Flying with instruments and mastering the fine art of Bambi eyes

You’re traveling to Grandma’s for the holidays and you’d like to play her that Hendrix solo you just learned. Do you slap your Strat into a gig bag and head to the airport? You might as well run over it before you start. Protect your baby. I’ve traveled with my guitar for about twenty-five years so I’ve got some tips for you.

I know you’ve seen lots of people carry on instruments in soft gig bags. Those are the kind of folks who find one-hundred dollar bills in the street. A gig bag does NOT guarantee you’ll get that baby on the plane in an overhead or a closet, especially if the flight crew hasn’t had enough coffee yet.

Here’s what you can do:

Get a sturdy case. They can be expensive so you probably only want to do this option if you plan to fly often. Mark Leaf makes great flight cases, but they’re heavy. I used to have an Anvil-style case and it was great protection, although it weighed more than a Hummer. I always brought a soft case with me so I didn’t have to use the flight case once I arrived. I have an SKB case now. It’s not a flight case, technically, so I’m still taking a chance, but it’s not so bad if I can gate check it:

Buy your axe a ticket. It’s expensive, but at least it’ll be on the plane with you. If any airline employee gives you grief, wave that ticket under their nose. Politely. More on that later.

Bring a cheaper instrument. I know, I know, it’s not the same unless you have that autographed Martin with you, but how would you feel if it ended up a box of splinters? And really, would Grandma know the difference? I know a touring performer who bought a $300 guitar just for touring. It’s made of plywood, but it’s got a good pick-up so it amplifies well. She doesn’t ever have to worry about it.

Get smaller or fewer instruments. Can you do your gig with a ukulele instead? One djembe instead of three? A travel guitar? Jill Sobule does all her gigs with a travel guitar and it sounds wonderful. If you do stage work sometimes it’s all about the pick-up anyway.

Borrow/rent an instrument. Contact music stores in your destination city. I once rented a nice Larrivee guitar for $25 for an entire month. Friends or family might lend you one of their instruments.

You’ve decided to fly with your instrument. Now what?

Put it in a good case. A lot of breaks happen where the headstock meets the neck. Make sure there’s extra padding in that space under the headstock. I put an extra set of socks there. If the guitar doesn’t fit snugly, add some padding around the edges. Again, socks work well. (Hey! It’s a guitar case and overflow luggage!)

Make sure your contact information is in the case. I always throw in at least one business card. Your name and phone number on the outside of the case is a good idea too.

Don’t lock the case or they’ll pry it open with any means necessary.

Tune your strings down or not. I’ve heard conflicting info from repair folks and seasoned touring musicians. I detune all the strings a couple of steps, except for the high E because it breaks easily.

Try to gate check it. That means that you leave it at the end of the ramp leading into the plane. They hand carry it down and up. You pick it up at the same place.

Don’t ask permission. Walk with purpose and act like you know they’ll let you gate check it. Better yet, like they’ll let you bring it on the plane with you. Always be polite. Yelling at an airline employee will only make you feel better for 30 seconds.

If the ticket agent insists on following the rules, calmly ask to talk with someone else. Say “Is there someone else who might help me?” I once got out of an $80 oversize charge because I did this.

When all else fails, cry. Before you go, practice Bambi eyes in front of the mirror. Tell them your 90 year old grandma wants to hear “Purple Haze” before she dies. Smile. Appeal to their good nature.

Insurance is a good idea. I get mine through my union Local 1000. Most airlines only cover enough damage for the average traveler and I’m guessing that your Taylor is worth more than a suitcase full of t-shirts and underwear.

Once you get past the ticket agent, then what?

Calmly walk through security, assuring them that you are gate checking the instrument, and go to the gate. Again, don’t ask. Act like you know you can carry it on. If it’s a small plane, they might tag it for a gate check. Don’t panic. Gate checked items are usually treated better than regular checked baggage.

Usually is the operative word here.

I once was asked to put on a gate check tag; I removed it before I got to the end of the ramp and then tried to carry it on board anyway. There was no way the flight attendants would let me on with that guitar – I might whip it out and play “Smells Like Teen Spirit”all the way to St. Louis. My guitar ended up in luggage limbo. I won’t do that again.

Sometimes they’ll put a regular luggage tag on it. Ask whatever divine being you know to protect it as it goes into the belly of beast. Nothing else you can do at that point.

Sometimes you win the lottery and can bring your instrument on with you. This usually happens on a larger plane that isn’t full or with a nice flight crew. Maybe it depends on how many of them are musicians. I’ve had flight attendants put my guitar in the first class closet. One time, it was the pilot who insisted on doing it.

Board early. An empty overhead will fit your axe much better than one crammed with overstuffed carry-ons.

Thank everyone responsible. You want to pave the way for the next hapless musician.

Don’t think that a smaller instrument gets you a Get Out of Jail Free card. I’ve been asked to check in my mandolin. I’ve also been instructed to check in an empty soft guitar case, even after I demonstrated that it could bend and fit into an overhead.

I’m painting a rather glum picture of airline employees and for that, I apologize. Like anyone else, they’re just trying to do their job. The long hours and pay cuts can’t be fun. Neither is arriving at your destination to find tire tracks across your guitar case. And yes, that happened to someone I know.

Have a great time at Grandma’s.


About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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15 Responses to Flying with instruments and mastering the fine art of Bambi eyes

  1. Roia says:

    Jamie, I had to laugh, because I’ve always used the “walk like you know you’re allowed to bring your guitar on the plane with you” approach. It is a perpetual anxiety, but I think your points are all spot-on! Thanks for taking the time to say it out loud in a coherent blog post!

  2. I have had a guitar stranded in LA for the past ten years and I have no idea how to get it back to the UK without it getting trashed or without it costing more than two guitars to do so.

  3. Great Post Jamie, I have been dealing with this issue for years while traveling. Try backpacking, hiking out to your campsite with a guitar, oh the joys but you need that music. I guess the harmonica is a better choice but not really that good haha. So I went travel size and now I have a bunch of these little friendly guys. Some cheaper than others and some down right expensive if you wana go Carbon Fiber perhaps. So this resulted in my and some friends throwing together a website on travel guitar reviews.

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  5. CJP Staff says:

    International flights in a soft guitar carry back pack for a 5k ovation12string Legion was no problem for years as it fit in over head luggage area when flight was not booked solid…. But if flight was booked the crews placed it in the far back cabin on the bed.
    Yes, all long flights have beds in the tail section for employees to lay down for naps. Silly to ck a very expensive guitar among luggage when it can lay there in the cabin or on the floor next to the bed in the back and sometimes in the coat closet if that is not full. Maybe as a passenger you have to wait to be last off the plane but having your expensive guitars in good shape arriving with you is more important than first off the plane at your destination don’t you think?

  6. Dean says:

    Well written article. The airlines once “ate” my 30 year old Yamaha that I’d hitchhiked everywhere with. An interesting note. When you fly domestic you are covered with $2500 insurance, when flying international you are only covered with $9 per Kilo. A very harsh realization.
    But above all, just like this article reads, Politely act like you own the place and don’t ask permission. I even hide the instrument from the ticket checker and walk back to the gate, it seems to give you a better chance of carrying on or gate check. Happy trails………

    • jamiebobamie says:

      If you act as an authority you’ll be treated as an authority. 🙂

      Extra insurance is always good idea if you have a valuable instrument and/or if you travel a lot. I get mine through my union and it’s reasonably priced.

  7. Pingback: Care and feeding of your guitar and other stringed instruments | Jamiebobamie

  8. Back in 1995, I was loading stuff into my car after teaching for the day. I leaned my Ibanez in its (standard semi-hard) case against the bumper by the trunk, and then got distracted talking with a friend getting in the car beside mine. I ended up hopping into my car, backing up, and left the parking lot for home.
    At home, there was a message on my answering machine from the school secretary saying a COP had happened to drive through our parking area, noticed a guitar (in its case) in the throughway area, and brought it into the school office. The secretary figured it had to be mine!
    I drove straight back. The case needed repair where my tire had started going over it, but then the case had sort of skidded out sideways – guitar was fine, and I repaired the case with some green duct tape! I doubt many guitars survive such a close call with a regular case 🙂

  9. Pingback: Around the Campfire with Jamie Anderson | Round World Travels

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