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I Road Tripped With My Two Pugs. I Have Some Advice for You

I don’t know exactly where it started, but somewhere between Alexandria and Asheville, we knew we were in the doghouse. Literally.

With our two dogs in tow, it was our first foray into taking a road trip as a family, and between the incessant barking, howling, crying, growling, and what our vet later described as “destructive behavior,” our chill little getaway down south hit a major road bump.

As most pet parents can attest, traveling with pets can be, well, challenging. From disobedient passengers to finding pet-friendly accommodations along with the subsequent pet fees, the alternative to boarding is not only cost-prohibitive but an unattractive option for many families, mine included.

The good news is that we’ve come a long way (literally) since that first trip and, as my partner and I began planning our grand exodus west from New Jersey to California this fall, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that traveling with pets does have its upsides.

“We’ve noticed a big uptick in guests traveling with their pets and decided to forgo our pet fee altogether,” Melanie Briley, the Director of Sales and Marketing for 21c Museum Hotels in Oklahoma City told Fodor’s. “Travel is tough enough right now and we want to make sure there’s one less hurdle for anyone who wants to come and enjoy some time away without making any sacrifices.”

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While COVID-19 does suck some of the spontaneity out of taking a road trip right now, we proceeded—cautiously and optimistically—on the course that would see us through 12 states, 10 cities, and nine pet-friendly hotels along the way. At worst it was challenging and sometimes frustrating, but when all was said and done, it became one of the most memorable and rewarding trips we’ve ever taken. From what to pack and where to stay, here’s what you need to know before taking a road trip with your pets.

Plan Your Route

Planning your route, including where you’re going to stop and stay, are the first in a series of crucial steps when it comes to planning a road trip with your pets. Unlike hopping on a plane, driving provides you the flexibility to see, do, and explore at your own pace. It’s best to have a game plan, but don’t be afraid to pivot along the way. The flexibility that comes with taking a road trip is the beauty of it all, but there are still a lot of considerations, COVID and otherwise, that you need to plan for.

When we first started mapping out our trip, we looked at the destinations we wanted to visit and took into account how we could do it safely. We started by setting a few simple ground rules: we could only eating outdoors, we would limit our stops and potential exposure to anyone outside of our bubble, and we would be booking at reputable hotels with clear and concise COVID protocols and cleaning practices.

James, Teddy and Bear at Cadillac Ranch off Route 66 in Texas
Teddy and Bear at The Blue Whale of Catoosa in Oklahoma

Of course, as this is a road trip and not an intergalactic mission to the moon, you will stop along the way. We aimed for places like parks and rest areas where we could stretch our legs while limiting our exposure to others. It also gave us a much-needed break along the way.

A big part of planning your route involves where you’re going to stay. Whether you opt for a five-star hotel, a three-star bed and breakfast, or an Airbnb, the first thing you need to do (after reading up on their respective COVID protocols) is to get an understanding of the pet-policy. Look at things like whether the hotel requires pets to remain in a carrier or crate, what the pet fees cover, and whether there’s a pet security deposit. It’s also good to ask about the amenities either on property or nearby for your pet. In general, we found staying in a room on the first floor or near a stairwell or exit to be the most convenient for easy access in and out, but more on that later.

How (and What) to Pack for You and Your Pets

In general, the rule of thumb when it comes to packing is less is more. When it comes to traveling with pets, during a global pandemic, that rule doesn’t necessarily apply. Whether you’re heading out for the long haul, a weekend getaway, or even a day trip that involves driving with your fur-babe(s), start by making a list of what you think you’ll need. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Among the essentials are extra food, plenty of water, and treats for you and your pets. Just be sure to have these items easily accessible when you’re on the move. Efficiency is key to a smooth ride. Among the best pet accessories we packed for our cross-country trip were collapsible bowls with carabiner clips for long walks or hikes, chew toys, a waterproof throw blanket, a pillow, and a dog bed that converts into a pet car seat and can be strapped in using a seatbelt.

Bear and Ted in The Petrified Forest, Arizona

Before you go, you might want to consult with your vet and make sure your pets are up to date on all necessary vaccines and flea and tick medications. Bringing a first aid kit and extra meds like an anti-diarrheal is never a bad idea and for nervous car nellies like our dog, Bear. You might also want to explore a CBD treat option or even stronger medications as prescribed by your vet.

If you have any certifications for your pet including an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) letter or ID tag, make sure you bring copies along. It’s also not a bad idea to have your pet’s medical history handy. When our sweet two-year-old rescue dog, Teddy, developed a rash somewhere between Oklahoma City and Santa Fe, we were able to quickly and easily find a vet in the area who was able to prescribe a topical cream.

Whether you have pets or not, but especially if you do, I highly recommend packing plenty of antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, and grooming wipes for your pet’s paws. Every hotel we visited provided complimentary personal protective equipment (PPE), however, bringing these will all come in handy.

How to Book the Best Pet-Friendly Hotel

From staying at a Hyatt Place off Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas, to a whimsical boutique hotel called The Inn of The Five Graces in Santa Fe, New Mexico, planning a trip during the coronavirus pandemic has its limitations. We knew going in that we wouldn’t be able to experience many of the cities we would be visiting in the same way we would have in a pre-COVID world. So, in addition to finding pet-friendly accommodations and having clear COVID protocols like mandatory masks in public spaces in place, we really wanted to stay in hotels that served as a destination in their own right.

Our first stop at an EVEN Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh provided easy access by foot to nearby Point State Park and featured an in-room gym and exercise equipment which was a great way to work out safely and in a controlled environment. However, the multiple elevators, long corridors, and parking lot off-site made this tricky to negotiate with two dogs. In Cincinnati, The Lytle Park Hotel, which sits on a beautiful urban park overlooking the Great American Ball Park, is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection and offers spacious pet-friendly rooms along with an open-air Italian restaurant concept. Subito was not only one of the best meals of our trip but also accommodated our pets. In our experience, Autograph Collection and Kimpton Hotels are among two of the best hotel brands when it comes to their pet-friendly policies.

Our next two stops found us at Graduate Nashville and Graduate Fayetteville in Arkansas, which were among two of our favorite stops. The Graduate’s partnership with Bark Box includes complimentary treats and toys at check-in. We loved how well these hotels incorporated their respective cities into the general décor and aesthetic, from the Dolly Parton-themed rooms and rooftop in Nashville to Fayetteville’s quirky Ozark-themed rooms, lobby, and decor.

Teddy and Bear at c21 Museum Hotel in Oklahoma City, OK
Teddy and Bear at Graduate Hotel in Nashville, TN

One of the most pleasant surprises along our route was our stay at 21c Museum Hotel in Oklahoma City. Set in a converted Ford factory, the hotel, which is home to an active museum, is set in an up and coming area in OKC and is a stone’s throw from touristy Bricktown. The no pet fee, along with strict COVID guidelines—including keeping guest rooms vacant for a minimum of 48-hours in between guests—was a huge part of the draw here, as is the pet-friendly open-air restaurant, Jones Assembly, next door.

By the time we arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, our two nights spent at The Inn of The Five Graces was nothing short of amazing. Our room on the ground floor came with a private patio along with an in-room “Pampered Pet Menu” that included nothing short of pet grooming, pet portraits, and pet massages (all for an additional fee).

Santa Fe is extremely pet-friendly in general, however, the hotel’s $75 per night and per pet fee, along with a one-time $500 security deposit fee for pets, was among the highest we’d encountered on our trip. Our last stop in Sedona at The Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock offered a pet package complete with dog beds, water bowls, treats for $100 non-refundable pet deposit upon booking, and guests with pets are offered rooms with a private terrace or balcony. If you can, request a room with a view of Bell Rock for ultimate impact.

Wherever you decide to stay, don’t forget to leave your housekeeper a little extra tip for each day you stay in your room. Regardless of what the pet fee may be, cleaning up after pets requires more time, more work, and that little extra money can go a long way.

Things We Learned and Would Do Differently

There’s a learning curve whenever you travel, and road trips are no different. While travel might look and feel a bit different for the time being, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. So be bold and go forth. But go cautiously, safely, and with a few of these tried, true, and pet-tested and approved tips in mind. And please, whatever you do, don’t forget to tip your housekeeper.