Moving internationally with your dog is a confusing process, but it doesn't have to be!
When we decided to uproot our lives in the US and move to Costa Rica (to open our Eye Care Clinic, Ojos Del Mar), there was never a doubt in our minds that our dogs would join us. We knew they would love the beach as much as we would. But to be honest, the logistics of getting them to Costa Rica was more stressful than getting ourselves properly immmigrated.
Why? Well, for starters, there simply isn't a straight forward guide on how to do it.
Sure, there are guidelines, but nothing is clear cut on what to expect througout the preperation and while in transit. A crate sizing error, one incorrect date, or a single improper signature could lead to your pup being held up at the border and tragically sent back to their home county. Terrified that might happen to us, I search everywhere and struggled to find any personal documentation or "how to" blog posts that detailed the actual experience.
To try and save as many of you from going through everything I had to endure, I thought I'd type out my exact experience while on the final flight of my journey so I wouldn’t forget a single detail of the process. I’ll cover the preparation stage, booking flights, and then the travel.
Step one on this adventure was to figure out what was even needed and we went to the best place to find those sorts of answers: google. The answer was clear, but I’ll say that this is all very specific to both the country you are traveling AND your home state. The requirements for Costa Rica we fairly basic and they allow for digital signatures (versus the pain of having to send things back and forth for wet signatures). Here are the requirements, as of March 2022:
Complete an International Health Certificate
Within 2 weeks of departure:
Complete health examination
Treat for endo and ectoparasites (must be an approved product)
We used Drontal Plus (praziquantel, pyrantel pamoate, febantel) + First Shield Trio (dinotefuran, pyriproxyfen, permethrin)
Vaccination (must be completed 30 days prior to travel)
Rabies (pets over 3 months)
We used Elanco
Said International Health Certificate must be issued by a USDA Accredited Veterinarian
Said USDA Accredited Veterinarian must get Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) endorsement of certificate
This part is where things got a little dicey. Even on the APHIS website they have this comment which should have been our first warning: “Airlines may have separate and additional requirements. Check with your airline to determine what requirements they may have, if any.”
First a little vocabulary review:
Pet in cabin: Small pets in carriers, or verified service animals are permitted. Max carry-on kennel dimensions vary depending on the airline, but it is usually around 18” x 11” x 11”
Pet as excess baggage: Pets flying on the same flight as you as baggage in the cargo hold
Pet as cargo: Pets flying on a different flight as you as cargo
There are only a couple US airlines that allow pets to travel, and even less that allow pets to travel internationally. Alaska Airlines has an excellent pet travel policy which includes a low pet travel fare rate of $100. I spoke with a representative and all seemed peachy and set. Our flight route was originally going to be from Seattle to Liberia, which is a serviced route with Alaska Airlines.
I thought we were in good shape, but just in case I decided to double check everything about 1 month before our departure, and thank gooodness I did, because we would have been in deep trouble. Issue number 1; The International Air Transport Association (IATA) created the rules regarding approved requirements for traveling with pets. Here is a visual of the crate requirements:
Now enter most handosme dog in the world (ever dog owner knows theirs' it the cutest), extra large (and tall) Vizsla. This dashing fellow stands a full 32" tall, meaning he needed a crate a minimum of 35” leaving the PetMate Sky #700 (the largest and most expensive) crate as our ONLY option. I noticed some folks adding or making custom crate extenders, but this was something I didn’t have time to do while preparing to move our lives to Costa Rica.
So far, so good... until I circled back to our confirm with Alaska Airlines. Around this time, we were getting nervous about the process and decided to hire a constultant, Across The Pond Pet, to make sure we were doing everything properly. They reviewed all our details and ultimately discovered that the aircrafts that Alaska Airlines flies to Costa Rica (you can find this info when booking your flight) don't have a cargo hold door large enough to fit the crate size Mickey needed. Ergo, we were a month out from our departure date and needed to cancel our flights, scramble the jets (lol), and book a new one.
Fast forward....after scouring through all the different airlines (check different airline policies) and plane sizes (minimum Boeing 737-800), we discovered AeroMexico Mexico would be our new (and only) option for the route I needed. Every airline has limits on the number of pets allowed in cargo, and the only way to confirm availability on the flight you want is to call in; which is super unfortunate because I waited on hold multiple times for over an hour to complete both Mickey's ticket booking and mine. AeroMexico's international pet fee was $205, so double that of Alaska's but a small price to pay to bring your furbabe with you. So, after averting a would have been crisis, my new flights were from Seattle to Mexico City, then Mexico City to San Jose, Costa Rica.
The final preparations for flying were also slightly stressful, as the PetMate crate I purchase - which is the most well reviewed travel crate - had several things that needed to be modified to meet the guidelines for flying. I had to:
Change all the plastic screws it came with to metal screws (Supplies)
Add mesh netting over all the window openings because the opening was too wide (Mesh)
Purchase extra zip ties to secure the crate together and the door closed (door ties not added until the last minute at the airport)
Drill holes in the back of the crate as each wall needs to have holes for breathing (Hole saw)
Add 2 self watering bowls (bowls)
My final crate included the above modification and then I added a few things to make it cozier for Mickey (ref)
Comfort: I used his large dog bed as a base - this was great to transport his big bed abroad. I also included layers of thin blankets, per advice from Across the Pond Pets, because it was likely that he was going to need to use the bathroom during his trip. Putting the dog bed i a large trash bag and then covering it with a blanket is another great option. Don’t waste money on a crate bed.
Paperwork: The original copies of the travel paperwork must be taped on top of the crate. I included the signed international health certificate, his rabies certificate, his last medical visit record, and his eticket receipt. I also had extra copies of this in my luggage in case anything went awry. Also, they want some basic info on the pet easily posted and here is what I used:
Food: One requirement is that a bag of food must be taped to the top of the crate
Live Animal Sticker: You can buy stickers (mine came with the “supplies” purchase), and I could also drew some extra signs on.
Now I was really ready to go. The next thing I was most worried about was how in the world I was going to travel with Mickey and his large crate, my 2 large checked bags and a carry on.
The day before I traveled I had so many unanswered questions. Where would I check in? My flight was a joint Aeromexico/Delta flight, so which counter did I go to? Did I need to pick up all my luggage and XXL dog crate during my layover in Mexico City? How was I going to manage everything? Across the Pond Pets helped me with some of my stressors, but the best advice I received, which I'll pass on to you.... bring a little cash in case you need to secure extra help in a pinch.
The time finally came to travel. I was advised to check in early - like 3 hours early. So that’s what I did. Turns out I had to check in with Aeromexico (who happens to be across the hallway from Delta at SeaTac Airport). Right away I thought I was in trouble, because we weighed Mickey in his crate and found it was around 120lbs and Aeromexico’s system doesn’t allow more than 100lbs. With an XXL crate (and in our case, a 65lb Mickey) there is a good chance you will be overweight but it was something they had to override to proceed. The next immediate issue was that the attendant thought his crate size was too large to fit through the cargo door (remember my previous booking debacle?). Luckily, after a few measurements, she realized it made the cut. They processed everything else including the health certificate, rabies, vaccine records, and finally checked us in. Afterwards they have someone guide you and your pup over to TSA extra large inspection for final approval. There, they checked the crate out and instructed me to put Mickey inside and zip tie the doors shut. We said our final goodbyes, and I gave Mickey a couple small treats before the attendant took him to the plane while I went my separate way to go through security.
Once arriving in Mexico City things got a little messy. My Spanish isn’t advanced enough to properly ask for the exact help I need, but my abilities and definiutely serviceable, so when entering customs I saw a “connecting flight” desk and asked what I needed to do (get my luggage and get Mickey). There I was told since Mexico City wasn't my final destination and all of my things were connecting to San Jose, Costa Rica, that I didn't need to do anything and Mickey would atuomatically be taken to my next flight. Hooray! I proceeded to my gate and decided to double check with the gate agent before relaxing...
And they said, without question, that I had to run back to customs and manually check him through to the next flight.
ENTER PANIC MODE
Luckily I had 2.5 hours - but I frantically went back to customs to get things processed. Sweet Mickey was resting in his crate at the baggage help area and a kind agent there helped me put his crate on a stroller. I immediately took him to the Animal Customs area located right at the front of the baggage check area. Once there, I was given a half sheet of paper to fill out asking the basics (name, passport #, flight #, address of final destination). I gave the agent requested copies of my health certificate, passport, my next boarding pass and rabies/vaccine certificate. She also wanted to see the original copies (be sure to always have dulicates of every document).
Once she completed her process, she stamped my official health certificate copy and I was instructed to leave the customs area with him and take him to the main check in counter to check Mickey into the next flight. In terminal 2, that requires you to exit the customs area and go up one level. TIP: You don’t need to go through the scanners so go through the section saying “nothing to declare” if it’s open. Then you will exit the doors and walk toward the far left corner bathrooms where there is an elevator. Take it up to the first floor and go to L2 where it says Aeromexico special. There they check your passport, boarding pass, the health pass, vaccine records, and your personal COVID vaccine record. They again weighed the crate with Mickey inside.
Once completed, they checked him in and I took him to the last stop which is their final inspection point (the agent helps you get there) which is just along the back wall of the same area. They added a few more zip-ties to ensure the door didn't open during the flight and we said our final goodbye before Costa Rica!
After all of the research, misinformation, and unecessary stress, we finally arrived to SJO Airport. I'm a seasoned intnerational traveler, so I was far more confident in what needed to be done at this point. The customs line was long (as it usually is at SJO), so by the time I got out, Mickey and all of my bags were waiting and ready for me. I immediately asked a porter for help, we reviewed his cost (which was ~$10), and he loaded everything up for me and we headed out. My last checkpoint was through the scanners where an agent reviewed his stamped paperwork one final time. They quickly waved me on and I finally was able to let Mickey out of his cage. And the rest… is history.
While the whole process was a pain in the ass, I'd do it all again just to see the smile on his face every time he launches into the ocean. We've always lived in a big city, so having the opporuninty to take him to a spectacular beach nearly every morning is truly priceless.
SWEET MYA GIRL
The devastating thing we didn’t foresee in our planning for travels was that our beloved Mya had a looming diagnosis of bladder cancer that unfortunately stole her before our move abroad. But we envision her all the time here, lounging in the sunny spots, sprinting around on the beach and barking at all our howler monkeys in the trees.