Travel industry sits up and takes notice of pets

Travel industry sits up and takes notice of pets

by Josh Noel
Chicago Tribune

Even when she's traveling without her dogs — which is rare — Amy Burkert stays in pet-friendly hotels.

"They support the lifestyle we choose, so we support them," said Burkert, who blogs about pet travel at "We vote with our dollars."

Early on, voting with those dollars wasn't so easy. When Burkert and her husband, Rod, undertook their first road trip as the owners of two dogs — from Philadelphia to Canada and back through the Midwest with a German Shepherd and Shar Pei — they were frustrated by the difficulty of traveling as pet owners.

Size and weight limits. Breed restrictions. Hotel rooms and restaurant patios that simply didn't allow dogs.

"We had a terrible time locating things — not only places to stay but things to do," Burkert said. "On that trip, we decided to start the website."

They also decided to travel full time in an RV, which the Burkerts have done for six years. What Amy Burkert has chronicled along the way is an increasingly robust market for people like her, who can barely fathom a trip without a pet by their side.

As traveling with pets becomes increasingly common — 37 percent of pet owners take their animals on the road, up from 19 percent about 10 years ago, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association — the industry is warming to four-legged guests. The embrace is coming from hotels, restaurants, the airlines and even Amtrak, a longtime holdout. Websites like Burkert's or specialize in identifying pet-friendly hotels and more.

"Things are completely different than 10 years ago," Burkert said. "We have a different attitude toward our pets now; we treat them like family and leaving them behind for the most fun two weeks of the year is unacceptable."

In October, New York state's "Dining With Dogs" bill became law, enabling any restaurant in the state to open its outdoor space to pooches. Earlier in 2015, a similar law took effect in California. Tennessee, Florida and Maryland are among the states that have eased restaurant restrictions. Indianapolis brewery Flat 12 Bierwerks not only allowed dogs on its patio last summer, it created a non-alcoholic beer for dogs made with meat trimmings. (California and Florida are the states friendliest to doggy dining, according to the web site

Susan Smith, who founded Pet Travel Inc. during the late '90s to assist in the transport of pets worldwide, said the thaw from hotels has been notable.

"When we started this company, we did a lot of phone calling and reading and scraped together a list of 1,900 pet-friendly hotels," she said. "Now we have 30,000 to 40,000."

The movement began with lower-tier chain hotels, like La Quinta and Red Roof Inn, both of which accept pets without a surcharge. But the trend "has gone all the way up the line, to the W and Marriott, with amazing programs that cater to pets: pet salons, pet sitters, pet walking."

"A pet owner will be very loyal to an airline or hotel that treats them well," Smith said. "They'll talk to their friends and come back and stay longer."

As far back as 2003, William Frye, a Niagara University associate professor in the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, estimated that a 300-room hotel could realize an additional $100,000 to $150,000 in room revenues per year based on pet-friendly policies.

"It is still an economically important issue and some hotels, such as Best Western, Starwood Hotels and some Super 8s have embraced accommodating pets," Frye said by email.

Such moves are increasingly common across the industry. Until launching a pilot program in 2014 in Illinois, Amtrak had not allowed pets (with the exception of service animals) to travel on its trains since the 1970s. The company concluded it was time to test the prohibition and settled on a handful of routes for which Amtrak would charge $25 for a dog or cat that weighed up to 20 pounds and fit into a carrier below a pet owner's seat.

Noting that "some 200 animals have accompanied passengers without a single complaint or incident," the program was made permanent a year later. In late 2015, Amtrak announced that pets would be able to travel with owners on certain routes in the Northeast. In February, it said pets could ride on most of its long-distance trains for up to seven hours.

Amtrak spokesman Matt Hardison said the train line was concerned that travelers might sneak their pets out of carriers or run into hygiene issues. But pet owners held up their end of the bargain, he said.

"People have been eager to find ways to bring pets along on Amtrak," he said, "and we wanted to be able to accommodate them because of course it's in our interest too."

He said the train line is looking into transporting larger animals as checked baggage on a seasonal basis, which Amtrak hasn't done since the 1970s.

Wedded to her RV, Burkert might not be hopping on an Amtrak train any time soon, but she said she appreciates the development as further progress for traveling pet owners. She hopes relaxed policies like Amtrak's will allow others to enjoy the sort of travel that she and her husband do.

"For us, primarily the hiking has been completely different," she said. "We'll go for a good half-day hike — as dogs get older we have to slim that back — but we've found amazing hikes. We walked 10 miles at the Grand Canyon. We were having fun, the dogs were having fun, and by the time we looked at the map, we'd gone 5 miles and still had to walk back."

What would have happened without the dogs?

"I probably would have jumped on the little bus going from overlook to overlook. Instead, we walked and stopped at a bench and watched the ground squirrels play at the edge of the rim. The dogs got such a kick out of it! Traveling with a dog is a great reminder to slow down and be in the moment and not treat your vacation like another thing on the to-do list."

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