The logistics of leaving your pet at home while you’re on a trip are tricky, but taking a cat or dog aboard an airplane can be even trickier. For one thing, you’ll need to find a carrier that’s comfortable enough for an hours-long flight and meets your airline’s individual size requirements for bringing a pet in the cabin. (All the carriers in this story are for in-cabin travel, not for larger animals who would travel in the cargo hold.) The TSA does not have general guidelines for pet carriers, but carriers typically go through an X-ray machine (while pets must go through a metal detector, just like their owners), so it’s also a good idea to bring a leash or harness so your pet doesn’t break loose at security.
This is assuming your pet is allowed on a plane in the first place. The Strategist spoke to 12 vets and other animal experts about what to know when flying with pets, and Jamie Freyer, a veterinarian and guest contributor at Honest Paws, told us that airlines have more restrictions than ever on pet travel thanks to the pandemic. Many have size restrictions on which pets can travel in the cabin, says Keston Smith, medical director at Bond Vet. Depending on your airline and destination, your pet may also need proof that they’re healthy enough to fly and up-to-date on vaccinations.
Because there are so many variables, you should book your flight first. Some airlines limit the total number of pets allowed on each flight, so it’s important to buy a ticket as early as possible to ensure you and your pet have a spot. Then you can choose a carrier and prep your pet for the flight. “Pets are often less stressed when there is some familiarity with their surroundings,” explains Annette Louviere, a veterinary consultant at Whistle. “Of course, once you get to the airport, you lose most of that control, but acclimating your pet to the carrier prior to travel can help greatly.”
Read on for what to look for when choosing an airplane-friendly carrier for your furry friend, or use the handy links below to jump directly to our picks.
Best overall pet carrier | Best carrier for small pets | Best pet carrier with a roll-down cover | Best luggage-compatible pet carrier | Best collapsible pet carrier | Best tote-bag-style pet carrier | Best expandable pet carrier | Best backpack-style pet carrier
What we’re looking for
Size: When selecting a carrier, the two most important sizing factors to consider are that 1) your animal will fit safely and comfortably inside, and 2) the carrier meets the size requirements of your airline, because it will need to fit under a seat. All of our experts recommended soft-sided carriers, because they can squish to fit into tighter spaces better than more rigid hard-sided styles. Most carriers have a weight limit, and limits on the size of your carrier and the combined weight of the carrier and your pet vary from airline to airline. On JetBlue, the combined weight of the carrier and your pet must be under 20 pounds, and the carrier size limit is 17 inches long by 12.5 inches wide by 8.5 inches high. American Airlines has the same 20-pound weight limit, but carrier-size limits vary based on the aircraft. Size requirements on Delta also vary based on the aircraft. On United, the maximum dimensions for a soft-sided carrier are 18 inches long by 11 inches wide by 11 inches high. (For each carrier, we’ve listed measurements in the order of length, width, height.)
Washability: We all know pets are messy, and accidents can happen in stressful situations — like flying. Some carriers are waterproof or water-resistant to keep any wetness from seeping through, and others have removable liners or bedding that you can toss in the washing machine once you get home.
Extra features: From expandable panels that let pets stretch out in flight to built-in pockets for holding travel documents, some carriers are equipped with lots of special features designed to meet specific needs. There’s nothing wrong with a bare-bones carrier as long as it works well for you and your pet, but extras like padded shoulder straps for comfort or locking zippers for security can make a big difference.
Best overall pet carrier
Small: 15” x 10” x 8”, max weight 8 lbs; Medium: 17” x 11” x 10.5”, max weight 16 lbs; Large: 19” x 11.75” x 11.5”, max weight 22 lbs | Machine washable liner | Seatbelt strap, locking zippers, shoulder strap, storage pocket, certified by Guaranteed on Board
Sherpa was the most mentioned brand among our experts. The company partners with several major airlines (including Southwest, United, and Delta) through a program called Guaranteed on Board, which liaises between pet owners and airlines by allowing owners to submit a form to their airline with their flight details, pet’s information, and the type of carrier they’ll be using. If you’re denied boarding because of an issue related to your carrier, Guaranteed on Board will reimburse you for the cost of your flight and any associated pet fees. (Only Sherpa carriers are eligible for the program, which is overseen by its parent company.)
“The small and medium sizes of the Sherpa Original Deluxe pet carrier are included in Guaranteed on Board, so you can rest assured that your pet travels will go by without a hitch,” says Samantha Schwab, the former resident pet expert at online pet retailer Chewy. Alison Waszmer, the director of Dogtown, a sanctuary for homeless dogs and those recovering from abuse and neglect at the rescue organization Best Friends Animal Society’s Utah headquarters, is another Sherpa convert. She describes the carrier as well constructed and comfortable. Kristi Littrell, adoption manager at Best Friends Animal Society, likes Sherpa’s soft-sided carriers “because they can fit under the seat in front of you, whereas the harder-sided ones can’t adjust to various spaces.” Veterinarian John Iovino, who contributes to the Wildest, used a Sherpa carrier when traveling internationally years ago. He appreciates all the access, with two openings to reach in. From his experience, mesh-paneled carriers provide good ventilation, make positioning under a seat easier, and offer “a chance for you to see your pet to make sure everything is okay.”
Best carrier for small pets
16” x 10” x 8.5”, no maximum weight listed | Machine washable liner pad | Adjustable shoulder strap, five pockets
If you’re a frequent flier on a specific airline, it might be worth buying its official pet carrier so you won’t have any doubts about it fitting under the seat. This one from JetBlue is on the smaller side and best for petite dogs and cats, and it’s guaranteed to fit on all JetBlue flights. Other airlines have their own branded carriers (like this American Airlines x Sherpa model), but because the JetBlue one is among the smallest and will likely meet multiple airlines’ size requirements, we recommend it for any pets that will fit.
Best pet carrier with a roll-down cover
18” x 10.5” x 11”, max weight 15 lbs | Removable faux-fleece lining, leakproof material | Padded shoulder strap, luggage strap, seatbelt attachment, ID-tag holder
While all of our experts recommend carriers with mesh openings so pets can see their surroundings, a roll-down fabric cover may be useful if your pet is easily overstimulated by all the action at the airport. This heathered fabric carrier with a cover from Mr. Peanut’s is available in a refreshing selection of non-black colors and another one of Schwab’s picks. “It’s lined with a soft fabric so your pet can snuggle up during a long trip,” she says. The carrier features locking zippers for added security and outside pockets for storing treats, toys, or a leash. Littrell, who also likes this model, says the roll-down cover flaps “keep the airline draft out when you are flying.”
Best luggage-compatible pet carrier
18.7” x 10.8” x 10.75”, max weight 18 lbs | Washable and water-resistant sherpa lining, water-resistant nylon exterior | Luggage strap compatible with Away suitcases, safety collar clip, seatbelt latch, two side pockets, one with drainage holes
If you already own any of Away’s popular luggage, you’ll appreciate how this carrier will seamlessly attach to any of the brand’s suitcases. Jamie Richardson, medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary, often recommends Away’s carrier to pet owners, pointing out that it’s certified by the nonprofit Center for Pet Safety. The bedding isn’t just soft for your pet to lay in, she says; it’s also removable and washable for easy cleanup. Plus the carrier features a water-resistant lining to help contain any accidents. Richardson mentions that there’s a pocket to hold important documents, seatbelt latches to keep the carrier secure (especially for car rides to the airport), and a pocket with drainage holes for storing a collapsible water bottle. And there’s a zip top, side openings, and mesh panels on three sides so your pet can breathe easily. A collar clip adds an extra layer of security if your pet somehow manages to escape.
Best collapsible pet carrier
22” x 10.5” x 10”, max weight 17.5 lbs | Machine washable and water-repellent lining, tear- and stainproof materials | Folds flat for storage, compressible for tight spaces, seatbelt strap
Richardson is a fan of Sleepypod, which makes mobile pet beds that double as car sets and carriers. The Air carrier has all the features she says pet owners should look for, including enough space for a pet to stretch out their claws and paws. It’s not the first time we heard about this brand of carrier, which made appearances in our guide to the best car seats for dogs and everything you need to fly with a cat, where it was among the best cat carriers. Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert with Rover, likes that it’s specifically made to fit underneath airline seats. Richardson and Delgado both recommend putting your pet’s favorite blanket inside, as the familiar smell will make them feel more at ease. Louviere, meanwhile, has heard raves from cat owners about the Sleepypod: “Their kitties appear quite cozy when visiting the clinic.” A flexible structure allows the carrier to compress to fit smaller spaces and it also collapses down flat for easy storage.
Best tote-bag-style pet carrier
Small: 18” x 10” x 10”, max weight 25 lbs; Medium: 15” x 12” x 12”, max weight 25 lbs; Large: 18” x 12” x 12”, max weight 30 lbs | Fully machine washable | Luggage strap, adjustable and padded shoulder strap, vegan-leather handle
In their travels with a dog and cat in tow, Dandy Dogwalker founder Hadley Raysor uses the SturdiBag Pro, designed with a rounded top to easily sling over your shoulder like a tote bag. The bag comes in three sizes, and while the brand says the large fits on most airlines, it recently introduced the medium after receiving customer feedback that the bigger size was sometimes rejected. Raysor initially liked how the carrier’s features — like a luggage handle loop, locking zippers, and security clips — made traveling easy on them. But it turned out their pets actually didn’t mind cross-country flights in the carrier. “My cat particularly liked being able to see out of the mesh top of the bag,” Raysor says. It’s fully machine washable too.
Best expandable pet carrier
Small: 16” x 10”x 9”, max weight 7 lbs; Medium: 18” x 11” x 11”, max weight 13 lbs; Large: 19” x 12” x 12” | Removable, washable liner | Expandable, collar clip, luggage strap, collapsible for storage
Conrad Russo, blogger and owner of Pet Gear Lab, recommends this fleece-lined case for skittish pets. “I love that it’s expandable on the side,” he says. “Dogs traveling and taken on a plane can really have anxiety, so giving them a little more space makes all the difference.” Zip up the expandable panels before boarding to make sure the case fits your airline’s regulations, and then open them up on the plane to let your cat or dog stretch out. This carrier comes in three sizes, with the small and medium likely to fit on most planes (double check your airline’s individual requirements for the large carrier, as its measurements are right on the border of the maximum size).
Robert Haussmann, co-founder of Dogboy NYC, uses the Petsfit when flying to the Midwest with his dog, Josie. He praises the carrier’s ventilation and expandability. With enough preflight practice, he says, Josie usually curls up and chews her special toys without a problem on the journey. One month ahead of a flight, he starts training her to go into the carrier on cue, and she earns treats whenever she hangs out in the carrier while Haussmann and the rest of the family are eating dinner or watching a movie. “The goal is to ensure that Josie feels comfortable and has a positive association with her carrier,” he says. “When she can stay in there comfortably for an entire Harry Potter film, we feel she is ready for her trip.”