Musicians have special needs when they travel. Getting to their destination is only half the battle. The other challenge is how to bring their gear along with them, including their guitars. Unfortunately, the experience is not always smooth or pleasant. Many have shared their horror stories about being rejected at the baggage inspection or seeing their precious instruments being mishandled.
If you are about to go to a gig or vacation with your guitar, then you have to know what you will be up against and what you can do to ensure a stress-free flight. In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about traveling with guitars – can a guitar fit in an overhead bin? Do you need special preparations? Let’s find out.
Are guitars allowed on airplanes?
Before booking that flight, you should be certain that guitars are allowed on the plane. Laws differ in every jurisdiction. Going around the US should not be a problem as the FAA Modernization and Reform Act which took effect in 2012 permits small instruments as carry-on baggage. The guitar is specifically mentioned in Section 403 as approved for entry in the aircraft cabin free of charge, provided that it is small enough to fit the baggage compartment or the underside of the passenger seat. The law also states that instrument is subject to the availability of space at the time of boarding. Should your guitar be too large for these compartments, then you will have to buy seat space to carry it with you.
So global travelers need not worry if they are traveling to or across the US. They can have their guitars close by as a carry-on instead of declaring them as extra luggage. However, this doesn’t mean that every airline provides the same amount of care for instruments. Check the reviews to learn about other people’s experiences. Know which to avoid and which to choose. As for travels outside the US, you will have to do some research in each country. They might have slightly different policies when it comes to baggage.
Prepare your boarding strategy before booking a seat. As the law states, storage is dependent on the availability of space. You need to make sure that you’ll be one of the first people to step inside the cabin. Place your guitar inside the overhead cabin as soon as you can before other passengers fill those up. Call carriers to ask about their boarding policies. Some will let those with seats at the back to board first. Others might do the opposite. Book a seat that provides you with strategic advantage. You’ll have peace of mind and you won’t have to jostle for space.
How Will A Flight Affect A Guitar?
Air Pressure Changes
We might not notice it but the air is bearing down on us at about 14.7 pounds per square inch or PSI. This same pressure is acting on all animals and objects at the surface of the Earth. As the altitude increases, the pressure decreases. Those on top of a mountain might only experience 12 psi. This makes it harder breathe oxygen since the molecules are more dispersed. Planes climb to 30,000 feet or higher where they experience less than 4 psi. It is almost impossible to breathe at this point. That’s why plane interiors are pressurized to stay between 11-12 psi. All of these pressure changes can be enough to make guitar wood snap unless you counter them.
Even if you are lucky enough to get to the overhead bin first, you will still have to share it with other people. Passengers to the front and back will stick their bags inside as well, sometimes roughly. Your guitar might get squeezed between different objects. You might also need to maximize the bin by placing other carry-on bags inside, either on top of the guitar or beside it. The physical pressure can take its toll, especially if the bins are packed to capacity. Assume the worse possible scenario and prepare for it.
Your guitar will be inspected and handled by the airport personnel. Not everyone will understand how precious it is to you. Some might treat is as regular luggage that they can toss around. It’s a painful sight that is enough to give musicians a heart attack. You might also see it bumping in the car as you ride to the airport, or in the plane as you try to find a suitable space. Keeping your guitar close and being aware of your surroundings will help avoid this but they won’t guarantee a bump-free travel. You just have to anticipate it and find ways to protect against dents and scratches.
Airports are busy and chaotic. Thousands of people are always coming and going with a large amount of stuff. You will just be one of the many. It is not uncommon for passengers to lose some of their things due to theft or forgetfulness. Technical issues beyond their control might prevent them from seeing their guitar for a while. For example, you checked it in as luggage and the plane was overloaded. The guitar might have to follow on another flight so you’ll have to wait a while for a reunion. This is one of the reasons people prefer having it as a carry-on.
What Should You Do to Pack A Guitar For a Flight?
So you have decided to go for it and pack your guitar for your upcoming flight. You’ve booked your plane tickets and your hotels. Now you just have to make sure that the instrument is as ready as you are for the journey. Consider the following tips to have a smooth flight:
Loosen the strings.
As previously discussed, air pressure and temperature changes can be detrimental to your guitar. These can act to increase the tension in the strings. If it reaches an unbearable level, then the guitar neck can snap in two. That’s a grim end to a highly prized instrument. At the very least, it’s the strings themselves which might break. Experts recommend that you loosen them before you travel. After all, you won’t need to play it mid-flight. Keep the strings relaxed to be on the safe side. Bring tuning equipment so you can make the proper adjustments once you land.
Purchase a nice travel case.
It can take a while to find a guitar that truly suits your physical proportions and style of play. Once you have it, you have got to take care of it. You already know how potentially damaging travel can be. You can’t say no to every travel opportunity so you might as well embrace it. Go on flights with open eyes while preparing for the worst that could happen. Invest in a high quality travel case to keep the guitar protected. Seek out the trusted brands and allow yourself to splurge in proportion to the guitar’s value.
Add lots of padding.
Even while inside a good case, the guitar may still be knocked around by people who simply aren’t trained to handle them properly. Make it a point to ensure that there are lots of padding inside to cushion the blows. Some cases are stuffed with foam to keep the unit in place. Place it inside and shake gently to see if you’ll hear any noise. This indicates gaps that you may want to fill up. You can use anything soft for padding such as socks, shirts, towels, and the like. Cover all of the cavities until you no longer hear noises when you shake.
Consider getting a travel guitar.
If you don’t want to take chances with your main guitar, then consider taking a less valuable guitar for your travels. This will drastically reduce your anxiety and stress levels. It won’t matter much if anything happens to it since you can readily replace it with another unit. You could also buy a specialized travel guitar for this purpose. This may be a sensible move for those who plan to travel a lot since the unit will be used quite a bit anyway. Travel guitars are typically smaller and lighter. Some are even foldable so that they can fit inside a backpack.
Ship it to your destination.
If you encounter a situation wherein you can’t carry your guitar with you, then you will have to find alternate ways to send it over. For example, you may consider shipping it to your destination. Pack it up with care to guard it against less than ideal handling. This may not be the most desirable way to get an instrument where you want to go but it will do in a pinch. Just make sure that you get insurance for your peace of mind. Use a respected shipping company and you should not encounter any problems, but it’s always good to play it safe.
Airlines that Allow Guitar as a Carry On
The law may be friendly towards instruments on planes but the level of compliance differs among airlines. Some are enthusiastic about accommodating musicians and their needs as they wish to make it one of their selling points. Others are not as eager or a clear about it in their policies. Check official websites to see any mention of guitar storage. If you can’t find substantial information online, then you should probably give them a call just to make sure. Delta, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines are often cited as being among the best options when it comes to this issue.
It is not just about saying yes to guitars. Each airline has specific requirements that you should be aware of. For example United Airlines ask people to place their instrument in a hard case instead of a gig bag. This provides better protection for the instrument which, in turn, shields the carrier from negative press. Others may allow soft cases or gig bags but they explicitly state that they will not be liable for any damage while in transit. A few are so friendly like Air Canada that they let those carrying a musical instrument to board ahead of other passengers.
TSA-approved Guitar Cases
The Transportation Security Administration has forged partnerships with various stakeholders in the music industry to look after the needs of those who travel with musical instruments. The TSA has also approved certain guitar cases for jet-setters. Manufacturers that market these usually have hard cases with quality latches, cushions, handles, and accessory storage. Some have been created to accept a wide range of shapes and sizes. Others are specifically targeted for the most popular models. The former is great for most types of guitars while the latter provides a much better fit if you want to minimize jiggles, knocks, and noises.
Remember that TSA-approved does not guarantee survival in case of travel hardships. It just means that the case is equipped with everything that the security personnel would need to open the item for inspection. Approved locks have a Travel Sentry logo that looks like a red diamond. They could be cable locks, 4-dial locks, or locks with key. TSA personnel have a special key that can be used to open these if they detect anything suspicious. Contrary to what many might think, it is not necessary to have a TSA approved luggage lock just to fly. Any lock will do but non-TSA approved units can be cut-off if they can’t open it. This is a hassle that is best avoided.
Traveling with guitars can be a nerve-wracking experience if you have not done it before. Make sure that you prepare for it by reading as much as you can and getting the things that you need in advance. Ask around to know more about other people’s experiences and learn from them. Note the various ways that a flight can affect guitars and do whatever is necessary to counter these effects. You’ll be glad you did.