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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Buying guide for Best TSA-approved pet carriers

Traveling with your pet can be a fun and exciting experience, but it requires plenty of preparation and planning. For those taking to the skies with their furry friend, a pet carrier is required for safe travel.

While the right carrier needs to be comfortable for the pet and convenient for the owner, it also needs to adhere to the rules of the airline and the Transportation Safety Administration. It’s vital that the dimensions of the carrier are within the limits set and that it contains specific features to make it suitable for flying. Pet carriers may be hard-sided or soft-sided, though the latter is far more popular and versatile, providing more convenience and comfort when in transit.

A pet carrier for flying is an important investment; in order to travel with peace of mind knowing your pet is safe and content, there is much to consider. 

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It’s possible that a soft carrier that’s a half-inch or so in excess of the required dimensions will still be approved for flight. Not only can soft-sided carriers compress a bit as needed, but it’s unlikely an exact measurement will be taken at the gate. 

How to choose the best TSA-approved pet carrier

What does TSA-approved mean?

Many pet carriers use the phrase “TSA-approved” in their name. However, this can be somewhat misleading. The TSA determines what’s safe to go on a plane, with restrictions in place for security purposes. A carrier approved by TSA simply means it can pass through security; it’s the airlines that determine the size and shape of items that can continue on the plane. Just because something is approved by the TSA doesn’t mean it will be approved by the airline to go on the plane.

Airline approval

A lot of factors influence airline approval, and even if a carrier says it’s “airline approved,” it can also be misleading. LIke “TSA approved,” this phrase just means the carrier passes one or two requirements that allow it to be considered to go on a plane. Notably, airlines call for carriers to be leakproof in the event of an accident, so almost all pet carriers feature a secure, moisture-absorbent bottom. They also all require the pet within to have ample space to move around freely and easily and be fully contained in the carrier.

Beyond that, however, airlines differ in what exactly is permitted in the cabin. Size is most important, as the carrier has to fit under the seat, but different planes may have slightly different size limits.

Some airlines limit when pets can travel as well as where they can travel; there are often restrictions around the busy holiday season. Requirements may differ for domestic travel versus international flights. What’s more, there are limits to how many pets can be on a plane at one time.

Size

Every airline clearly states the specific dimensions that are allowed. For a carrier to be safe and comfortable for a dog or cat, they must be able to stand up, turn around, and lie down within the unit. They should not be forced to touch the sides of the carrier in any of these positions. A common size is 18 x 11 x 11 inches, but it’s worth double-checking the exact size requirements of each airline, as they may differ by 1 or 2 inches.

Check your pet’s measurements against that of the carrier. Also, take note of the carrier’s weight allowance.

Design

The pet carrier should have breathable mesh to allow pets visibility as well as airflow. Most options feature mesh on all four sides, but some are designed with mesh on one or two sides as well as the top. The best pet carrier design depends on the preferences and needs of your pet. Some may want to see everything going on around them; however, others may become overwhelmed with so many stimuli. Those with limited mesh on the sides may prevent distraction. Some pets may benefit when they have a dark, cozier space where they can’t observe the outside world as easily.

High-end options may include flaps that can cover up the mesh when it’s time to relax but stay open when your pet wants to see what’s happening.

Movement

Note how you’ll move the carrier and how comfortable that is for both you and your pet. Most carriers feature a durable, comfortable shoulder strap that can be adjusted for the right fit. While this is common, over time, it may start to tire you out, especially if your pet is close to the weight limit. Also, note that holding the carrier over your shoulder usually means you’ll have to stabilize the unit with your hand to prevent it from moving along with your stride.

Some units have wheels and a handle, resembling carry-on luggage. This may be more convenient for the owner but is best for smaller dogs who can move around easily when the carrier is repositioned. 

Higher-end options may allow for multiple carry methods. Some can be worn across the shoulder or as a backpack, as desired. 

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Did You Know?
Some airlines may use the phrase “linear inches” when detailing their size restrictions. Linear inches refers to the total combined inches in the length, width and depth of the carrier.
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Features to consider when choosing a TSA-approved pet carrier

Expansion

Some pet carriers can expand to allow pets more room before they get on the plane. This lets your dog or cat spread out and feel more comfortable prior to boarding. When it’s time to go on the plane, the unit can retract to fit the specific dimensions required by the airline. These carriers may expand on one or both sides for extra room.

Pockets and compartments

Most pet carriers include a handful of closed or mesh pockets that allow you to store pet supplies right on the unit. These offer a place for treats, toys, or important medication. This is useful for traveling by car or train or when hanging out in the airport before boarding, though once on the plane, access may be limited to certain pockets when the carrier is under the seat.

Color 

While color doesn’t influence functionality, some pet owners still want to travel in style. Most pet carriers are black or brown, but there are some more colorful options to really stand out, such as purple, red, and blue.

Style

In addition to adding a splash of color, some pet carriers boast impressive style, particularly those designed for cats. Since cats tend to be more comfortable in smaller, darker spaces than dogs, cat carriers may more closely resemble stylish luggage. There are options that have air holes and slots for their heads to poke out, and some may feature a bubble window where cats can monitor the outside world. Other options may feature fine detail and even allow the luggage to be monogrammed.

Accessories

Dog water bottle: OllyDog Portable Dog Water Bottle
Keep your dog hydrated when traveling with a convenient water bottle. This option by Ollydog expands to provide a small bowl for easy drinking.

Anxiety relief for dogs: Zesty Paws Core Elements Dog Calming Bites
Travel can be stressful for dogs, just as it is for humans. Before and during the trip, these calming treats by Zesty Paws can help your pup relax and stay mellow.

Certain airlines may sell their own branded pet carrier. These come with peace of mind from knowing it will be accepted on flights, but features and useful extras may be limited.

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Price

Inexpensive: Basic soft-sided carriers for small pets may cost $30 or less. These are suited for flight but lack extra features.

Mid-range: Most TSA-approved pet carriers cost between $30 and $70, with a range of options and features available. This includes expandable models as well as those with wheels and handles.

Expensive: More stylish, versatile, and durable TSA-approved pet carriers cost over $70, particularly those designs for frequent and convenient travel.

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Staff Tip
Some dogs may benefit from a familiar toy or blanket in the carrier with them while traveling. Just be sure there’s enough room for your pup to still be comfy. 
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Tips

  • Consider your frequent airline. Finding a pet carrier that fits all airlines can be tricky. If you fly one or two airlines the majority of the time, find one that matches those requirements to make your life easier.
  • Introduce your pet to the carrier. Going to the airport shouldn’t be the first time your pet experiences the carrier. Train well in advance, letting your pet explore and be inside. Be sure to give them lots of treats.
  • Contact the airline. There may be a number of factors that determine approval on a flight. It's advised to contact the airline to confirm your reservation and pet accompaniment.
  • Opt for versatility. Some TSA-approved pet carriers may be used when traveling by other means. Those that allow for seat belts to be attached are ideal for taking trips in the car.
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In addition to requirements for pet carriers, airlines typically have a lengthy list of rules for flying with a pet. This may include showing up at a certain time or providing a health record; it will also come with a fee.

FAQ

Q. How should I prepare my pet for flying?

A. For pets flying for the first time, it's best to plan far in advance to make them as comfortable and familiar with the experience as possible. This means trying to recreate the situation at home. Be sure they become used to the pet carrier and are adjusted to being in an enclosed space for long hours at a time. Depending on the time of the flight, you may want to adjust their feeding schedule and make sure they relieve themselves before the flight — some airports have specific areas for dogs to visit prior to boarding.

For pets who are nervous or anxious, there are medications as well as treats that can help them remain calm. For dogs, plenty of exercise on the day of travel can tire them out, helping them to rest during the flight.

Q. Is it safe for pets to fly?

A. It’s important to honestly and accurately assess your pet’s attitudes and tendencies when determining how safe it is for them to fly. It’s recommended to check in with your vet or pay a visit in the weeks prior to flying to confirm their physical health. Concerning their attitude and personality, owners are the best judge. Nervous or anxious dogs may require medication so that they stay calm throughout the flight, since those who panic may create a safety hazard for themselves within the carrier. The pet should have everything they may need for a flight, including food, water, and first aid if need be.

Q. Is a hard-sided carrier or a soft-sided carrier better?

A. Most users prefer the flexibility and convenience that soft-sided carriers afford. Some airlines have different size limits when it comes to the different types of carriers, with hard-sided carriers more restricted. Soft-sided carriers may expand, but they also may fold up easily for storage when not in use. Soft-sided options also tend to be easier to wash and are more lightweight. However, they generally don’t offer the same protection that hard options do in the event of an emergency.
 

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