“It’s going to cost how much?!”
Clearly, the high cost of shipping our dog, Winston, back to the States was written all over my face. My husband took one look at me and muttered, “I don’t even want to know.”
We’re at that proverbial rock and a hard place right now, as we stare down the barrel of an imminent 2019 PCS. Beyond just the stress of moving, we’re also looking at dropping thousands of dollars to ship a 17-pound mini schnauzer from Japan to the East Coast.
And we don’t really have a choice in the matter.
Moving overseas was decided for us. Bringing Winston with us was a given. He’s family, after all. Two years ago, the costs weren’t quite so high.
As of right now, all of the programs and rules we used to keep costs low have gone away or been totally revamped. Everything is going to cost at least double from our last PCS.
Military Families Face Insane Pet Shipping Costs and Issues
Let’s break down exactly what’s happening, resources for military families and what you can do to change the system.
Moving overseas with pets is incredibly stressful. Just the quarantine process alone is daunting.
On top of months of vaccinations and isolation, military families are also looking at increasingly limited options for moving with their pets. Almost all of these come with skyrocketing costs and hoops to jump through.
Here are your shipping or flying choices:
Patriot Express: This is the cheapest and easiest option by far. It is also the most difficult to book.
With the Patriot Express, your pet would be flying with you on your military flight to your OCONUS destination. Rates vary based on weight and species but are significantly cheaper than commercial rates.
Getting a spot on the Patriot Express is not guaranteed.
Each service books these flights within different time windows based on projected departure dates. However, all pet spots for a given month are released at once and are booked first-come, first-served. There are typically three in-cabin spots and 10 cargo spots per flight.
This could mean that all spots on your flight are claimed before you are even allowed to book your human seats.
Commercial Cargo: Shipping your pet as cargo is pricier and limited by international shipping laws. Right now, United, American and Delta all offer some form of CONUS and OCONUS pet shipping programs.
Commercial cargo is usually for pets that will not be on the same flight as their owners.
Per new regulations, all three airlines now require that a professional registered pet shipping service serves as a middleman.
There are also regulations about temperature, breed and kennel size and weight.
In-Cabin Pets: Most airlines allow animals to be transported as carry-on baggage. United, American and Delta all allow pets to be transported in the cabin to many destinations. This option is limited based on breed or species, size and weight.
But not all international destinations will allow in-cabin pet transport. For example, Japan requires that all pets be carried in the cargo area.
Checked Baggage: All three major carriers offer some form of checked baggage option for pets. American, United and Delta all have rules that limit the length of flights and destinations, as well as other regulations put in place for pet safety.
United does have some special rules that apply to military troops traveling on orders, but there are still limitations.
Pet Shipping Service: You can hand over control by using a professional pet shipping service. There are many companies that cater to military families moving CONUS and OCONUS.
Some pet shipping services specialize by destination or route(s), others are more general. These services are required for certain cargo or baggage categories. All services will offer different package options. They will charge a service fee beyond your pet’s airfare or airline cost.
Many military families opt to use a pet shipping service from the start to decrease stress.
Fly on Non-U.S. Flag Airlines: Some airlines from other nations offer pet shipping options with greater flexibility than U.S. airlines. If you are interested in flying with a non-US airline, it is best to individually research each airline to find one that meets your needs.
Costs will vary widely and may be more expensive than transportation via Patriot Express or U.S.-based airlines.
A Word About Guam
Currently, United Airlines is the only U.S. airline that serves Guam. There are some spots on the Patriot Express. United’s pet transport policy prohibits pet travel between Hawaii and Guam, but does accept pets going from/to other locations.
Some foreign airlines do serve Guam as well, but not all offer animal transportation services.
Timing Is Important
Space on the Patriot Express is extremely limited and should not be considered a “given” for any military family moving pets overseas.
If this is your only option financially and logistically, you need to act with intention as early as possible. Let your PCS coordinator know your pet transportation needs as soon as you can. Then, act quickly to expedite all necessary paperwork and clearances prior to your flight window opening.
Even acting quickly on your end doesn’t mean the military will feel the same sense of urgency. In this case, it’s best to stay in close contact with your PCS coordinator. If you missed out on a pet spot on your Patriot Express flight, call often to inquire about canceled reservations or request that your name is put on the waiting list for the next available pet spot.
If you are fairly certain that you either don’t want to gamble on a Patriot Express flight or won’t secure one, contracting with a private shipping company is typically your only option. It is now an across-the-board regulation that pets being shipped as cargo be handled by a member of the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association.
These companies will work with your chosen airline to fly your pet to your next duty station.
Different companies offer different options. Some have all-inclusive packages that handle every step of the process from veterinary appointments to arriving at your new home. Others will handle flights only, with accompanied and unaccompanied options.
Many pet shipping companies offer military discounts.
However, due to the increased needs of the military community, spots might fill quickly for professional transportation services. If this seems to be your best or more reliable option, it is advised to contact one or more transport companies as soon as possible. Ask them about their packages, pricing and military discounts. You might also inquire about references and track record for animal safety.
Let Your Voice Be Heard
Over the last year, as changes to pet shipping policies on commercial airlines rolled out, there have been various grassroots campaigns in the military community.
Several appeals for experiences and concerns to be shared have been posted in USMC and mixed-services groups. A local Okinawa Facebook group has been a point of contact for many military families located there to voice concerns and share their opinions. Concerns about the pet shipping policy, the system for releasing Patriot Express pet spots and other issues have all been raised through senior spouse points of contact over the last 18 months.
Troops and families can also voice their opinions via the ICE system or contact the Inspector General for further guidance.
We Can’t Afford to Take Our Pet
It can be hard to come up with possibly thousands of dollars to ship your pet around the world. The SPCA International sees this increasing need in the military community and has got your six.
Operation Military Pets aims to provide military families with grants to help cover part or all of their pet shipping costs related to PCSing. There is an application process and not all applicants will be accepted. Award amounts vary based on need and documentation.
If you are simply not able to cover the cost or handle the logistics, it’s important to keep your pet’s safety and comfort in mind.
The best option might be to temporarily rehome your pet with a close friend or family member for the duration of your overseas tour. If this is the case, be sure to get a power of attorney for the length of your tour or otherwise write down the terms of your agreement. Set aside money to cover the costs of your pet’s regular expenses, like medical care or food costs.
As a final option, you might consider rehoming your pet permanently. You can do this yourself through social media and online advertising. You could also use a rehoming service to find your animal’s new family. As a final option, you might consider doing an owner-surrender at a local no-kill animal shelter.
PCSing OCONUS with Your Pet
PCSing OCONUS with your pet is going to be costly and complicated. There is not really any way to avoid that reality.
If you anticipate a possible OCONUS move in the future, start saving and planning now. We are already setting aside money to ship Winston stateside next spring. It’s going to be expensive, but having my battle buddy with me will be worth every penny!