A tale of Two Kitties, part 2: Cat-apulting overseas

A continuation of the feline saga from Part 1.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 

Looking back, it was a sign that things were going our way when our biggest concern in moving overseas was how to transport our two cats, Benjour (15 years old) and Sangria (6 months).

Then again, we were dealing with cats.

Start with some basic truisms. Cats hate NOT being in control. Cats also don’t like strange places. Add to that having to plan for a day with at least 10 hours of flying and navigating airline bureaucracy, and what can go wrong?

Almost everything.

Flying the feline-friendliest skies

We wanted our cats to fly with us in-cabin. There were too many stories of tragic accidents for pets in cargo, from misrouting to fatal mismanagement.

The problem was that not all airlines allow it, and those that do put a strict number on the total number of animals that can fly in-cabin.

TIP: Consult each airline before booking, or consult a general source, such as Dog Jaunt. In the end, you may have to pass up on the best deal or the quickest route for one that allows in-cabin pets (As of this posting, American and British Airways do NOT allow in-cabin pets flying transatlantic, but United and Lufthansa do).

Given our options leaving out of Dallas, we initially preferred Lufthansa because we had heard good things about them, but their itinerary anticipated a long layover in Frankfurt, where they required that we hand over our cats to be taken to the “pet lounge” to be let out and walked around.  Possibly a good idea for dogs, but it was doubtful our cats would casually stroll about without us in a strange place amidst other animals (who probably speak German).

In the end, we decided to go with United Airlines. We would fly 3.5 hours from Dallas to Newark, have a  2 hour layover where we could attend to any cat needs, and then have a 7 hour flight to Madrid. Once there, we would rent a car and drive about 4 hours to Granada (we even packed food and litter in our checked bags to lay out for the cats as we drove). Seemed like good route; then again, so was the Titanic’s.

Prep school

Like many cat owners, we only put the cats in automated motion (i.e., a car) when they were going to the vet. That meant we had to prep the cats for motion without commotion.

For the kitten, Sangria, we figured that everything was new for her, so she would be easier to acclimate. We bought a backpack carrier, and, like an astronaut in training, we started hiking and taking her about so she would get comfortable.

She took it well, but for our 15-year old grumpy man, Benjour, we weren’t sure what to do. He never liked car rides, even howled when put into a car (which of late then set off the kitten to meow loudly). We bought him a “calming collar” that we put on about a week before travel, but we weren’t sure the collar’s mojo could cancel 15 years of travel stress.

So, we went to the man with the answers, our vet.

TIP: Make sure you see your vet well before transport. You can discuss any perceived problems he/she sees with your cat being confined, and you can try calming agents.

Our vet gave us great advice. For Benjour, who has some joint aches, he gave us some medicine that is like kitty ibuprofen and reminded us that the carrier should be big enough for the cats to turn around and reseat themselves. Even more, he gave us some calming pills (for the cats, not us) to at least get them through security (where you have to remove the cats from  their carriers). He recommended we try them first, as some cats have a reverse reaction and get hyper

Fortunately, test runs showed they were relaxed, even a bit loopy, for a couple of hours after we gave it to them. Finally, he laid out a schedule for feeding them on the morning of the flight so as to minimize accidents. We had a noon flight, so no food after 8:00 am.

Next was the carrier. As the vet said, it had to be big enough to allow room to move, but it still had to fit under the seat on the plane.  We opted for two from Amazon, as they had easy carry straps and even folded out so the cats could stretch during the layover:

Finally, we made sure to stock our carry-on with some essentials: small water dish for each, bag of treats, wet wipes for any accidents, extra plastic bags, and some carrier liners.

TIP: You get a better deal for liners if you buy disposable human bed mats (rather than those made for pets) and cut them in half to fit. Also, wipes for babies are often cheaper than those for pets.

And away we go…or not

D-day, and we were ready. Like ancient Egyptian cat worshipers, we were devout in our scheduled attending to them:

Fed the cats at 7:00 am.

Gave Benjour joint medicine at 7:30.

Took away food at 8:00.

Disposed of litter at 9:45.

Gave both cats calming pills at 9:45.

Put cats in carriers at 10:00.

Uber driver showed up at 10:10.

As they used to say on The A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together. Benjour even stopped howling in the car after a minute and seemed to settle in.

Little did we know we were like Ulysses, about to be blown off course  and at the whim of the Gods (though at least in this Odyssey Ulysses and Penelope get to travel together).

Check-in, and almost out.

As we checked in, things went well up to the moment the agent asked casually, “Are the cats handling this OK?” Jim replied, “Sure, they’re tranquilized and out of it.” The agent walked away for a moment, then returned and explained that United had a policy to not transport drugged animals as they could have a negative reaction in flight.

Jim, relying on his courtroom tap-dancing skills of old, quickly back-peddled and said that he was not good with words, that what he meant was that the cats had been given, not a drug, but a calming agent that was merely catnipped based. She repeated the policy and looked questiongly at us for moment, and then relented and said OK, but did we understand the policy? We said yes, though Jiab later said the word “tranquilized” was hereby banned.

Funnily, later Jim was talking on the flight with a flight attendant who asked about the cats. When Jim said they had been given catnipped based calmer, she replied, “Boy, are you brave. When I fly my cats I give them the strongest tranquilizer I can to knock them out cold!”

TIP: Don’t say “tranquilized.”

Failure to launch.

And then the real problem hit.  While sitting in the waiting area, they announced the flight to Newark was cancelled due to air traffic congestion. We scrambled up to the counter, where we were assured all would be taken care of…only..well… by now you can guess it wasn’t.

The United agent was at first happy to reroute us to Newark on an American flight, until Jiab educated the agent that American doesn’t allow pets in-cabin.

TIP: Don’t rely on agents to know other airline’s policies. Also, don’t rely on the agents to be thorough and double-check that you have pet reservations attached to yours.  Do your research and bring your notes and booking confirmations!

After looking around on his computer, the agent finally said he had done it. Instead of Newark – Madrid, We were going to Spain by going to Houston, then Frankfurt, then Malaga, and then from there renting a car to drive to Granada. It would prove 9 hours longer, but we had no choice.

The key here was that we asked specifically if he was authorizing our cats to be on every leg of the trip, to which the agent said yes. He gave us no boarding pass for the cats, however (They had them on their carriers for the Newark/Madrid run).

This made Jiab nervous and we twice went back to the agent to double-check if the cats were authorized. Twice he said they were; he even said he got us seats to Frankfurt with extra legroom space for the carriers.

TIP: Get the pet boarding pass to ensure the pets are authorized. Agents can be unfamiliar with the pet travel policy of their own airline or their alliance airlines. It behooves you to confirm it in writing.

Houston, we have a problem…

The flight to Houston was easy. The cats, still a bit loopy, handled takeoff and landing with no problem or even outcry. The flight was 50 minutes, and we even revelled a bit in looks and points by children at our “pretty kitties” who travelled so well.

We arrived in Houston and proceeded to the next gate. We only had an hour between flights, but the gates were fairly close. When we got there, we double-checked that we were all good to go.

And they said we humans were, but what was this about cats?

TIP: Double check at EACH leg of the flight that your pets are authorized. Always ask (and insist) for a written receipt for any changes.

Despite what the Dallas agent had said, he had never transferred the cats to the Frankfurt flight. As far as United was concerned, our cats’ trip ended in Houston. We panicked, but the Houston agent and her supervisor said it was OK for the cats to fly…

… Just not to Frankfurt (where the plane was going!). They worried that the cats, though authorized to land in Spain, might be rejected admission into Germany. They then debated whether entrance into one EU country allowed entrance into another, and whether, if we were just passing through Germany and staying in a secure area, the cats would be allowed in.

No one seemed to know, and they couldn’t reach anyone on the phone.  They kept warning us that, if the cats weren’t allowed, we and the cats would be immediately deported from Germany (Jim’s suggestion that we be deported from Germany to Spain was rejected).

Meanwhile, boarding of the Frankfurt flight was proceeding, then finishing, and then there was only one minute left before the door closed!

Jim’s beseeching them to hold the door was met with unsure shrugs. Finally, the agent and supervisor said they had a way, and that we and the cats should go ahead and board; they would take care of the authorization while we were in flight.

As a side note, our luggage apparently disappeared in Houston, and did not miraculously reappear in Spain until 3 days later.

Trans-catlantic flight

Unfortunately, we weren’t surprised that the Dallas agent’s additional promise of extra legroom seats was also unfulfilled. We were both in middle seats, about 7 rows apart, each with a cat that was, by now, coming off of their calmer.

I don’t know if our stress made the cats stressed, or vice-versa, but it was pretty much a stress circulatory system that lasted all of the flight.  Jim kept apologizing to the people on either side, not only for having a cat, but for getting up fairly frequently to take the cat or himself to the lavatory (While both cats hungrily took treats, both were reluctant to drink, so we kept offering it to them). Jim kept muttering “I’ve become that passenger I always hated.”

Jim kept Benjour in the carrier on his lap, with the top open to pet him. Benjour remained paralyzed (but quiet) with “freak out” most of the flight.  Jiab kept Sangria on the floor between her feet. Sangria took things more in kitten-wonder stride, and even almost caused a CAT-astrophe when she nosed her way out of the carrier! Jiab only noticed when she felt Sangria rubbing against her leg.


Fleeing (or fleaing?) Germany

We made it in to Frankfurt. We had not slept much, were stressed, and, worse, we were not sure what awaited us. Our luck, however, seemed to turn, in that we stayed in the secure area and went right to the gate for our last flight, to Spain.

By now, however, we learned to not trust seeming calm. While Jiab set up camp at the gate and watched over the cats, Jim went to the Lufthansa assistance desk where, to now no one’s surprise, he was told there were no cats scheduled for the flight.

Jim then proceeded to unload the travails of our travels, laying out every piece of airline-issued paperwork like a tarot card dealer as he slowly garnered the attention of three agents and a supervisor. They spoke at length in German, did a lot of poking around on the computer, and then gave an earnest apology (something United has, to date, never done) and said they would put the cats on the plane to Spain.

But it would cost 120 Euros. To Lufthansa’s credit, they tried repeatedly to call United, saying it was odd that no one was answering. As we concluded the paperwork, one agent finally got through to United, who apparently dismissed it all and said we should pay the extra fee and then apply to United for a refund.

TIP: Save all boarding passes, tickets, and other airline paperwork throughout all legs. Always ask and insist for a written receipt. If there’s no written receipt, then assume it’s not done properly.

The flight from Frankfurt to Malaga was uneventful, except that by now the cats had been cooped up for a long time. There was only one glitsch we had not experienced at this point, and then it happened. 

Jiab, who was holding Sangria in her carrier on her lap, felt a wetness on her leg, then saw that cat pee had soaked through the carrier to her pants leg. She quickly took the cat, carrier, and clean-up material to the lavatory. We didn’t think the smell was too bad for the rest of the trip, or then again maybe we are used to it, or then again maybe by this point we just looked so pathetic, but no one complained.

TIP: Make sure to bring plastic bags to seal up any messed up clothing, and have at least one change of clothing.

Putting the cat in Catalan

We arrived in Malaga, the four of us bonded from our sojourn in common feelings of exhaustion, travel weariness, and, frankly, being a bit sick of each other’s company. The news that our luggage had not arrived was met with tired frustration but not shock.

Then, however, we realized that no luggage meant no cat food or litter. By the time we got out of the airport into our rental car, it was 9:00 pm on Saturday. Most stores close at 10:00, and few are open Sunday, so our first activity as new Spanish residents was to go shopping para los gatos, then driving to Granada.

We got into the apartment at almost midnight and about 30 hours after we had left our Dallas house. We set up a food and litter station (the latter made by filling a cardboard box with litter and putting it on absorbent pads in the bathroom), and collapsed.

Sunday was a day for all four of us to decompress, acclimate, and take stock of our new situation. Fortunately, after an inspection of the amenities, our cats seemed to leave the stress of travel behind,

and adopted el estilo de vida español, the Spanish way of life (especially the siesta part).


13 thoughts on “A tale of Two Kitties, part 2: Cat-apulting overseas”

  1. Hi Jiab and Jim. This is Susan from GentleCycle.net. I knew you were coming to Spain in September and I am sorry I didn’t check in sooner to learn about your journey. It sounds like it was as horrible as ours. We couldn’t even write our pets and airline experience for more than a month because neither one of us wanted to relive it.

    I applaud you for your spirit and humor. It must have served you well. It sounds like things are chugging along smoothly now. We were in Granada in July but let us know if you come to Valencia.

    • Thank you, Susan. I have to say we looked at your blog as inspiration during our transition (My wife kept referring to sell it/store it/send it while packing). Your blog is wonderfully laid out as well. Great pics! We hope to make our way to Valencia by Spring, so well definitely try to meet up! Best, J & J.

  2. Great story! You’ll need to translate into Catalan, of course. Are Spaniards big cat lovers? My only ask of this article is that you insert more puns. I’m not kitten!

    • Purr-fect pun, Jason. I can CAT-agorically say that I love to add puns to my writing almost as I love my felines. I guess that makes me like the capital of Nepal, cause I’m a Cat-man-do kind of guy!

    • It does get looks. The only problem is that one of the first times walking with it, I was reassuring the kitten it was OK (“It’s gonna be OK. I’ll give you treats when we get home,” etc.), talking to it. Two people walked passed me the other way giving me strange looks. I then realized they could not see I had a cat in the back and was talking to it. They thought I was talking to myself!

    • It was rough, but now that we (and the cats) are settled in, all is good! Our only challenge now is that the cats don’t like/eat Spanish cat food, just American Purina. They’re like the children you take around the world but who only want to eat at McDonald’s!

  3. Guys! That’s a hell of a trip! I can’t imagine how stressful it was. But if you can do it with 2 cats in tow, we should be able to master traveling with a screaming toddler this fall?! Cant wait! Yall enjoy some relaxation time!

    • Hi Rosie,
      Yes, it was very challenging but we made it! The cats finally forgave us after we promised them lots of treats! Absolutely you can do it with screaming toddler:)


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