Traveling with pets (but first, a Chihuahua-on-a-plane story)

There’s an unwritten rule in travel journalism that any story about pets on planes must contain at least one Chihuahua anecdote. I know, because I’ve written many of them. So let’s get right to Charlotte Coan and her travel companion, Cricket.

Coan, a retired educator from West Yellowstone, Mont., frequently packs her nine-pound dog in her carry-on luggage. But like an increasing number of travelers, she doesn’t tell anyone. She’s been caught twice, and the airline has forced her to pay a $150 surcharge for the pet.

“When I asked why I had to pay a fee in order to stuff my dog under the seat in front of me, I was told it was their policy,” she said. “I concluded that it’s really just a ploy to charge another fee.”

A lot of travelers have been arriving at the same conclusion lately, although exact numbers are difficult to come by. Instead of paying extra “pet fees” to hotels or airlines, they’re spiriting their animal companions into their bags or under blankets in the hope of saving a few bucks.

They also are bending the truth when it comes to their pets, said Ami Moore, a Chicago-based canine behaviorist. One wealthy client recently offered Moore $10,000 to “certify” her dog as a service animal, which would have given the animal a free ride. She refused.

Why lie about your dog? Amy Luwis, a recent guest at a luxury hotel in Savannah, Ga., persuaded the staff to waive the nonrefundable $150 pet deposit fees for her pit bull by dressing the dog in a “cute reflective red vest” and carrying an official-looking badge, which left the hotel staff with the impression that the dog was a service animal.

“I’m not proud of this charade,” said Luwis, the co-founder of a pet adoption Web site. “But after 20 years of being relegated to the dank, bad hotel rooms and too many stays in biohazard motels — or worse, having no place to stay at all — I decided to take matters into my own hands and fool the general public.”

She’s got a point. Pet owners have good reasons for smuggling Fido or Fluffy in their carry-ons. Many airlines have raised their pet fees so high that they’re often more than the price of the owner’s ticket. And more hotels are adding nonrefundable pet deposits to the quarters they allow dog and cat owners to occupy, and they are often the worst rooms in the house. In other words, pets and their owners are in the doghouse.

Hotel owners have a different perspective, as you might expect. Elaine Fitzgerald owns and operates a group of small inns in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area. She offers one cat-approved unit out of 25 rental apartments but dreads the occupants who secretly bring kitty along.

“I’m not concerned about damage,” said Fitzgerald, who is a cat owner herself. “It’s cat dander. One in seven people are highly allergic to it. A cat in a unit, even for a day or two, literally poisons it for future guests. It’s even worse than cigarette smoke.”

The airline industry’s reasons for its restrictive pet policies are slightly different. Although it appears that air carriers are just trying to find another way to get money out of their passengers, it really comes down to the fact that they don’t consider themselves in the pet transportation business and want to discourage people from bringing animals on the plane. Maybe that’s one reason we now have Pet Airways, a pets-only air carrier that launched last summer and now serves seven cities, including New York, Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles.

It does seem somewhat counterintuitive to alienate pet owners, who, after all, spent an estimated $45 billion on their furry companions last year despite the recession. And to be sure, some businesses have embraced pets. Best Western, for example, has begun marketing itself as “pet friendly” with a Web site for pet owners who travel and a Web application that merges your picture with your pet’s to create what it calls “a hilarious merged image” that can be shared with your family.

The question that has largely gone unasked amid the traveling-pets scuffle is this one: If your animal could talk, would it ask to join you on vacation?

“Your best friend loves being able to be at your side any time,” said Maria Goodavage, author of “Dog Lover’s Companion to California,” one of the “Dog Lover’s Companion” series. “He’s there for you through thick and thin. Why leave him behind when you finally have time off to relax and enjoy life?”

I can understand that sentiment as a pet owner (three Bengal cats, who are watching me even as I write this). But I can’t bring myself to anthropomorphize my furry friends. In fact, I think it’s kind of insulting. My kitties would prefer to stay at home, where they have a predictable supply of cat food and toys. I miss them when I’m away, but that’s my problem.

Many pet owners reading this will take their dogs and cats along anyway, because they believe their pets can’t possibly live without them. If you do, find a pet-friendly hotel and don’t hide the animal.

It’s bad enough that you’re taking the creature out of its normal environment. Why make it deal with the stress of your lie, too?

(Photo: -po/Flickr Creative Commons)

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