The Foreign Service Nightmare: Traveling with Pets

Anyone with a furry companion in the Foreign Service knows that the title to this blog post is NOT hyperbole.  Traveling to post with pets can be one of the most stressful, excruciatingly frustrating, and downright awful experiences one can have in the FS.  I really, truly mean that, from the bottom of my heart.

We are flying in early June to our next post: Surabaya, Indonesia.  Fly America act has a couple of restrictions on us, as do contracted routes.  We had a couple of options for routes that might let us take the dogs as accompanied baggage: Korea and Japan.  We were foolishly hopeful.  Enter airline and country restrictions.

Korea will not allow any pets over 75 lbs. (pet plus crate) to transit their country.  Since my Lab is 80 lbs. on a particularly trim day, that wasn’t going to happen.  His crate weighs 24 lbs, so he’d have to lose 29 pounds in roughly 1.5 months.  Not gonna happen.  There goes option 1.

After much leg-work by my wife, we were able to find some flights through Narita (Tokyo) that looked promising, all on United and ANA (codeshares).  The timings were OK with temperature embargoes, but we were faced with an overnight layover in Narita, and neither United nor ANA had overnight accommodations for pets.  We’d have to import the dogs into Japan for a period of less than 18 hours.  I called the Japanese embassy here in D.C. and spoke with the agricultural attaché who very politely informed me of the impossibility of this, since while we would meet all of the entry requirements, we’d have had to apply for an importation permit 6 months prior to arrival after jumping through numerous hoops.  Hence, the earliest our pets would be able to transit Japan on this route would be October, a full 4 months after we arrive.

So then I did some frantic Googling about PCSing with pets, both through the military and with State.  After many different search terms, I came up with an interesting site:  I read through the pages, looking for the information I needed.  Sure enough, there was a link on the left side that said “State Department” and that page had a link to one of the FSO blogs I read, The Diplomatic Mama.  She had shipped a cat directly through Qatar Air cargo to Bangladesh, without a “Pet Relocation Service!”  WTF?

I called Jerry over at Action Pet Express, we chatted for a bit, and he asked me to email him some information so he could put out some feelers on prices/routes.  As it turned out, the only option was KLM (our preference), and he put me in touch with a broker to work out the details.  While I’m paying a small broker fee just to book the tickets (~$200), it’s still costing me a hell of a lot less than Club Pet International (State’s “preferred” shipper) or even All Pet Travel (the ones we used last time to the D.R.).

Jerry also clued me in on a little factoid that I’m sure will be helpful:  the DOD Diagnostics Lab at Fort Sam Houston does the rabies titer test for ALL USG employees.  The only quid pro quo at the moment is that the EU and Korea don’t accept their results.  The cost is $55 per sample, plus shipping.  Overnighting through UPS for me ran $75 for both samples (you can 2nd-day air it with a Cold-Pak and a cheap, soft-side cooler).  Together, I got both dogs done for $90 less than it would have been for ONE dog through our vet.  Keep this in mind when you need a titer test for your dogs or even yourself.  Overall, Jerry was a pleasure to speak with, a fountain of knowledge, and gave me all of this advice and access to his connections gratis.  Thanks Jerry!

Basically, despite the efforts of State, AFSA, and AAFSW, PCSing with pets is still a nightmare.  The airlines say they’re trying to help, but they still make interlining (an important term to know if you’re codesharing) a giant PITA.  With a large majority of posts only accessible via foreign carriers (especially in Asia and Africa), this presents a huge problem for FSOs and their families.  If you’re flying on United or American on the first leg (which you usually do), you can almost forget about getting anyone to interline your pets.  Both airlines tell you to check with the codeshare carriers, and the codeshare carriers tell you to check with American or United.  It’s an infinite loop.  If you’re flying to Asia or Europe, start planning your pets’ routes and researching the requirements the second you get your assignment.  I’m not kidding.  Had we been aware of Japan’s 6-months quarantine in country of origin after the first rabies titer test, we’d have gotten that shizz done waaaaaay on back in October and transited Narita with the dogs in tow as excess baggage and not be paying $2,200 for cargo fares.

Ahh, dogs.  Almost as annoying/expensive as having a car in the Foreign Service.