Q&A With a Dog Travel Agent

No matter what mode of transportation you’re using, it’s challenging to travel with a pet. Researching pet-friendly accommodation takes a lot of time. Finding a pet-friendly place is step one. But finding a pet-friendly place that doesn’t have weight or breed restrictions is certainly no walk in the park if you have a bully breed or a dog that weighs over 50 lbs.

Travel planning can be stressful to maneuver when you want your fur-child to come along. But did you know that someone can do the work for you?

We spoke with Heather Eisenstadt, founder of pet travel agency Top Dog Pet Travel, to get the scoop on vacation planning with pets.

paws on pelham hotel room
Courtesy Paws on Pelham

Outward Hound: Why did you become a pet travel agent? How long have you been doing this?

Heather Eisenstadt: For the past 20 years my husband and I have always had several dogs ranging from mid to large and as part of the family, we took them with us on vacations. I got pretty good at researching pet-friendly destinations and accommodations — especially for big dogs. My friends started asking me where they could travel with their dogs. I realized there were a lot of people who, like us, were clueless on where to go, where to stay and where to play with your pets. Based on that need I launched Top Dog Pet Travel about five years ago.

OH: How has COVID impacted your business?

HE: Initially, my business came to a dead halt as everyone who could was staying home, and no one was traveling unless they had to. As the first Covid wave decreased and people got more comfortable with taking precautions, some saw travel as a means to get away from crowds and Air B&B & VBRO became the preferred accommodations in more rural destinations. Hotels countered by upgrading to contactless check-ins, strict safety protocols, and more ways for guests to use technology and avoid close contact with other people. Because so many people adopted pets during the sequester, being pet friendly became an important selling point for Air B&Bs, VRBO’s and hotels. Many that weren’t pet friendly now welcome pets.

Being pet-friendly became, and still is, one of the top criteria in hotel searches.

OH: Do any of the partners you work with for your travel packages have weight or breed restrictions? Any tips for dog parents who want to travel with larger breed dogs?

HE: Almost all hotels, resorts, and Bed ’n Breakfasts have weight and breed restrictions, and many have a variety of pet fees and wavers. There are a few that welcome all breeds and sizes as well as cats.

It’s important to know before you go, not just if your hotel is pet friendly, but if they will welcome your breed and size. Sometimes hotel websites bury that information so it’s hard to find, and sometimes research sites for pet travel do not have up-to-date information. The most accurate way is to call the property directly. Often private residences like Air B&B and VRBO are more welcoming of big dogs and restricted breeds, but you need to verify. One thing I recommend to clients with big dogs over 80 lbs is to book an extended stay property. Not only will you get a suite or small apartment with more room for your dog, but some are less strict on weight requirements.

dog-friendly breweries

OH: What advice would you offer pet parents flying with their dog for the first time?

HE: Assuming the pet parent knows nothing about air travel, the first advice I would offer is to make sure your dog meets airline requirements to fly in the cabin with you. That means the dog can comfortably fit into the regulation carrier and meet the required weight limit (counting the carrier).

The dog must also be a breed the airline deems safe to fly. Airlines are refusing to board flat-faced dogs with “pushed in noses” like pugs, Boston terriers, Pekinese, etc. because they have breathing issues and may be in distress during the flight.

Assuming your dog is a good candidate to fly, I recommend getting your dog used to the idea of “flying” as much as you can prior to boarding. Have him walk in and out of his carrier and make it comfortable so he’ll want to sleep in it. Put him in the carrier and take him on short car trips so he gets used to the motion. Take him to an airport and walk him around so he gets used to the people, sights, sounds, and smells. Even have someone he doesn’t know take him out of the carrier and put him back in.

It’s also important to discuss air travel with your vet. If she thinks your dog needs a calming remedy, she may provide one. She may advise you to walk your dog as close to boarding as possible (some airports now have pet comfort stations) and as quickly as possible upon landing.

Lastly, I’d recommend working with a travel agent as airlines now limit the number of pets that can fly in the cabin per flight. A travel agent will help make sure you and your pet get the flight you want.

what to keep in your car for your dog

OH: Other than the basics like poop bags, food, leash, etc., what are some pet essentials you could never travel without?

HE: Your pet’s health and welfare are your number one priority at home and away. Have your vet give you a copy of your pet’s health records including up-to-date vaccinations in case of emergency. Pack a pet first aid kit, just in case. Many pet stores and online retailers have them. Make sure your pet’s ID tags are up to date. If your pet isn’t microchipped, you may want to do so.

You may want to take your pet’s bed (or travel bed) or a blanket as they are familiar and comforting in new surroundings. Take a few favorite toys as well as interactive toys to play with your dog on vacation. Have treats handy. They are great for distracting your dog and aiding in good behavior.

Bring a portable water bottle or canteen so your dog can drink when hiking, at the beach, or site seeing. If your dog is active, travel gear like a dog life vest for boating and swimming is essential for safety, as well as a dog backpack so your dog can carry his own food, treats, water, etc. and you don’t have to. Booties are great for sensitive paws on hot beach sand and rocky terrain.

Note that most hotels request you crate your dog if left alone in the room. Many do not supply crates. If your intent is to leave your dog in your room for the majority of your vacation, don’t take your dog. Leave him with the pet sitter.

dog on beach wearing dawson dog life jacket

OH: Have you gotten any crazy or unusual requests?

HE: We have gotten a few unusual requests but none that I would call crazy. A couple wanted to take a road trip from Washington, D.C. that would take them down the east coast of Florida, up the west coast, and back to D.C. The purpose of the trip was a vacation for their labrador retriever, so every stop had to have fun, pet-friendly activities as well as pet-friendly accommodations. We planned a great trip for the lab and his people had a great time, too.

In another instance, a couple wanted to fly to Nashville with their cat and stay in a cat-friendly hotel that would allow the cat to hang out in the room, not crated, while they explored Nashville. We were able to fly the cat in the cabin with them and found them a well-known hotel brand that welcomed the kitty. They signed a pet bond for any potential damage and the cat roamed free in the room.

OH: Do you have trips you can plan for people with a more modest budget?

HE: Most of our trips are customized based on size, weight, breed, and kind of pet as well as the experience, including budget. So yes, you and your furkid can have an awesome vacation on a very modest budget.

OH: Do you arrange train or cruise travel in addition to air travel?

HE: Unfortunately, if your dog is not a certified service dog, most trains do not permit dogs on board. The only cruise that permits small dogs is the QE2 on transatlantic crossings.

OH: What do you find are the best countries to travel with your dog in? States?

HE: Right now, travel outside of the U.S. is in flux because of Covid. However, Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal are very pet-welcoming. We offer the only pet-friendly all-inclusive small group guided tours to amazing destinations in these countries.

In the USA, you can find pet-friendly destinations in any state. My favorites are the Carolinas, Florida, New York State, New England, Washington State, Oregon, and California.