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.
[Photo of cracked guitar from my Instagram page.]