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Should I buy the in-cabin pet carrier my airline sells (or approves)?

An earlier version of this post is one of Dog Jaunt’s top hits — clearly, it’s a question that a lot of you have, but the info in the old post was getting dated. Here’s a re-do, with fresh information.

Nowadays, only two major U.S. airlines will sell you an in-cabin carrier: JetBlue and Southwest. Please note that while AirTran and United say they do, I learned yesterday from customer reps that AirTran has in fact discontinued that service, and United sells only hard-sided carriers for cargo transport. Alaska Airlines used to sell in-cabin carriers at some of its ticket counters, but no longer.

JetBlue’s in-cabin pet carrier

The carrier that JetBlue sells reportedly weighs 2 lbs. and measures 16″ long x 8-1/2″ high x 10″ wide. It costs $50. It has zippered openings on one end, one side, and the top; there are a respectable number of mesh ventilation panels; and one of them is located on the carrier’s top, so you can see your pet while she’s at your feet (as she will be during most of your travels).

The JetBlue pet carrier

The JetBlue pet carrier [Photo by JetBlue]

It is, however, and as JetBlue itself points out, “a small pet carrier” (emphasis in the original). The height of a carrier should be the same (or about the same — on a few occasions, Chloe has traveled in carriers an inch or two shorter than she is) as your dog’s height at the shoulder. In a JetBlue-sized carrier, I wouldn’t try anything larger than a Chihuahua or a Pomeranian or a Yorkie (as pictured).

We often fly with Chloe on JetBlue (our preferred airlines, given where we live and where we go, are JetBlue, United, Southwest, and Virgin America). She’s 12″ tall, about 16″ from nape of neck to base of tail, and weighs 13 lbs., and would never fit in the JetBlue carrier. She typically travels in a large SturdiBag carrier, which measures 18 L x 12 H x 12 W inches.

If you look at Dog Jaunt’s growing collection of airplane under-seat space measurements, you’ll see that the best seats on a JetBlue A320 for a traveler with a pet have under-seat spaces that are either 10″ or 11″ tall (on an E-190 the space is 9″ tall). The large SturdiBag works because its top and sides are extremely flexible (also, Chloe does not fill it completely, and prefers to travel lying down and curled up, so there’s room for the carrier top to flex down into).

Southwest’s in-cabin carrier

I started out pooh-poohing the carrier that Southwest sells, but they changed its design a while back, and a reader sent me a great mod that I’ll soon post, and now I’m much more positive about it. It measures 18.5″ L x 13.5″ w x 8.5″ h — but it has a top gusset that expands to add 2″ to its height, bringing it up to a respectable 10.5 inches. It costs $48. The gusset tends to droop downwards; the modification I’ll post keeps the gusset elevated. It has a lot of mesh ventilation panels, and, again, one of them is on the top, so you can look down into it at your pet.

The Southwest Airlines pet carrier

The Southwest Airlines pet carrier [Photo by Southwest Airlines]

That’s a nice-sized carrier — a little longer, in fact, than the one Chloe uses, and and inch and a half wider. If I only flew on Southwest, and if Chloe were just a bit shorter, I’d buy their carrier, and install the mod.

Since we do fly on other airlines, I prefer Chloe’s large SturdiBag. I like the quality of the SturdiBag, and I like the extra inch and a half of height it offers. It fits comfortably onboard (as you’ll see when you look at the measurements actual travelers have recorded, Southwest’s under-seat spaces provide more headroom than the simple 8.5″ listed in the airline’s official measurements). Other airlines might react negatively to the Southwest carrier, since it is so wide.

Sherpa’s Pet’s Guaranteed On Board option

Guaranteed On Board (“GOB”) is officially a creature of the Quaker Pet Group, but of their brands, you’re most likely to know Sherpa’s Pet Trading Co., maker of the soft-sided carriers that started the soft-sided carrier movement. Frankly, I don’t like their carriers. The one I’ve minded least is the Delta Deluxe carrier we bought to bring our cat Cora home from Ohio, but even still, it’s got flaws.

Nevertheless, the Sherpa carriers are popular, and if (1) you have a small pet who complies with an airline’s official maximums, and (2) you’re nervous about your upcoming trip and would love to take some of the worry out of it, you might want to consider the GOB program.

Here’s how it works: Sherpa represents that certain of its carriers are acceptable on certain U.S. airlines. If your dog fits in an approved carrier for a particular airline, and yet you are still prevented from boarding with her, Sherpa will refund you the cost of your flight plus your pet travel fee. Please note that there is a form to fill out (click on “Airline Forms” in the menu at the top of the main GOB page), which will generate a certificate that you will need to bring with you to the airport on the day of travel. Please also note that there is a long list of exceptions and caveats. I have no data to give you about how many submitted claims are actually paid.

I have not used the program myself, because (1) I don’t like Sherpa carriers, and (2) Chloe is too large for the small Original Deluxe, American Airlines Duffle, or Element Duffle carriers, the only ones Southwest accepts under the program. She does fit in the Delta Deluxe carrier (the same one our new cat Cora used), so if I were nervous about traveling with her on American, Delta, or United (all of which accept that carrier under the GOB program), I’d dust it off and use it — and fill out the GOB form.

That’s getting confusing, so let me take a step back and break it down by airline. Here are the Sherpa carriers that each will accept under the GOB program:

American — The small and medium American Airlines Duffle; the small and medium Original Sherpa Deluxe carrier; the Delta Deluxe carrier; the small Element Duffle; and the medium Ultimate on Wheels carrier (plus the Cat Tote)

AirTran — The small (only) American Airlines Duffle; the small (only) Original Sherpa Deluxe carrier; and the small Element Duffle

Alaska — Same as AirTran

Delta — Same as American

Southwest — Same as AirTran

USAir — Same as AirTran

United — Same as American

If you have a large small dog like Chloe, the only parts of this program that will interest you are American, Delta, and United. If your dog is a very large small dog, American drops off the list, because they have an upper weight limit of 20 lbs., and you’re unlikely to get a GOB refund when your dog+carrier is over the maximum weight. If your dog is that large, in fact, it’s probably also unlikely that you’d get a GOB refund for a Delta or United flight, though the basis for denial of boarding would instead focus on how your dog fits into the carrier.

If, however, you have a small dog (i.e., one who truly fits in a GOB carrier for your airline, and meets that airline’s age and size requirements), the program might be a good choice for you — but only if you’re really nervous about flying with your pet. Otherwise, why bother? You have a small dog who meets your airline’s requirements, and your carrier complies with the airline’s requirements — heck, you can put your feet up and relax.

79 comments

  • Bunny Lover

    Hello, I love this website! I will be traveling soon in a United 757-300 flight with 2 rabbits, and plan to use the Sherpa Delta medium carrier (one for each of them) – in your opinion, will that work fine? (I did see in one of your articles that they fit fine on most flights, but wanted to check in on that anyway). Many thanks for your help in advance. Your website (in spite of having pet rabbits, not dogs/cats) has been very reassuring in general.

  • Hi, Bunny Lover! I don’t have measurements for a United 757-300 to consult, but generally speaking, the Sherpa Delta medium is a very workable carrier and should be dandy. Are you traveling with someone else? I ask because there’s only room for one carrier under each seat…. If it’s just you, and your rabbits aren’t too large, you might consider the divided large SturdiBag instead, and carry both bunnies together. (Nope, wait, just checked United’s site, and it says “With the exception of birds, there may only be one pet per kennel, and the animal must be able to stand up and turn around comfortably. Two birds may travel in the same kennel.” Dangit!)

  • Hi, Karen! It sounds like your pup would fit fine in the small SturdiBag — our pup Chloe is 12″ to her shoulder height (which is the height that you really care about, since your pup only needs to be able to turn around — a fully erect head isn’t needed for that maneuver), and we put her in the large Sturdi. I suspect your pup measures something like 9″ to shoulder height, which would make the small SturdiBag a fine choice (and it’s a completely non-controversial size — no need to worry about push-back from a ticketing or gate agent, lucky you!). Safe travels, and let us know how it goes!!

  • Probably so, Rose, but tell me more — is that 13″ high measured at her shoulder? And how long is she from back (not front) of neck to base (not tip) of tail?

  • Bunny Lover

    Many thanks, Mary-Alice! Yeah, I did want them both in 1 carrier, but I’ve purchased 2 medium Sherpa’s – hopefully they’ll be OK separated for about half a day. Traveling with husband, so he’ll have one bunny in a carrier under the seat in front of him. 🙂 I appreciate your reply!

  • Cr8zyC8tL8dy

    Hi, I’m flying SW with my cat. He’s 12″ tall and nearly 19″ long and around 10 lbs. I tried a medium Sherpa and he couldn’t move! The carrier was bulging! His bum and face were smushed and he had to have his head sideways! He couldn’t stand up, fully, and freaked out and tried to shred the carrier! I got him out quickly as this was clearly not going to work. How can I stuff him under a 10″ seat went they state, the animal must be able to stand up and turn around? 8 hour flight with layover, not counting 4 hours in a car. Concerned.

  • Nils

    We will be travelling with our Beagle Dachshund mix that is 19 pounds and measures 13 inches high from ground to top of head. What carrier would you recommend that Delta accepts on the 767 from ATL to DUS in Germany?

    Thanks!

  • Karina

    I’m taking our dog on his first flight next week on JetBlue and are having a hard time finding a carrier that meets their restrictions, specifically for the height. You mentioned you used large SturdiBag on their airline, and did you not have a problem? I’m just so worried about this since it doesn’t meet the height requirement.

  • Mary

    I’m very glad I stumbled across this site! I will be traveling with my 9 pound chiweenie on JetBlue in April and I’m looking to buy a carrier that she will be comfortable in. She does have long legs for her breed, and she measures approximately 10 inches tall to her shoulder. I don’t want to be turned away at the airport, but some of the reviews of the JetBlue carrier I’m reading on Amazon.com state that the carrier they sell is the only one they will allow. Is this true? I like the SturdiBag that you mentioned. Do you use the regular large or the large cube for your pup?

  • Anja

    I just came across this blog in my search for a carrier for my miniature poodle. Really great info, thanks so much for that!!
    I do have a question for you: My mini poodle has grown a little bigger than expected, and it’s really difficult to find an appropriate bag for him now. He’s about 15″ high (at shoulder), 15″ long (neck-tail), and around 6″ wide but only weighs about 13lb. The airline I usually fly with (airberlin – I live in Europe) allows the carrier to be 21.6″ long, 15.7″ wide and 7.8″ high, so technically he could still at least kind of fit. But I can’t find any bag that actually comes with these measurements and is light enough to not exceed the weight restriction (8kg/17.6lb) with the dog in it. I thought the XL sturdibag might be an option, even though it’s much higher, but since you can bend it down i thought it might work. But I read elsewhere that someone was denied to take it on a flight with airberlin since it wouldn’t fit under the seat. Do you have any suggestions or ideas of what may work for my pup? I will probably have to fly to the US (also with airberlin) in the near future and would be really sad if the little one had to travel in cargo.

    *edit: I just measured him again and he’s actually “only” 14.6″ tall. I am sort of hoping this will make all the difference. 😉

  • Christie

    I had a quick question I have a very small cocker spaniel Who is 7 months she weighs about 13 lbs and maybe the size of a schnauzer. My husband and i are flying on southwest in may. Do you think she may be too big for the carrier or which carriers do you recommend I buy her that will fit under the southwest seat? Thank you!

  • Well, this is hideously late, Karina, but no, we’ve never had a problem with the large SturdiBag on JetBlue. The fact is, most of the carriers you see in an airport at any given time are over the stated airline maximums. The limits can be pushed a bit; Dog Jaunt is compiling a list of actual, measured under-seat spaces so you can do that intelligently. Please note that limit-pushing works best with a smaller pet — our Chloe, about the size of a large cat, is at the upper end of what works. Many Dog Jaunt readers have traveled with larger dogs, but their nerves are better than mine (and of course, it’s much easier with dogs smaller than Chloe).

  • SophieM

    We’ll be picking up our puppy (8wk old Boxer) 4/25 in Virginia and traveling to Austin. Boxers are large dogs but at 8 weeks old i think he’ll be ok to fit in the carry-on (we’ve already booked him a ticket to travel with us in carry-on). Is there a chance we buy a kennel for him (airline approved) and we get there and they say he’s technically too big for it because it doesn’t appear that he can turn around comfortably within it? I’m worried because he’s a snubnosed dog, we wont have the option to check him at that point. Any advise?

  • There is a chance, Sophie (there’s always a chance with a larger small dog — or a large puppy, in your case) — but we’ve been traveling successfully with Chloe for years, and there are Dog Jaunt readers who travel with even larger in-cabin dogs. Your best bet is to buy the carrier in black, which is an easily overlooked color. I don’t know which one you’ve bought, but we typically travel with the large SturdiBag. Keep it by your feet (of course tell the ticketing agent you have an in-cabin pet and pay for him). Don’t volunteer your concerns; do not ask for their approval. Imply that you do this all the time — coo towards your pup at your feet and tell him and the world what a good little traveler he is. Project an air of casual confidence (without, of course, being obnoxious). All of this hinges on him actually BEING comfortable in his carrier, which you will be able to assess. He does not need to be able to stand with his head fully erect — the carrier just needs to be as tall as his shoulder height, which will allow him to turn around and lie down on the other side (the fact is, he’ll likely spend all of his time curled up, hopefully snoozing). Hope that helps! And congratulations — what a wonderful new chapter in your lives!!

  • Hello, Christie! I’m so sorry for my delay in responding. Your girl sounds like she’s the same size Chloe is, and Chloe travels happily on Southwest in the large SturdiBag. If she’s grown a bit since you wrote, you might consider the large Teafco Argo Petagon, which is a little larger than the large SturdiBag (and we just used it happily on a couple of Southwest flights). Every good wish to you guys!

  • Hello, Anja — In your shoes, I might consider the large Teafco Argo Petagon carrier — it’s a hair short for your pup, but he’s sounds slender, so I suspect that he’d fit fine, curled up in it (as he likely would be during travel).

  • Oh, dear, Mary — This may be way too late. I’m so sorry! But no, you can use other carriers on JetBlue. We travel on JetBlue frequently with Chloe’s large SturdiBag (and it’s the normal, rectangular one, not the Cube), and it works very well. She’s a little taller than your girl, so your pup would be even more comfortable. You could, in fact, choose the small SturdiBag, since it’s 10″ tall (and shoulder height is the crucial measurement).

  • Hello, Nils — If your pup can fit comfortably lengthwise in the large SturdiBag, that’s the way I’d go. Height wise, he’s a cinch. Weight-wise, I can’t tell — I suspect a fair amount of that poundage is muscle, and that he doesn’t look much bigger than our 13-15 lb. Chloe. But I don’t know how long he is. The large Sturdi offers a nice amount of room, but isn’t so huge that it alarms airline reps, is why I like it. I’d buy one and try it out!

  • Hello, Cr8zyC8tL8dy — That does sound bad! One upside of my having taken so danged long to respond to you (I’m sorry!) is that I’ve recently used a bag that might work well for your boy. Try the large Teafco Argo Petagon — it’s larger than the medium Sherpa, but not heinously large, and it has two layers of mesh (and the internal layer would, I think, foil our cats’ claws, at least).

  • Regina

    Hi there. First, thank you sooo much for having this website. I’ve been reading it for the past week to get much needed answers to my questions. Nevertheless, I am hoping for your opinion on my predicament.
    I am flying in late July for a 2 week trip to Colorado from Los Angeles. It’s about a 2.5 hour flight, so not too bad. I am planning to take my 2 dogs, one is 13 lbs and the other is 8 lbs, with me. I am flying Southwest. Southwest allows 2 dogs per carrier, and I am flying alone, so I want to find what would be most comfortable for them, would fit under the Southwest seats, etc. i woukd prefer something on wheels but space is more important. I am leaning towards the Southwest bag or the large Sherpa but I also found a bag by Bergan on ebay with removable wheels, 10w x 13h x 19l. Are you familiar with the Bergan bag at all? I haven’t been able to find it in stores so I’m hesitant about it though the removable wheel option seems ideal. Any thoughts?

  • Katie

    Hello-I am taking my 12 lb dog on a flight on Friday. I have the Delta Deluxe Sherpa carrier, but Delta has called me back and told me that the max carrier size for in cabin is 13x15x10. I cannot find a soft sided carrier anywhere in this size. Any thoughts or suggestions? Thank you!

  • Hello, Katie — The Delta Deluxe Sherpa should work beautifully, and a 12 lb. pup is an excellent size to travel in-cabin. Read through the other comments on this blog post, and you’ll see that you’re not alone in being worried. The airline has to say exactly what’s posted on their page, but the fact is that non-conforming carriers are more the rule than the exception. Our Chloe is 13 lbs., and I’ve traveled with the Delta Deluxe myself (our preferred carrier is the large SturdiBag, which is practically the same size). Read my advice to other nervous flyers in the comments, and be calm and confident (but not, you know, sassy or obnoxious). Convey the impression that this is perfectly normal, you do this all the time, and do not volunteer your concerns to any airline rep. You guys should sail through just fine. Safe travels!

  • Hello, Regina — Those are two pretty sizable dogs, so I’m a little unsure about your plan. Give fitting them in their proposed carrier a try, and see what you think about their comfort and their ability to shift around. Given their size, I wouldn’t go with a wheeled carrier (the wheels take up a lot of underseat space — space you can’t afford). I’d try the Southwest carrier, since it’s quite a broad object. If your pups fit comfortably, you might add wheels by using a stroller to support the carrier through the airport (type “stroller” into the search bone to learn more about that option) — you can check the stroller at the gate, like a baby stroller.

  • Celline K

    Hi, I am traveling with my chihuahua via southwest airlines. she is little about 4lbs. I’m just wondering, I recently bought sherpa park tote in medium (16″long X 8″wide X 11″ high) what I like about this is super lightweight but do you think I am able to fly with this size of carrier for my chihuahua?

  • Hi, Celline — That should work just fine as an in-cabin carrier. What a dream to have such a petite pup! If it were me, I’d choose a different product (say, the SturdiProducts Cube, or the small SturdiBag) because I like being able to see into the bag and keep an eye on Chloe, and I like how all that mesh gives her a lot of air. I’d check those options out, if I were you, because they too are lightweight, but if your heart is set on the Sherpa Park Tote, it’ll work fine. Safe travels, and have fun!

  • Joy

    I would love to have a small dog (7-10 pounds) but my husband is hesitate due to our travel schedule. We are snowbirds and make 3 round trips each year to our winter home. Total travel time from home to home is around 6 hrs from door to door. Would this lifestyle be to stressful on a dog?

  • Joy, I think that would be very workable — Chloe and I travel more than that, very comfortably, and there are Dog Jaunt readers who leave us in the dust, they travel so much!

  • maria solis

    Hello my dog recently had puppies and when they are of age . 8 weeks I’ll be sending them to my family I live in Texas and my sisters live far apart from me , Philadelphia, Las Vegas and I’m sending one to my mom in Los Angeles since they are all far apart I obviously can’t go with each and everyone of them so I’m really scared for the health of my babies I heard really bad things about airplanes not caring for pets correctly I need advice on which airline is safe enough for me to be comfortable knowing my pet is safe without me having to be there .. please help me they are 4 weeks and 2 days old she the day is coming very soon.

  • Hello, Maria — I’m so sorry not to be a good resource for this! I always fly with Chloe in-cabin, so I don’t have useful info about sending a pup as cargo. I do know that pet flight.com keeps track of pet travel incidents, so you might take a look at their stats and see what airline seems to be doing the best job these days. I do think that folks generally try to do their best, and certainly lots of pets do travel safely in the bellies of planes. It is important to be aware of the airlines’ rules, and observe them, and to consult with your vet about your pet’s age and health, and how to make plane travel as comfortable as possible.

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