My Dog Flew First Class Without Paying for a Ticket

Five minutes before takeoff, a flight attendant walked down the aisle toward me. I was certain he had figured out my fly-without-paying-for-the-dog plan, and was ready to kick me off the plane.


A week before my wedding, I faced a tough decision: Do I go through with it or not?

The “it” I’m referring to is the absurd on-board pet fare airlines charge to allow my dog, cozily nestled in an airline-approved carrier, to substitute for a large carry-on and occupy my legroom.

My dog is small enough to fly on board, and I’m scared to let her fly in cargo, so I grudgingly paid the dog fare for years, despite the fact that no airline employees beyond the ticket counter ever verified that I had paid. One airline, Schmelta,* at least issued a tag for the dog carrier to indicate that my dog was a paying canine customer, but the tag color never changed and the gate agents never checked the date on the tag.

But back to the pre-wedding flight. 
Braxlee and I were moving from D.C. to New York to join my fiancé for our new life in Manhattan. After selling my car, the pooch and I needed to wing it one-way to NYC.

My ticket was $94. The dog fare was $125.

I decided to do what any obnoxious lawyer would do: I called the airline to argue that I should be allowed to save $31 by purchasing a second, human ticket for my dog, while otherwise complying with all airline pet rules. 
Here’s how the conversation went.

Schmelta Rep: You can’t buy a seat for your dog. Dogs have to fly in carriers under the seat.

Me: I understand that. I want to buy two side-by-side seats, instead of one seat and a dog fare, and I want my dog to fly under that second seat instead of under the seat in front of me.

Schmelta Rep: Sorry, you can’t do that.

Me: Why not? It would still comply with all on-board pet rules.

Schmelta Rep: Well … you’ll have to check with TSA about that.

Me: No, TSA’s only concerns are whether my dog is a bomb or a shampoo bottle larger than 3 ounces. She’s neither.


I was defeated, and annoyed by the lie about TSA, so I decided to try reusing an old carrier tag.

It worked.

I booked myself in the back row of the plane, which was otherwise empty on a half-sold Saturday morning flight. (Who else would want to sit next to the bathroom in a nonreclining seat with so many good seats up front?) Since the row would be empty, I wouldn’t risk a fellow passenger complaining about being seated next to a dog.

Once I made it past the gate agent, I thought my worries were over.

They weren’t.

I’m still not sure how that plane was configured differently from other MD-88s (my plane model of choice for flying with a pet, because the seats are higher and easily accommodate a large Sherpa carrier), but the carrier wouldn’t fit under the seat.

Luckily, the flight attendant was kind, and told me I could sit in the aisle seat and let the carrier obstruct the rest of the empty row.

Five minutes before takeoff, however, a second flight attendant walked down the aisle toward me. I was certain that he had figured out my fly-without-paying plan, and was ready to kick me off the flight. Instead, he whispered the most magical words a flight attendant can say: “Ma’am, there’s a seat available in first class. I think you and your dog would be more comfortable up there.”

And just like that, Braxlee and I were upgraded from $94-economy-customer-and-stowaway dog to first-class Schmelta customers.

The FAA allows each airline to choose whether it will allow pets on board, and to set its on-board pet rules. Most major airlines accept a limited number of pets in the cabin for a fee. One-way fees cost $50 to $150.

Before you show up for your flight with your dog, check your airline’s on-board pet policies. (If the airline doesn’t allow pets in the cabin, sneaking your dog onto the flight is a surefire fail.) Once you’ve confirmed that your airline doesn’t hate animals, you’re set.

In my experience, airline employees rarely check the flight manifest before flights for on-board pets, and they are certainly too busy during the holidays to confirm that your dog is one of the paying pets. If you’re low on funds, too late to get one of the few pet reservations on board, or morally opposed to paying $125 for a one-way trip for your pup, there’s a good chance that you can sneak your pet on board.

If you do, maybe you’ll find yourself with a free upgrade.

Photo credits: Cavalier puppy with pilot outfit and Griffon puppy with plane from our friends at

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