You might be wondering about the title of this post and I’ll give you a heads up: as most of my life revolves around my fur baby, the more difficult part of moving to Italy was moving to Italy with a dog. I’m focusing on this because it was the most stressful part of the move just because of all the procedures that are involved and all the worrying that something will go wrong. Spoiler Alert: all my worries were unfounded and all three of us made it to beautiful Rome just fine. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some bumps along the way!
I guess I’ll backtrack to about 10 days before we left on 20 August, when we took Arya to the vet. Now, every country is different with their requirements for importing a pet, but Italy’s were pretty straightforward. The dog has to be microchipped (the microchip has to be ISO compliant) and has to be updated on their rabies vaccine AFTER they are microchipped. Arya already fulfilled both of these requirements, so all we needed was our vet to fill out an International Health Certificate as well as a Bilingual Italian Health Certificate to certify she was in tiptop condition. And of course, you must pay a fee for all these documents, which varies depending on the vet.
Once you have these forms filled out, you must send them to your local USDA office within 10 days of your trip so that they endorse the forms your vet has filled out. This was stressful bump #1. Ten days before our trip actually only meant 6 business days, so we had to expedite the forms by mail and also pay for the expedited return label back. We’ve been dealing with the slow government bureaucracy for six months now (regarding our own passports and visas), so I was already expecting them to take their sweet time sending the forms back, or having to drive to Richmond, VA to get the forms myself. However, much to my surprise, the forms were sent on Monday and returned Wednesday. Hooray!
Months before, we had booked Arya’s “ticket” via United’s PetSafe program to ship her to Italy on the same plane we were booked for. Actually, I think she had tickets before we did! Well, Jaime was smart enough to call the Friday before we left to confirm this reservation and that’s when stressful bump #2 came. They had no record of this reservation, even though we had confirmation numbers and emails! Jaime was just about breathing fire. After much discussion with the lady over the phone about whether they could do something about this or not, the lady agreed to make another reservation.
By this point, I just knew that no matter how much time Jaime and I both spent reading and re-reading every single regulation for pet exportation, something was bound to go wrong. I also spent a lot of time searching online for other people’s experiences regarding pet travel and the outcomes were not reassuring: pets dying, disappearing, going to other places or not being boarded on the plane at all.
So finally the day of our flight arrived. Our fight was scheduled to leave at 5:30 pm, but we arrived at the airport at 12:00 pm just because we had so many bags and the dog of course. And lucky we did. First, we go to the counter that specifically says “Kennels/Oversize Bags”. The customer service lady, barely even giving us a look, says we cannot check in the dog without first checking in our bags at the international counter. A little annoyed, we dragged our cart with Arya’s cage and our five luggage bags all around to the counters immediately behind that one. When we get there, they in turn tell us that the first customer service representative had to check us and the dog together.
By this point, Jaime’s face starts getting this characteristic look that things are not efficient enough for his standards and, noticing this, the representatives at the international counter quickly checked us and our luggage in, but told us we had to return to the Oversize Luggage counter to drop off the dog. We go back and once again the same representative refuses to take the dog, this time saying they did not accept dogs at the counter, with her supervisor backing her up.
This exchange continued for TWO hours, while Jaime called PetSafe, explained the situation calmly, then angrily, and tried to find a desirable resolution. Throughout this time the desk representatives kept claiming they did not take dogs at the counter (despite the very obvious “Kennel” sign), they tried to redirect us to some other location within the airport, which was unacceptable because we had no car. When we tried contacting said location by phone, nobody would even pick up! Throughout all this we had a different, nice United representative at the international counter try to intercede on our behalf, without much success. At one point, the original problem lady even claimed that PetSafe was not associated with United, even though the website clearly has a huge United logo at the top.
Eventually, Jaime got through to a superior at the PetSafe phone line and they in turn called the desk reps and argued amongst themselves. What happened, I do not know, but the supervisor in charge at the airport (the same one that was backing his employee up the begin with) finally allowed us to check in our pet and apologized for all the miscommunication.
All of a sudden, what was originally deemed an “impossibility” because it was not SOP became a reality, and our original problem lady had to do the paperwork, without even a “have a nice day” at the end of all the exchange.
I could sit here all day pointing fingers at whose fault everything was, but the bottom line is that the entire PetSafe program is a disaster. United claims that PetSafe is not part of their company, yet PetSafe is directly under the United website. They lose reservations, nobody has any idea what the procedures and regulations are, etc. Meanwhile, on Dulles’ part, their customer representatives are completely unprofessional. After giving us such a hard time, the lady at the desk obviously was able to check in our dog, as she had all the forms and the necessary stickers to put on the kennel. After everything was said and done, we realized that they didn’t even ask for that reservation number we got on the phone a few days before, but they sure as hell quickly and efficiently charged us the $800 to fly the dog when we called them the very first time back in July.
Anyway, thankfully, the rest of the flight was full of better news. We ended up getting upgraded to Business Class with Jaime’s points (another reason the whole situation angered me so much, because Jaime is a very loyal United flyer), which was a great experience, specially on an international flight. It was my first time flying Business and I was thrilled that I spent almost half the flight time eating, and more importantly, my seat could lay completely flat. It made for a very relaxing flight, although it was hard for me to not worry about Arya all throughout.
We got to Rome at about 9:30 am local time, braced for another fight regarding Arya, especially considering that this is Italy after all. But we were pleasantly surprised that we only had to ask once and someone directed us to the doors where oversize luggage is brought in. By the time we got there after picking up our own luggage, they were bringing her in (along with someone’s surfboard lol).
At customs, the officials didn’t even look twice at her, so after all our trouble with her health certificates, nobody even looked at it. But at the end the important thing was that she was put on the right plane and that she was safe and now she gets to be a European dog!
For anybody that is planning a big move (nationally or internationally) with their dog, my advice is to read and re-read all the regulations and rules available to make sure that you don’t have any issues with a technicality on your end. Make sure you double check prior to flying day your reservation and at the airport, arrive with plenty of time and do not let yourself be bullied by employees that simply do not want to do their job. Hopefully, your experience will be much better than mine.
If you’ve already done the big move, share your stories in the comments!
UPDATE: I never updated this post with what happened after, but once we were settled in, Jaime wrote a very angry letter to United’s main offices with all the events that transpired. A few emails were exchanged and they awarded Jaime some miles (not nearly enough for our ordeal, in my opinion) for his trouble (and possibly because Jaime is unrelenting and they were tired of seeing his emails).