Traveling with pets may cost you more than you think

Mihejevs/Shutterstock
Mihejevs/Shutterstock
A carry-on bag is included in Lana Joseph’s ticket price whenever she flies from Cleveland to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on United Airlines. But if that carry-on includes Molly, her six-pound Yorkshire terrier, Joseph has to cough up an additional $250 round-trip.

“That’s way too much for a bag that goes under the seat,” says Joseph, a retired hairstylist from Akron, Ohio, who spends her winters in South Florida. “I can see a small charge, but not an exorbitant fee.”

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of pet travel — a world that some say shouldn’t even exist. Americans spent an estimated $55.7 billion on pets last year, according to the American Pet Products Association, most of it on food and veterinary care. But an unknown portion of that amount also paid for plane tickets and accommodations for man’s best friends.

It’s one thing to travel with a service animal, which performs an essential function for a disabled passenger. But it’s quite another to bring your dog, cat, rabbit or bird on a leisure trip because you want to. APPA President Bob Vetere has called this the “humanization” of pets — or, in travel terms, the belief that Fluffy would be sad if you went on vacation without her.

Depending on your perspective, the travel industry has either accommodated those feelings by offering pet-friendly rooms, restaurants and flights, or it has preyed on them by adding fees and surcharges that do little more than line its pockets.

Certainly, accommodating a live animal can be an extra burden on any company. Airlines are required to file monthly reports with the Transportation Department on pets that were lost, injured or died during transport. United has reported a total of 89 pet deaths since 2005, according to the Web site ThirdAmendment.com . Still, United’s travel program for animals, called PetSafe, is said to be one of the most pet-friendly in the airline industry. United inherited PetSafe from Continental Airlines when the two merged in 2010.

A little disclosure: I’m owned by three Bengal cats, who stay home when I’m traveling. I love my kitties, but they’re not people. My parents, on the other hand, take their two tabbies, Phoenix and Freckles, on their road trips. It limits where they can stay, adds to the expense of traveling and often stresses out the little furballs. Let’s just say that if you want to start a debate at the dinner table, bring up the topic of traveling with cats. It’s probably an unwinnable argument.

David McAvoy, a registered nurse from Fresno, Calif., who vacations with his pugs Niko, Suki and Bitsy, has asked, “What does the pet fee cover?,” but he isn’t entirely happy with the answer. At a hotel, it covers the extra cost of cleaning the room, which he understands. “What I don’t get are the places that charge a fee each night you stay,” he says. “There are some places that charge $20 extra per night per pet. That can add up fast with three small dogs.”

Such high pet fees are unusual but can sometimes be found at discount motels that display a “pet friendly” icon on their Web sites and a vague “additional fee may apply” at the bottom of the page. If you’re like McAvoy or my parents and want to take the pets with you, beware of such fuzzy language. It may come back to bite you.

Paula Chase, who travels with her Shih Tzu, Buttons, bothered to look when she was planning a trip to Toronto. Buried in the fine print, she discovered that one hotel wanted to charge her $200 per night for her pet. “I was stunned,” says Chase, a retiree from Goderich, Ontario. “The charge for the room for us wouldn’t be near that price.”

She says that the fees are unfair to responsible pet owners. When she travels with Buttons, she walks the dog frequently, makes sure that she’s bathed and always picks up after her. Chase feels that she is either being punished for the behavior of other pet owners or is just being taken advantage of because she’s traveling with Buttons.

How do you avoid the fees? It helps to know where they lurk — airlines and cut-rate hotels are far likelier to sock it to you than a mid-market or upscale property, travelers say. Jerry Nussbaum, a real estate broker from Alameda, Calif., who just finished a road trip to the Grand Canyon and Sedona, Ariz., with his dog, Charlie, found several online resources that made his travel decisions easier.

Two standout Web sites were PetfriendlyTravel.com and Bringfido.com, which offered tips and information about vacationing with animals and listed pet-friendly accommodations. The sites steered Nussbaum to the Grand Canyon, which, he learned, allows dogs on the Rim Trail, and turned him on to hotels that accepted Charlie. “Generally, we were happy with the service and the welcome,” he says.

The travel industry is trying to grab a piece of the pet market, which could top $60 billion this year, according to APPA. The trick is to make pet owners feel pampered instead of punished. J.K. Snow recalls one stay at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas. Before check-in, an employee asked whether her cats, Lulu, Roxie and Willie, would be staying, too.

“As we walked into our suite, the first thing we noticed were the place mats with three pet bowls, bags of pet treats and toys,” she says. “In addition, each cat had its own bottle of Evian.”

Sure, Snow upgraded to a suite to accommodate the felines, but for that kind of treatment, she was happy to do it. Maybe if pet owners felt as though they were getting something for the extra money they were spending for the privilege of traveling with cats and dogs, they’d be happy to part with their money.

As for me, I’m still trying to persuade people to leave their animals at home. If I can convince my parents, I might have a chance.

With the exception of service animals and relocations, should people travel with their pets?

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