Recently I was lurking on some guitar related forum from Holland, when a certain post caught my eye. It was a guy who wanted to take his guitar on a flight but was confused by all the regulations and the ins and outs of it. What followed was a huge list of advice, most of which seemed a bit unnecessary to me. So I decided to write this post to elaborate a bit on my personal experience taking guitars with me all over the globe. Hopefully the next batch of tips can encourage fellow musicians to take their music life on the road along with everything else.
So here it is…after 10 years of traveling the world, here are my best tips I’ve learned on how to take your guitar on the plane…
Tip number one: show up with it
That’s right, just show up with the darn thing on your back and they will tell you where you can shove it. Hint: ‘up my ass’ has never been one of the suggestions. I never check the website for the specifics in the regulations regarding allowed luggage, so I do not speak from an expert standpoint on the official details of these issues. However, I do speak from years of experience taking a full size electric guitar on everything from transatlantic trips in Boeing 747s all the way to hopping over the Norwegian fjords in those Wideroe planes that look more like flying buses.
So just show up, and let them voice their objections about you bringing your instrument. A few weeks ago I boarded a plane in Russia and the overhead compartment was just a little too small to fit my gigbag, so after a deep sigh from the flight attendant, she generously placed it in a closet at the entrance. That’s about the most inconvenient it’s ever gotten for me once I got it on board.
A guitar bag is not your standard carry-on luggage
Don’t stand there pouting at that box that needs to be able to fit your carry-on trying to cram in your guitar bag. It’s not the same thing. Really, 100% of the times in my experience they don’t even weigh it. Years ago, traveling with my backpack and a separate guitarbag all over the US, I was quite surprised that on more than one occasion, the check-in lady herself suggested that I could bring on both bags as carry-on. This was because my backpack was considered the actual carry-on luggage, and my guitar the special item, the same way you can be holding a separate laptopcase for example. I know people who travel with a guitar, and also their modeling amp in a carry-on case without problems.
Still, I have gotten hints, especially from smaller airlines, that it isn’t always the case that you can take both. I always only use my guitarbag as carry-on, if only for not making navigating the airport and the plane a huge hassle.
Check-in any guitar-related parts and tools that can be considered weapons
Even though the previous paragraph points out that in some cases you can carry on absolutely everything, there are still some essentials that you may bring for your guitar that could be considered dangerous.
I have a small bag that contains my spare strings, Allen keys, Leatherman, cleaning gear, … I’ll chuck this in my backpack for check-in, and upon arrival I can move it back to my guitarbag so I always have it with me wherever I go to jam. If you follow this guideline, they shouldn’t be taking anything away from you at the security check.
Soft case versus hard case
One time I showed up at the check-in of KLM in Amsterdam with my guitar on my back. The lady looked over my shoulder, and asked me if it was a soft case and not a hard case, as if she’d memorized the regulations but had no idea what they actually meant. The point she made was that a hard case would have to be checked in.
I say this to stress that if you want to take your guitar as carry-on, make sure it’s in a backpack case. I use a Mono flight bag, because they’re freaking amazing and can take a punch, but as long as it’s any bag with a bit of padding, your musical companion shouldn’t have too rough of a time during your trip.
Play the sentimental value card or the delicate instrument card
A few times in the past they have given me a bit of a hard time due to limited carry-on space or fully booked flights, and one time they didn’t give up and I had to check in my acoustic guitar.
When this happens, I act up, bringing up that it needs to be treated with care because:
A) It’s a delicate and expensive fine-tuned instrument
B) It has great sentimental value (Guitarists do have the reputation of being willing to choose saving their guitars over their own mother from a burning building, if it ever comes to it, so this argument flies very well)
Usually they have been kind and understanding, and even on a full flight they just placed it aside and gave it back to me while disembarking. A few months ago in Stavanger, the one time that they did absolutely have to check it in, they tagged it so I would also immediately get it back after the flight. This last way of doing things is, I believe, the same as checking in luggage at the gate, so it doesn’t end up squished under a pile of other suitcases. After this flight I asked where the hell it was, since I didn’t understand exactly what they’d done with it, and the pilot personally ran underneath the plane to grab it off a cart and hand it to me, so it was confirmed that it was placed on a special pile.
I know a common tip is to loosen strings if you do need to check it in to make sure it doesn’t crack under the tension of extreme temperatures and pressures in the sky. I can’t confirm this, because I have never done this. Even in the past I have flown with hard cases checked in as special luggage, and the guitar came out fine, so all I can say is that it hasn’t seemed necessary to me yet.
So kids, that’s my advice! No need to worry too much about taking that guitar, because the dozens of times I’ve done it, everything went perfectly fine.
How about you fine folks? Ever ran into trouble trying to take your precious with you on the road? Any other thing that I have not mentioned that seems necessary to make sure it arrives safe and sound? Let us know below.