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Travel with dogs: planning, flexibility are key

We had been on the road for 12 hours when we arrived in Sedona, Arizona, and had never even stopped to eat. A mistake in the itinerary had taken us far out of our way, and I was completely depleted when my companion and I stumbled into our motel room. Yet she issued no judgments as I sat on the floor, quietly crying from exhaustion while finally eating some pizza from a restaurant next door. She just waited patiently, staring at my food until I offered her one of my crusts.

That’s one of the great joys of travel with dogs. No matter what goes wrong, they're just content you brought them along.

Fortunately, that’s getting easier. Traveling with pets is on the rise, and the marketplace is adjusting to make room, with a widening selection of pet-friendly lodging, restaurants and activities. Even bringing a dog on a plane is more common and less expensive than it once was, redefining what travel with dogs can look like.

What I’ll remember most about Sedona is spending time with Sophie. But travel with dogs is not as simple as putting them in the car and hitting the road. It takes preparation, planning, and flexibility but – when done correctly – it can lead to wonderful experiences you never could have anticipated.

A german shepherd stands in front of a pink cinder block wall painted with a mural featuring the iconic Route 66 highway marker; Travel with dogs
Traveling with a pup is an incredible bonding experience that every dog owner should have © Ali Wunderman / Lonely Planet

Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best

Kyle Ferari-Muñoz, a 31-year-old student and political fundraiser, knows a lot about prepping for travel with dogs in mind: he and his husband travel several times a week with 3 of their pups.

‘We travel with the dogs about 90 percent of the time,’ Ferari-Muñoz says. Though Geppetto, Smoochella, Thurmond Goodbright and Ferari-Muñoz have a reliable routine going, a lot of that is due to preparation.

Knowing each airline’s dog policies is essential, as is picking a preferred airline (especially helpful when relying on customer service for support). Ferari-Muñoz also recommends looking up the location of the animal relief areas at the destination airport. Of course, accidents happen, which is where preparation comes in handy again. Packing a small clean-up kit in your carry-on is the best way to quickly deal with unforeseen messes.

‘It’s important to realize that travel can be stressful – even to pets like mine, who travel with me very frequently – and for every pet owner to know what is right or wrong for their pet,’ Ferari-Muñoz says.

Learning your dog’s likes, dislikes, limits and tolerances before setting out on an adventure will ensure everyone has a good time. Anticipate your dog’s potential sources of stress or calamity and head them off before they occur.

Planning makes perfect

For Ashley Halligan, founder of Pilgrim Magazine, road trips with a canine companion are all about planning as well. ‘I try to route my journey to include as many stops as possible at dog-friendly parks – be it local, state, or national parks,’ she says.

She also advises keeping the car equipped: she stocks treats in her door panel, keeps pillows in the front and back seats, and always has extra water – a must-have for anyone traveling with a dog. Halligan values flexibility. Rather than picking every hotel prior to the trip, she looks up ‘dog-friendly accommodations within a particular area where I'd like to spend more time.’ As an added resource, AAA publishes a thorough book of dog-friendly hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Many hotels also charge nightly pet fees and may not carry be capable of replacing anything dog-related you may have left at home. Planning ahead, even when you’re already traveling, can minimize these pitfalls.

‘One of the major things to consider when traveling with a dog is finding a setting that works for you and for them,’ advises the team from Getaway, a cabin retreat company specializing in dog-friendly accommodations. ‘A dog might not like being at the top floor of a high rise with no outdoor space, even though it feels like a great destination to you.’

A man and a woman stick their tongues out in a selfie while riding in the cab of a truck as a dog in the back seat sticks its tongue out between them; travel with dogs
With planning and flexibility, traveling with dogs can be a joy © Ali Wunderman / Lonely Planet

Roll with the punches

Halligan has been traveling with her dog, Jack Cousteau, since 2015 and has struck a good balance between spontaneous travel and the ability to care for Jack’s needs. The confluence of the two has resulted in adventure.

‘Having a dog by my side has given me the courage to detour to places that I maybe wouldn't detour to otherwise,’ she says.

‘From tucked-away places in the Siskiyou National Forest to remote sections of the Yuba River,’ Jack’s presence has taken Halligan places she never would have considered if she had been dog-free.

Ultimately travel with dogs, like dog ownership in general, requires a certain level of flexibility. When things don’t go according to plan, you may need to make decisions that prioritize your pet’s happiness rather than your own. This could mean stopping more frequently during a road trip, booking a second seat on a plane, or eating somewhere that wouldn’t normally appeal to you just because it’s the only spot in town with outdoor seating.

That trip to Sedona might have been a struggle. But I don’t regret getting to explore a remarkable place with a travel companion who had no qualms with our messed-up itinerary. Planning a vacation around a pet may bring its own set of challenges, but they’re nothing compared to the love a dog can provide on the road.

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