The travel industry has become far more welcoming to people who travel with their dogs, cats and other animals, U.S. hotels now allow four-legged family members some form of accommodation.
By Jeri Clausing and Johanna Jainchill
The St. Regis Aspen offers pet visitors playtime with Kitty the Bernese mountain dog, the property’s “doggy social coordinator.”
A French bulldog gets a lift at Nashville’s Holston House, which donates a portion of its $75 pet fee.
If you asked a dog, or at least a dog owner, to develop the perfect pet hotel, chances are it would look a lot like the Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile in Kanab, Utah.
In what may very well be the first hotel ever built specifically for four-legged guests, the 40-room property in a city that serves as a gateway to three national parks features everything from built-in dog beds and two-door, escape-proof entryways to a large, fenced dog park and complimentary laundry and dog-washing stations.
There are also plenty of extras for humans, including Nespresso machines, Frette linens and internet-connected tablets in spacious rooms with a clean, contemporary design reminiscent of some of the finest boutique hotels.
The problem is that only one exists at the moment. And while the hotel was developed by the Kanab-based Best Friends Animal Society rather than by a hospitality company, its recent opening underscores the dramatic shift that has taken place across the travel industry when it comes to accommodating pets.
Indeed, as one of the authors of this report recently checked into Best Friends Roadhouse after a 400-mile road trip from New Mexico, she couldn’t help but think back to the 1990s when, as a nomadic newspaper reporter, she’d hauled two large dogs and a cat on more than one cross-country move, always nervous at the end of the day about finding a roadside motel that she could sneak them into under the cover of darkness.
Today, 56% of hotels in the U.S. allow pets, compared with 50% in 2006, according to a 2018 survey from the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Of those, 98% of economy chains and 78% of midscale chains accommodate pets. At the same time, the number of people traveling with their pets has grown from 19% a decade ago to 37%, according to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association.
Still, many of those pet-friendly hotels have rules limiting the size of pets, and many charge extra fees that can be as high or nearly as high as the one-night rate in a budget property. What’s more, the numbers don’t include condominiums and home rentals that make up a large chunk of accommodations in mountain resort towns popular with dog owners.
At Best Friends, there were no rules or questions, just a jar of dog treats next to the cookies for humans at check-in. After getting situated, a pet owner could make her way to the dog park, where the dogs could be let off the leash while the owner sat on a bench under a tree, sipping wine and watching her pets romp and run after seven hours on the road.
The hotel was developed and is owned by Best Friends, a national rescue operation whose efforts — including its rehabilitation of dogs seized from former NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring — were featured on a National Geographic series, “DogTown.”
General manager Brooks Bradbury said the rescue group decided to purchase and turn what had been a run-down motel into the pet-centric property for both national park visitors and the thousands of people who come to Kanab every year to volunteer at the sanctuary, which houses about 1,600 animals.
It’s also intended to eventually make money for the nonprofit. The hotel just opened on Nov. 1, and while Bradbury would not say if there are plans to expand the model to other places, he didn’t rule it out.
“I think we are at the beginning of something very special,” Bradbury said. “We’ll see where it goes.”
The golden age of pet travel
While Best Friends Roadhouse is unique in its pet-centric design, travel advisors say that traveling with a pet has never been easier, with more hotels and airlines welcoming furry friends than ever before.
“My high-end luxury travel clients don’t leave home without their pets,” said Ovation Travel advisor Sheila Stanton, who travels with her 4-pound pup.
Many hotels don’t even charge cleaning fees anymore, she said, adding, “It’s definitely gotten so much more dog-friendly.”
Stanton said hotels in upscale travel destinations like Aspen, St. Barts, New York and Paris “treat the dogs like family. They walk them, put treats out.”
And while some properties have weight limits on pets, they often make exceptions “if they are a really good client or taking suites or something like that,” Stanton said.
A fellow Ovation advisor, Bettianne Balzano, also found that hotels, especially high-end ones, have wasted no time responding to the demand.
“If you’re at that five-star level, they’re going to give you whatever makes you happy,” Balzano said.
She considers her clients’ pets to be part of the family.
“I’ve sent gifts to my clients’ animals when they’re traveling,” she said, recalling one who took two cats to Amsterdam for an extended movie production. “I arranged with the hotel concierge to every week send them a bottle of wine and, in a Waterford bowl, a special treat for the cats. They got such a kick out of it. Doing something like that for their pets puts them over the moon.”
Balzano said her celebrity clients make sure when they travel for work that they can bring their dog “or they’re not going.”
“They will need that cleared before they take the gig,” she said. “It’s written into the contract.”
Paula Prickett, of Black Dog Luxury Travel, recalled the days when it was a challenge to find animal-friendly hotels on multistop itineraries.
“We would run into problems with the itinerary flow or finding a place of quality that would also accommodate Fido,” she said.
Now her clients increasingly choose destinations based on the ability to bring their “best friend” with them.
“They’ll look for a destination or a location and would prefer one where they can go on hiking trails with their dogs or a restaurant patio where they can take their dog with them,” she said.
Even beach resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico are opening to pets. Prickett said that Nizuc in Cancun stands out in its dog-friendliness. In fact, the resort’s name means “nose of the dog” in Mayan.
“They go way out for their canines, they have a special menu and everything,” Prickett said, one that includes veal bone beef tartare and burritos.
She said many hotels accept dogs and will provide a dog bed but that amenities like a pet menu take pet-friendliness a step further. Las Ventanas al Paraiso, a Rosewood Resort in Los Cabos, has poolside pet cabanas and pet massages.
Flying has gone to the dogs
Flying remains the biggest challenge to traveling with animals, and advisors must be aware of various entry issues that differ by country: the paperwork involved, what health certificates are necessary and whether the country requires a quarantine. A few advisors cautioned that England is not an easy place to fly an animal into, while France, Greece and Mexico, for example, are more accommodating.
Prickett said she even advises clients to be aware of restrictions regarding a pet’s food; raw food, for example, can’t be taken into some countries.
For larger dogs that must fly as cargo, Prickett said she is mindful of airport locations depending on the time of year it is and if the pet could be subject to extreme temperatures while being taken on and off the plane.
But despite media reports of pet deaths during air travel, she pointed out that “airlines fly pets every day. It’s a risk, but anytime we travel as people it’s also a risk.”
Many advisors bemoan the abuse of rules covering emotional support animals that has resulted in a huge increase in nonkenneled dogs on planes.
“It’s gotten pretty bad, and it limits the number of dogs allowed on a plane,” Stanton said.
“As agents, the best we can do is be as preemptive as we can. I always call the airline a few days before the travel to say who they are and that they are traveling with a service dog.”
In Balzano’s mind, such abuse creates issues for passengers with legitimate reasons to fly with animals.
“As agents, the best we can do is be as preemptive as we can,” she said. “I always call the airline a few days before the travel to say who they are and that they are traveling with a service dog. Most of the time it works out well. On the rare occasion, I get a phone call from a client saying, ‘They’re giving me a hard time.’”
Balzano said airlines today “are overwhelmed” with pets. On a recent flight she took from Islip, N.Y., to West Palm Beach, Fla., she said, it seemed more people were traveling with pets than without.
“The airlines will eventually find a way to regulate it,” she said. “It’s gotten out of hand.”
Aside from issues with emotional support animal fraud, most advisors agree that flying with pets in general is easier than ever, given the ability to bring smaller animals aboard in carriers. And the well-heeled can do what some of Balzano’s clients have: buy a premium-class seat next to theirs so the dog will have the extra space in that seat’s legroom. Some flight attendants even let them sit in the seat.
Stanton said that even airports are more accommodating to animals. “Dog relief areas make it much easier, like at JFK and Newark and Sarasota,” she said. “Clients had complained about that before.”
In the dog show world, Patricia Hearst Shaw, who shows French bulldogs, said most of the people she knows only fly Southwest when traveling domestically.
“They are so great with pets,” she said of the airline. “Many handlers, if they can’t get on a Southwest flight, they just won’t fly, they’ll drive.” Of course, flying private is always preferable for humans and pets, for those who can afford it.
Hearst Shaw said she prefers flying private jets when taking her dogs to Europe, but she cautioned that those pets must still be in compliance with all health and microchipping rules. Actor Johnny Depp learned that the hard way after failing to declare his two dogs to authorities in Australia upon arrival on a private flight. The government threatened to euthanize the pups if they were not gone within 48 hours.
Hearst Shaw won’t even take off until her dog records have been approved. And because microchip scanners can fail, she always travels with her own, “and I check it before I leave.”
The kennel master walking dogs onboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2.
The kennel master walking dogs onboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2.
A limited but popular option for getting pets across the pond is by ocean liner. But there is only one remaining ocean liner, Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2, that sails between New York and the U.K. And with only 24 kennels available, there is a long waiting list to get your pet a spot.
Josh Leibowitz, Cunard’s senior vice president for North America, said, “You have to book way in advance or you won’t get onboard. The demand is definitely there. They are sold out well in advance.”
Passengers book up to a year and a half out to get a kennel spot on the Queen Mary 2, which costs $800 to $1,000. Despite its popularity, Cunard is unlikely to add more kennels: The ship only visits two ports, simplifying regulatory hurdles.
Leibowitz called the experience “really special.”
“You’re onboard a luxurious ship, and you can go see your dog upstairs,” he said. “For the owners who spend time up there, there’s a special sense of pride.”
The pets spend the crossing in a kennel area with an owners lounge and play area as well as an outside deck for walking and playing with pets that has a lamppost and a fire hydrant. The kennels are overseen by a full-time kennel master who feeds and walks the dogs and cats.
Leibowitz said there are many reasons people sail with pets, including those spending an extended amount of time in Europe and passengers who do the sailing back and forth and just want their animals with them.
“People want to bring their pets,” he said. “They’re attached to their pets.”
There are also dogs that can’t fly due to being brachycephalic (having short noses) such as bulldogs and pugs.
Leibowitz said that while many hotels are pet friendly, one thing Cunard guarantees is that the animals onboard will not disturb the other guests, since they are kept in an area of the ship the other guests don’t even know exists.
“I’ve been in too many hotels and flights where there are pets everywhere,” he said.