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First, there are countless things to be researched (what are the country requirements, what are the airline requirements, how does the pet get back in to the U.S., etc.) and vet appointments to be made. Although we began the process several months in advance, naturally the ordeal was drawn out up until the very week of our departure, culminating in Hugh (my husband) having to drive to Harrisburg and back on the day of our going away party to obtain Piklz’ travel certificate. [Sidenote: despite a small dispute about the spelling of Pickles’ name; I will refer to her as Piklz from here on out because that is how it is now spelled on her government-issued travel certificate, along with her Xanax prescription.]
Planning the Route
Getting to Brno is slightly difficult to begin with. The closest major airport is Vienna (90 miles away), and there are no direct flights from Philly. We immediately ruled out our usual route on US Airways through Heathrow because the UK restrictions on pets is much more strict than the rest of the EU. (In my mind I could picture us sleeping on the cold hard floor of a quarantine room in the event our flight was canceled.). Further complicating the situation, we learned that US Airways (miles; status; upgrades!) doesn’t allow pets in the cabin on international flights, which turned out to be true for most U.S. airlines. We never considered the idea of putting Piklz in the hold, so the decision was pretty much made for us to book a flight on Austrian Airlines, which does allow cabin pets. Fortunately, Austrian has a direct flight from Newark (90 miles from Philly) to Vienna, where we then rented a car to drive the rest of the way to Brno.
Preparing the Cat
In December, we confirmed with our vet that Piklz was microchipped and ready to go. We were given instructions to come back a few weeks before the trip for a final checkup. Unfortunately, on her followup visit we discovered that her microchip was not compatible with European standards, resulting in a second microchip. We also discovered that she had severe dental decay resulting in the extraction of nine teeth. (Why these things weren’t discovered in December is still a mystery. You can also now begin to calculate just how much this little adventure is costing Piklz, but I digress.) So the poor cat had to spend two weeks getting over her tooth trauma just before being hauled off on her international odyssey. On this visit we also discovered that there would be yet another visit. Leading us to…
Come on, you knew there’d be a few or I wouldn’t be writing this. First, due to new EU regulations on traveling with a pet (that somehow also weren’t available in December), the animal must be examined and certified within 10 days of arriving. Fair enough. But in this day of digital data encryption, instant scanning, microchipping, and paw-printing (not really), it turns out that the only person who can issue said certification is the official state appointed veterinarian, located in the state capital of Harrisburg. Did the cat have to travel to Harrisburg? No, just Hugh, with the papers issued from our local vet (after examining Piklz yet again) which then had to be signed, sealed, stamped, and blessed by the official state vet. Yes, we could have just used Fedex, but with only a 10 day window and no chance for a do-over, we weren’t taking any chances.
The second minor hurdle came in the form of an email from Austrian Airways. Because we were traveling with the cat, and because we knew we’d be stressed out, and because no-one really wants to go to Central Europe in March and the flights were cheap, we decided to spring for business class, figuring it would just make things easier. (You can probably see where this is going.) We talked to someone official, made Piklz’ official pet reservation, and were assured pets could go in business class, but that was not to be the case, according to the woman we called and talked to who then passed us on to a supervisor with a Heidi Klum accent. After much back and forth it was determined that we simply hadn’t signed “the form,” acknowledging that there wasn’t enough room under the seat in front of us and therefore Piklz would have to go in “the wardrobe” during takeoff and landing. Crisis averted.
The Trial Run
After much searching and measuring, we settled on a medium sized SturdiBag for Piklz’ adventure. We looked at wheeled carriers, which would have made navigating the airport easier, but we were afraid it would tip Piklz over the 8 kg weight limit.The doctor recommended Xanax (the same as for people) as an anti anxiety remedy during travel, and we wanted to test it in advance to make sure we could give it to her and that it had the desired effect. We also stocked up on Greenie’s pill pockets, which worked like a charm. About a week in advance we slipped her a pill with her breakfast, and I was easily able to lure her into her carrier with another treat and zip her shut. Mission accomplished.
Last Minute Details
The moment had arrived. We gave Piklz a dose of Xanax the night before our departure, and then another one about 12 hrs. later, about 30 minutes before we left. We determined she would be confined to her carrier for about 16 hours, and naturally we were really concerned what would happen if she had to pee or poop. We had been told that cats pretty much just shut down and that wouldn’t be an issue, but we packed pet pads along with a ziplock bag of litter and the top of a cardboard box (thanks for the tip, Marta) to use as a makeshift litter box just in case. (Spoiler: fortunately we never had to use either, although the litter caused a bit of a stir going through security.)
Speaking of which, another big thing we were worried about was going through security. We knew we’d have to take Piklz out of her carrier, and I had nightmares of her bolting out of our arms and running around uncontained throughout the airport. For weeks we tried out various harness and leash scenarios to use during travel, but Piklz wasn’t having any of it, and at one point even almost choked herself trying to get out of a collar. After one last unsuccessful attempt the morning of departure, we decided to just bag the whole idea and take our chances.
The Journey Begins
Our airport transport arrived and we piled everything in, us and Piklz in the back seat. Our driver would not win any awards in the smooth driving category, and Piklz was not decidedly not a fan of the New Jersey turnpike. But we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare and proceeded to check-in. They weighed Piklz and then asked for the papers we got in Harrisburg. The woman behind the counter disappeared long enough to make us nervous, but it turned out she was new, and had probably never checked in an animal before. The papers were thankfully in order, and after paying the animal fee (ca-ching!), we got our boarding passes and proceeded to security.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably now hoping for some drama, but fortunately for us you’re not going to get any. Piklz waltzed through security with no problems, and as mentioned, the only issue was the cat litter, which had to be inspected and swabbed. Despite the bad rap the TSA gets, our agents couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating. Everyone commented on how cute Piklz was and did everything to help us through quickly and without any problems.
On the Plane
After sitting around and waiting two hours (we left ridiculously early) it was finally time to board. We settled into our seats, and the flight attendants fawned over Piklz. They asked if anyone around us was allergic—which fortunately no-one was—and explained, yet again, that she would have to go “in the wardrobe” for take-off and landing. They waited until the very last minute, then a flight attendant came and whisked her away. I was petrified that she would be petrified during take-off, alone in a dark closet, and at this point I was regretting the decision to get a soft bag rather than a hard-sided carrier. I was worried that another flight attendant might not know she was in the wardrobe and throw something else in on top of her.
We took off, and as soon as the 10,000-feet signal went off, the flight attendant got her out of the closet and brought her back to us. The Xanax seemed to be working its magic, because Piklz was calm and mostly unphased by the whole adventure. There was an empty seat next to me, so we set her on the floor where she settled in. After a while we gave her some food, which she gobbled down, and set out a dish of water, which she wasn’t interested in. I didn’t want to give her too much, because I was still worried what would happen if she had to “go.” Bringing me to…
Half-way through the flight both Hugh and I smelled a noxious odor. We both immediately suspected the cat had lost control and I had no idea how I was going to deal with it without make an even bigger mess. But when we examined her carrier, all was fine. The odor came and went, pretty much throughout the rest of the flight, ruining any chance of sleep I might otherwise have gotten, both because it was vile and because every time it happened I kept thinking it was the cat. Turns out it wasn’t poor Piklz at all, but likely a—to put it delicately—overly gaseous nearby passenger. I am still irate on Piklz’ behalf.
At one point Piklz got a little restless so I set her on the empty seat next to me where she could see what was going on. About an hour before landing we gave her more food and another Xanax, courtesy of the amazing pill pockets.
Brno Here We Come
We landed in Vienna, ready to face the challenge of getting Piklz into the EU. Would they stop and question us? Did we need to “declare” her? What would happen if they didn’t like the paperwork and we had to turn right around and go home? Here’s another disappointment for anyone expecting drama: there wasn’t any. We walked right through customs and immigration without so much as a glance from anyone in Piklz’ direction. No one asked to see papers, no one asked to examine the cat, no one seamed to care at all. Piklz was now officially a European kitty.
We got our rental car and drove the rest of the way to Brno where we met our landlord who let us into the apartment we had found six weeks earlier. We had already purchased a litter box and litter, so we confined Piklz to a bedroom for a while we took care of paperwork with the landlord. After a few hours we let her out to discover her new home. She is a big fan of the marble window ledges that surround our apartment, and she loves to watch the pigeons fly by. I’m happy to report, she seems to love it here as much as we do.