who fly with even bigger small dogs?

When I get messages asking about flying with pups who weigh more than 15 lbs., or who are taller and longer than Chloe, I point them to two Dog Jaunt posts: The first is based on reader Joanna’s report about traveling with her 26 lb. Corgi, and the second is about a photo sent by reader Adam of his XL SturdiBag carrier in use. A goodly part of the usefulness of the first post are the comments on it that other readers have posted, including some that Adam posted about transporting Oliver, his Cocker Spaniel, in an XL SturdiBag. As you’ll see if you scroll through the comments, he met with some resistance from the United ticketing agent in Paris — and the way he handled it was instructive to me, and helpful to other travelers with “too large” pets.

I was delighted, therefore, to hear again from Adam after a recent round of flights on Southwest Airlines with Oliver, still using the XL SturdiBag. In one direction (their return flight), they had no issues whatever. They checked in, they boarded the plane, they flew, end of story. Their trip from NYC’s LaGuardia airport to the Midwest, however, was a whole different story — and really demonstrates how your traveling experience will vary depending on the individuals you encounter. [The important thing to know as you read this is that Adam has traveled before with Oliver in the XL SturdiBag, and is comfortable in his mind that Oliver is comfortable during their flights. Adam is a concerned and careful owner, and would not squash his pup into a spot that doesn’t work for him.]

This was holiday travel, Adam reminded me, so “LaGuardia was a zoo…and the ticket agent didn’t even look at my carrier!  The gate agent was another story altogether, following me onto the plane and telling the flight attendant, ‘This man’s bag is too large. If you’re doing your job, do NOT let him on.’ Man, it is so hard to keep your cool in those situations, with your heart beating a million miles a minute.”

However, “The flight attendant was so very friendly and told the gate agent, ‘I’m certain this passenger knows his dog better than you do.’ The agent left in a huff, and the flight attendant said, ‘Do what you gotta do buddy,’ with a wink.”

Wait a second, I wrote to Adam — back it up, there! How on Earth did you get past the gate agent, to the point where you could interact with the flight attendant? It turns out he had anticipated an issue (“The gate agent announced that it was a full flight, and we should be prepared to gate check items that were larger — he was scrutinizing each and every individual, looking at their bag to verify it was small”), had handed over his boarding pass, and was already past the gate agent when the interaction began:

“When I went through, he called and said, ‘STOP SIR!’

At this point, I was already in the gangway. I calmly said, ‘Yes?’ ‘What is this bag?’ he asked me. ‘Oh, it’s just my travel bag.’

‘What’s inside though?’ he asked.

‘Oh, it’s my pet bag,’ I said nonchalantly. ‘I know it looks a little big, but the roof flexes, see?’ I added, demonstrating accordingly.

He went on to ask me how big the dog was, told me I couldn’t just ‘smoosh’ him under the seat, yada yada yada. He went on for a while, and said, ‘You know if the flight attendant has an issue, you won’t be allowed to board.’

I just said, ‘Yes sir, I understand completely.’ I may have fudged the details and told him I had flown on Southwest recently, and whipped out the picture of Oliver under an airplane seat last year.

At this point, the man wasn’t really budging…so I simply told him firmly not to worry, and walked away from him down the gangway! That is why he ultimately followed me onto the plane, although I didn’t realize he had chosen to chase me down. It’s kind of funny, as I’m generally very meek when in everyday life, and I don’t like to push back against customer service professionals…in this instance, I simply realized that I had no real choice. The flight attendant ultimately took my side, and that was the end of it.”

There are many reasons why this worked. Southwest Airlines’ under-seat spaces are generous. Adam knew that his carrier would flex to fit, and that Oliver would be comfortable in the resulting space. He was confident and resolute, but polite. He made sure that he got to the right arbiter — the flight attendant, who knows the airplane best. He had a photo of the XL SturdiBag in action on another flight.

If you’re a first-time flyer, how do you get that fundamentally important confidence that your larger pup will in fact fit on the plane, and will be comfortable in the space available to her? Look at the measurements that are available — by now, Dog Jaunt has a pretty good list going — and mock up a space that size. Buy a carrier that flexes — I don’t know of any more flexible carrier than the SturdiBag (and I assure you that I’m still not on retainer by SturdiProducts — when, oh, when will they call me?!). Insert your pup, and try fitting the loaded carrier in the available space. Keep in mind that she’ll need to be entirely under the seat in front of you only during takeoff and landing — during the rest of the flight, you can pull her carrier out a bit, into your foot area.

Bookmark pictures of an XL SturdiBag in action — there’s one in the second post I mentioned above, from a past flight by Adam, and Adam attached two more to his current report, which I’m providing below. Take a picture of your own, once you’re on your flight, and keep it on your phone for quick reference in the future.

And good luck! Adam and I agreed “that no particular airline or its employees are more ‘pet friendly’ than the others. My ticketing agent was friendly and wonderful…the gate agent was really rough with me…but the flight attendant was as kind as could be. I have learned that it is simply a question of pushing back as politely as possible and hoping for the best.”

Here are the pictures Adam sent me:

From one angle, with Oliver visible.

From another angle. The surprising thing to me, in both these pictures, is how little of the bag is poking out into the foot area -- it looks way better on Southwest than it did on the United flight Adam and Oliver took together.

As you might already have figured out, he chose the middle seat, “as I knew the width was the largest on the 737-700 plane…in all honesty, I think Oliver’s bag would likely have fit under any of the three seats.” His verdict? “It was actually a pretty comfortable fit (well, as comfortable as the XL gets, anyway.) I can’t have seen even the fussiest flight attendant having taken issue with the bag in its place.”

Thank you, Adam!! The people with the larger small dogs are the most anxious about travel, I’ve learned, and the more information I can get into their hands, the better. Reports like this are priceless. Thank you, too, for setting such an excellent example of politeness and perseverance under stress.

66 comments

  • Oh, dear, Casey — How hideously late I am in responding to you. How did it go? From your description, it sounds like your boy should have sailed through. I do hope so, and I do wish I’d been timely in sending you encouragement.

  • Mike M

    We have our 75 pound German Shepherd registered as an emotional support dog and are traveling for the first time with her from either Chicago or San Francisco to Hawaii. Any pointers to help prepare or smooth the flight would be appreciated. We are planning on taking her in the cabin with us since she is an emotional support dog. We are also leaning towards leaving from CA to reduce the amount of time on the plane from 8.5 hours to 5.5 hours.

  • Hello, Mike! I don’t know much about ESAs, but a support animal the size of your girl will likely travel at your feet in a bulkhead seat. I’d bring something familiar for her to lie on (a towel or a soft pad, whatever she’s used to and you can pack), and if you think she might get bored, something to occupy her attention, like a frozen stuffed Kong or some other challenging chew. Otherwise, I’d do what I do with Chloe — give her a lot of exercise before the flight so she’s more interested in snoozing than fretting. Love the idea of shortening your flight time as much as possible!

  • Rebecca

    Thank you SO MUCH for this post. My dog, Teddy, is flying for the first time tomorrow in an XL Sturdibag (he TECHNICALLY fits in the large, but as an overprotective mom I couldn’t bear to think of him squished in that tiny space) and I was definitely stressing about taking the XL onboard… it definitely looks questionable and huge. However, I think these pics will definitely help get him on if we have any issues. Thanks again!!

  • Sarah

    Hi There!

    Thank you so much for your website. We recently adopted a (5-year-old)pup and will be flying from Ontario to Manitoba with him for the first time next week. He’s about 20lbs and he’s longer than he is tall. We opted for the XL SturdiBag, and have now called Westjet twice to confirm that they will accept this size of carrier. The website’s carrier dimension limits seem ridiculously small, but both agents we talked to on the phone assured us that we wont have a problem with a collapsible carrier as long as the floor dimensions do not exceed 21 by 16 inches, so that’s promising! I will provide update after the trip, but I’m hoping we don’t face any difficult agents.

    We have also been working on making our dog comfortable in his bag, he’s pretty laid back in general so hopefully he handles it all well. He actually went into the open bag on his own and took a nap the other night! He doesn’t seem to mind going into the bag but we do have to kind of push him into it since he doesn’t know any commands yet, and it seems like he prefers to be sitting up whenever we move him around in his bag.. I’m not sure how we’ll get him to lie down when its time to go in the under-seat compartment if he doesn’t want to? Hopefully we can tire him out enough before the trip that he’ll want to be asleep the whole time!

  • Thanks so much for the preliminary report, Sarah! Sounds good so far. Tiring him out is a GREAT idea, and coaxing him in and rewarding him with really high-quality treats will soon teach him that going into his carrier, and staying in it, is a sweet deal. If he insists on sitting as you try to fit him under the airplane seat, consider tossing treats in the bottom of his bag through the top hatch, so he’s looking down and searching for them — that’ll bend his head down and keep him occupied with the bottom of the bag. And as soon as the plane levels off, you can pull his carrier back out under your knees and let him sit up again, if that’s really what he prefers. But hopefully he’ll throw in the towel and sleep!

  • Don

    Thank you for this blog! Reading the various accounts of under-seat adventures has given me hope. My wife and I will be picking up a x-large breed pup of ten weeks old and will be traveling with Delta from Indianapolis to Boston. I’ve done a little research and the type of plane that Delta uses for that run is an Embraer E 175 that is operated by Shuttle America – two rows of two with center isle. I called Delta prior to booking to get information on size restrictions but was told that I needed to book our tickets first and call back with the flight number in order to get the maximum bag dimensions specific to the aircraft that we would be on. When I did that, I was given the following dimensions: 16″ length, 37″ width, and 7.8″ height. This seems awfully short, though I guess that if the pup is lying down it isn’t so bad. I would also imagine that 7.8″ refers to the measurement furthest under the seat. We will be using the breeder’s collapsible Sherpa bag (with wheels) to transport our pup. We are hoping that there isn’t a problem when we get to the ticket counter or gate with a bag that is taller than what is allowed. From what I’ve read, this particular plane has no divider below separating the seats. Perhaps we will be able to take advantage of the increased height that comes from the curvature of the seat by putting the bag sideways beneath the two seats in front of us. I would appreciate any tips, observations, or experiences that anyone would be willing to share that would help us prepare for this adventure.

  • How exciting, Don! Congratulations! Indeed, I’ve found the space under Embraer seats to be very workable, especially if you’re traveling with your neighbor and can freely share the underseat space. My only hesitation is with the carrier — I get it that the wheels are kinder to backs, but they take up a lot of vertical space. I’d go for a bag without wheels, recapture that vertical space for your pup’s use, and provide wheels by strapping your pup’s carrier above your other (rolling) carry-on, or even on a set of wheelies that you could collapse and store in the overhead bin.

  • Jennifer Noble

    I have a large Sherpa bag with wheels and the wheels do not add any vertical height as they are recessed. Also, after flying many times with no problems, I was recently told my large bag was too large and would not be allowed. After much back and forth with numerous booking agents I found one who assured me no one would be measuring my bag and she just noted that my bag was the allowed dimensions. I had no problems at the airport.

  • Lisa

    I appreciate the important information, it’s very helpful. I did however wonder what the weight of your dog was? Thanks!!!

  • Don

    Thank you, Mary-Alice, for your response. I appreciate the additional consideration of the height of the bag with the wheels. I’ll check with the breeder to find out how much height the wheels add to her bag.

  • Don

    Thanks Jennifer. I appreciate the information on the Sherpa bag and your experience at the airport. I’ve got my fingers crossed on this one. Hopefully, we will not have to drive our puppy home.

  • Vikki

    Southwest Airlines shows that the dog has to be able to stand and move around. My dog is 15 inches at the shoulder. He will definitely not be able to stand. I don’t know how strict they are about this. He weighs around 15 pounds. Do you think not being able to stand will be an issue?

  • Hi, Vikki — A 15″ tall dog who weighs 15 lbs. is a pretty slim dog, so I suspect your pup will be just fine. A now veteran pet traveler has a Chinese Crested, for example, who’s tall and slender, like your dog, and her girl just curls up in the corner of her carrier. If your pup looks comfortable, and doesn’t look like he’s bursting the carrier’s seams, it should pass muster. Project an air of confidence and good cheer. Assure anyone who will listen that your pup is such a great little traveler. Do not volunteer your concerns, do not look worried — give the impression that this is the third time this week you’ve done this, and it’s all familiar territory. A cheery, confident (but of course not obnoxious) attitude will carry you a long way — and will also reassure your pup, as a bonus.

  • Don

    Following up on my post about flying our Greater Swiss Mountain Dog puppy from Indianapolis to Boston: in general, there were no issues once we arrived at the airport. The person at the Delta ticket counter didn’t ask any questions other than the breed and age of the pup. Since our boy was already at 20 pounds and Delta has a 15 pound limit, this could have been an issue. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Going through the baggage check, I was asked to take him out of the bag (we were using a soft-sided Martha Stewart bag that we had borrowed from the breeder), and carry him through the metal detector while the empty bag went on the conveyer. Needless to say, he got plenty of attention from the other passengers. Our next encounter with airline staff was at the gate – no problem there either. The attendant was very nice and we were allowed to board without issue.
    The Embraer E-175 that Shuttle America uses actually was better for us traveling as a couple, as the two seats do not have a dividing brace on the floor, leaving the entire area available for our pet bag. I was even able to fit a small duffle bag with supplies in addition to the carrier. The hardest part was the temperature in the plane prior to take off. I opened up the top of the bag for extra ventilation and tried to direct the ceiling vents in the pup’s direction.
    The flight wasn’t an issue, except that we were not allowed to land in NYC (our layover) right away due to thunder storms and spent an additional 40 minutes circling around Pennsylvania. The pup slept through most of the activity.
    Generally, what I found was that Delta’s practice does not match its policy. They are very strict – to the point of being uncooperative – about age and weight of the dog, size of carrier. An agent even called me at home one week prior to the flight just to “double check” the numbers. The interesting thing about that conversation was that the person who called had the wrong dimensions of the carrier that was allowed on that particular model of aircraft and was trying to tell me that the bag that I had was too big, when I had already cleared the size with an agent three weeks prior. I ended up making up some figures just to appease her. The maximum height of the bag for that airplane was to be no more than 7.8 inches. Ours was soft-sided so I had some room for discussion in that regard. In actuality, the height under the seat was over 10 inches at its lowest point, according to the tape measure that I brought. There were other idiotic policy issues as well, such as the dog having to be at least ten weeks old but under 15 pounds – Greater Swiss Mountain Dog puppies are 20 pound at ten weeks. I was ready to go into advocate mode on that issue but fortunately, that wasn’t necessary.
    Fortunately also, the staff that we encountered at the airport were great and very supportive.
    Next time, I will probably go with Southwest, based on their reputation for being pet-friendly. There was way too much unnecessary stress leading up to this trip.

  • Danielle Gagne

    Hello, has anyone got experience on flying an in cabin dog on Alitalia , in Magnifica (Biz) class? I have spoken with an Amex travel rep, who called and spoke with them, plus I called on my own and spoke with them, both said not a problem. I know having a print out of the regulations will be helpful, so I will do so. I also know that what happens at check in can make or break your trip. Any personal experience you could share to ease my anxiety? I will be traveling with my dog in an do sturdibag, which we fly with him on Southwest quite a bit. Thanks for any help!

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