Moving across ship, drive, fly...?
March 16, 2010 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Moving from New York City to California....with a cat. I would love some suggestions. Details below.

I am moving in late Spring from NYC to California. I am wondering the best/ cheapest way to get there with my things. I have a one bedroom apartment with ok furniture- I am willing to sell most items for cheap so I dont have to drag them across the country or hire movers. The only things i absolutely need are: my books, clothes, electronics, and the cat. My cat is almost 16 and I am not sure of the best way to transport her. I know you can fly with cats but it seems pretty expensive and I have never done it. Any advice or ideas about the cat, shipping/ moving my stuff, experiences with cross country moves, etc. would be highly appreciated.

Thank you in advance.
posted by tessalations999 to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you planning to drive yourself out there? I've driven across the country with cats twice now, and they handled it very, very well (despite the fact that one of them was pretty neurotic in general). I had some sedatives from the vet but I didn't end up even needing to use them. The first time I did this with the neurotic cat, I tried to let him out to use the litter and drink some water halfway through the day but he was not having any of that, so after that I just drove straight through. Motel 6's are cheap and clean and allow pets, so that's where we ended up staying each night.
posted by something something at 1:52 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whether you fly with the cat IN THE CABIN depends largely on whether you think your cat will tolerate the car ride + motel 6 option better or worse than the long flight to California. And, whether your cat will make life hell for everyone else, presumably. My one cat would fly great - she's quiet on trips and generally just sleepy or curious. The other one? Yowls. No one wants a yowling cat on a plane. At her age, before you try any sedatives, I would ask your vet about what is safe.

Good luck. I've got friends who have done it both ways, and everyone was happy at the end of their respective trips, with healthy animals. It's just about your kitty's personality.
posted by Medieval Maven at 2:01 PM on March 16, 2010

I helped move my fiance and our cat from Texas to California in July of last year, in a 1970 truck with no A/C. We bought a soft sided case with mesh sides/top/front. I think this type of case helped a lot because she was able to see us and we were able to unzip the top and stick our hand down to pet her. The passenger was always responsible for the cat while they driver was responsible for driving. We were worried that she would freak out and meow the entire time because of horror stories we had heard from friends. We prepared by having sedatives handy but realized by the second day that they weren't necessary. She would meow occasionally and we'd stick our hand in the case to pet her and she'd calm down. Because of the no A/C we also had ice packs wrapped in towels inside her case. Also every time we'd stop the car we'd open her case and give her water/food. She refused to eat while the car was in motion.

There was a stressful moment when we got stuck in traffic in Phoenix, I started freaking out (worried about the heat and the truck's transmission) and then the cat started freaking out and panting. We were able to get through the traffic and stopped at the next stop to sit in the shade and let her out inside the cab of the truck. She was fine though.

Prior to the trip we spent one day at home with her to try out the sedative. We even drove around town to see how she'd do. The last part was probably unnecessary but trying out the sedative was helpful because it made us realize how difficult it was to actually get the pill in her mouth! Good luck with your move.
posted by collocation at 2:08 PM on March 16, 2010

As a background, I live in the NY Metro area and for a time attended school in Florida. I have traveled the NY-FL route with a cat(s) several times -- both by car and plane. Although I can't say definitively which option is better, perhaps the following points can help you:

1) Cats HATE long car trips. No matter how comfortable you try to make it (frequent stops, litter box in car, food in car, etc) your cat will not enjoy it. Compounding this problem is concern for the cats health. S/he will likely refuse to eat or use the litter box during this time. The only good part is that kitty can either be in a large carrier or free to roam the vehicle.

2) Cats HATE flying. Similar to car trips s/he will be very scared. To keep a cat in the cabin, you must put the cat in a small carrier (smaller then most people typically use) so s/he can fit underneath your seat during take off landing. This is not too much of a problem if you have a small cat, but with a larger cat this is very difficult. Some services exist that provide special flights for pets, but I have no experience with these.

That being said, based on the length of your trip, I recommend you fly with kitty. If it is a direct flight NYC-CA, kitty's traumatic experience is limited to approximately 6 hours -- much less traumatic then a 2+ day road trip. Good luck!
posted by Mr. X at 2:10 PM on March 16, 2010

I moved from North Carolina to California with my cat. I rented a truck and drove the whole way with her in the cab with me. It was a dream. Like others said I had the sedatives ready and was expecting hell but there was no need for them. After complaining for the first couple of hours she found a spot behind the passenger seat and slept the whole way; I think the fact that it was dark and isolated allowed her to relax. Don't believe any of the FUD about how cats can't take long car trips.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:26 PM on March 16, 2010

(I should clarify that I'm sure some cats can and some cats can't tolerate long road trips, but you absolutely cannot make a blanket statement either way.)
posted by Rhomboid at 2:31 PM on March 16, 2010

I think if you can afford to fly her out, do that. We moved across country with 2 cats 9 years ago. My situation was similar to yours, no furniture to move, just personal stuff, books, etc. Here's how I ended up doing it:

- for the items I decided not to take with me, I found a mover that agreed to bring them out the next time they were 'in the area', which equaled about 2 months later. I was nervous about my stuff being neglected but in the end the only thing damaged was a plate in a box they forgot to put on the truck and ended up mailing me. It's been so long I don't remember what it cost, but I do remember it was way cheaper than shipping or hiring my own mover, though when those boxes came I remember thinking "really, I paid to ship this??"

- packed up the 2 cats and everything else into a little subcompact car. Bought the biggest carriers I could find of the cats, they took most of back seat. Spent a few weeks before the move trying to acclimate them to the carriers. One meowed the whole trip, the other didn't make a peep. Forget about making any detours to scenic outlooks. We tried to walk one cat on a leash in a park and it was a disaster, after that, they only came out of their crates in the hotels. They weren't happy but have lived long happy lives ever since. However, your cat is considerably older than mine were at the time.
posted by snowymorninblues at 2:36 PM on March 16, 2010

To keep a cat in the cabin, you must put the cat in a small carrier (smaller then most people typically use) so s/he can fit underneath your seat during take off landing. This is not too much of a problem if you have a small cat, but with a larger cat this is very difficult.

this problem is easily solvable by not using a small hard carrier and instead using a sherpa bag or some other brand of airline-approved soft carrier—because they're soft, they fit under the seat during takeoff/landing, but they also provide more space than a hard carrier and are more than roomy enough for the biggest cat to stand up and turn around in. my dog was the size of a big cat and flew halfway around the world in one, also east coast to west coast and back, and he was always pretty comfortable.
posted by lia at 2:58 PM on March 16, 2010

I am flying cross country with a 16-year-old cat in a Sherpa bag tomorrow. I will let you know how it went once it's over. I do know that I will have to take her out of the bag for airport security and walk through the metal detector with her in my arms, so they can x-ray the bag... then get her back in the bag. This is the part I'm most concerned about. I have a harness and leash for that, and hope to hell I don't end up needing to really use them.
posted by bink at 3:17 PM on March 16, 2010

(Oh, and as for my stuff, it's in a ReloCube from u-pack. According to the tracking, it's about an hour away from the local terminal.)
posted by bink at 3:21 PM on March 16, 2010

If you decide to fly with the cat, get a Sherpa bag. Last year I moved with my very large, very insane, litter-box-issues cat from Boston to Seattle, and this is how I did it:

First, I looked at the TSA website and figured out that I had to get papers for my cat. Papers basically means a signed health report from your vet saying that your cat has had their shots, doesn't have rabies, won't die on a flight, and so-on. I had to show these to the woman who checked my bags.

Second, I went shopping, and bought a leash, a harness, and the aforementioned Sherpa bag. You can find all of these at somewhere normal like petsmart, or online. My cat is so large that the biggest cat harness was too small for her, so I had to go back and get the medium! sized dog one. She hated it when I finally got it on her, but all she did was collapse and refuse to move, which frankly is perfect for airline travel! I left it on her for increasing increments of time over about a week until she had it on for about six hours once and managed to get up and eat while wearing it. The leash was summarily ignored; she wasn't about to be led anywhere, but it was just for peace of mind on my part.

The plan was to break the flight into two parts. Conveniently, the roommate's family lives in Chicago, so we planned to fly from Boston to Chicago, take a two day break, while staying with family, and then go from Chicago to Seattle. This worked out brilliantly. It allowed the cat to recover, and made the longest time the cat was stuck in the carrier about 8 hours on the second leg of the flight. By that time, she had experienced the horror of plane flight once before and was wonderfully behaved on the longer leg. 8 hours was rather long, though, she refused to drink while in flight so she was very dehydrated; since your cat is so old you definitely need to keep your flight time to small chunks.

This is how we "packed" the cat - she was my "personal item" and I had my additional carryon as a backpack full of her things. She wore the harness, I put her in the Sherpa bag with her favorite catnip toy and an extra towel that smelled like home. The Sherpa bag has an extra zip pocket in the back where we kept her vet papers, her leash, and a bag of treats. In the extra backpack of things I had a little ramekin dish, her normal giant water bowl, a bunch of plastic bags, wet-wipes, an extra cat towel, more toys that she likes, and my purse which held all my personal items like tickets and ID and so-on. Everything cat-related was inside a reusable grocery bag.

The cat peed all over herself in the Sherpa bag before we even checked in in Boston. Upon getting off the airport shuttle, we went straight to the bathroom. Secret trick: find the nursing rooms. They are usually empty and have very large counter space. I let my cat out onto the counter, wearing the leash which was tied to the sick faucet, so she could get wiped clean. Sherpa bags have rinsable removable inserts, so I doubled up the towels and wrapped the fleece liner in a plastic bag and stashed that in my backpack of cat things. I amply "treated" the cat. I made sure she drank some water, and went to check in. I believe that there was a small fee for the cat, but nothing like an extra ticket. It is possible that it could have been crazy pricey had we not been flying first class, and this varies by airline, as well.

Going through security was pretty straightforward. The security people recognized the Sherpa bag and called an extra person over to check the cat while the line kept moving. I put all of my other stuff through, reached in and attached the leash to the cat, picked her up and held her tightly to my body. The security person said "Yeah it's a cat okay", looked inside the Sherpa bag briefly, and waved us on through. I carried my cat through the security gate and put her in the bag which they didn't x-ray and just handed to us instead. We got one of those luggage carts and proceeded to our gate.

At the gate, we kind of hid the cat so she could only see me. We put her up against the wall on one side, the backpack on another, and I sat on the floor in front of her. She settled down into a tight catloaf and stared at me with resentment. I used the ramekin to give her some water inside her carrier.

Once she was on the plane and stowed under the seat, nothing really happened. She yowled on take off and landing, and I'm pretty sure she peed onto her towels, but there was so much padding that it just soaked right up, and there's very little airflow beneath the seats so it didn't stink up the cabin. I asked the flight attendant for water and often reached my hand into the carrier, zipped open just enough to fit my wrist to pet the cat and reassure her that I was still there. Since she clearly had soiled her favorite catnip toy, I traded it out for a fresh one. The goal was to keep her high as much of the time as possible and it pretty much worked.

Arrival was fine, like everyone else we rushed to the bathroom after the flight, but I cleaned out the carrier and swapped in my last clean towel for the cat. She refused to come out onto the sink counter because she decided I was the meanest, but allowed me to give her many treats. She pretty much slept for the two days straight when we were in Chicago, and otherwise had no ill effects.

The second leg of the flight was easier than the first. She didn't pee the whole time, and we made sure that she had used the litter box before packing up our luggage. (I'd brought along the only box she deigned to used, wrapped in a garbage bag and placed as a "liner" of sorts in my normal luggage. I washed it with Simple Green every time it was repacked.) She got very hot in the last two hours or so of the flight, so I got sort of got her face a bit wet with my hand, and even let her poke her head through the zipper. I kept her in the harness to go through security the second time, but as soon as we were on the plane, I took it off of her. She was quite willing to slither out of it. The second flight, they didn't even ask us for her papers. It's possible that the airline had us in their database already. She was dehydrated by the end, so I got out the big water bowl and took her to the nearest nursing room and let her drink a lot on the counter.

Miraculously, upon arrival in Seattle, it was like the fear of god had been put into the cat, because ever since then, she's been able to use the litter box with no real problems, after 5 years of trying to undo the abuse of previous owners on my part!

Okay, I think that's everything. Maybe some of this will help.
posted by Mizu at 4:22 PM on March 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

My ex-girlfriend drove from Colorado to Oregon with her loved cat. Opened the car door somewhere out West, cat got out and whoosh cat was gone. After many hours she drove on, no choice but to. Moral - lock your doors.
posted by A189Nut at 4:36 PM on March 16, 2010

oh, if you decide to fly, book your flight as soon as you've picked a date and tell them you're traveling with an animal, as there is a fixed number of animals each airline will allow per cabin so they need to know in advance that you want to bring your cat with you. pretty much all airlines charge a fee per animal, and some (but not all) will count the carrier as either your carry-on or personal luggage. has a list of airline pet policies you might want to check out. if you need a current airline recommendation: a good friend (and metafilter user!) has flown from nyc to sf and back multiple times the last few years with his dog using jetblue and has been pretty happy with them other than they've raised their fee to $100 to match the other airlines.
posted by lia at 5:52 PM on March 16, 2010

I've flown and driven my cats on my moves. First, JFK to SEA, with two cats, ended up with one cat peeing on through the side of the carrier.

Second time, I drove them from SEA to LAX. Most stressful 24 hours of my life. I was exhausted and ended up getting a room at a hotel at the 18 hour mark. And woke up terrified that one of my cats had crawled up into the mattress springs (it is possible, and the mattresses are on metal frames), which luckily she didn't.

Just recently I flew both cats from LAX to JFK, and besides getting through security (luckily I had a second person to carry one cat through security with me, as a gate assist), it was the easiest option.

•You will have to take the cat out of the carrier and hold them as you walk through the metal detector.
• Carry just what you need to get onto the plane with you. In my case, that was my laptop bag and the two cats. My winter jacket and other stuff was already packed and in my suitcase and checked. Yes it would have sucked if my bag had been lost on the flight. But I didn't want to have to think about storing it.
• Think about what you will be wearing for the flight. I fly a lot, so I have shoes, my bag, and security gate process down. It made this last flight with the cats a breeze compared to my relatively amateur flyer self when I first did it. You will be stressed, so think of things that usually stress you about flying by yourself and what you can do to minimize that before you also have to deal with the cats.
• Fly direct (JFK-LAX or JFK-SFO on Virgin America is awesome, I had to buy two tickets but only one pet fee, I guess technically Midnight now has flyer miles). The added benefit of the two cats was I had the only open seat next to me on the flight.
• After talking to my vet, since my cats were healthy, I was able to take away their food and water 12 hours before the flight. This meant their stomach, bowls, and bladder would be empty for the flight. Clean the litter box obsessively if you know it will make your cat use it more. Again, this keeps you from having to deal with it at 35k feet.

If you can, stagger your "all your stuff move" and your cat move. I was lucky in that I had family in both areas that could take care of my cats while I moved my stuff across the country, and then come back at a later time to move the cats. Knowing that when I got back from the airport with both cats I could just let them out of the carriers into a space with a litter box waiting for them.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:14 PM on March 16, 2010

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