As you plan holiday travels, you can scan websites to compare airfares, study traffic patterns,  and monitor weather and delays. But when it comes to where your pet will be spending your vacation, there's a good chance that you're flying blind.

You have several choices: Take your pet along. Ask a friend to host your critter or house-sit. Hire a pet sitter. Or book a stay at a kennel. If you go with the kennel option, nonprofit consumer group Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook has identified several places that will do just fine by Fido, along with detailed advice on how to evaluate kennels and how to eliminate common pet peeves.

Checkbook surveyed its members and Consumer Reports subscribers about their experiences with area boarding spots. (It's still working on methods to survey pets.) For the next month, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of kennels to Inquirer readers at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/kennels.

If you decide a kennel is the best option, get recommendations from other pet owners, which Checkbook did on a very wide scale. Several of the kennels rated by consumers in its surveys received "superior" ratings overall from almost all their surveyed customers. But some kennels didn't exactly wow clients with stellar service.

Checkbook also found big price differences among local kennels. To board a medium-size dog for one week, for example, its undercover shoppers were quoted prices ranging from $154 to $315. That's just for the basic boarding. At some kennels, the extras can add up fast: Additional exercise can cost an extra $10 or more a day; administering a pill might cost $3 or more a day. Also, some kennels' extremely limited drop-off and pickup periods make it difficult to avoid paying for an extra day.

It can all add up to a substantial chunk of your vacation budget. Fortunately, some of the higher-rated kennels charge below-average prices.

Carefully check out any kennel you are considering:

  • Be wary of a kennel that won't let you inspect its facilities unannounced during regular operating hours. Some kennels insist that letting strangers walk through the entire facility needlessly agitates the dogs, but Checkbook argues that's a price worth paying for the benefits of openness. A second-best solution is for the kennel to allow visitors to view boarding areas from behind glass.
  • Check whether dogs have their own indoor and outdoor runs — large enough and with protection from sun, rain, cold, and heat.
  • Make sure animals are protected from one another, and that there is proper fencing to keep your pet in and other animals out.
  • If you are boarding a cat, does the facility have a separate space for it? Dog kennels can be extremely noisy and may traumatize a cat unaccustomed to constant barking.
  • Inspect for proper health protections. Notice whether the facility is clean and not excessively smelly, that there's adequate ventilation and that indoor spaces are kept at a reasonable temperature, that all admitted pets must have proof of proper vaccinations, that pets are carefully examined for signs of disease or parasites at check-in, and that there's an isolation room for sick animals.
  • Size up staff members. Do they answer your questions? Do they show affection for the animals? Are they available 24 hours a day?
  • Determine when the kennel is open for drop-off and pickup. A common complaint is that facilities don't have convenient hours, particularly on weekends.
  • Ask about arrangements for veterinary care, in case your pet gets sick. If you have a regular veterinarian, check whether the kennel will use him or her. (Expect to pay for transportation and vet fees.) If your pet takes regular medications, will the kennel administer shots or pills?
  • Can you check in on your pet while away? Many kennels now have webcams that let customers monitor their pets.

Another option is to hire a pet-sitting service to come to your home two or three times a day. Pet sitters' daily fees are usually more expensive than stays for a single pet at a kennel — they generally charge $50 to $60 a day for one pet. But most services offer discounts for additional pets, and some charge by the visit, regardless of the number of pets they care for. So if you have more than one pet, a pet-sitting service might cost less than a kennel.

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine (Checkbook.org) is a nonprofit organization that is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook's ratings of area kennels free of charge until Dec. 25 at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/kennels.