No, your cat can’t fly on United without a pre-booked reservation

Mark O’Brien contacted us after he and his cat were denied boarding on a United Airlines flight because he did not make the required reservation for his pet. This is a great reminder to read all the terms and conditions before booking an airline ticket, especially if you’re bringing a pet onboard. Or else you could end up with a paws in your travel plans.

The Indiana native was hoping to bring home a pet from Taiwan. He thought he had done due diligence — checking United’s website and even exchanging emails with a United representative.

O’Brien explained:

It was my first time traveling with a pet. I had to get a “birth certificate” and have an RFID chip implanted (per local laws in Taiwan). I researched government websites in
the U.S. and Indiana for regulations, took the cat to the vet and had his shots brought up-to-date. I did everything I thought I needed to do.

As you can see on their website , they completely fail to mention the need to register in advance. I was fully prepared to spend $125 extra for the pet fee, but their “Petsafe” program was ridiculously expensive and not worth considering…although I did take the time to get a rate quote from the local shipper.

O’Brien showed up at the airport with plenty of time before his flight. However, he was rebuffed in his attempt to check in because he had not reserved space in the cabin for his cat prior to travel. He could not get a United representative at the airport to help him with his predicament, so he made arrangements with another airline to transport him and his furry friend to Indiana. Unfortunately, he was forced to spend two nights in a hotel before he could get out of Taiwan.

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He attempted to contact United customer service in the U.S. via its 800-number. But the number was inoperable in Taiwan. “I spent a day in a hotel room (buying phone card after phone card) trying to work with United agents who were happy to help me re-book, but with no credit at all for the flight I was not allowed to board,” O’Brien lamented. “Why on earth is there not a big, bold warning [on their website] that you need to make a reservation for your animal in the baggage compartment?”

O’Brien could have tried a local Taiwan number, but apparently never did. He also could have used a program like Skype, which works all around the world and would have helped him try to solve his dilemma.

He was able to contact the airline via email, but O’Brien used an angry tone when trying to get help from a United representative.

I would like to bring a cat on the flight with me to the USA. United’s website is WORTHLESS. It has no details other than a phone number for Taiwan, not even an email address….and I have trouble understanding recorded messages in Chinese and have been unable to get someone to answer the phone…probably they took it off the hook after the doctor-brutality incident… So….can you provide me with any information or not?

Upon his return to the States, he contacted our advocates to see if they would help get United to reimburse him $1,300 for his alternate flight.

Our advocate reviewed the United website and determined that O’Brien had referred to the wrong web page when planning his trip. He actually was looking at travel restrictions for pets by country but did not refer to the correct web page that referred to the airline’s policy for traveling with in-cabin pets.

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On this page appears the “big, bold warning” O’Brien asked us about. It reads

Advance reservations for in-cabin pet travel are required.
Request an in-cabin booking for your pet through or by calling the United Customer Contact Center at 1-800-UNITED-1 (1-800-864-8331).

The web page also states, “Rules for international in-cabin pets vary. For additional assistance or information, or to book international in-cabin travel for a pet, contact the United Customer Contact Center.”

O’Brien failed to realize that because he was on such a long international flight, his pet would not have been permitted to travel in the baggage compartment as he desired. The only place for his cat would have been in the cabin, but he failed to register for one of those spots.

Because O’Brien did none of the above, we must dismiss his case.

Mark Pokedoff

Four-time Emmy-award-winning television sports production specialist and frequent traveler. Longtime freelance writer and travel blog enthusiast. Proud papa of four amazing kids who have been upgraded to first class more than all their friends combined.

  • Annie M

    Awfully expensive cat when you don’t research enough.

  • Chris Johnson

    Why didn’t he just claim it was a special “emotional support animal”? They would have let him have it right in the cabin on his lap then, never mind the passengers that were allergic and would suffer the whole flight.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    If you are going to be your travel agent, you better do the research. This article is a good reason to use a professional brick & mortar travel agent that has experience in this area.

  • SirWIred

    I would have thought it would be intuitive that a US-based toll-free number would not work worldwide. And I’d be very surprised if the United phone number for Taiwan did not have, after a bunch of Chinese prompts, “For English, Press 7” or something.

    That said, when I need to call the airline from abroad, I do indeed find myself an internet connection and use a VOIP app. (Google Hangouts Dialler will work on any phone or laptop and will call anywhere in the US or Canada for free; all you need is a Google account.)

    I wonder how he found the information he did on travelling with pets, because just Googling “United Airlines Pets” has all you need to know.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Yeah, something seems amiss here. I went to the United site, and in just two clicks — “Traveling with Animals” and then “In Cabin Pets” — I was on a page that said very clearly, in bold, right at the top of the page: “Advance reservations for in-cabin pet travel are required.”

    Can’t imagine how he might have missed that.

    I can find no compassion for this traveler, who appears to simply have not done his homework.

  • Flyonpa

    NANP (US / Canada) has set up “Toll” numbers that can call “Toll Free” number from out side US/Can. It will cost you to call it but will connect you to that “Toll Free Number”

    1-800-UNITED-1 (1-800-864-8331). Would be (US country code) – 880-864-8331 Its a Toll Call but it will go to UAL call center.

    Each “800” number has a toll alias.

  • Dan

    I think the key issue is that OP wanted the pet to travel in the baggage compartment. See his message:

    “Why on earth is there not a big, bold warning [on their website] that you need to make a reservation for your animal in the baggage compartment?”

    My hypothesis is that OP saw the warning about in-cabin animals but quickly dismissed it because he was specifically focused on having his cat travel as checked luggage. OP was just unaware that it’s cruel to check a cat on a 12 hr flight.

  • Michael__K

    If they didn’t let him check-in, then why wouldn’t they cancel his reservation and issue him a flight credit?
    Does United even sell non-changeable “Basic Economy” tickets from Asia to North America?

  • LeeAnneClark

    Yes, I saw that…except even that isn’t an excuse. When you click on the “Traveling with Animals” you are offered two options – “In-Cabin Pets” and “PetSafe”. If you click PetSafe, there again right at the very top, in bold, in a separate box to call it out, are the words:

    “Book travel with PetSafe. Request a booking by submitting our form or contacting your local pet shipper.”

    It also offers a “Frequently Asked Questions” link right under that. In the FAQ, the third and fourth questions are: “How do I book PetSafe travel for my pet?” and “How far in advance should I book travel for my pet?”

    And when you click “How far in advance should I book travel for my pet?” it says “We encourage you to book as far in advance as possible, as space is limited.”

    Sorry but information that booking your pet is a requirement is literally all over the place on the United website. It would be hard to miss, in fact.

    And yes, I have to agree that it seems bizarre that he would consider it appropriate to put a cat in baggage on a 12-hour flight.

  • Mich

    I was just getting ready to post this information. I travel with my doxie quite a bit and the airlines are very clear as to what they expect in both fees and documentation.

  • Noah Kimmel

    it is worded really unclearly since he flew another airline. But also wanted United to “reimburse him $1,300 for his alternate flight.” So is the $1300 is fare difference? cost of UA ticket? cost of new? other?

  • Michael__K

    It’s worded very clearly that he:

    “[tried] to work with United agents who were happy to help me re-book, but with no credit at all for the flight I was not allowed to board”

  • Noah Kimmel

    then yea, not sure why he wasnt refunded minus a change fee…

  • SirWIred

    That’s valuable information; while it’s usually possible to use VOIP access to call US toll-free numbers from abroad, being able to do so with a “regular” phone line could totally come in handy.

  • joycexyz

    All he had to do was read the airline’s policy–and the print is not microscopic. How big and bold does the print have to be? Maybe bells and whistles need to go off?

  • joycexyz

    I’m bringing my emotional support cobra.

  • joycexyz

    Some just like to play “poor little me, how was I to know?” rather than actually researching the answer. And this research is pretty darn easy.

  • joycexyz

    It was his own fault that he wasn’t allowed to check in. He could have changed the ticket, paid the fee and made proper arrangements for the cat. My impression is that he refused that offer because he didn’t want to pay the pet fee. Instead he chose to travel on another airline.

  • Michael__K

    Where did you get the idea that he was offered a flight credit and turned it down?

  • Chris Johnson

    LOL. That’s fine, as long as it doesn’t eat my emotional support mouse. Morris is very important to my emotional well-being, you know.

  • Altosk

    He should’ve just claimed it was an “Emotional Support Animal,” dummied up a letter on his laptop, and checked in. I mean, that’s what most people do anyway with their “ESAs.”

  • Altosk

    Don’t joke…I sat next to an emotional support snake on a plane!

  • James Moninger

    After reading his message to UA, I can certainly understand why the carrier would have little interest in helping him.

  • Ellen Chiantelli

    When booking travel for your cat, also remember to obtain a “TSA Travel Health Certificate.” This eliminates further dialogue delay as it outlines ALL your cat’s current immunizations. It also shows your Veterinarian’s signature authorizing proof of your cat’s healthy status and clearance for travel. If you follow the procedures, phone the airline in advance, and pay (in my case the extra $100 cat travel fee), it eliminates a lot of wasted time, and money. As an aside, in order for my cat to travel more comfortably. I also gave her a very small sedative. Try the cat’s meds a week prior to the flight to see how she responds. Don’t just pop a pill before travel, as you have no idea what adverse reaction the medication may cause. Luckily, for me, this was my first time flying with my cat, and she did so without incident. Not even a meow out of her, the entire flight.
    Upon entry into the terminal, by right, I also refused a TSA agent’s request to remove my cat from her carrier. I opted instead for a Supervisor to escort me to a private room to examine said bag. I guess, once I looked at them with an incredulous expression (and no pun intended here- “Let the cat outta the bag?”) they were extremely polite and accommodating. When the Supervising TSA agent directed another agent to return to x-ray to inspect the cat carrier, I was able to rock my kitty in their private TSA inspection room. Hence, my fickle feline was quite content, happy and purring peacefully.

  • bayareascott

    Still needs to be registered in advance.

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