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Christopher Elliott on pet travel: That’s ridiculous!

Last year, Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate for travelers, wrote an article about pet travel that I chose to ignore. Entitled “Traveling with pets can be pricey,” its main points were: Airlines and many hotels charge substantial fees for pets; and it’s not fair to dodge those costs by sneaking your pet onto a plane or into a hotel. Up to that point, our hearts beat as one — but then he tossed in an argument that pet owners should leave their pets at home because they’d prefer not to travel. What a silly man, I thought — muddying what could have been a tight, useful article with a point that he could substantiate only by referring to his own cats: “My kitties would prefer to stay at home, where they have a predictable supply of cat food and toys.” The resulting article was incoherent, and I left it alone (Edie Jarolim, however, blogging at Will My Dog Hate Me?, did respond).

How sorry I was to see another pet travel article from Christopher Elliott last week, this time on the Frommer’s web site. Elliott himself is an influential presence in the travel world, and Frommer’s is, well, Frommer’s. There’s no ignoring this article — it has too much potential reach.

Sadly, it’s just as flawed as its predecessor. Instead of writing a piece of responsible journalism, Elliott spins three sketchy news-stories into a web of ignorant assertions. His arguments and conclusions are so illogical that the piece must have been written purely to cause controversy and attract traffic.

The first half you can speed-read — it’s a recap of the controversy sparked by a post on his blog about how he was going to care for his three Bengal cats while he and his family were on an extended road trip. It raised, he says, the following question: “At a time when many otherwise rational people feel that dogs and cats are equal to people, am I obligated to take my pets on vacation?”

What a silly thing to ask. Of course you’re not obligated to take your pet on vacation with you. I write a dog travel blog, and interact through a variety of social media with enthusiastic dog owners and travelers. If there existed a significant population that believes it is morally wrong to leave your dog at home while you travel, I would know about it.

He follows up with three news-snippets (from 2000, 2004, and 2010) that suggest, at most, that a fraction of travelers on planes with in-cabin pets fail to maintain sufficient control over their pets en route. His conclusion? It’s wrong to travel with your pets at all (except, presumably, on short trips in your own car, or camping): “I don’t believe cats, dogs or pigs belong on a plane, in a hotel, or a rental car unless maybe you’re moving somewhere, and even then, they should be safely confined to a carrier. Incidentally, I think this represents the view of the average American.”

I don’t challenge his right to believe that, or even to assert his belief that he speaks for “the average American.” I deplore his choice not to dig a little deeper, not to talk to experienced travelers with pets, not to hear the arguments in favor of choosing to travel with your pet. And I regret that he was given a forum on Frommer’s for his misshapen opinion.

I wish that Elliot had posed a real question, like “Is it a good idea to take my pet on vacation with me?” Here’s my answer:

As a responsible and loving pet owner, I need to consider whether my pet is suited for travel. It’s not unheard of for a cat to travel, but no cat I’ve ever owned (we have four at this moment) has thought it was a good idea. How about my dog? Do her physical characteristics and health allow her to travel comfortably? Is she sufficiently well-socialized and well-trained to be a good companion? Is she likely to react well to new surroundings and new people? Does she enjoy traveling?

I am well aware that some dogs do not travel comfortably. It is up to the owner to assess her dog and determine, with research and the help of her vet, whether traveling together makes sense. It is also up to the owner to travel responsibly, attending to the comfort of her dog and demonstrating her respect for her fellow citizens by ensuring her dog’s good behavior.

I can easily imagine instances when it makes sense not to travel with your dog. I will, at some point, take Lindblad’s “British & Irish Isles” trip, and Chloe will not be welcome on board. I will go up the Nile, and it won’t be with Chloe. Your dog may have a doting “grandmother,” who looks forward to your trips because they give her time with her grand-dog. Our niece takes her Jack Russell to her sister-in-law’s farm when they leave town, because Halley adores racing around the acreage with her canine “cousins.”

Please note that Grandma and the farm are both free — given the cost of pet-sitting and boarding, it may well make economic sense to bring your dog with you. Again, you’ll want to weigh the costs and benefits (monetary and otherwise) of your options before making your choice.

My choice, whenever possible, will be to travel with Chloe. She is a marvelous, well-behaved companion, and as I’ve said at greater length in other posts, having her along enhances our travel experiences. Would Chloe prefer to be at home, as Elliott suggests, “wallowing in mud”? No. I am confident, based on her joyous enthusiasm (cat owners like Elliott would need to learn the language of the full-body tail-wag, the alert head-carriage, the bright eyes, and the wide grin), that Chloe loves herself a new sidewalk, a new field, a new source of belly scratches.

Read more responses from other responsible pet owners who travel with their dogs at The Road ForksGo Pet Friendly, and Will My Dog Hate Me?  


  • Akila

    What a lovely, fantastic, and thoughtful response M.A.! I am so glad to hear your viewpoint on cats since I don’t have any and have never had cats. And, I think that’s EXACTLY the point — you can have cats and choose not to travel with them and be an entirely responsible pet owner but because you have a dog who enjoys travel, you choose to take her along with you. I totally know what you mean by that “bright eyes and wide grin” because that’s exactly what we look for with our dogs, too. I wouldn’t do this traveling bit with our dogs if they hated it, either. Because THAT would make me an irresponsible pet owner.

  • Montecristo Travels

    I fear that all too often people with little desire to do any real research are those ones given the floor. I have the same gut wrenching reaction when I read about the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) trying to pass legislative law to ban in cabin pets from Canadian airlines. I write about it here:

    We travel – with Dog and he loves it. Period. if he didn’t he would stay with his nannies. period. I am offended when a person tells us we are irresponsible just because it does not align with their views. It is short sighted to an extreme.

  • Patty

    What a strange little man, giving such strange little opinions on the subject.

    We don’t travel, per se. We live in one place, a tiny island off one side of North America, and we visit family (ages 94 and 92) twice a year up and across to the other side of NAmerica in Canada. We have to fly – driving would take more than a week each way and then there would be no time with the family. We are a husband and a wife, with a dog. We have no family to leave the dog with. We have no friends who could take our dog. How insanely stupid to suggest that she not make the visits with us! She sleeps on the plane, is a non-barking species, and is happy to see the old folks (and they are over the moon to see her – their own dog died last fall).

    Thank you for your blog post, Mary-Alice!

  • Lia

    I am a big fan of your site, oddly though, I have no dogs but two very traveled cats and your site has provided invaluable pet travel information.

    Mr. Elliott’s article has no consideration for those of us who travel frequently (and sometimes for extensive periods) on work assignments. As professional in the film industry I’m often sent on location sometimes for up to 4-5 months. Although I’m fortunate to have a friend who is happy to watch them while I’m away (boarding would have cost a fortune), I began taking my cats with me because they were becoming ill and showing behavioral disturbances due to the anxiety of being separated for so long. Initially I was hesitant to fly with them, but as any responsible pet owner its important to asses your pet’s temperament. My kitties are calm, docile and quiet -and though they were a bit vocal on the way to the airport, you couldn’t hear a peep from them during the entire trip; once we settled on board it was business as usual: they slept the entire five hour flight.

    I encourage anyone who has cats to explore the possibility of traveling with them. If you have two cats that get along well like mine, you have the added benefit that cats like to curl up together so you can take advantage of the many airlines that allow you to bring two cats in one carrier.

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