(VERY long post. Skip if you don't have pets!)
Habibi the world travelin' kitty has arrived safely in Seoul, and adjusting to his new home quite nicely! However, his journey from Washington to South Korea was not the most pleasant experience, for kitty and owners alike.
A bit of background: we adopted Habibi during our first tour in Bahrain. When we returned to DC for training, Mrs. Crab and Habibi traveled from Bahrain to DC via Amsterdam on KLM - by far the best pet shipping experience to date. Kitty was even fed, watered and walked at the Pet Hotel in Amsterdam. The total cost was about 400 Euros.
Flash forward to 2013. We began making preparations to export kitty several months in advance. This required a rabies titer test and a complete physical about 6 months before we departed. The most difficult task was finding an airline that would agree to ship Kitty in July; most airlines have very strict pet embargoes during summer months. Some airlines like Delta won't ship pets if the temperature is over 85F degrees at departure or arrival city. Other airlines won't ship pets at all between May and August. The only American carrier that would agree to fly Kitty was United Airlines, via their new PetSafe program. The itinerary was further complicated by the fact that we had to stop in San Francisco for some meetings en route to Seoul.
United introduced PetSafe about a year ago, and since then, it's been rife with problems. Our relationship PetSafe began about four months before departure. Mrs. Crab booked a reservation for Habibi. However, depending on what day you called and who you spoke to, the total cost quote varied from $559 to $997. PetSafe reps were very confused over their own PetSafe company policy. The few reps who had even heard of the Foreign Service did not understand that State Department employees on government travel orders receive the same benefits as active duty military. On several calls, they attempted to charge us twice for each leg of our itinerary (WRONG: USG employees on orders pay a flat rate, IF the stopover is listed on travel orders). PetSafe reps also had little knowledge of operating procedure at airports. Some reps said we had to drop off or pick up Kitty at airport cargo warehouse (WRONG: State employees can drop off at the terminal check-in desk).
Flash forward to July 2013. Ten days before traveling, Habibi had to get one final physical to confirm he was healthy enough to travel. The vet's documents had to be validated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture pet office in Richmond, Virginia, which required us to take a day trip down to the capital because Richmond is the only office that handles pet export documents for DelMarVa, DC & WVa.
On the morning of July 19, we arrived three hours early at Washington Dulles Airport (IAD) for our flight to San Francisco. The United staff were friendly and sympathetic but completely unaware of the PetSafe policy or rates. The United staff called PetSafe's headquarters helpline and spent an hour on the phone, most of that time on hold, to clarify the rates and our elegibility for military benefits. We were finally allowed to pay the flat original rate of $559. However, nobody ever mentioned that we also had to pay $113 in taxes and handling fees, for a total cost of $702!
After finally sorting everything out, we were instructed to take the cat & carrier to the TSA bag drop area. This place was a madhouse. The TSA officer told us we would have to take the cat out of the carrier so they could Xray the carrier. Habibi was cared shitless, as passengers around us ran by, dumping suitcases, golf clubs and boxes right next to us without any consideration. But that was nothing compared to what happened next. A female TSA officer asked to touch the cat. We're thinking she just wants to pet him. Nope. She proceeded to feel up Habibi from head to tail, including his private kitty bits. Habibi looked horrified and shaking. To add insult to injury, we were instructed to put the shaking cat back in the carrier and never touch him or the carrier again. As we tried to calm the cat, the TSA lady barked at us, "STOP, DON'T TOUCH HIM. BACK AWAY FROM THE CARRIER." That was the last we saw of Habibi at Dulles airport.
On board the plane, Mrs. Crab refused to leave until we received confirmation that kitty was on board. The United flight attendants were very kind and understanding. About 5 minutes before we pushed out, a kind gentleman confirmed Habibi was on board and ready to fly.
About five hours later, we arrived at SFO (San Francisco). No one seemed to know where we could pick up Habibi. The United lost luggage staff had never even heard of PetSafe! We walked around aimlessly trying to find out where to find our pet. Finally, a very nice gentleman from the SFO's odd sized baggage office took it upon himself to track down Habibi. He finally reached PetSafe's cargo office and arranged for them to deliver Habibi directly to us at the terminal.
Cat in hand, we took a taxi to Embassy Suites Airport hotel. Only to be told upon arrival that they no longer accept cats, and demanded that we find a new hotel! Never mind that we reconfirmed our cat stay with their front desk several weeks before our arrival. Mrs. Crab demanded they either let us stay or find us a new hotel, at per diem rates, on a busy weekend at the height of SanFran tourist season. By the time we reached our room, they called back and informed us they would make a special exception and would allow us to stay with kitty. Do NOT stay at Embassy Suites Airport if you have a pet.
In preparation, Mrs. Crab called PetSafe to reconfirm that everything was sorted. On the morning of July 24, we returned to SFO to catch our flight to Seoul. The experience at SFO compared to IAD was night and day. The United staff at SFO International Terminal were completely aware and knowledgeable about how to deal with pet shipping and PetSafe. The United staff escorted to us to a more private, less congested TSA screening area of the airport. There, the kind and considerate TSA agent asked us to take the cat out while he inspected the carrier. He never touched the cat, were allowed to place him back in the carrier and say our goodbyes. Once we were on board, the flight attend even handed us a little card, confirming that Habibi was on board!
Twelve hours later, we arrived in Seoul. Our sponsor walked us over to baggage claim, where we were presented with a DOG! After some confusion, they brought out Habibi, who appeared a bit confused but no worse for the wear. We then walked over to the pet inspection station, where the attendant looked over his records and verified his microchip. We were in & out of the airport within 30 minutes.
All in all, Habibi is fine. He's adjusting quite nicely to our new home in Seoul.
Every employee we dealt with at United and PetSafe were actually very kind folks and were clearly pet lovers. So it's not the staff thats the issue. All the problems at United & PetSafe seems to boil down to a lack of training and lack of dissemination of information. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. We appreciate that UA is now extending military benefits to Foreign Service employees. But UA & PetSafe would do great by better informing and training its staff, especially with regards to company policies.
If you're flying abroad with a pet, do not wait until the last minute. Start planning several months in advance. Keep calling and confirming everything. Take note of the times, dates and name of person you speak with each time. At the airport, bring copies of all your orders, and details of your conversations with PetSafe & United. And of course, make sure your pup or kitty is prepared, especially if they are nervous travelers. It's not easy or cheap to move abroad with a pet. But at the end of the day, our pets are part of our household.