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While increasing numbers of travelers are reluctant to hit the road without their pets, doing so brings formidable challenges, including a lack of verified and updated information on pet-friendly travel options and airline guidelines.
As a result, pet-focused travel advisors are stepping in to fill the information void and meet the demand to bring dogs, cats, hamsters, and even snakes on vacation and business trips.
“They are your family. You want them with you, and it makes a great vacation even better,” said Heather Eisenstadt, who founded Top Dog Pet Travel in 2015.
One of the biggest reasons companies like Top Dog Pet Travel have come into existence is the fluidity of rules and regulations in both the airline and hotel industries regarding pet travel, according to Eisenstadt.
“Booking a pet into a hotel might not be as easy as you think it is,” she said. “Many hotels will take small pets but not as many will take larger pets. If you’ve got a golden retriever or a labradoodle or a German shepherd, even if you researched a hotel online that said ‘Yeah, we are pet-friendly,’ when you get there if you haven’t really done your homework, they might reject you.”
Another question that comes up frequently is that of airline policies in relation to emotional support animals. The regulations are very gray and vary according to the airline, said Susan Smith, president and CEO of Pet Travel Inc.
“People realized they could fly pets in the cabin for free and, of course, we see internet websites pop up that say for $150 we will issue you a physician note,” she said. “You can imagine the bind this put airlines in.”
Smith provides consultation on what will fly and what won’t, including how to check a pet into cargo properly or how to get it on board.
“We pretty much go the gambit, everything from snakes, tarantulas, snails, turtles, rodents, reptiles, and hamsters,” Smith said. “The airlines are concerned with these pets getting out. Once a pet gets loose in the cabin, oh my, that is the worst-case scenario.”
It can be difficult for travelers to stay on top of changing regulations both within individual hotels, hotel chains, and airlines so part of the job of pet travel advisors is to constantly stay updated on these policies.
“[Pet travel] is really subject to Murphy’s Law. Whoever does it has to be extremely thorough and flexible,” Smith said. “If anything can go wrong, it’s going to wrong. We sleep with cellphones on our bellies when we have pets in the air.”
Pet Travel was founded in 1986 and originally served as a database of pet travel information that included pet-friendly hotels and other information on how to travel with pets.
Since then, the business has evolved to be a comprehensive platform with information on pet policies for 160 airlines, 35,000 pet-friendly hotels, inns, bed and breakfasts, and vacation rentals, and a service to send pets anywhere in the world.
The most crucial service the company provides is for international travel. Every country has its own requirement for what animals are permitted, what vaccinations are needed, and what documentation is required upon entry, Smith said.
“The consequences are pretty unpleasant and in some places dire,” Smith said. “If your pet doesn’t conform to requirements to enter an international country, they will go into quarantine. They will be turned around, put on the next plane home, and in worst cases, they will be euthanized.”
Pet travel has steadily increased over the past two decades, according to Link, with both baby boomers and millennials driving the trend.
The American Pet Products Association’s 2019–2020 National Pet Owners Survey found that 45 percent of dog owners take their pet with them when they are away from home for at least two nights. For millennials, the figure is 52 percent.
“Several things are moving that demand, one of which is baby boomers. Their kids have left the nes,t and they get dogs or cats and they love to travel,” Smith said. “Millennials are very mobile, and they also generally put off having a family because of their mobility, but they love their dogs and cats.”
Andrea Mladin, who started the Pet Travel Advisor project in Serbia three years ago after years of traveling with her Maltese named Mila, is seeking to bring more structure to pet travel restrictions and regulations throughout Europe.
“One of the main reasons I run this project is because for dog owners, it can be really difficult to travel with their pet,” Mladin said. “If they have a small dog, they will go easier but with a big dog, it is a real challenge. When you say ‘pet-friendly’ it brings a whole bunch of rules that you need to fit in. Pet policies must be known for better planning.”
That risk of uncertainty is one of the biggest reasons travelers are turning to experts to not only provide verified information but to plan their trips.
A love of vacationing with her entire pet family of four dogs and three cats is what led Eisenstadt to start Top Dog Pet Travel.
“Wherever we travel, we take our furry family with us,” Eisenstadt said. “We found out years ago that it’s not so easy, at least it wasn’t at that time, to find great accommodations in fun places that we might want to vacation that will accommodate the furry kids and the cats and everybody else.”
As friends and family took notice that she was able to vacation freely with her pets, they began asking for advice.
“I said if they are interested, there’s probably a lot of people out there who really want to know this,” Eisenstadt said.
She teamed up with a licensed travel advisor and began an extensive research campaign to provide information on not only pet-friendly hotel accommodations but also tours, restaurants, and activities in destinations around the country and world.
“We don’t just stop at hotels,” Eisenstadt said. “Once you get there, you don’t want to leave your furry kid in the hotel. You want to know what else you can do.”
Some of her favorite activities that she books for clients include guided bus tours with dogs in Philadelphia, pet-friendly ice cream tours in Chicago, a wildlife boat tour in St. Augustine Florida, where dogs regularly sense the dolphins well before they reach the boat, and a dog-on-the-board surf school in San Diego.
“Most people love things that are either walking tours or riding tours,” Eisenstadt said. “Very few people want to repel down mountains with their pets, but you can do that in Utah.”