Traveling with Dogs: A Survival Guide

How one woman completed a cross-country road trip with her furry best friend—and had fun along the way

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When I decided to move from North Carolina to California, I knew that Violet, my 15-year-old dog, would come along for the cross-country ride. I found Violet as an 8-week-old puppy wandering the neighborhood and, after a fruitless search for her owner, I decided to keep her. Violet has been my constant companion for 15 years, but planning an adventure-filled, 3,651-mile, 12-state road trip with a dog—especially an elderly dog—can be intimidating. We took the scenic route, squeezing in as many sights, landmarks and states as we could pack into our six days on the road. Need tips on traveling with dogs? Learn from our experience: Here are the strategies and tips that helped make our journey manageable and memorable.

On the road

A cross-country road trip means lots of hours in the car for you, your pet and all your stuff. But there are a few essentials you’ll want to make room for to keep you and your pet safe—whether you’re enjoying the scenery from four wheels or making a pit stop.

Get a good harness system for your car

Violet is super social and doesn’t understand why she can’t participate in every conversation, preferably from a person’s lap. That makes keeping her in the back seat a challenge. She leans forward, sticks her head between the seats, and tries to clamber into the front passenger seat—and she often, even at the very slowest and gentlest of stops, topples forward into the front of the car. The solution: a harness system—think of it as a doggie seatbelt—that attaches to the headrest in the back seat and keeps her secure. Most pet stores and pet-goods websites have a variety of options that can be customized to fit your dog—just be sure to take it for a test drive before your trip. I also got Violet a hammock seat that hung between the front and back seat headrests, so that she felt even more comfortable and stable on the road. (Bonus: It also gave her a boost so she could see out the window).

Obtain an updated ID tag

Pets can be separated from their collars and leashes, so getting a microchip is the best—and most permanent—option for keeping track of your pet. But an updated tag is equally important. I had a new tag made with my name and phone number on it, plus the phone number of my friend in Sacramento, our final destination. This gave me peace of mind in case Violet decided to hitchhike her way across Missouri.

Stock up on waste-disposal bags

You probably won’t forget your dog’s leash, but if your apartment building supplies doggie waste bags, as mine does, you might forget to spring for a roll of your own. Tempting though it may be to leave your pet’s poop in an empty field by a gas station, be considerate and pick it up. We stopped about every two to three hours, and we went through way more bags than I expected.

In the hotel

On long trips, you have to stop overnight. Finding a dog-friendly hotel is key. Find a pet-friendly hotel, and once you’ve mapped out your route and made your hotel reservations, here are the steps to make the trip go smoothly.

Ask about designated dog areas

The first thing I did upon checking in at each hotel was ask where I could take my dog so she could stretch her legs and use the bathroom. Pet-friendly hotels generally have green spaces set aside for this purpose, and they often supply waste bags and a receptacle in that area.

Take steps to minimize pet noise

When she was younger, Violet was pretty vocal and eager to investigate every noise and scent. Now that she’s older (and hard of hearing), I didn’t have to worry as much about her barking when she heard people in the hallways or heard doors or elevators opening and closing. If you’re traveling with a younger dog, consider bringing along a white noise machine, some familiar toys or a treat your dog loves to serve as a distraction and minimize anxiety in unfamiliar surroundings.

Make pet-friendly requests

When you’re traveling with a pet, ask for a room that’s far from entrances and elevators to minimize noises that could cause barking and anxiety. If your dog is crated at home, be sure to bring a travel crate. I brought Violet’s bed into each hotel room so she had something that smelled familiar to relax on.

Expect the unexpected

I did a lot of research to make sure I would be well-prepared, but here are some of the best dog travel hacks I learned along the way.

Take food and water to go

You probably won’t want to pack your pet’s bulky (and likely fragile) ceramic bowls for your road trip. Instead, consider a set of collapsible travel bowls. I was able to give Violet food and water in the car by tucking the flexible bowls into her hammock, and they were light and easy to carry on walks. You’ll want to have a couple of gallons of water in the car, too. I was surprised at how many stops we made where there was no potable water.

Find a new use for your folding sunshade

I had one of these windshield sun-blockers when we set out, but I found a new use for it somewhere around Nashville, Tennessee. I noticed that the sun was streaming in the window onto Violet, leaving her hot and panting, so I wrapped the sunshade around her hammock to make a little sun-blocking cocoon. Voilà—a comfortable, cool pup, even in the heat of the afternoon. (A reminder: Never, ever leave a dog alone in a hot, closed car.) It did block her view a bit, but she had plenty of time to gaze out the window when the sun was coming in on the other side of the car.

No trash can? No problem

Our trip was exceptionally long, and we drove through some very remote areas. After finding myself in yet another spot that did not have a trash can, I made sure to stop at the next opportunity to get a tight-sealing container to hold in the mess and the odor from used waste bags. I used an empty plastic container with a lid from a package of trail mix; gallon-sized resealable bags or disposable food storage containers would also do the trick.

Don’t forget towels or rags

We encountered several feet of snow in Wyoming and Montana, which I didn’t anticipate, and it meant a bit of a mess climbing back into the car. Violet had a blast wandering around in the snowdrifts, but because the snow came up to her shoulders, she was wet, icy and dirty when she got back in the car. Next time, I’ll make sure I have a couple of old beach towels on hand so I don’t end up using my favorite T-shirts to clean her feet.

Violet and I completed our trip in six smooth days, and she was happy and comfortable thanks to her hammock and harness. Violet can’t wait to see Seattle and Portland, so we’ll head north to explore the Pacific Northwest soon.

Wondering what Violet thought about her dog road trip? Click here to read her travel diary!


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