One of the aspects of our expat life that required the most research (and incurred the most stress) was transporting our dogs to and from Europe. I thought I’d share what we’ve learned through the process, as we have several friends who will be relocating their pets overseas in the upcoming months.
Most airlines have pet transportation programs. Based on my research, the two best airlines for international pet transport are Lufthansa and KLM. Both have pet hotels in Europe (Lufthansa’s is in Frankfurt, KLM’s is in Amsterdam) where pets are given food, water, and a bathroom break between connecting flights. You can also check out the Department of Transportation’s Incident Reports, which has information about every injury, accident and death related to animals on every flight that enters / exits / takes place in the USA.
There are three main forms of pet air transportation:
Excess Baggage: Depending on the type of aircraft you’re flying, and the route you’re taking, it’s often possible to take your pets as excess baggage, either in the cabin or underneath the plane. There are very specific height and weight requirements for cabin pets which vary by airline, but generally it would limit you to cats or dogs the size of a chihuahua or a Yorkie. If your dog doesn’t meet the height and weight restrictions, it can go underneath the plane in a specialized animal transport compartment. It’s pressurized and temperature-controlled (unlike the nearby luggage compartment) but space is limited, with only a handful of dogs permitted on each flight, depending on size. Additionally, these compartments don’t exist on many smaller planes, so if you have a connecting flight to a small city, it may not be possible to use this method. This is by far the cheapest way to send your dogs, generally ranging between $200 and $500 depending on the size of the pet and its kennel. To use this method, you must provide an approved kennel (we use Petmate Vari Kennel Ultra for both dogs), food and water bowls that attach to the kennel, and absorbent materials to line the kennel.
Cargo: Most airlines have a cargo division that transports pets. The pets will either be in the specialized compartment underneath a passenger plane, as mentioned above, or in an animal transport hold of a cargo plane (depending on the airline, time of flight, etc). These cargo companies don’t usually accept pets from the owners directly, but rather through an intermediary that specializes in animal transport. You contact the animal transport companies in your location (in Budapest, it’s Airmax Cargo) and provide them the pertinent information about your pets and when you want them to travel. They work with the airlines and provide you with a proposed route and price quote for each airline. These quotes generally are only valid for 30 days, so while I recommend contacting them a few months in advance, you may see some fluctuation in the original quote and the final contracted price. With these cargo companies, you can provide your own kennel and bowls, but you can also purchase the kennel directly from the transport company and have them handle everything for you. This costs a little more than excess baggage but is still pretty reasonably priced for an international flight (we got quotes between $500 and $1500 per dog).
For those who have to make a connection to get to their destination, this is the better option. The cargo company will schedule the flights so that the pet has an overnight stay in their pet hotel, so they will have an opportunity to get out of the kennel and use the bathroom, get fresh food and water, and sleep for a few hours between flights. With the excess baggage option, your pet follows the same path as your luggage, so he or she won’t be able to get out of the kennel for the entire journey. So for example, if you fly from Houston to Budapest, connecting in Frankfurt, the total travel time including layovers is usually about 16-17 hours. That’s a long time to go without added water and a bathroom break!
Door-to-door transport: This is the most comprehensive (and the most costly) option. There are several companies that specialize in international pet transport, with the most well-known ones being PetRelocation.com and Worldwide Pet Transport. This full-service option is basically effortless on the part of the pet owner. You request a quote from the website, inputting basic information about your pets and your home and destination cities. The company puts you in touch with a specialist for your region, who takes all the details and comes up with a quote. They handle *everything* for you, including the pre-departure vet visit to get the required travel paperwork, picking up the pet from your home and taking it to the airport, clearing customs, and bringing the dog to your home in your new destination. As you can imagine, this service is not cheap. We were given a quote of $8,500 to bring our two dogs from Budapest to Houston via one of these services, and that was with me agreeing to do all of the travel paperwork and veterinary visits on my own!
When we moved to Budapest, we used the excess baggage method for both dogs. It worked well enough – the dogs arrived safely, in good health and without any injuries or apparent trauma. We researched other options for the return trip, though, for a few reasons. First, have you ever tried to juggle two large dog crates, 4 suitcases, two carry-ons, a purse and a briefcase between two people? I have. It’s not fun. It makes you do stupid things, like take an unlicensed minivan taxi because you’re standing in an airport in a foreign country with all this STUFF surrounding you, and since he likes dogs, why not? (It worked out fine, but generally speaking, DON’T accept offers from random taxi men in the lobby of the Budapest airport. Or any airport.) We didn’t want to do that again when bringing our dogs home. And secondly, Winston has a few health issues – he recently turned 11 years old, and he has epilepsy. Both of these factors make flying a little more risky for him. I started looking into sending the dogs separately from us, a few days before our flight to Houston for Christmas.
I originally arranged for both dogs to go on KLM cargo planes, via Airmax Cargo. However, we hit a snag when we learned that the dogs would have an overnight stay in Amsterdam. Winston takes a daily medication for his epilepsy to prevent seizures. We asked KLM whether they could administer his medication at the pet hotel during his overnight stay – and they responded that they would be unable to transport him at all due to his health. Sigh.
So I began researching the door-to-door transportation options, requesting quotes and letting them know of Winston’s health issues. We got a preliminary quote from one company that stated it would be about $3,000 per dog under our circumstances. While that was a huge expense (especially compared to the $700 we paid in total for both dogs from Houston to Budapest), we thought that might be the only option for Winston given his health issues. So we proceeded to request a detailed quote… only to be told that the total for both dogs was actually $8,500. Yikes. That was completely impossible for us. [Note – some people assume that because we’re expats, all of this kind of stuff is covered by the company or included in our contract. That’s not true for many expats, and it definitely isn’t true for us. All of this is at our own expense. For those who are planning an overseas assignment, consider negotiating this into your contract if you have pets!]
Ultimately, we opted to send Lexie via the cargo service a few days before our flight, and Winston via excess baggage on our flight. My experience with the cargo service was wonderful, and I would highly recommend using KLM and their animal transport affiliates. They took great care of Lexie every step of the way, and they gave me a tracking number (just like a postal package) so that I could follow her progress. Winston also did great on his flight, although I was a little unhappy about his being unceremoniously dumped outside of the oversized baggage area at IAH.
If anyone plans to take their pets overseas, and would like to talk to me about my experiences or get more information about the research I did, just leave a comment or send me an e-mail! I’d be happy to talk about it.