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Traveling with a cat: Our top tips to help your trip flow smoothly

Traveling with a cat. A cat sitting in a packed suitcase
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Traveling with a cat may not be quite as easy as setting off on an adventure with a canine companion, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go smoothly. While our feline friends aren’t as adaptable as dogs, with a little planning, it’s still entirely possible for you and your kitty to enjoy a stress-free trip.

One of the keys to successfully traveling with your cat is to start preparing them for the trip long before it actually arrives. Because cats are creatures of habit and most don’t enjoy their environment or surroundings being changed, some advanced desensitization and exposure work to potential triggers is well worth undertaking. 

While investing in one of the best cat carriers will help make the journey a lot more comfortable for your furry friend, you want to make sure that you’ve gotten them used to their temporary portable home for several weeks before you attempt to load them into it.

Learning how to get a cat into a carrier and ensuring they are comfortable inside will definitely make for an easier and less anxiety-inducing trip for both of you, but there will also be additional steps that need to be taken, depending on the mode of travel you’ve chosen.

To help make your upcoming adventure as calm, hassle-free, and wonderful as it possibly can be for both you and your feline friend, we’ve compiled our top tips for traveling with a cat. Whether it’s by plane, train, or automobile, we’ve got you covered!

Traveling with a cat by car

While there are some cats who will happily hop in the car with you (the outgoing Bengal is one example), most of our feline friends are reluctant travelers. One reason is that they tend to get motion sick, which makes the whole experience an unpleasant one. 

That said, there are ways that you can help make traveling by car a less stressful experience for your kitty:

1. Invest in a safe carrier

If you’re planning on taking your fur baby in the car, choosing a decent carrier will ensure they stay secure and allow you to keep your full attention on the road. While it is possible to transport a cat without a carrier, we don’t recommend this as not only can it cause you to become distracted, but your cat is also at risk of injury if you have an accident.

When selecting a carrier, look for one that’s well ventilated and be sure to introduce your feline friend to it a month before you’re set to travel together. When it comes time for your big adventure, furnish the carrier with a cozy blanket and their favorite cat toy to help make the trip a more comfortable experience.

2. Get your cat used to the car

A few weeks before you plan to travel is a good time to start getting your kitty acquainted with the car. We know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s a great idea to spend some time in the car with your cat while it’s stationary. Try to engage in pleasant experiences, such as playing with toys, so that your cat associates the car as a place where fun things happen.

If you have some of the best dry cat food on hand, you can even start feeding your kitty some of their meals in the car as not only does this get them spending more time there, it once again helps them to positively associate the car with good experiences. 

We recommend that when you’re desensitizing your kitty to the car that you start by keeping all of the doors open as this will allow them to jump in and out when they please. Once they seem comfortable being in the car with you, you can start to close the doors for a few moments at a time.

3. Familiarize your cat with the sound of the car

Next up, you want to get your kitty used to the noise your car makes when the engine is on. By now, your cat should be familiar with their carrier and the car itself, so this is a good time to start combining things by placing your cat in their carrier and securing them on the back seat.

Once your cat is safely in place, turn on the motor of your car and let it run for a few seconds before turning it off. Immediately go to your feline friend and reward them with one of the best cat treats. Repeat the process three or four times, each time offering up positive reinforcement in the form of praise and treats. 

Let your cat out of their carrier and spend some time playing with them as a reward for their good behavior.

4. Take your feline friend on several short trips

Now that your cat is comfortable with the sound of the car and is relatively at ease in the carrier, it’s well worth getting them used to the movement of the car. Start by backing the car to the end of the driveway and then returning to your starting position. Do this several times and after each time, let your cat out of their carrier and allow them to move about before continuing the process.

After you can go up and down the driveway without your cat showing too much distress, we recommend you then do several trips around the block, once again letting your cat out of their carrier between each attempt. While we know all of this sounds like a great deal of effort, trust us when we say that some hard work now will make your upcoming trip a whole lot easier.

Make sure that with each trip around the block that you pile on the praise and dish out those cat treats every time you return home and let your kitty out of their carrier. This reinforces the positive associations your cat will be making between the car and good things happening.

5. Create a road trip checklist

It can be helpful to think through the things you’re going to need to do on the day of travel to make the trip as smooth as possible for you and your little one. Here are a few examples:

  • Have you spoken with your vet? If you’re worried that your cat might get motion sick or you know that your feline friend is highly anxious or easily stressed, speaking with your vet before your departure can be helpful. They will be able to provide aids for calming anxiety and treating motion sickness if they feel these are necessary.
  • Is your feline-friendly first aid kit well-stocked? For cats who are already on medication, make sure you have enough to cover them for the duration of your trip. It’s also worthwhile having your cat’s vaccination records with you in case you need them and plenty of food, treats, and water for the journey. 
  • Where will the pitstops be? You’ll want to factor in some breaks on your trip to give your cat a chance to use their litter tray and move about free from their carrier. You can invest in one of the best cat harnesses if you’re planning on stopping at a park as this will allow them to stretch their legs without you having to worry about them running off.
  • Is your feline friend covered by the best pet insurance? If they’re not, we recommend you consider this before setting off on your travels as it can help with an accident or unexpected illness that might happen while you’re away. If your cat is already covered, check your policy before you travel so you’re aware of any exclusions.

Before you travel, we recommend that you also make sure your cat is wearing a collar and that their microchip information is up-to-date. In the unlikely event that you two are separated, this will help whoever finds your feline friend to locate you quickly. You might also like to invest in one of the best pet trackers for extra peace of mind.

Traveling with a cat by plane

Cat in carrier at airport

(Image credit: Getty Images)

As with any mode of travel, a successful trip with a cat begins long before your plane departs. As you and your kitty prepare to take to the sky, here are our top tips for flying with a cat:

1. Cargo vs hold

First on your list is going to be checking with the airline you’re flying with to see what their requirements are for pet parents traveling with their cat. You’ll likely have a choice of your cat flying as cargo in the hold or in the cabin with you – we recommend the latter as this will be less stressful for most cats.

If you decide to opt for the cabin, make sure you’re clear on the precise weight requirements and what dimensions the carrier needs to be in order to fit under the seat in front of you. 

Some airlines restrict the number of pets they allow in the cabin for any flight, so it’s highly advisable to book early to ensure you can get your cat on the same flight as you. Try to opt for a direct flight whenever possible, as stopovers can cause your cat additional stress.

2. Check to make sure your cat meets the requirements

Each airline differs when it comes to which cat breeds they allow on the plane, so you’ll want to work this out before booking. American Airlines, for example, doesn’t allow "brachycephalic" cats on board, which means if you have a Persian, Burmese or Himalayan, you’re going to need to sort out another mode of travel.

United Airlines doesn’t have any restrictions on the breed of the cat but they are strict when it comes to age. While some airlines will take cats eight weeks or older, others, such as United Airlines, require your feline friend to be over 16 weeks. There are also certain routes where in-cabin travel is not permitted and cats must fly as cargo.

3. Visit your vet

Make sure that you’re aware of any additional vaccinations your cat may require for the location you’re traveling to. You’ll also want to have your kitty’s vaccination records with you going to and from your destination and most airlines require a valid health certificate for travel that your vet will need to complete.

4. Move through security with ease

Once you’re at the airport, you’ll need to go through all the routine security procedures, including x-ray screening. Your cat’s carrier will need to go through this process in the same way as your bags do, but you’ll need to remove your feline friend and carry them through the human screening device.

To make this part of your trip as smooth as possible, your kitty will need to be wearing a harness with a leash attached to ensure they can’t run off – you don't want to be chasing your feline friend through the airport! Once you’ve been through the human screen device, put your cat back into the carrier.

5. Ensure you have all the relevant supplies

Being at the airport and on the plane will be a much more comfortable experience for your kitty if they have everything they need. We recommend you place a puppy pad at the bottom of their carrier in case they have an accident while you’re traveling. It’s also a good idea to carry several spares in your bag so that you can replace them as needed.

Other items you’ll want to bring with you are food, treats, water, and any medications your little one may require. It’s also a good idea to make the carrier as comfortable as possible with a cozy blanket and perhaps your cat’s favorite toy to keep them company on the trip.

Traveling with a cat by train

It used to be only service dogs that were allowed to travel on trains, but in recent years, many companies have expanded their service to allow for pet dogs and cats. Amtrak in the US, for example, permits cats and carriers with a combined weight of up to 20lbs to travel on board for a cost of $26 each way, as long as the length of travel is under seven hours.

Here are our top train travel tips when it comes to hitting the rails with your feline friend:

1. Do your homework

As with plane travel, we recommend you speak with the train company before you book your tickets. You first want to make sure that they do indeed allow cats onboard and if so, whether you need to register them in advance or can just turn up on the day and purchase a ticket for them.

2. Consider your seating choices

It will depend on your financial situation, but if it feels doable, consider purchasing tickets for the first-class section of the train. These areas are normally nowhere near as busy as the rest of the train and will ensure a much more peaceful trip for you and your kitty. Alternatively, your train may have a designated ‘quiet area’, which is another great option if you can’t quite stretch to buying a premium ticket.

3. Limit the number of connections

Getting a direct train is going to be preferable to one where you’re having to platform-hop in order to meet connecting trains. If you do have to swap, try and find a quiet place at the station where you and your kitty can wait until it’s time to board your next train. 

4. Choose your travel times carefully

We recommend that you avoid peak travel times and opt for off-peak where possible. Rush hour trains are always crammed with commuters trying to get to and from work and students trying to get to and from school, so book a train outside of these times and you and your feline friend will be in for a much quieter journey.

5. Take all the necessary supplies

Just like with car and plane travel, you want to make sure your cat has everything they need to stay comfortable throughout the trip. Puppy pads will allow them to go to the toilet when they need to and you can swap these out throughout the trip so that your cat isn’t sitting in a damp carrier. Carry plenty of food, treats, and water, and make their carrier as cozy as you can. You might like to cover it with a blanket to reduce anxiety and motion sickness.

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has spent the past two years dividing her writing time between her two great loves - pets and health and wellness. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with one very mischievous Cocker Spaniel, drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and attempting to set numerous world records for the longest ever FaceTime calls with her family back home in NZ.