Air travel with your guitar can be a stressful endeavor. Airports are stressful places already, with the chaos of security lines and restrictions. Add a guitar to the mix and it's no wonder most musicians opt to leave it at home.
I've travelled all over with my guitar over the years. The good news is you can safely travel with your guitar, and do it in a relatively stress free way. I'm going to share a boat load (plane load?) of information and tips on how to successfully travel with your guitar on commercial flights.
Should Your Guitar Be A Carry On Or Checked?
The first thing you'll need to decide is if you're going to carry on your guitar or check it. This should be done before you even head out to the airport. Ideally several days or weeks in advance of your flight. There are a few different variables that may impact which option you choose.
What Size Is Your Guitar?
If you have a full sized Dreadnought or Jumbo acoustic guitar, you may run into space issues if you want to carry it on. I typically travel with a nylon string Classical/Flamenco guitar which is a little smaller. I haven't run into any issues carrying this size of guitar.
How Big Is The Aircraft?
Regional prop planes are going to have way less space than say a Boeing 777. You can see the aircraft type when you book your flight, and it's unlikely to change prior to the day of your flight. Regional prop planes or smaller MacDouglas aircraft have either 2 rows of 2 seats, or 1 row of 2 seats and a row of 1 seat. These planes might be tougher to carry your guitar onto.
These smaller aircraft might not even have any overhead bins. You can call the airline your ticket is booked under for more information about the aircraft.
Are You Flying First Class Or Economy?
We know that first class overhead bins are rarely filled to the brim and generally have more space than economy class. On almost every flight I've taken in the past few years, the airline has requested people check bags at the gate. So it would be maybe a little more difficult trying to carry your guitar on a fully booked flight.
How To Carry Your Guitar On A Flight
Let's say you've decided to carry your guitar on a flight. There are several advantages to doing this. First, you can keep your guitar with you at all times. This peace of mind is priceless and it's less work for you. You don't have to be as meticulous with how you pack it, since it's going to be jostled and handled less than if you checked it. You also wont have to worry about it getting lost, as luggage sometimes does.
But the main reason I like to carry my guitar on is so I can play it when I have layovers in between flights. I like to play my guitar in the waiting areas. It's a good way to pass time and I meet some cool people this way.
There are two big thing I've learned over the years that really helps make this work.
Make Sure Your Guitar Looks Like A Backpack
In other words, something you can carry like a backpack. I'm not talking about a flimsy cloth cover. You can get a really well padded gig bag or a foamcore case that is light, compact, and still provides protection. The airline will see it more as a backpack and more likely to fit in the overhead bings.
Make Sure You Get There Early
If there isn't a priority boarding option with your airline, you should be in the front of the line to ensure there is space in the overhead bins. You may have to pay for priority boarding, but for me it's worth it.
One other thing you can do is talk to the agent at the gate to see if there's anywhere else (like a closet or the crew rest area) that your guitar can go. If you're nice and courteous, most of the time they can make an accommodation for you. Make sure you get to the gate way earlier than you might if you didn't have your guitar. You'll want to be the first person they see.
I will caution you that you should talk to the personnel at the gate, not before security. They'll always tell you to check it, but the gate agents are way more flexible. For US based travel, you're legally allowed to carry an instrument on a flight, but not all agents realize this. It's helpful to go to the FAA website and print out this rule to have just in case.
Remember to be polite, but definitely be confident.
How To Check Your Guitar
If carrying your guitar on a flight is too stressful you can always check your guitar. If you do this, you'll need to do a few things to ensure your guitar makes it to your destination safely.
Here are few steps you'll need to take if you're going to check your guitar.
Preparing for Check In
Before we go on, a quick note about de-tuning your guitar. Some people say you should and some people say you shouldn't. The air pressure is different on flights, somewhere similar to being at 8000' of elevation (even in the cabin). This will mean your guitar will move around a little. I would suggest tuning your guitar down a half step or a step. This will cover any changes without adding additional stress to your guitar.
Make sure you have a durable case. You'll want to spend a little money here. You don't necessarily need a flight case (though that's the most ideal option if you have a few hundred bucks to spend on it...). But make sure you have a solid case that can take some bumps.
Once you have your case you can go through the check in procedure.
Wrap the Tuning Keys. Use bubble wrap around the headstock. This is a vulnerable part of the guitar so this will go a long way in preventing damage.
Raise the Neck. Put a t-shirt under the neck to raise it just a little, and give it a little shock absorption.
Fill in the Gaps. Fill any gaps around the body with folded up t-shirts so your guitar is snugly in one place.
Paper Under the Strings. This will help keep the strings from vibrating too much.
Perform the Shake Test. Close your case and give it the old shake test. If you hear your guitar moving make any adjustments you need to.
A Few More Tips For Traveling With Your Guitar
After you've packed your case, you can put it in a box big enough to hold your guitar, with some additional bubble wrap. This is how guitars are shipped to stores. You can also take your guitar to the oversized area. It will skip some of the handling things get at the check in counter.
You can add Fragile stickers to your case. I'm not sure if this works but it wont hurt. Adding a name tag like you would for luggage is a must. Make sure it has you name, number, and address in case it gets lost.
Allow your guitar to adjust a little bit when you get to where you're going. Your guitar went through a much different climate on the plane, and your final destination might be a different climate than your home. Give it a day to adjust.
And lastly, you can always check out a folding travel guitar if you're really worried about it. The two brands I'm aware of are Journey Instruments and Voyage Air Guitars.
Traveling with your guitar, or let's face it, they're really our babies, can be stressful. But hopefully these tips have been helpful to you. Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips for traveling with guitars that have worked for you!