The Expat Cat 🐱 ✈︎

How to Flee the Country #3

Our cat, Nietzsche

Our Cat, Nietzsche

"Can the cat go to England?"

I don't remember when exactly Audrey asked about the cat, but it was sufficiently early in the employment application process that had the answer been an unqualified "no", you would not be reading this newsletter now, because we wouldn't be moving to Cambridge. Luckily for you, the answer was a "yes". Or, more accurately, "yes, but," followed by a long list of caveats. While we quickly determined that it was both physically and legally possible for the cat to go to England, as the months passed between acceptance of the job offer and actually boarding a plane, it remained to be seen whether it was practically possible.

Rabies, Rules, and Regulations

To begin, I researched everything I could on getting a dog or cat into the UK. I started with the basic customs and health requirements. Almost all the rules concern keeping this ugly little thing out of Europe:

the rabies virus under magnification

The rabies virus

Historically, the way to prevent the spread of rabies was to put animals in quarantine and wait to see if they developed symptoms of rabies. While an effective measure against the spread of animal-borne diseases, quarantines are stressful for both pets and pet owners alike. To avoid quarantines, the European Union has established rules by which pets could be moved freely into and throughout the EU. Thus the approach in Europe is to uniquely identify a pet with a microchip, vaccinate the pet against rabies, and document the vaccination with respect to the identifying microchip.

Europeans can get their pets a "pet passport" after a single visit to their veterinarian. For the U.S., meaning for us, the process is more complex, and details must be monitored carefully or some minutia could derail the whole process. Microchipping, vaccination, and a full check-up must be completed, but because of incompatible standards when it comes to microchips, we had to ask our vet to special order a microchip compatible with microchip readers in Europe. All in all, our cat had to visit the vet three times to complete the requirements for moving to the UK, and it was not enough for our vet alone to complete the extremely confusing paperwork (PDF) attesting our cat's vaccination; we also had to submit the paperwork to the United States Department of Agriculture to be certified and stamped. And, of course, all this needed to be completed on an exacting schedule, as only a rabies vaccine given after implantation of the microchip counts, and the EU only considers the paperwork completed in the US to be valid for ten days after its endorsement by the USDA. It's the sort of bureaucratic challenge that, as Audrey put it, is practically designed for you to screw it up.

Transportation Options

Clearing the cat into the country as a legal matter was one thing, but physically getting her there was another. Our initial research revealed that, on top of the EU regulations, the United Kingdom added some of their own. Specifically, the UK decided that pets may enter the country only through certain approved channels. For air travel, pets are only approved to enter the UK as manifested cargo. Compared to the more common approaches of allowing animals to fly beneath the seat in front of you (for pets in small carriers) or as excess baggage (for pets in larger carriers), the manifested cargo approach is significantly more expensive (about as expensive as an extra plane ticket) and inconvenient (requiring drop off and pick up of the animal many hours before and after the flight). So we started looking for alternatives.

Dog aboard Queen Mary 2

Luxury pet travel

One option is to go by sea, aboard the RMS Queen Mary 2. Aboard the QM2, the cat would've been housed and cared for in the ship's top-of-the-line kennel, while Audrey and I enjoyed the luxury accommodations of a modern ocean liner. To our surprise, a basic stateroom and pet care wasn't more expensive than flying to the UK with manifested cargo. We seriously considered this option until we learned that the QM2's sailing dates weren't compatible with our schedule.

We soon focused on a much more convoluted approach: flying to, of all places, France. We found a blog post that described a novel approach to getting to the UK with a pet. Instead of flying to the UK directly, they suggested this itinerary:

  1. Fly to France (with a pet in-cabin for a mere $200)

  2. Drive to Calais, France.

  3. Drive onto a Eurotunnel Le Shuttle train, that moves cars between Calais and Folkestone, England.

  4. Drive to any destination in Great Britain.

You're probably wondering: why not take a passenger train instead? Because, unlike practically every other train service in both Great Britain and continental Europe, animals are not allowed aboard Eurostar trains. Pets are allowed to travel in cars aboard Eurotunnel Le Shuttle trains (as well as most ferries that cross the English channel) for a small fee. Given the relative flexibility and reduced expense of transporting cars, several "pet taxi" services offer pick-up in France (Calais or points beyond) and drop-off in the UK, particularly aimed at British vacationers taking their dogs to France or Spain. Alternatively, some car rental companies allow cars to be driven across the Channel, provided you handle the return trip (or pay a hugely expensive drop-off fee). Since you don't have to wait around for cargo at origin and destination, this option actually shaves about an hour's travel time from the entire trip. Overall, flying to France looked like our best option.

Change of Plans

At least, that was our best option right up until the point that we actually had to book airfare. Once we were ready to buy plane tickets, flights to France were sufficiently (think 2x) more expensive than flights to the UK (including cargo costs) that we couldn't really justify choosing the French connection. So we reevaluated, and picked a flight from Philadelphia to Heathrow that fit our schedule.

Before it wasn't so important, but I have to mention it now: there are many, many restrictions on shipping live animals as cargo or excess baggage that do not apply to pets in-cabin. In an effort to reduce the number of animal deaths and injuries in transit, airlines (in the US) and aviation authorities (in the EU) have imposed strict rules about how and under what conditions an animal may travel. Most of these apply to the animal's carrier and how it must be prepared to safely transport an animal. But a few are out of the hands of the animal's owner. Specifically, there are now restrictions on the maximum and minimum outside air temperatures as well as what aircraft may carry live animals as cargo. Since we'd planned to depart in the middle of August, we ran the risk of exceeding the maximum temperature, so we booked refundable plane tickets to give us the option of rescheduling if the cat wasn't permitted to go. Finally, we submitted an inquiry with the airline's cargo system, which confirmed that the flight we picked out would be aboard an aircraft permitted to carry live animal cargo and gave us an estimate of the cost, although live animal cargo could not actually be booked until 14 days before a given flight. Aside from the question of the weather, things seemed under control.

Several weeks went by, and then, two weeks before our scheduled flight, the airline's cargo system notified us that our selected flight would not be accepting live animals as cargo. While we had been waiting, the European Union issued new regulations barring live animal cargo aboard some variants of Boeing 757 aircraft. In response, our chosen airline decided to discontinue live animal cargo aboard all of their Boeing 757 flights, which happened to be the kind of aircraft we were scheduled to fly on!

Change of Plans (Full Circle)

Until this point, we'd been somewhat stressed about the move. This wrench in our plans induced a certain level of what I would characterize as panic.

Initially, we sought out alternative flights to the UK. We soon found that there seemed to be no flights that could meet our requirements. We wanted to avoid connections and layovers, as it would increase the risk of delays or mishandling of our feline cargo. We also wanted to avoid flying from distant or hard-to-get-to airports, like Boston Logan or JFK, because additional travel time would increase the overall time Nietzsche had to spend in a carrier. Moreover, we found that many additional flights were not open to us at all, as Boeing 767s were subject to the same live animal cargo restrictions as 757s!

On a whim, Audrey checked for flights to France again and due to an error filling out an online form, found that round-trip flights to France were about half as much as one-way tickets. In fact, Audrey found tickets which were cheap enough that our total travel cost, door-to-door, was about the same as flying to the UK with cargo. We returned to our original plan of flying to France.

Travel tip: Did you know that buying a one-way ticket is a huge waste of money? That's one of several things we learned during this whole saga. If you need to make a one-way trip somewhere, book a round-trip ticket and simply do not board the return flight. This is known as throw-away ticketing. Technically speaking, throw-away ticketing is against nearly every airline's terms and conditions but, as long as you don't make a habit of the practice, repercussions are unlikely. It's one of several exciting airline booking ploys.

The Expat Cat

We booked the tickets, and then booked what I hope will be the most expensive taxi ride of my entire life. We took the cat to her final vet visit, to complete the paperwork, and overnighted the paperwork to the USDA to be approved, stamped, and overnighted back in a pre-paid envelope. With all of our stuff in the care of the movers, or in our baggage, we turned the house over to the landlord and crashed at Audrey's aunt's house (thanks, Sue!) to pass the few days until our flight.

Off We Go

Given all the stress and complication prior to our departure, the actual trip was sort of… pleasant. We drove up to Newark Liberty International Airport with the cat noisily angry about being put in a carrier in the car, when she had previously been allowed to sit on a lap with a leash and harness. But once we left the car, and entered the unfamiliar realm of the airport, the cat went eerily quiet and did her best to imitate just another piece of luggage.

Luggage and cat carrier

The cat tries to blend in.

At check in, we had to talk to an actual agent to pay the pet fee and get the airline-approved tag for the cat's carrier. At security, there was some dexterity required, because the cat's carrier had to go through the X-ray machine. So the cat had to come out of the carrier, and Audrey went through the metal detector and had to hold out both her hands to be swabbed for explosives, while simultaneously holding the cat. But once we were past security, nobody seemed to notice or care that we had a cat with us, probably due to Nietzsche's incredible impersonation of an unremarkable carry-on.

Soon after, we boarded our flight, at which point there wasn't any turning back.

airplane parked at EWR

Delta Airlines Flight 270 from EWR to CDG

We were worried that the cat would meow and make a fuss during the flight. Instead, the cat, in her terror and subsequent resignation, was mostly silent while stowed safely beneath the seat in front of us. She meowed just a little, when she wanted to be pet for reassurance, and Audrey took her to the bathroom a couple of times to offer her some water and replace the absorbent material in her carrier.

stowed cat

The high that day was 97F (36C), so we were glad to have her in the cabin.

in-flight map

A long flight: 3,600 nautical miles

drinking time

We made it aboard! Time for a drink.

I managed to sleep a little, but eventually breakfast was served and we began the approach to Charles de Gaulle. During the approach, we just managed to spot the Eiffel Tower in the distance. After almost 7 hours in the plane, we had arrived in France.

Getting out of the airport was a challenge, as we had to wait for nearly an hour in line at passport control. I had been preparing myself to speak a tiny bit of French to the passport control officer, but he didn't say a word to us, so all I had to say was bonjour and merci. We collected our bags and headed to the exit doors.

On our way to the doors, we passed by French customs. Though there were no signs asking for declarations, we stopped and told the nearest customs inspector that we had a cat. He looked a bit bewildered, as though he was wondering why anyone would care about that, and told us to continue on. However, to enter the UK, we needed the cat's form stamped at our port of entry in the EU. We showed him where on the form we needed a stamp, and he took it away and reappeared a few minutes later. After months of preparation, we had finally completed the form required to enter the UK!

After some effort to first find the taxi driver and then to find his car, we piled into a Peugeot station wagon. And headed North through the French countryside:

The biggest wind turbines I've ever seen

The drive from Roissy to Calais was pretty boring and it was rather warm, so I managed to nap a little bit before arriving at Calais—as did the cat.

Awww look at that cat

In the car, after an exhausting 7 hour flight, Nietzsche enjoyed being out of her carrier.

The Calais terminal

In contrast, Calais was exciting. First, we had to stop at a small building separate from the main entry booths to have the cat's microchip scanned and her paperwork reviewed. After the cat was approved to enter the UK, the taxi driver told us that the last THREE TIMES he had brought travelers with pets through, something was wrong with their paperwork and they had to stay in France for another 24 hours. I was glad that he waited until after the cat's paperwork was approved to tell us that!

We had to wait through a long line of cars to go through UK passport control. Much like France, our passports were collected, stamped, and returned to us without comment. Legally, we had entered the UK!

We drove over to a staging area, where additional train staff directed us onto the next available roll-on, roll-off train:

A Le Shuttle locomotive

Roll on

The train ride was sort of quiet and uneventful. It takes about a half hour. It's a little bit dark and the car sort of sways back and forth as it goes through the tunnel. I fell asleep until the announcements began for arrival in the UK. The gist of those announcements, by the way, is this: turn your clock back one hour and please remember to drive on the left side of the road.

Driving through the UK was a lot like driving through France, although the taxi driver seemed more confident driving on the left side of the road, and drove much faster, and the roads themselves were a bit curvier, so the cat, of her own volition, went back into her carrier, where she now felt safe:

Sleepy cat

It's amazing how quickly she forgot she hated this thing!

Finally, we arrived at the B&B where would be staying, jet-lagged and exhausted, but with one uninjured, adorable cat:

The cat on the bed at the B&B

The furriest foreigner

Whew! Sorry, that was really, really long. Next time: A shorter issue about how some things in the UK are just… not quite right.