Air Travel with a Guide Dog

Traveling by air: Know before you go and leave as little to chance as possible

By Ginger Kutsch, Advocacy Specialist, The Seeing Eye

From beginning to end, here are twenty tips from seasoned guide dog handlers that can help to minimize the stress of traveling by air with your guide dog.

Set up a frequent flier account with your airline.

Every airline has a reward program. These are free and you can visit the airline’s web site to join. Once you have an account, you can print out your boarding pass before you head to the airport. You can also use the airline’s mobile tools and apps to check in and get a mobile boarding pass; receive automatic updates about any gate changes and your flight status; or learn about inflight amenities such as what snacks/meals will be sold on your flight.

Investigate the use of mobile apps.

A number of apps for both iOS and Android devices can make travel easier. For instance, some airports have their own apps, and other apps like Flight Tracker can check the status of your flight and more. TripIt creates your very own personalized master itinerary; The Seeing Eye GPS app and other similar apps help you navigate in unfamiliar places; overThere marks special locations that might otherwise be difficult to find; and The Seeing Eye app reads text and signs. My TSA offers airport security screening info including how to file a complaint; Uber or Lyft summons a driver to take you to your destination; the NAGDU app provides both Federal and State service animal access laws; and BeMyEyes, or FaceTime connects you to a sighted person for “real time” assistance. International travelers may appreciate apps like MoneyReader which identifies paper currency from various countries; the Mobile Passport lets you skip customs & border protection lines at some U.S. airports; and AppleVis.com lists several language apps under its Travel category.

Set aside cash for tipping

Estimate how much money you’ll need and store it in a place that can be quickly accessed during your travels. Be prepared with small bills to avoid the hassle of identifying and putting away change. Escort personnel who assist you from one point to the next should be tipped at least $2. If they take you to the restroom or go out of their way to perform additional service en route, then the tip should increase up to $5. If you check your bags curbside, you should tip $2 for the first bag, and $1 for each additional bag. Over-sized bags should be tipped at a rate of $2 per bag. Some frequent flyers will tip more generously in their home airports as a way to increase favor and the likelihood of prompt future service.

Choose the best time to fly

Early morning flights tend to have the least amount of delays. Friday is generally the busiest airport day, and Saturday is the least busy. Thanksgiving week is the busiest week of the entire year. July is the busiest air travel month, and February usually tends to be the slowest.

Locate airport relief areas before you fly.

Plan for layovers or unexpected delays by checking www.petfriendlytravel.com/airports to learn where relief areas are set up along your journey. Often times airline personnel do not know where the areas are located so be prepared to share this information with them. Several larger airports have relief areas inside security now. Some of these areas may contain objects like “fire hydrants” so be careful not to hit your head when you bend down to feel your dog’s body position or to pick up waste. Some areas also have artificial grass which can be automatically rinsed after use. Think twice about pre-rinsing the area since some dogs are reluctant to go on wet surfaces.

Pack an emergency travel kit for your guide dog.

Be sure to include items such as a small supply of medicine for an upset stomach or diarrhea; paper towels neatly folded inside a resealable bag; pick up bags; and hand wipes.

Bring along a folding cane.

Should anything happen to your dog, or in case you want to make a quick trip to the ice machine in your hotel, the white cane serves as an excellent backup. (Please note that the Department of Justice prohibits service animals from being left alone in a hotel room if the guest leaves the hotel.)

Plan for your dog's meals.

Airline regulations do not exempt dog food or crates from baggage restrictions. On longer trips, consider shipping the food to your destination, or sending it directly from a supplier on the Internet. Meals that you pack and bring can be pre-measured and stored in resealable sandwich bags, and then put into a larger odor-proof plastic bag to keep the smell of kibble from seeping into your luggage. Pack a few extra servings of food in case of unexpected flight delays or cancellations, and always bring a few meals worth of kibble in your carry-on in case your checked luggage goes missing. Avoid the possibility of intestinal upset by giving your dog bottled or filtered water when you travel, especially when going abroad.

Be efficient when you pack.

Consider what items you will need at the airport or on the plane and pack those items for fast retrieval. Your ticket & passport should be securely stored but easily accessible. Tuck a few dog treats or a small chew toy in your pocket to help your dog's ears adjust to changes in cabin pressure. Know the color of your luggage and Mark it with a unique identifier so it can be more easily retrieved by others. If you choose to remove your dog's harness for the flight, place the chest-strap end of the harness over your shoulder and let it rest up against your side, put it between the wall and the window seat, tuck it in the seat pocket in front of you, or put it in overhead storage. (Please note that FAA regulations prohibit storing items in the seat pocket during takeoff and landing so if asked, you'll need to move the harness.)

Take time to groom your dog.

Stress makes most dogs shed more than usual so give your dog a good brushing before you depart. While away, groom your dog in the hotel bathroom where the hair can be swept up easily with a dry sweeping cloth like a Swiffer or a damp tissue. Lightly dampen your hands and rub them through your dog’s coat to eliminate static before you groom, or to remove loose hairs when you finish. Bring a sticky roller to remove stray hairs from your clothing. A lightweight non-slip hot yoga towel or hiking towel is a good option for covering areas you wish to protect from dog hair.

Know how to enforce your rights.

The operations of any portion of any airport that are under the control of an air carrier are covered by a federal law called the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). (The ACAA does not cover public accommodations located within airports, such as restaurants, shops, or lounges – these places are covered under the ADA.) Under the ACAA, carriers cannot require you to:

  • Sit in a bulkhead or window seat
  • Accept special services that you did not request, e.g. ride in a wheelchair
  • Remain in a specific holding area e.g. on the plane after landing, or other location in order to receive assistance
  • Sit in separate rows when you are accompanied by another person with a service animal
  • Provide advance notice that you are traveling with a guide dog unless you wish to ensure special seating, or plan to travel to Hawaii or abroad.

If you experience a disability-related issue, immediately ask to speak with a CRO (Complaints Resolution Official). CROs must provide immediate on site assistance (either in person or by phone). They are specially trained in disability sensitivity and awareness, as well as applicable federal regulations and legislation. A copy of the ACAA must be available at the airport for review upon request. You can call The Air Travelers with Disabilities hotline at 800-778-4838 to ask questions about your rights. To file a civil rights complaint, visit https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer.

Determine the best place to sit on the plane.

Given the many variations in aircraft layout and seat design, it can be difficult to figure out the best place to sit with your dog. You may prefer the bulkhead, but not all bulkheads provide adequate space for your dog, and some bulkheads are no longer available to economy class passengers. Contact the airline’s special needs representative at least 24 hours in advance of your scheduled departure time to reserve a bulkhead or other seat location that best accommodates your needs. If you choose not to give advance notice, carriers must still accommodate your needs to the extent practicable, but they are not required to reassign another passenger’s seat in order to do so. Carriers that do not offer advance seat assignments must allow preboarding to passengers with service animals upon request. Always identify yourself as a person with a disability when asking for an accommodation, even if you think your disability is obvious. When you board, if your dog does not fit in the space immediately in front of you and there is no other seat with sufficient space to safely accommodate you both, there are several options to consider for accommodating your dog. The carrier should speak with other passengers to find a passenger in an adjacent seat who is willing to share foot space with your dog, or a passenger in a seat adjacent to a location where your dog can be accommodated (e.g., in the space behind the last row of seats) or adjacent to an empty seat, who is willing to exchange seats with you. Carriers are not required to provide a seat in a class of service other than the one you have purchased, and service animals are not allowed to be seated in an emergency exit row. Generally, you can sit in any seat you choose, even an aisle seat, but no part of the dog can extend into the main aisle(s) when the guide dog is seated/placed/curled up on the floor. (The space directly in front of the seats is not part of the "main aisle".) If a flight attendant refuses to relocate you to a more suitable seat, or tries to force you to sit in a seat other than the one you purchased, calmly but firmly ask to speak with a CRO. Avoid further discussion on the matter until the CRO arrives. Likewise, when you request assistance from agents at a ticket counter or at the gate, they will ask to see your ticket. If you are satisfied with your seat assignment, tell the agent that you do not want your seat changed before you hand over your ticket. If they insist, ask to speak with a CRO.

Know what to expect from escort assistance

Escorts are required to help with key functional areas of the terminal, such as ticket counters, gates, and baggage claim. This requirement also includes a brief stop upon the passenger’s request at the entrance to a rest room – but only if it’s on route and will not result in an unreasonable delay. Escorts are not required to stop at a takeout food or beverage vendor, but will often stop if possible. Ask the escort to point out specific locations along the route should you wish to return later, or in case your flight is delayed. Escorts must also accompany you to a service animal relief area. Consider what “extras” your escort provides and tip accordingly. Frequent flyers often make time to learn their way around their local airport so they can avoid dealing with escort service.

Be proactive when it comes to escort assistants.

When you request an escort, ask how long the wait will be and return to the counter for an update if the escort does not arrive in that time frame. You are not required to sit in a wheelchair and if you do, your dog’s paw may get caught under the wheel. When riding in an electric cart, use a seat facing forward and place your dog at sit between your legs to help it stay in place. Avoid sitting in the back-facing seat as it can be unsafe for your dog. When using escorts, explain your preferred method of travel and offer tips on how they can best assist you. If you choose to follow an escort, attempt to engage in small talk with the individual so that you can follow more easily. Some escorts will offer to take your luggage so consider attaching a bell or other device to it that will easily and consistently make noise for you to follow. If there’s a language barrier, or if the escort is hyper vigilant about offering guidance, you may want to opt for sighted guide. Realize that most escorts have little to no experience with this technique so be cautious and remain alert to your surroundings. Some escorts will be overwhelmed if you are traveling with another blind person, especially if you both want to follow. One way to diffuse the situation is to go sighted guide while keeping the escort’s attention focused on you as your companion follows. Attach a bear bell to your carry-on, or frequently praise/talk to your dog or the escort in a loud voice as a way to provide your companion with tracking cues.

Ask for assistance from other passengers.

Many handlers will strike up a conversation with fellow passengers in order to request assistance from them instead of waiting for an escort. Remember that you may be the first blind person the passengers have ever helped so be patient and offer guidance on the best way they can assist you.

Take advantage of pre-boarding.

Pre-boarding permits you to settle your dog without the pressure of a long line behind you, gives you an opportunity to privately discuss your needs with the flight attendant, and ensures available space in the overhead storage area. Note that carriers are not required to allow you to pre-board unless you identify yourself as a person with a disability and explain that you need extra time to get seated. When you first arrive at the gate, find out where the desk is located so you can notify the gate agent that you wish to pre-board. Ask what time pre-boarding will begin and then plan to go back up near the desk about 5 - 10 minutes before the designated time. Even if agents promise to come get you when it’s time to pre-board, they often forget so it’s best to rely on yourself.

Be prepared at the security checkpoints.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) manages security at U.S. airports. When going through security checkpoints, TSA officers cannot separate you and your dog, or require that you remove your dog’s harness, leash or collar. You can, however, be required to remove harness pouches or signs before the dog is screened. When preparing to go through the metal detector, you can place your dog in a down position to help maintain the dog’s stay. Avoid bumping the sides of the detector by reaching through the archway to grasp the officer’s hand for guidance. Walking through sideways can allow for more room on either side. You must maintain contact with your dog’s leash at all times, and if you touch your dog before it has been patted down, you may be subject to a pat-down yourself, even if you did not alarm when you went through. A same gender officer will conduct the pat-down and advise you of the procedure to help you anticipate any actions before you feel them. Expect to be tested for traces of explosives right after you are screened, but testing can also take place in other areas of the airport. Avoid the recent use of topical flea treatments, or products that contain glycerin like hand lotion or sanitizers since they can trigger a false positive test when you are swabbed for explosives. Be aware that explosive detection canine teams may be present at checkpoints in larger airports, and passengers with service animals cannot be screened using full-body scanners. Reduce the chance of loss or theft by placing small items such as your cell phone, wallet, loose change, keys, watch and other jewelry, or sunglasses in a resealable bag before placing them in the bin. Finally, if you experience problems at the security checkpoint, ask to speak with a Passenger Support Specialist (PSS) or a supervisor. You can call TSA Cares toll free at 1-855-787-2227 at least 72 hours prior to traveling with questions about screening policies and procedures or if you require additional support at the checkpoint. If you wish to file a formal complaint against an officer, call the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Office of Civil Rights at 877-336-4872 or send a message to TSA.ODPO@dhs.gov.

Prepare in advance for international travel

International travel regulations can differ from country to country so be sure to allow enough time to find out what forms, vaccinations and blood tests may be required. Some of these requirements must be completed months before departure. Some countries may not allow service animals at all and some may restrict dog food from being brought into the country. Even though it’s part of the United States, travel to Hawaii also requires several additional steps before your dog can visit the island. Start researching your trip by visiting www.seeingeye.org/access and follow the link to travel by air or sea.

Sign up for credit card security alerts.

Some credit card companies offer fraud or transaction alerts where you can sign up to receive a text message or email any time your card is charged over a specified amount. Simply set the alert threshold to one dollar or as low as possible to get alerts any time your card is used. Although this isn’t specifically related to air travel, it’s helpful for the overall trip. This allows you to more quickly dispute erroneous charges, such as an additional cleaning fee for your guide dog. As an aside, if you plan to use your card while traveling, especially if you leave the country, you may wish to notify your bank/credit card company to avoid any interruption in service.

Be your own best advocate.

Not everyone requires or wants the same level of help when they travel. Understand your strengths and limitations, know how they affect your performance, and be willing to clearly and concisely communicate your needs to others. Start with a positive attitude and speak in a pleasant tone. Identify yourself as a person with a disability and ask questions to determine what, if any, challenges lay ahead. Know your rights and how they are enforced. If conflict arises, remain calm and immediately ask to speak with a CRO. Be certain not to communicate in a manner that could be perceived as hostile, belligerent, or confrontational. Otherwise, the pilot can have you removed from the plane on the “basis of safety”. For problems at the security checkpoint, ask to speak with a supervisor or Passenger Support Specialist. Finally, trust yourself to know what you need, but be open to new ideas and/or ways to meet those needs.

Note: Many thanks to the Seeing Eye graduates who provided valuable information for this tip sheet. If anyone wishes to share other air travel tips, please email them to advocacy@seeingeye.org.