Many dog owners are curious about the logistics of travelling internationally with their beloved family pet. This was our first time travelling on a plane with Bella and it was actually pretty easy.
We left our home in upstate New York at noon for a three and a half hour drive to JFK Airport in New York City. Our Alitalia flight to Rome did not leave until 10:20 PM, so we knew we were leaving way too early. But there was no point in hanging around a completely empty house with nothing to do, so we decided to get an early start.
Our rental car was packed with all of our stuff, and Bella had to share the back seat with her travel crate, leaving just enough room to curl up. Luckily for us, Bella loves car rides and she happily napped as we headed south to New York City.
We arrived at JFK around 4:30 PM after a leisurely drive with just one relatively minor traffic delay. With 6 hours until our flight, we found a gas station with a food court on the airport loop and stopped to walk Bella, get gas and grab a burger. We hung out in the relative comfort of our car for an hour, killing time on our smartphones while Bella napped.
It was time to return the car. Our plan was to generously tip the Hertz shuttle driver to help us get our luggage in and out of the airport shuttle van. We drove into the Hertz rental car return area and were surprised to find out that there is NO SHUTTLE! We loaded 3 really big suitcases and 4 carry-on pieces onto two luggage carts with the empty dog kennel. Nick pushed the heavier luggage cart. I navigated Bella on her leash plus the lighter luggage cart and we headed for the AirTrain to JFK. Thank goodness she is an excellent loose-leash walker.
To get to the AirTrain, we had to take an elevator. It was all glass and plenty big enough for the three of us and the luggage carts. Bella had never been in an elevator before and she was curious and amazed when it started to go up.
We didn’t have to wait long for the AirTrain to arrive. We shoved our carts into the crowded train and had to stand for the short trip to Terminal 1. Bella was once again a real trooper as she steadied herself against the movement of the train. She was clearly nervous in that scary environment , surrounded by strangers but she was so good.
Off the train and into Terminal 1, it was now about 7:00 PM, still more than 3 hours from take-off. We thought if we checked in too early, we would have to check Bella in as well. She’d be cooped up in the travel kennel until we arrived in Rome. We found a place to sit, parked our carts and watched the activity at the airport. Once again, Bella made us proud by behaving well on her leash as we waited. I located the “pet relief” area just outside of the Terminal. It was a tiny fenced in area with a loose stone material instead of grass, but Bella made good use of it!
At 8:00 PM we loaded Bella into her travel crate and stood in line. Although Bella is crate-trained and was accustomed to the travel crate, she was not a happy being in the crate, on a cart in the airport. She was fidgeted and cried, and when the young woman checking us in placed stickers on the kennel, Bella growled and barked. The woman said that we could check our luggage, but that we would have to bring Bella and her crate back to the counter at 8:50 to go through a security screening. They did not want to leave her in an unheated baggage area, so they would not take her until 8:50 for our 10:20 flight.
We took Bella back out of her crate until her scheduled check in time and waited some more. At the appointed time we loaded her back in her crate and returned to the Alitalia counter. After an unexplained 10 minute delay, we went to the oversize baggage security screening area, where we had to remove Bella from her crate again. They manually scanned the empty crate. It was time for Bella to enter the crate for the final time before heading to the plane. The only problem was, Bella did not want to get back in the crate this time. We picked her up and “placed” (shoved) her in the crate and secured the door with zip ties, as required. Bella was snarling, crying and barking the whole time. It was heartbreaking for us and I’m sure it was scary for the airport personnel.
There was another large dog (calm, quiet and well behaved) being checked in at the same time. The Alitalia employee who was taking them both through security was noticeably nervous about getting the dogs to the airplane on time. He said he was going to stack Bella’s crate on top of the other dog crate so that he could transport them both at once. When I mentioned that I was pretty sure that was against the rules, he said he could push both carts at once instead, but as soon as he was through the door and out of sight I could hear the sound of one kennel being stacked on the other, with Bella barking and growling the entire time. Oh well, I’m pretty sure that Bella (in a slightly smaller kennel) was loaded on top.
At this point, it was well after 9 PM and we still had to go through security at JFK to get to our 10:20 flight. Plenty of time, right? The security line was long and slow. We felt the minutes tick by as we waited for our turn to go through security. We finally made it through, and hustled to our gate just in time for the final boarding call. So although we got to the airport 6 hours early, we barely made our flight to Rome!
Once on the plane, I asked a flight attendant to confirm that Bella had been loaded. He came back and told me that two dogs had been loaded. I knew that they only allowed two dogs to be booked as baggage on each flight, so I relaxed confident that Bella was on the plane with us.
We thought about Bella throughout the flight, but both of us were pretty sure that once in the dark baggage area of the plane, she would sleep. When we arrived in Rome, I went straight to the oversized baggage claim area for our flight while Nick found 2 baggage carts for us.
The minute we saw Bella, we realized that she’d had a rough flight. She was in a submissive pose in her crate and no longer barking or growling at the strangers handling her crate. We expected her to be happy to see us and she was, but she was clearly still nervous and fearful. We kept her in the travel kennel until we retrieved our baggage, but released her the minute that we got outside.
We took a few minutes to pet her and talk to her before we made a call to the car-leasing company to pick us up. I tried to get Bella to relieve herself on the pavement at the airport, but she refused. Once we got to the car-leasing office, Bella spied a tiny patch of weeds at the edge of the parking lot and dragged me to it. You could see the relief on her face after more than 12 stressful hours. Nick signed the papers for our car while I walked Bella around the parking lot. Finally, we loaded our luggage into our new leased car and headed to our rental house in Giove. We had so much luggage, Bella had to sit at my feet on the passenger side of the front seat, but I think she was glad to be sitting so close, with both of us within sight and within reach.
Overall, I would say that travelling with Bella was pretty easy. It helped that Bella was loose leash trained and was comfortable walking on a leash through unfamiliar surroundings. I had worried that the airline would say that her kennel was too small (although I had bought the biggest one that met their size requirement). I had obsessed about the labeling and food/water dish requirements. I had overanalyzed the paperwork. In the end, none of it mattered. Nobody checked the size of the crate, looked at the labeling, asked when she had been fed or watered, cared that her food bowl would not stay mounted to the kennel door or looked at her paperwork. I think that the big American airlines might have been pickier than Alitalia. The most helpful advice I received was to use releasable zip ties to secure the kennel doors so that you can get the door open quickly once you arrive.
I don’t think Bella would agree that it was an easy trip. As awesome as she was handling the airports, she was overwhelmed and scared by the flight experience. Thankfully, she recovered quickly and I think that the next airline trip will be easier for her. She has settled into our new home easily and I think she will enjoy the lifestyle change that this adventure brings to all of us. I know that we are happy that she is sharing it with us.