Military PCS moves are rough as it is. The days spent waiting for news from your spouse. The thirteen changes you have to make to your plans during the process. Supervising movers and praying that all your household goods arrived on time and in one piece. Throw an international assignment into that mix and suddenly you are faced with a whole new challenge of not only moving but moving to a new country where you do not know the language, culture, or area. Oh, and I bet you haven’t heard a peep from your so called “sponsor” either…
To be fair, the military does put in a lot of effort these days when it comes to moving families around. Unfortunately, one area that is still lacking is the transport of family pets. The military will pay for almost anything under the sun except the transportation of pets. In a way I suppose we should be thankful for this. Otherwise, you might be hauling Fido into the vet clinic on base for an EFMP screening before he gets his command sponsorship and plane ticket… All kidding aside and no knocking the EFMP system, bringing your pets along overseas can be daunting. If you are like us and your four legged family member consist of two very large dogs it can be extremely difficult and expensive.
Let me get this out of the way; if you are moving to Europe with pets and Germany in particular, take the Patriot Express. The Patriot Express (PE) is a government chartered aircraft that flies between Baltimore and Ramstein AFB. PE has no weather restrictions and the only breed restrictions are based upon the laws in Germany. That means for owners of dogs considered dangerous by other airlines or dogs that are brachycephalic you will not be met with the same restrictions as regular airlines. Unfortunately, there are only so many pet spaces available on PE flights and they go fast so your spouse will have to be quick to get those spaces reserved when the flights open for booking.
If you are like us and can’t get a PE flight then you are stuck with the regular airlines. If your pet is small you can most likely bring it aboard as a carry on. If not then you are right there with the rest of us checking your dog and kennel as checked baggage or cargo. Due to our dogs being brachycephalic the only airline that would fly them was United. Their Petsafe program is is advertised as superior pet care and handling from origin to destination. Let me just say that was not exactly the case. This is not an article to bash on United or any other airline but simply to inform my fellow service members with pets of the realities of flying pets to Europe.
First thing you will find out when calling United Petsafe is they have a military program. Sweet! Not so fast there, the military program only applies to pet shipments weighing 99 pounds or less WITH kennel. To be fair this probably covers a lot of dogs but it didn’t cover ours. The second surprise with Petsafe’s military program is that it doesn’t actually save you that much money. I was informed by the Petsafe representative that you simply don’t pay tax or the fuel surcharge with the military program. That would have reduced my $3,300 bill by roughly $300. This really had me wishing I scored those Patriot Express spots where my total for both dogs would have been around $400. Oh well, lesson learned, moving on. Petsafe did make the booking very easy. Simply call the Petsafe desk and book your pets on the same flight that you are taking. The desk rep was very knowledgeable and ensured our kennels would fit on the aircraft. Once booked we arrived the day of the flight and paid for the dogs on the spot and off we went.
Before I get to the actual flight, one of the most common questions is, “what are the requirements to bring my dog to Germany”. Although it is well documented, it is probably worth covering here again. In a nutshell you need three things. 1. Your pet must be microchipped. 2. Your pet must be vaccinated for Rabies. 3. You must have an EU health certificate no more than 10 days from your flight. If your pet is not microchipped you will need to get that done and get a rabies vaccination after the microchip is implanted. Also, make sure you get that EU health cert!!! We made the mistake of simply getting a local health cert from our vet and the only thing that saved us was the fact our pets already had European pet passports. You can find more information on pet entry requirements on the USDA page here.
The next thing you will have to know about flying pets on civilian airlines is the checkin process. Depending on which airport you fly from, you may check your pet at the checking counter or you may have to drive to the cargo section of the airport and check the pet there. This is what we had to do for our flight. The cargo check in counter didn’t have the same clean and appealing appearance as the regular checking counter. It was dirty and clearly a place where the priority was moving massive amounts of cargo with paperwork quickly. We did see the advertised pet safe van outside so we crossed our fingers and proceeded. The United rep at the counter was helpful and went through all of the paperwork with us. Once we paid and they inspected the kennels the dogs went on a cart off to the nether regions of the cargo world. We were told they would go to a climate controlled room and then into the climate controlled van for transport. Since I didn’t see this happen I can verify but I’ll take them at their word.
Once the dogs were dropped off we made our way into the terminal, checked in, went through security, and finally boarded our plane. A stewardess was kind enough to inquire with the ground crew and informed us that our pets were safely on board in the cargo hold and good to go. At this point everything was going fairly smoothly. Then we got stuck in the line of aircraft waiting to take off. Those things will happen but it always makes you worry about your pets stuck down below. We eventually did take off and made our way through some decent turbulence to Brussels where we were flying to.
Upon arriving in Brussels and exiting the aircraft we were informed by the gate attendant that we would have to pick up our pets again in the cargo section. This required us to go through customs in the airport, find our bags, leave the airport proper, and navigate to the cargo area on the other side. We found the required building easy enough and this is where United’s Petsafe program kind of fell apart. Petsafe may be wonderful in the United States but apparently it doesn’t extend to other countries. A third party cargo processor was responsible for holding the pets until we picked them up. That meant our pets sat in a baggage wagon in a warehouse for roughly three hours with the rest of the cargo and forklifts moving pallets around at light speed. Not exactly the whole climate controlled van and holding area that United promised. However, understanding that it is a different country and culture, I get that things may not always be as expected.
After completing all of the paperwork with the cargo handler and paying another 100 Euro fee for them to transport the dogs from aircraft to warehouse and hold them (I thought that was why I gave United $3,300???) we had to run down the street and find the customs agent to get the paperwork stamped off and approved. Man do Europeans love stamps… The customs agent was the first friendly and helpful person we had seen all morning. After inspecting the pet documents and shipper documents we got our stamp and off we ran back to the warehouse to get our dogs. After another 15 minutes of waiting for someone to show up we simply went into the warehouse and flagged down a worker, showed the stamp, and kindly asked if we could have our pets.
All told, this was not the worst experience ever. Could it have been better? Yes absolutely. However, we tried to keep an open mind and work through our issues. Both dogs arrived still alive if not a little tired and of course they had to pee in their kennel. At the end of the day we all flew United and no one was arrested, assaulted, or thrown off the plane and we all arrived at our new duty station. I would love to hear your travel tales of international pet flights below in the comments. If you are expecting to fly with pets soon and have questions after reading this please leave me a note in the comments as well!