Top 10 Tips for Purchasing an Airline Approved Carrier
How very strange that I have not yet written this post, Dear Reader. Perhaps it’s because I shy away from anything that looks like a product review, but it is time that I share with you the top 10 things to look for when purchasing an airline-approved pet carrier. It’s likely to be the most important purchase you’ll make for international travel with your small pet! And just so we are clear, I am talking about in-cabin flying, not cargo. We specialize in small pet travel, after all! Small in this case means less than 9 kilograms (20 pounds).
*Full Disclosure*: We are not sponsored by any company to write this post. This is based purely on our own experience and personal preferences. I invite you to go out there and do your own research, look up different companies, and see what feels right for you and your dog. This post is simply a guide to help you better understand what to look for and what to consider.
There are many brands of carriers out there. After you’ve done some online window shopping of your own, like many, you may fall in love the Sleepypod Air, or, if you have a larger toy breed, a Sherpa. But I will not lie to you: we absolutely love One For Pets’ One Bag Expandable Pet Carrier. To date, it is the only one that has every. single. thing. we look for, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s a Canadian company. (We are Canadian after all!)
We bought the carrier at a fundraiser for a dog rescue about six years ago and we have never ever regretted it. I’ll be honest, Dear Reader: I have yet to see another that we would rather have. You can see Mom talk about it below.
Because I know you didn’t take notes (it’s okay, I wouldn’t either), I’ll recap the video. Here are the top 10 things to look for when purchasing an airline approved carrier.
Most airlines have specific maximum dimensions that they impose for in-cabin pet carriers. This dimension restriction is dictated by the amount of space available under the seats of the planes in the airline’s fleet. Always check before you fly that your carrier is appropriate for all the airlines you will be using on your trip. Remember to double check if you are under the umbrella of an airline consortium like Sky Team or Star Alliance. Your ticket may say Air France but you might actually be on a KLM plane. Keep that in mind.
After years of flying and many cross-Atlantic flights, we have found the “safe zone” for dimensions to be 48 cm long x 33 cm wide x 22 cm high (or 19 x 13 x 9 if you’re using inches). If you use this as your guide, you should be good to go. Smaller is always all right; you need to be careful if you are going above any of those dimensions.
Side note: When flying with a pet, you can’t book the seats on an aircraft that are near any of the emergency exits or those that have some of the audio visual equipment below the seat in front of you.
Remember that the weight restrictions you see on any airline website for in-cabin travel include the weight of your carrier with your dog in it, unless otherwise specified. Generally ,the weight limit hovers around 9 kilograms (20 pounds). At less than 2 kg (3.5 to 4 lbs), I have a lot of wiggle room to play with. If your pet is closer to 7 kg (15 lbs), you’ll have to ensure that the carrier doesn’t put you over! The formula we always adhere to is Dog + Carrier = 9 kg (20 lbs) or less.
The One For Pet carrier only weighs 1.1 kg (2.5 lbs). That is pretty darn good. Some of the more fancy leather carriers are actually very heavy; if you add lots of metal accents, the weight just keeps going up. A case in point: should it be in your budget range, the Louis Vuitton airline dog carrier, with all that brass and leather, weighs WAY more than I do!
The carrier you select has to be rigid enough to stand on its own when put on the ground. In essence, what you are looking for is a little, portable, soft-sided dog house. The reason for this requirement is that your pet will be in the carrier under the seat in front on you, and the airline wants to make sure that your pet will not have a carrier that folds onto itself like so many city bags do. Plus, the dog has to be able to stand, turn around, and settle again comfortably. For those of you with long legged dogs like Italian Greyhounds, you may need to push the height limits as far as you can.
As you know, we are carry-on-only travellers. That means we travel extremely light. So it is vital to us that the carrier can collapse and be stored out of the way once we are on location. If all you have is a carry-on or a backpack, or you are sailing and thus in tight quarters, the last thing you want is a carrier you can’t stow away. The One For Pet collapses completely and comes with its own storage pouch. It’s also super lightweight so we don’t feel it in our bags and, as a result, we barely think of it until we need to fly home again.
Make sure that the way the bag collapses and is re-assembled isn’t super complicated. The One For Pet is just two zippers and that is it. I’ve seen some great bags that collapse, but the steps involved in “uncollapsing” it is far too convoluted for my liking. Keep it simple!
The One For Pet carrier we use starts small and, thanks to its sloping sides, is easy to carry. And when needed—such as when on board and settled for flight—the carrier easily expands into a full rectangle thanks to two zippers and an accordion extension system. This expansion adds another 5 centimetres (2 inches) on both ends. That is rather substantial when you are as small as I am. This allows for extra leg room and stretching … for me, even room for an extra toy. For those of you with long bodied dogs, length and any extra length become really valuable.
I can’t stress enough how important it is that you focus on the solidity of the material used for the carrier you purchase. There are some really pretty bags out there, in all sorts of decorative fabrics or with cute added decorations. But the reality is, your airline-approved carrier is going to take a beating. Durability in this case matters more than aesthetics. I find that One For Pet seems to have achieved a happy marriage of looks and durability. When shopping, look for the following:
- No-rip fabric. I have been under the seats of planes, trains, ferry boats, and more and I assure you, it’s all bolts and metal parts under there. Remember that this carrier is not just transporting your dog; it’s also protection from sharp edges, tar, salt, and more.
- Easy to clean fabric. My carrier has been with me for over six years now. It’s been on airport floors, sidewalks, tarmac, salty piers, and more. Being able to just take a damp cloth to clean the carrier has been the key to keeping it still looking like new.
- Quality on the inside! A lot of carriers have a plastic liner-board or sleeping pad. Personally, I prefer a removable and washable faux fur option. Plastic is not a breathable surface, so its darned uncomfortable when you have to spend many hours on it. If you add a blanket, all you have done is create a slip-and-slide inside your carrier. Far better to have a faux fur wrapped around foam—not around cardboard, which will fall apart, lose its rigidity, and suffer mightily if a liquid accident occurs.
I know I’m going to begin to sound like a late-night sponsored television ad, but, yup, One For Pet has this element down too: the liner-board is not just comfortable; it also expands when the bag is expanded, keeping the space comfortable and balanced! Amazing what a fold and two pieces of Velcro can accomplish! So clever!
There are some design elements we’ve come to truly appreciate when it comes to One For Pets’ carrier that we’ve found lacking in many other carriers. In order of importance to us, these are the design features we think you should consider:
- An opening on top. To be perfectly blunt, if the carrier does not have this feature, we would not purchase it. Period. This is hands-down the single most-used access point. It not only allows for an aerial view for the bipeds to see me when I am on the ground, it also means I can easily make eye contact with them. It’s a thousand times easier to remove your pet from the carrier from the top than it is from the side. I can’t stress enough the importance of this feature. You really want this.
- BOTH sides open. I have seen so many carriers with only one side that opens and, frankly, I just don’t get it. If you have ever flown, you’ll know how tight the space is in a plane. We have seen people put their pet under the seat in front of them and then once in the air, they go to check on their pet and, Oh look! The opening is on the other side facing away. Now you have to disturb your fellow travellers as you try and pull the carrier back out, and return it facing the right way. It’s just really not convenient at all. And, trust me, in the flurry of boarding and getting settled, many will forget to put the carrier in the right way.
- Ventilation mesh. I know a lot of dogs like the tunnel effect but I am not one of them. Personally, I want to be able to see where I am going. In ALL directions. The One For Pets carrier has mesh above, on each end, and on one side. That provides me with a lot of visibility and also with proper ventilation. Sometimes the air is pretty stagnate and being in a carrier that doesn’t allow for airflow adds a dangerous element if your dog is overheating. And no, they will not make an exception and let you take your dog out of the carrier. So you want to make sure that there is lots of airflow. The lack of all-around ventilation mesh is an error we have seen in even the most fancy carriers. Having been stuck on a bus with no air conditioning in the summer heat, I assure you, do NOT underestimate the importance of this feature.
- Pockets. You want at least one little pocket to keep some treats and poop bags. And when it comes to pockets, get one that zips shut. When you put something in that pocket, you want to make sure is stays there. Make sure the zippers are high quality ones.
- Safety strap inside to keep your pet from jumping out!
- Not a must but certainly a nice little extra, the One For Pets carrier has a double zipper at the back that allows us to slip the carrier onto the handle of our wheeled carry-on suitcases. Never use that feature with the pet inside since the bag can swivel out of place, but we like this feature when walking in the airport (those that allow it). It’s nice to not have to carry the carrier.
- Multiple use. I love a carrier that doubles up as a car seat!
Technically, this could fall under the design heading but I find this to be so important that I wanted to give it its own spot in this post. Even if your dog is a lightweight like me, after a few hours of walking with the carrier on your shoulder, you will feel the pressure. You really want to make sure that the strap has a nice wide foam-padded part to help ease pressure on your shoulder. No matter how tough you think you are, why be uncomfortable? Also ensure that the length of the strap can be adjusted so that the carrier can hover at the thigh where your pet will be less jostled.
You also want to make sure that you can remove the shoulder strap. This is a feature we have come to truly appreciate on the One For Pets. Once we are in tight quarters, such as on a bus or plane or when going through airport security, the long shoulder strap gets in the way. If you can’t remove it, the hanging shoulder strap gets caught in everything. And it does. Oh, does it ever! It’s MUCH better to have a removable strap that you can tuck in a pocket. In addition, we prefer the lightweight plastic snaps to the metal ones for unclipping the strap. We find the plastic snaps easier on the hands and less fiddly, and less metal is always a bonus when being scanned at airport security!
And that leads me to the two short straps. You want to be able to hold your carrier so that it is at a comfortable spot around your thighs when walking. We have found that “sweet spot” to be just above the knees. Lower, and your knees are bouncing into the carrier, jostling the dog inside. Do not buy a carrier that does not have the short double straps! You will use these ALL THE TIME! And yes, two short straps makes for a much more balanced ride than just a single one. With just one strap, as soon as your pet moves, the entire bag is off balance and thus awkward for both you and your pet.
The carrier’s shape also comes into play. I used to have the small Sleepypod. We stopped using it because although it met a lot of the other requirements we’ve listed so far, its round shape made walking with it and carrying it really awkward. Sure, it was great for me; after all, dogs mostly sleep tucked in a circle. But for the bipeds, it was really inconvenient. It’s now my daybed at home.
The conventional rectangle is better, but again, there is an awkwardness to the shape. Nope. The triangular shape of the One For Pets carrier really adds a level of stability to the carrier that we have yet to find in any other carrier. Something so simple as shape does have a huge impact.
I know, I know, this may not seem important to most, but it’s really worth mentioning. Unless you are travelling alone, the odds are good someone of the opposite sex will take turns carrying the carrier. And although some guys will not mind being seen with a pink, rhinestone-covered carrier, many will! Plus, gender-neutral draws less attention and, sometimes, you want to be more incognito. I always like a carrier that does not scream “DOG INSIDE!”
Having a carrier that is more gender-neutral and discrete means that more people will be willing to help you. I know that in our case, Mom is happy to let Dad literally shoulder my weight, and the gender-neutral bag certainly goes a long way to making that something Dad is happy to oblige. I know he loves me and he would anyway, but not every man out there is such a gentleman.
And that, Dear Reader, covers our top 10 tips for purchasing an airline approved carrier! If you have ANY questions or want a little more detail on a particular point, by all means ask away. If you want to share why you love your carrier—no matter the brand—go right ahead in the comments below!