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How to Travel with String Instruments

cello in airplane

Summertime is upon us, and so is the glory of festival and touring season. If you are lucky enough to travel around to perform music at venues all over the country or world, chances are you’ll spend at least a little bit of time airborne en route to your next exotic destination. Many of us string-slingers have plenty more than the hot weather to sweat about when it comes to flying with our instruments. (No travel plans this summer? Check out our course on DIY touring and hit the road today!)

There are more than a few highly publicized incidents of instruments being destroyed in transit. In 2009 country-western singer-songwriter Dave Carroll wrote an acclaimed song about how United Airlines destroyed his guitar by tossing it in handling, and then refused to compensate him for the damage (until his song went viral).

There are also countless stories of musicians with priceless, irreplaceable instruments either being lost or denied entry to a plane due to specific regulations. Luckily, in January of this year, the FAA issued a Final Rule on the matter that went into effect in March, clarifying the matter for many musicians and relieving many, many headaches. The website FlyingWithGuitars.com (yes, that’s a thing) has a great breakdown of the technical details of the ruling. Some takeaways from the new rule:

  1. Small instruments are allowed as carry-ons on a first-come, first-served basis, and are subject to the same policies as any other carry-on.
  2. An additional seat may be purchased for a larger instrument (such as a cello) at no additional cost above the regular seat price, provided that it also meets the safety regulations of the airline. This usually means it must be in a bulkhead seat, and not in an exit row.
  3. Any instrument may be checked. Yes, even a full-sized upright bass, given that it meets the FAA’s weight and size restrictions for cargo.

As an electric bassist, I’ve had varied luck over the years with carrying my oversized four-stringer onto planes, and I fall into a sort of gray area in terms of what “size” of instrument my bass guitar is. My main policy has been just to be as kind and accommodating as possible to the airline staff, and more often than not that has lead to success in boarding my beloved into the plane’s cabin. Here are some basic things I recommend doing to ensure the greatest success rate getting your baby safely to the other side:

  1. Research, research, research — Look up the model of the plane on your flight, and see what dimensions the overhead bins are to ensure your instrument will fit. Know what to expect beforehand.
  2. Show up early — I owe a lot of my success at getting my bass on planes to showing up at the airport early and, kindly, with a smile, approaching the gate and requesting to pre-board, so that there is room enough in the overhead for my bass. I also always ask for a gate-check tag, just in case, as it shows that I’m trying to make their lives easier, too. Be patient going through security. If you have a computer, hard drives, cables, and other electronic gear, do your best to place it somewhere visible, or expect your case to be opened and searched.
  3. Be nice — If you are searched, be friendly and conversational rather than hostile or defensive. TSA agents are people too, and generally appreciate musicians and enjoy chatting with them about what they play and where we’re going. The same goes for gate staff and flight attendants. Remember, as musicians, we have one of the greatest jobs in the world, so don’t take it for granted!
  4. Always travel with a heavy-duty case — this should go without saying, but never, ever bring a valuable instrument such as a guitar to an airport in a soft-padded case. Even if it does make it to the overhead bin, it has a good chance of a hard-plastic suitcase getting shoved into it. There are some great new soft-shell travel cases, such as those made by Mono Cases (which I and other Soundfly team members personally use), which are soft cases but have incredible padding that can withstand the trials and tribulations of overhead bin use or of gate-checking. Otherwise, your best bet is a (ideally, custom) fitted hard case.
  5. Be prepared — If worse comes to worst and you do run into trouble with anyone along the way, be sure to bring a printed copy of both the airline’s posted instrument policy as well as section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, in case of any disputes.

If you keep yourself informed and operate in a courteous and respectful manner, you’ll find most people are willing, if not happy, to help you get your instrument to your final destination, intact.

For further information, check out the TSA recommendations for travel with instruments, and this great breakdown by the DOT on traveling with instruments.

(Image via Flickr/Modenadude)

Have any creative tips for traveling with instruments? Share them in the comments below!

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Martin Fowler

Martin composes and produces music for commercial, educational, and artistic media for several companies, and records and performs with many NYC-based artists. He also produces original electro and house music and remixes as MDFX, plus trap/jungle/bass music and remixes as WNNR, and will release his debut solo record later this year. His favorite cloud type is the lenticular cloud.

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