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Flying with a GuitarProtecting your guitar in-flight

Flying with your guitar is scary business.

Remember that song “United Breaks Guitars?”  Well, I can confirm — nothing’s changed: they still do!

I recently flew United with my acoustic guitar, a Taylor (just like in the song), and it came out on the other end with a nice big crack across the body (featured in the photo to the left).

I tried to take the guitar on my flight as a carry-on (packed in its hard-case with a humidifier), but unfortunately it was one of those tiny commuter planes with barely enough room for coats. So down below it went, into the dreaded cargo-hold where dry, sub-zero air gets to have its way with sitka, spruce, and rosewood.

And that’s just the flight. Then the guitar gets hulked from the belt to the cart by the baggage guys— where it’s returned to me in its new-and-not-improved condition.

True to the song, United was not sympathetic to the plight of my guitar, so the search for an affordable luthier/repairman begins.

But enough about me and my #FirstWorldProblems. Let’s help protect you from a similar fate when you’re flying with your guitar.

5 tips for taking your guitar on a plane

1. Book seats towards the rear of the plane 

If you’re flying a commuter plane, your guitar is most likely going in the hold (unless you can talk the attendants into letting you take up the whole coat closet); but if it’s a bigger plane, there’s a chance you can take it on as a carry-on item.

You’ll increase those chances the earlier you board the plane. By booking a seat at the back of the plane, you’ll get on the flight early, head straight back to your row, stuff that guitar in an overhead, and sit down quickly. Now it’s everyone else’s problem. They have to fit their carry-on items around your guitar.

2. If you’re given a gate-check tag, take your guitar on the plane anyways 

A certain amount of playing-dumb can be helpful. If you’re told at the gate that you need to leave your guitar at the bottom of the jetway (so it can be placed in the hold), let ’em put the tag on the handle of your guitar. THEN — carry your guitar handle so your hand conceals the tag and walk onto the plane. If no one stops you, refer to tip #1 for further instructions. If you are stopped…

3. Politely ask the attendants if your guitar can be stored in the coat closet up front 

Your guitar is an expensive and fragile item, and it’s essential for your livelihood, right? Politely explain that to the crew and ask if anything can be done to accommodate you. You’re not going to get anywhere putting up a fight, so stay cool. But try to exhaust every option before you let them put that guitar down below.

4. Consider the pros and cons of hard-cases vs. gig bags

A gig bag? On a plane? Are you CRAZY!? Believe it or not, some folks have better luck traveling with their guitars in gig bags — not because it provides better protection, but because the vulnerability of a guitar in a gig bag is an easy way to get the crew to sympathize with you. Assuming, once again, that you’re not on a small commuter flight, a guitar in a gig bag has several things going for it:

* it appears smaller to the gate crew (so they’re less likely to tag it for gate-checking)

* it more easily fits in an overhead

* if room in the overheads is limited, it fits more easily in the coat closet

However, there’s no getting around the fact that a guitar in a gig bag is not well-protected. IF you are forced to put your guitar in the hold, you definitely want it to be in a sturdy travel case. A sturdy, sturdy travel case. A sturdy, sturdy, sturdy travel case. The kind you can throw off a building into a river and know your guitar will be safe. (Obviously my hard-case did not pass this test).

5. Make sure your guitar is ready for “the elements” 

If you make it onboard with your guitar, there’s far less to worry about. The cabin is pressurized and kept at a reasonably humane temperature. The air is dry and creepily recycled, but if you have a humidifier in your guitar and you’ve taken your vitamin-C pills, you have little to worry about. But if the guitar goes below, rapid changes in humidity and temperature can wreak havoc on your instrument.

I don’t have one prescription for all guitars and cases (some people tell you to slacken your strings to avoid extreme tension in the neck, or to pack the case with additional materials like socks and newspapers, etc.) — but I would say it’s wise to check with the makers of both your guitar and hard-case to see what extra steps they’d recommend for safest travel.

 ————–

Hopefully these tips help you better prepare for flying with your guitar. I’d love to hear your tips too. How do you travel with your guitar? Let us know in the comments section below.

How to keep 
your guitar safe during air travel

[Photo of cracked guitar from my Instagram page.]

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  • The coat closet has worked for me every time. Great tip!

  • John Pippus

    I”m familiar with the ideas above and have used them all with varying degrees of success. On my last trip, I rented a guitar before leaving, over the phone, from a big music store. This worked out well. By phoning before you get there, you can determine what they have in stock, and you rent it right there on the phone with your credit card.

  • I'm convinced that the baggage handlers will purposely try to break anything they see as a musical instrument. I've had more than my share of instruments and other gear broken by these angry, vindictive guys. You can't tell me that going down a conveyor belt, or packing the stuff onto the cart, or into the cargo area of the plane is anywhere near enough to break case and guitar. I've never seen a suitcase get broken or smashed – I'm sure it's happened, but not near as often as with musical instruments. Banjo, effects board, Fender amp, all broken (all well packed and in hard shell cases); and my bass – had the black fuzzy stuff from the case embedded in the neck from being slammed around so hard. And this ain't the half of it. So, never, and I mean NEVER check your guitar, bass, or other musical instrument as baggage. If you can sneak it past the first ticket or checkout counter, by all means, do it, because almost always, the flight attendants will let you put it in the closet.

  • Well, step one on this list is to find out ahead of time what type of aircraft you will be flying. That information should never be a surprise. Whenever you book travel online, via kayak.com, orbitz, expedia, or whichever service you like, it will list the airplane types for each leg. Simply google the aircraft type and you will get an idea whether you will be forced to gate check your precious cargo. With the financial difficulties of the airlines over the past several years, nearly every regional flight is so-called commuter-type of small craft. The big 737s and 747s are now found nearly only between hub cities or other major-city routes like NY to L.A. You can check out the type of aircraft on SeatGuru.com — anything with 2 seats each side, or 2 seats on one side and 1 seat on the other is a small aircraft with very limited interior baggage spots.

    The Canadair CRJ-700 is a popular small aircraft United uses (2 seats on each side), and the Embraer series jets are also popular small craft (2 seats on 1 side, 1 seat on the other). http://www.seatguru.com/airlines/United_Airlines/United_Airlines_Canadair_CRJ700_C.php

    The idea to rent an acoustic at your destination is an even better idea. But if you do have to travel with your acoustic, then perhaps a military-grade flightcase is the way to go. Something like this: http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/3i421718/

  • When several years ago, I started to notice that bringing my bass guitar as carry on baggage, was causing too much issue with flight attendants because new airplanes had less space for big carryon luggages, company police, or just bad attitude from the attendants, etc, I decided to switch to a hard case, and following a friend suggestion, I started to use the ATA Roto by SKB on all my flights, as checked baggage.
    Since than, never had problems. Plus that company has an amazing “life-policy” on their products. One time Alitalia broke one of the case locks, they replace me with a new one withput any charges.
    Each time, never found a scratch on my basses, and I use to put two basses with a double gigbag. Anyway, if you got a real good gig bag that fits in it, in my opinion that’s the best solution to travel without thinking “what this company will let me do” or “they will agree to let me bring on board” etc.

  • Good advice. Thanks for sharing those links. I'll definitely be checking the type of plane from now on.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Cool. Thanks for the case recommendations. I have a friend who does something similar with his acoustic guitar and banjo in a single case.

    @ChrisRobley

  • This is good advice, though it might be easier on long haul flights. I once took two guitars on a long haul from San Fran > London… one with a flight case. They put ’em in first class closet. I wanted to marry those ladies. Looking a little worried and concerned doesn’t hurt either. Just be as nice and unassuming as possible with the flight attendants at all times, whatever goes down.

  • Abba Eban

    You forgot the most important point – you absolutely MUST loosen the strings!

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  • Sorry about your guitar. Was it insured? I always stuff soft things in my guitar case, more so because I tend to run out of packing space in my luggage. Plus, I don’t carry a handbag any more on commercial flights if I’m travelling alone. Happy to now know that stuffing your guitar case is a recommendation. So I’m protecting my guitar too! Bonus. Having your guitar as a carry on is a must. I find that cabin crew are always accomodating. This is one of the reasons I prefer to fly in the US. US airlines allow it. We’re getting there in Europe. Good read. Thanks for the post.

  • fedx

  • Matt Summers

    Also, beware where the airline will leave it when offloading. my les paul sat unattended for 30 mins at barcelona till i found it. over at http://fretstyle.com/guitar/secrets/ i will share all the secrets needed to play like a god!

  • nolalily

    If you're just traveling for pleasure what would ya'll think to renting a guitar once you reached your destination?

    • I've done it before. Of course the bummer is that you're not playing your own instrument, so it helps to get some practice on the thing before a performance.

      @ChrisRobley

  • James Walsh

    Are all baggage handlers and attendants frustrated musicians ?

    • Cian O’Madra

      Frustrated, dysfunctional sub-humans.

  • Josh Summers

    Huge bummer about your guitar!

    I’ve been traveling with a guitar for quite a few years now and I can attest to the value of each of your suggestions. I wrote a similar list that added a few other ideas, two of which I think might help others here: consider flying with a travel-sized guitar if you can or just consider shipping the guitar.

    10 Tips for Flying with Your Guitar

  • Marrit de Vries

    Thanks for the article! (Im’m dutch so my englisch is not ‘native’ but im trying;-)
    This April I will fly from Amsterdam to Managua with United and I need to bring my guitar with me. Does anyone knows if it is possible to bring the guitar as hand luggage+ your ‘normal’ shoulder bad? United is not responding on my guiston and im afraid that its gonna cost a lot of money… Thanks everyone!

    • IF you can get onto the plane with the guitar, you can generally also have a shoulder bag (at least that’s been the case in my experience). BUT… there’s always that IF. Where I live, there aren’t a lot of major flights taking off. Just lots of smaller planes going shorter distances to nearby hub airports. Thus, I’m always flying the first leg of my trip on a smaller plane where the guitar wouldn’t even fit into the overhead compartments. So I’m almost always stuck gate checking it for the first leg at least.

      My advice: get a super duper sturdy travel case; make sure your guitar is well humidified; and then try whatever you can to keep it with you when you travel; but if they block you at every turn, at least it’s well protected.

      @ Chris Robley

  • Taylor

    Well, this is awkward. I am both a gate agent for an airline and a guitarist. We don’t have any small planes. As a guitarist, I empathize with the traveling musician and try to accommodate them but there are rare times when the only option is to check the guitar. I know there are horror stories out there about damage or loss of one’s prized axe. The rare times that I had to check a guitar, I personally hand carry it to the cargo hold and it is the last thing to get loaded on. I advise the destination city’s airline ground crew of the fragile instrument and to have it hand delivered to baggage claim. The norm is to have the guitar last on the plane, and last on the baggage cart for baggage claim so that it is always on top of the other luggage. These practices are not 100% perfect but they greatly minimize possible damage. I also travel with my guitars and I use hard shell cases only. I never use a gig bag just in case I have to check my guitars.

    • Hi Taylor,

      Thanks for commenting. Good to hear that, as a gate agent, you’re super careful with peoples’ guitars. Hopefully that’s the rule, and the broken guitars are the rare exception.

      @ChrisRobley

  • Wallace Collins

    More details on the latest FAA regulation saying you CAN carry on your guitar: http://wallacecollinsentertainmentlawblog.blogspot.com/2015/01/new-ruling-for-air-travel-now-you-can.html

  • Nice. Glad it helped. Happy flying.

  • Antonio Espinosa

    better try with an hamonica