- An airline-friendly cat carrier should be comfortable to carry, and to ride in, on long travel days.
- We tested 20 airline-compatible carriers and kennels to select the best options for flying with a cat.
- The best soft-sided carrier is the Wild One Travel Carrier, a unique bag that doubles as a bed.
- This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Karie Johnson, veterinarian and co-founder of VIP Vet Visit, a mobile vet service in the south suburbs of Chicago.
No matter how you slice it, air travel with a cat is stressful. Whether they’re flying at your feet in the cabin of a plane or are being transported in the cargo hold, a well-built, cozy airline-compatible cat carrier is essential for their comfort and your peace of mind.
Over the last year, we’ve extensively tested 20 different airline-friendly cat carriers, including soft-sided carriers, backpack carriers, and hard-sided kennels. That, combined with advice from a veterinarian and pet travel experts, helped us to identify the best carriers for use in flight. Read more about our testing methodology and how to prepare your cat for air travel at the end of this guide.
Here are the best airline cat carriers in 2021
- Best soft-sided airline cat carrier: Wild One Travel Carrier
- Best expandable airline cat carrier: Mr. Peanut’s Gold Series Expandable Carrier
- Best budget airline cat carrier: Elite Field Soft-Sided Airline-Approved Carrier
- Best airline-compatible backpack carrier for cats: Mr. Peanut’s Backpack Carrier
- Best crate for flying a cat in cargo: Gunner G1 Medium Dog Kennel
The uniquely designed Wild One Travel Carrier offers comfort and convenience in the air and at your destination.
Pros: Three ways to load, unzips into a bed, machine-washable interior mat, secure luggage strap, padded detachable shoulder strap converts into a leash, folds flat for storage, comes in three colors, limited one-year warranty
Cons: No padded carry handle
The innovatively designed Wild One Travel Carrier converts from an easy-to-transport bag to a comfortable, open pet bed in just a few zips. With a detachable padded shoulder strap that doubles as a leash for a cat harness and a cushioned, machine washable interior mat, this carrier is an ideal home-away-from home both at the airport and your destination.
The Wild One Travel Carrier has two important safety features: an interior tether and snaps on the zippers that prevent them from opening while in transit. On the outside, there are two wide zipper pockets on one side and two small pockets on the other side. The front and back doors both have zip-out privacy screens. A pet can also be loaded through the zippered top.
Wild One’s carrier shined in testing, earning the highest scores in our scrape, zip, and goop tests and its wide luggage strap kept the bag completely balanced on a rolling suitcase. It also has the most ventilation of any bag we tested.
It was comfortable enough to carry this bag by hand, but it does lack a padded carry strap. While it’s among the pricier carriers we tested, for the wide range of features included in its modular design, it’s well worth the extra cost.
Best expandable airline cat carrier
Mr. Peanut’s Gold Series Expandable Carrier unzips to almost double in size, providing a cat with extra room on long travel days.
Pros: Front and top-loading carrier, expandable compartment increases carrier’s size by more than 50%, secure luggage strap, padded detachable shoulder strap, washable interior plush bolster bed, comes in five colors, folds flat for storage
Cons: Limited pocket space, expandable section can’t be used in flight, no warranty
On long travel days with endless time spent in airports, Mr. Peanut’s Gold Series Expandable Carrier offers a jet-setting cat extra space to stretch out. When unzipped, a panel on its right side folds out into a mesh atrium that more than doubles the interior space.
The spacious Mr. Peanut’s Gold Series Expandable Carrier is front- and top-loading with a roll-up privacy flap over the top door. It passed our in-cabin fit tests and offers plenty of ventilation to keep a cat from overheating. Inside, there is a soft plush bolster bed and safety tether. Outside, there is an adjustable padded shoulder strap and a faux leather carry handle. There is just one 10-by-4-inch mesh zip pocket at the back. When not in use, this bag folds flat for storage.
Mr. Peanut’s carrier excelled in testing. The mesh remained intact in the scrape test, the zipper moved smoothly in the zip test, and both the interior and exterior of the bag came completely clean in the goop test. Although the bed is labeled hand-wash only, it looked nearly new after machine washing and air drying.
On one side, this carrier has a luggage strap for slipping over the handle of a carry-on suitcase. In our luggage test, it remained mostly balanced as we walked, slipping only about an inch to one side. Carrying on the shoulder was comfortable and the strap was easy to adjust to the correct length.
While the expandable section of Mr. Peanut’s carrier can’t be used in flight, the inclusion of this feature in a durable, well-designed bag makes it an ideal option for cross-country air travel.
Best budget airline cat carrier
The Elite Field Soft-Sided Airline Approved Carrier has most of the features of pricier carriers for a rock-bottom price.
Pros: Padded detachable shoulder strap, padded carry handle, secure luggage strap, multiple pockets, washable interior mat, collapses flat for storage, comes in six colors and two sizes
Cons: Not top-loading, seam of interior mat ripped in washing, no warranty
The convenient, cozy Elite Field Soft-Sided Airline Approved Carrier is an excellent budget option for feline air travel. The bag not only has many of the features of pricier options, it scored well in testing, too.
The Elite Field Soft-Sided Airline-Approved Carrier has a soft fleece mat and safety tether inside and five different pockets outside, one of which unzips to convert into a luggage strap. When slid over a suitcase handle, the luggage strap kept the carrier well balanced on curbs and sidewalks. There is also an adjustable padded shoulder strap and a padded carry handle, both of which are comfortable to use. When carried on the shoulder, the bag does flex inward some.
A whopping 27.5% of the Elite Field is covered in mesh ventilation and it earned the highest scores in our scrape and zip tests. While both the bag’s exterior and its mat washed completely clean in our goop test, a seam along the length of the mat split open in the washing machine. It still fits over its interior panel and, because that panel is covered in polyester, the rip doesn’t compromise the mat’s utility. It collapses inward to store flat.
The only major features the Elite Field is missing is a top-loading door and a warranty. The carrier comes in two sizes, 17-inches long and 19-inches long, and is flexible enough that even the longer version we tested will fit beneath the seat on United Airlines and Southwest Airlines flights.
While it’s not perfect, the affordable Elite Field Soft-Sided Airline-Approved Carrier is easy to carry, rides smoothly on a carry-on suitcase, and has comfort and safety features that are almost as good as its more-expensive competitors.
Best airline backpack carrier for cats
Mr. Peanut’s Backpack Carrier is comfortable to wear and has a spacious interior for your precious cat cargo.
Pros: Comfortable padded back and straps, plush wrap around interior mat for comfort when upright or laid flat, fits under the seat in most airlines, has several exterior pockets, has locking zippers, folds flat for storage, sold in four colors
Cons: Backpack straps are not removable, no warranty
If you won’t be traveling with a rolling carry-on suitcase, a backpack carrier may be a more comfortable way for both you and your cat to navigate the airport. Mr. Peanut’s Backpack Carrier has adjustable padded straps, padded back panels, and an adjustable chest strap for you. For your cat, it has a luxurious plush mat that wraps around the interior for a soft ride on the back and when laid flat beneath an airline seat.
This backpack has two important safety features: an interior tether and buckling safety zippers. A rollup privacy flap over the panel at the top of the backpack serves as the front-loading door when laid flat. There is a 7-by-7-inch zipper pocket on one side and a mesh water bottle holder and two smaller pockets on the other. At the end of the journey, the carrier folds flat for storage.
Mr. Peanut’s Backpack Carrier did well in testing, earning the highest scores in our scrape, zip, and goop tests. It also has more ventilation than any of the other backpacks we tested, with 17.5% of its surface area covered in mesh. While the carrier has very little flexibility in its frame, it was compact enough to pass our in-cabin fit test. The interior mat is labeled hand wash-only, but it held up well to machine washing and air drying.
Convenient, durable, and comfortable for both you and your cat, Mr. Peanut’s backpack is an ideal carrier for use before, during, and after a flight.
Best crate for flying a cat in cargo
The super strong Gunner G1 Medium Dog Kennel was the only pet carrier durable enough to pass our tests with flying colors.
Pros: Five-star crash-test rating, extremely tough, escape-proof, lifetime warranty
Cons: Expensive, heavy, does not fold for storage, limited ventilation
With double walls, a reinforced aluminum door frame, and a welded nylon-and-aluminum door, Gunner’s G1 Kennel is the strongest, toughest crate we’ve ever seen. In crash tests conducted by the Center for Pet Safety in 2018, the Gunner G1 Medium Dog Kennel earned a five-star safety rating for pets up to 45 pounds and it was the only kennel to withstand our drop testing.
The Gunner G1 Kennel’s door is escape-proof with a built-in lock that comes with a key and a door that can be hung to open from the left or the right. At the bottom of the crate are elevated nonslip feet and there are two extra-sturdy handles and built-in stainless steel tie-down pins on the top. The interior floor is recessed so that if your cat goes to the bathroom or spills their water in flight, the liquid will be funneled away from their bedding.
At 38 pounds, the Gunner G1 Medium Kennel is the heaviest of those we tested, but that weight lends itself to the kennel’s durability. It did not suffer any damage after being dropped 10 feet with a 10-pound weight inside, and when a bag of 30-pound weights was dropped on it from 10 feet above, it left behind only a small exterior divot.
The Gunner G1 Kennel does not have much ventilation or fold down for easy storage. At $599, it’s also the most expensive carrier we tested by far. Despite these downsides, there’s no stronger, safer crate on the market. Plus, it comes with a lifetime warranty. If you want to be sure that your cat will reach their destination safely when flying in cargo, Gunner’s G1 Kennel is your best bet.
With the exception of the Good2Go Expandable Pet Carrier, which I had previously purchased, the carriers in this guide were provided to Insider Reviews as editorial review samples by their manufacturers. The 20 carriers reviewed for this guide went through an extensive series of tests, which include:
Feature comparison: After conducting interviews with our experts, I created a point rubric for scoring each of the 17 soft-sided carriers based on the following features:
- Shape and design
- Interior mat
- Loading doors
- Carrying straps and handles
- Interior safety tether
- No-escape petting hole
- ID tag
- Luggage strap
- Dimensions and in-cabin airline capability
- Safety certifications
In-cabin airline fit test: I made two boxes out of cardboard with the same dimensions as the underseat space in two major airline carriers, United Airlines (18-inches long, 11-inches wide, 11-inches high) and Southwest Airlines (18.5-inches long, 8.5-inches wide, 13.5-inches high). I then slid each soft-sided carrier and backpack into the boxes to see if they fit.
Scrape test: I scraped a mesh section of each soft-sided carrier 50 times with a fork to test its durability. When complete, I noted any damage or discoloration.
Zip test: To test the durability of each carrier’s zipper, I completely zipped and unzipped one of its loading entrances 50 times. In the process, I noted any changes in the zipper’s ability to smoothly run its course.
Luggage test: Each soft-sided carrier with a luggage strap was attached to a suitcase handle, then rolled over a curb, up a ramp, and along the sidewalk and street of a city block. Inside the carriers, I placed a 10-pound weight and watched to see how well they remained balanced as we traveled.
Ventilation test: According to Wolko, ventilation is important to prevent a cat from overheating during travel. I measured the dimensions of each carrier’s mesh panels and calculated the percentage of the total surface area they comprised. I favored those bags with more ventilation.
Walk test: I took each soft-sided carrier containing a 10-pound weight on a 15-minute walk around my neighborhood. Each was carried using the shoulder strap and held at the front of my body the way I would if I had a real cat inside. For the last block, I switched to using the carrier’s hand-carry straps. The backpack carriers were taken on the same walk but were not carried by hand. With each, I paid attention to how comfortable it was to carry, how much it bounced, and whether it collapsed inwards as I walked.
Goop test: I devised the goop test to determine how easy the carriers would be to clean if a cat vomited or defecated in transit. I mashed together cat kibble, canned food, and water with a mortar and pestle to make the goop, then spread a tablespoon on the exterior wall and interior mat of the contenders. After 48 hours, I wiped the goop from their exteriors using dish soap and water and washed the mats in the washing machine.
Drop test: This test was designed for the hard-shelled cargo kennels. I brought the candidates to a local park and, with the help of my partner, loaded each kennel with a 10-pound weight and threw it off of a 10-foot play structure, looking for any damage that occurred upon landing. In the second test, we dropped a bag of 30-pound weights on top of the kennel from the 10-feet play structure to test for structural integrity.
What else we considered
Soft-sided airline-friendly cat carriers
Sleepypod Atom: This Sleepypod carrier, which earned a five-star crash-test rating from the Center for Pet Safety, has a unique design with a zipper that runs around the perimeter of the top of the bag. Unfortunately, the only way to load a cat is through that elevated opening. That, combined with a shoulder strap buckle that dug into my skin, kept this carrier from the top spot.
Away Carrier: I love this carrier by Away, which also earned a five-star crash-test rating from the Center for Pet Safety. It comes with a hefty price tag, though, and does not fold down for storage. While it beats out the Wild One Travel Carrier for car travel, the lower cost Wild One is a better value for flying.
Mr. Peanut’s Gold Series Carrier: This is yet another good carrier by Mr. Peanut’s that has two points of entry, a padded shoulder strap, a luggage strap, and a safety tether. It lacks an expandable section and has fewer bells and whistles than the Wild One Travel Carrier.
Mr. Peanut’s Soft-Sided Carrier: This carrier is just like the Gold Series but is missing a privacy flap over the top door.
Sherpa Original Deluxe Carrier: The Original Deluxe is a solid carrier, but it was less comfortable to transport than many of the other bags. The buckle on the strap dug into my shoulder and it was difficult to balance the bag on a rolling suitcase.
Sherpa Element Carrier: At 14.75-inches long, 12-inches wide, and 10.5-inches tall, Sherpa’s Element is tiny compared to other carriers. It also lacks padding in the shoulder strap and a safety tether, has only one tiny pocket, and provides less ventilation than most of the other carriers we tested.
Bergan Comfort Carrier: This cozy carrier has a comfy bolster bed inside and zippers with safety buckles. But in our luggage test, it shifted dramatically while rolling on top of a suitcase, which could put a cat in danger of falling. This carrier also does not fold flat for storage.
Frisco Travel Carrier: I really like this carrier and it scored well in our testing. But with no padding on the shoulder strap, it’s less comfortable to carry than the Elite Field. It also comes in only black, a color which Wolko recommends avoiding in pet carriers to prevent a cat from overheating.
Expandable airline-friendly cat carriers
Mr. Peanut’s Platinum Series Double Expandable Carrier: I love the expandability of this carrier, which nearly triples in size when fully unzipped. It performed just as well as the Mr. Peanut’s Gold Series Expandable on all of our tests and has all of the same features, plus a second expandable atrium. Because the Platinum Series has slightly less ventilation and a slightly higher price, we ultimately chose the Gold Series as our favorite.
Good2Go Expandable Pet Carrier: I like this expandable carrier, but it was the priciest of the expandable carriers we tested and is only sold in black, the color most likely to lead to overheating.
Petmate See and Extend Carrier: For the price, this top- and front-loading carrier was somewhat disappointing. Its expandable section was spacious, but it has no luggage strap for easy airport rolling, no safety tether, and limited pocket space.
Airline-friendly backpack cat carriers
Sherpa 2-in-1 Backpack Carrier: Sherpa’s carrier is innovatively designed with removable backpack straps, one of which converts into a shoulder strap to turn the bag into a traditional carrier. It was missing some of the features of Mr. Peanut’s, though, including safety buckles on the zippers, a privacy flap, a chest strap for balancing the pack’s weight, and a safety tether. It also has a less substantial interior mat.
Kurgo K9 Carrier Backpack: I love the look of this backpack, but that’s about it. This carrier has very little ventilation and a molded base that digs into the back while carrying. Additionally, it only fit under the seat of one of the airlines we tested (Southwest) and our goop test left both the exterior and interior worse for wear.
Crates for flying a cat in cargo
Petmate Sky Kennel Pet Carrier: If Gunner’s G1 Kennel is out of your price range, the Sky Kennel is your next best option. This sturdy crate held up to our drop tests better than the Ultra Vari, remaining structurally sound through both trials. The Sky Kennel is also one of those recommended by Elaine Matthis, pet travel specialist and project manager at Happy Tails Travel in Tucson, Arizona.
Petmate Ultra Vari Kennel: Although this kennel withstood being dropped from 10 feet above the ground, dropping 30 pounds of weights on it completely destroyed the cover. Had a cat been inside, they would not have survived the impact.
FAQs on flying with a cat
Most cats are just small enough to comfortably fly in the cabin of an airplane at your feet. This is always the preferred way to travel with a cat for Wolko. “We have had videos shared with us in which operators drop kennels, sometimes the kennels roll off the moving band, sometimes they flip, sometimes they roll off, sometimes they fall,” she explained. “Those risks are far less likely if your cat remains in your possession at all times.”
How much does it cost to fly with a cat?
Fees for flying with a pet in the cabin of a plane vary between carriers. At United Airlines, a one-way flight for your cat adds $125 to the price of your ticket. At Southwest Airlines, a pet fare is $95 each way. Flying a cat in the cargo hold on a domestic flight is typically around $300 pet flight. Sending a cat on an international flight can cost up to triple that amount.
What are the age restrictions for flying with a cat?
Age restrictions for flying with a pet differ from airline to airline. At United Airlines, cats must be at least 16 weeks of age to fly in the cabin while on Southwest, kittens as young as 8 weeks can accompany their guardians on a flight. Eight weeks is also the minimum age for most kittens flying in cargo. Always check the pet policy of the airline you’ll be flying to make sure your cat meets their requirements.
How do you properly size a cat carrier for a flight?
To fly with a cat in the cabin of a plane, a soft-sided carrier must fit within the dimensions allowed by the airline, which vary a little from company to company. United Airlines, for example, requires carriers to fit in a space 18-inches long, 11-inches wide, and 9-inches high while Southwest Airlines allows carriers 18.5-inches long, 8.5-inches wide, and 13.5-inches high. Within these parameters, make sure your cat has enough room to stand up, turn around, and comfortably lie down inside, said Wolko. Additionally, there should be at least 2 to 3 inches clearance from the top of their ears to the interior roof of the crate.
How much ventilation should a carrier have?
For soft-sided carriers, Wolko said mesh ventilation should be on at least three sides of the bag. In cargo, airlines require that a kennel is ventilated on all four sides.
Do cats need to go to the bathroom on a flight?
Unless a cat suffers from a medical condition, they will be fine without access to a litter box for the duration of a flight. “Just based on the physiology of cats, they could probably go from Boston to Hawaii and without needing to void,” said Bob Murtaugh, veterinarian and chief professional relations officer at Pathway Vet Alliance in Austin, Texas.
In the cargo hold, kennels cannot be outfitted with a litter box or anything other than an absorbent liner and a soft bed or blanket. “If the travel day will be more than eight hours, during a layover pet owners can arrange a comfort stop for cats to be let out of their carrier,” said Matthis.
Do cats need food and water on a flight?
On shorter in-cabin flights, your cat is unlikely to require food or water. However, if you’re flying your cat in cargo, Matthis explained that a food bowl and water bowl should be in the carrier regardless of the length of the flight. She recommends using dishes that fasten to the door of the crate and can be refilled easily from the outside such as Lixit’s Quick Lock Crock 10-ounce bowls.
What else does my cat need to fly?
Most airlines require a health certificate provided by a veterinarian to prove that a cat is safe to fly in the cabin or cargo hold.
What are the signs that my cat may be in distress in flight?
According to Murtaugh, there are a few obvious signs that may indicate your cat is in distress during a flight, either due to fear or excessive heat. A cat that is panting, restless, and vocalizing could be experiencing significant anxiety or overheating. If the membranes in their gums turn bright red, the latter is most likely and it’s important to cool them off quickly. Placing the carrier on your lap so they can feel the air blowing from the vent above your seat or wiping them down with a wet cloth may help lower their body temperature.
How to set up a cat for flying success
The best way to combat a cat’s flight anxiety is to tackle it before getting on the plane. In the weeks before their trip, introduce your cat to their carrier or kennel in a positive way. “Make the carrier feel like a cave or a home or something that’s comfortable, something that they’re not just jammed into the first time they’re on their way to the airport,” said Murtaugh.
Place the carrier in an area of the home where your cat spends a lot of time and encourage them to explore it by placing catnip and treats inside, or by playing with them in and around the space.
Taking your cat on a car ride or on other forms of transportation while in their carrier may also be helpful in the weeks before the flight, said Murtaugh. He recommends placing a bed or blanket that smells like home inside the carrier and using a pheromone spray or collar to help take the edge off.
If your cat has a record of experiencing debilitating stress during travel and will be flying in the cabin, you can speak to your vet about prescribing an anxiety-relieving medication. It’s important, however, to test medication out before your flight. “Make sure there won’t be any untoward side effects. Your vet can help you tailor that to your cat’s needs,” said Murtaugh.
Sedating a cat prior to flying in the cargo hold is not recommended by the International Air Transport Association and can be potentially fatal for old, chronically sick, or highly stressed animals.
Rules for flying with a cat in cargo
While working with an animal shipping professional can help make preparing your cat for travel less stressful, it is not a requirement in the United States. International destinations may have other regulations for air-shipping pets. Always confirm your airline’s requirements well in advance of your pet’s flight.
To air ship a cat, the kennel must meet the following standards established by the International Air Transport Association:
Crate size: The interior width of a crate or kennel must be at least two times the width of a cat. The kennel’s length must be at least the length of a cat plus half their height. The height of a carrier must be at least as tall as the animal’s natural height in a standing position from the tip of the ears to the floor. Matthis recommends using a medium-size crate for cats that is at least 2 to 3 inches taller than this minimum. If you have a cat with a snub nose or smooshed face, the kennel must be 10% larger than for non-brachycephalic pets.
Crate material: A crate must be made from rigid plastic, wood, or metal with a solid roof containing no doors or ventilation. There should be only one metal door that closes securely. “If the crate looks cheap and flimsy, it’s not suitable for air travel,” said Matthis.
Crate extras: Crates in cargo cannot have wheels, plastic doors, or plastic latches. They also cannot be collapsible or have a door in the roof.
Crate interior: The only items allowed inside an animal crate during a flight are an absorbent liner or potty pad, a soft pad or blanket, and clip-in water and food bowls that attach to the crate door
We consulted the following experts and internet sources for this guide to the best airline-friendly cat carriers: