Hotels and Emotional Support Animals: What You Need to Know

Chocolate lab and owner at hotel reception deskIf you’re traveling, it can be a stressful experience, one where you need the companionship of your emotional support animal (ESA) more than ever. But, you may worry about whether or not the hotel will accept your ESA or if extra fees will be involved. In this article, we’re going to explore the answers to some of your most pressing questions regarding traveling with ESAs.

What Is an ESA?

First, it’s important to define our terms. ESA stands for “emotional support animal,” meaning an animal companion that helps support their owner’s mental health. Unlike service animals that need specialized training, an ESA often starts out as a household pet with which a person develops a strong bond. This animal can become an ESA, giving support and balance to someone struggling with any number of mental health conditions.

ESAs vs. Pets

You may wonder if there is a difference between an everyday pet and an emotional support animal. The truth is that the lines between these definitions are often blurred when it comes to hotel policies due to the lack of certification needed for ESAs. For some people, there is no difference. An ESA is a cat, dog, or even bird that gives their owner a sense of calm and stability.

But for many who depend on ESAs in daily life, their pet is more than a pet. They may perform more specific tasks, such as approaching, cuddling, or nudging their owner when they sense stress or anxiety building in their owner.

To ensure that you and your ESA receive special accommodation in hotels and other situations, emotional support animals can receive the endorsement of a medical professional. We recommend that to anyone who will be seeking arrangements for their ESA in a variety of situations.

Is an ESA a Service Animal?

Technically, no. To be legally recognized as a service animal, the animal (usually a dog) has to undergo a rigorous training program—usually from a young age—to be taught specialized tasks and then placed with a person in need of their services.

These dogs may be trained to help guide those with vision loss, detect dangerous blood sugar levels in someone with diabetes, or alert when their owner is about to have a seizure and get them to safety. These are just a few examples of specialized service dogs.

Emotional support animals don’t require such rigorous training or certification. As mentioned before, they usually start as family pets that start to support someone’s mental and emotional health. For many, though, they are just as essential to health and well-being as a service animal.

Traveling With ESAs

As mentioned above, travel can be stressful, so many people would prefer to have their emotional support animals on hand with them. Thanks to ADA legislation, service animals are allowed in any public place in the United States. This includes hotels and even airplanes. However, since emotional support animals are not trained and certified in the same way, their acceptance is not guaranteed.

When flying, it’s best to communicate with the airline in advance since policies vary. For example, some airlines may not allow an ESA to travel in the cabin with their owner during the flight, and others need at least 48 hours’ notice to prepare for an animal traveler.

For hotels, however, there are a few key ways to find out if your ESA will be accepted and some strategies for working with the hotel staff.

Hotels That Allow Service Dogs

Under ADA compliance, all hotels must accept service dogs since they are considered separate from pets and serve a medically necessary role. The same rule applies to Airbnbs for certified service animals as well. However, some hotel chains go above and beyond when it comes to how they welcome animal guests. Here are a few of our favorites.

Loews Hotels: This chain has luxurious hotels sprinkled throughout the US. Their hotels welcome pets and service animals alike with amenities just for them. They provide animal travelers with food, toys, bedding, and even litter boxes.

Best Western: Best Western is a ubiquitous hotel chain in the US, offering affordable hotel stays throughout the country. Beyond their budget options, the Best Western Hotel Group also has more luxurious facilities. Almost universally, their locations allow pets for a small nightly fee. However, that fee is always suspended for service animals.

W Hotels: The W Hotels brand actually encompasses many hotel chains you’ve probably encountered before, such as Marriott. This brand has a range of hotel options from luxury, to business, to long-stay suites, and unlike some of the others on our list, it has a wide international presence. Many of their locations worldwide accommodate pets, though limitations and fees vary somewhat depending on which hotel you book, so be sure to follow up with them directly before arrival.

Sonesta: Mainly located in the US, with a few international locations, Sonesta hotels are geared toward leisure travelers looking to relax. With their PAWs (pets are welcome) program, they simplify the process of traveling with animals by helping you book specific pet-friendly rooms and supplying you with some of the amenities your animal companion will need. They are also proud supporters of the Best Friends program, a charity to help stray animals find forever homes.

How to Find an ESA-Friendly Hotel

While an ESA is not the same as a pet, due to the lack of certification, they can sometimes fall under the same category when it comes to hotel policies. If you are looking into hotels beyond the ones listed above, the best way to be certain that your emotional support animal will be allowed in your hotel is to check their pet policy.

Many hotels will have specific policies allowing certain types of pets to stay along with their owners. Usually, it’s limited to dogs (sometimes with breed or size restrictions) and sometimes cats.

If you are staying at a major hotel chain, pet policies will often be listed on their website. Detailed policies may also be found in the fine print while booking, but with large chains, restrictions may vary somewhat from location to location. This may be to comply with local laws or simply to work with certain limitations within the facility itself. Therefore, it’s often best to contact the hotel directly to iron out all the details before your stay.

How to Communicate With Hotels

When getting in touch with the hotel, it’s best to look for the local phone number of the specific location you’ll be staying at. Calling the hotel chain’s main contact number will likely end up with you put on hold and passed around to various representatives until you can speak with someone at that physical location.

A good strategy to find the local number is to look up the hotel’s location on your preferred map app and select the listed phone number there. Just make sure it’s not an 800 number, as that will be the hotline for the chain. If it has a local area code, it’s likely the direct number to the front desk.

It’s best to call the facility during regular business hours (9 am to 5 pm) in the hotel’s time zone to ensure a member of the management staff will be on hand to answer any questions in case the front desk staff is not briefed on ESA policies. Calling during regular hours is still a good strategy, even if you are staying at a small independent hotel. Smaller facilities may not have staff at all hours of the day.

Often, pet-friendly hotels will dispense with the usual pet fees for ESAs to respect that they are in their own special category of protected animals within the ADA. Hotels that normally do not allow pets may sometimes make an exception for emotional support animals, particularly if you have an ESA letter.

Get an ESA Letter

While emotional support animals do not need any kind of certification, you still may want to consider getting an ESA letter, especially if you and your animal companion will be hitting the road together a lot. An ESA letter ensures that your request will be taken seriously and your emotional support animal will be acknowledged as legitimate.

What Is an ESA Letter?

An ESA letter is written by a doctor, and it is similar to a prescription. It is the doctor’s testimony that your emotional support animal is necessary to your health and well-being, similar to how a certified service animal cares for their owner.

Such letters can help clear the way for people with emotional support animals, particularly when they are seeking housing and special accommodation while traveling. It’s another way to show that your ESA is essential to you, similar to how a service animal can be.

How to Get an ESA Letter

It’s important to make sure you get your ESA letter from a legitimate source, especially if you will use it to assist you in getting housing that accommodates your ESA at some point.

To ensure your letter is accepted everywhere, you can ask your doctor to draft it with their license credentials on their letterhead. The letter should state that your ESA is necessary for your treatment and should be signed and dated by them. The doctor should be a medical professional whose care you are currently under.

Using Your ESA Letter at a Hotel

When you contact the hotel, you can let them know that you have documentation for your ESA that you can send to them in advance or provide them with a copy on the day. Many hotels will not require to see a copy (and depending on the state, they may not be legally allowed to hold a copy of your letter), but you still may want to take one for your own peace of mind.

Remember that, just as with service animals; you do not have to disclose personal details about your condition or the services that the animal provides for you. However, if you experience interrogation or harassment from the staff, you should report it to the hotel’s management.

Travel With Your ESA With Peace of Mind

There is still a long way to go when it comes to the acknowledgment of emotional support animals. Still, just like service animals, they enable many people to live healthier and happier lives. Unfortunately, not every hotel will accommodate ESAs and their owners, but slowly, more and more hotels are adapting their policies and educating their staff on emotional support animals.

Doing a little research in advance and getting an ESA letter can smooth the way quite a bit so that you and your emotional support animal can have the best possible hotel stay.