Flying with a guitar: use soft case if you can bring it to the cabin with you
Flying with a guitar: use soft case if you can bring it to the cabin with you – ViewApart (depositphotos)

Bringing a guitar with you on a flight might just be the most nerve-racking experience for any guitarist. We’ve all heard horror stories of instruments that are thrown around as they are loaded into the plane’s hold, crushed with other cases, allowed to fall to the ground, and more. And then there are the times when guitars are brought to the plane and the crew won’t let you enter with them. It’s definitely not a relaxing time.

However, now that you know that these kinds of experiences happen, you can make sure to prepare for them and avoid any chance of your guitar getting broken during a trip. We’ve put together the best tips for flying with a guitar so that you can do all you can to ensure the safety of your beloved instrument.

Tips for Flying with a Guitar

Pick the Right Case

Before booking your flight, you have to make sure you look into the best flight cases for guitars. Soft cases are lighter and easier to carry. However, if you’re not sure if you will be able to bring your guitar into the cabin, it’s a risky move to use one. A soft case isn’t going to protect your guitar from being loaded into the hold with all the other luggage.

A hard case or sturdy flight case is definitely the better option if you’ve decided to check your instrument into the hold. The same goes for if you’re unsure of where it will end up. Hard cases are a lot stronger and will protect your guitar from being crushed by suitcases. That being said, you’ll have a tough time taking your hard case on board. The chance of it fitting into the overhead lockers is smaller.

So, before making your decision, see if the airline will give you a guarantee that you can take your guitar on board. From there, you should have a better idea if you want to go for a hard or soft case.

Hard case is better to protect your guitar during a flight
Hard case is better to protect your guitar during a flight – Julia Kaufmann (pixabay)

Detune Your Guitar

We all know how differences in temperature can influence a guitar’s string tension. Even just the changes from season to season can have an effect on how often you need to tune your guitar. So, imagine how much the change in air pressure and the big drop in temperature in the hold of a plane can make a difference.

An even bigger issue is the tension on the neck of the guitar. By loosening the strings, you’re removing some of the existing pressure and making it less probable that your instrument will be damaged in transit. If the tension becomes too high from the changes in atmospheric pressure, even a smaller impact from another piece of luggage can cause the headstock to snap off or the neck to crack.

Keep this in mind before packing your guitar. A small amount of detuning can be the difference between a safe and a broken instrument.

Pack Your Case Tightly

Choosing the right case should give your guitar plenty of support, but there will always be a few spaces that can allow for some movement. Make sure to pack around your guitar as much as possible to avoid any wiggle room.

You can use paper or any kind of soft cloth, like t-shirts or small towels. You can actually save space in your travel bag by putting some of your clothes in with your guitar. Put in as much as is necessary to stop your six-string from rattling around inside the case. Give special attention to the headstock, which is generally less supported than the body of the guitar and carries a lot of the tension due to the strings.

Remove Any Non-Essentials

You may be used to carrying some extra gear in your case like strings, batteries, tuning keys, etc. All of these items lie loosely in your gig bag or hard case and can bounce around when your guitar is on the move. Even if they’re stored in their own compartment, they can spill out with any large knocks to the case and may cause their own damage. It may not be much, but why risk it?

Another important reason to remove non-essentials is because your case might be searched if the security team at the airport notices anything suspicious on the X-ray. Liquids like string polish and pliers for cutting your strings are going to show up as potential threats to security. Your case will be searched and you’ll have to undo all of your tight packing. If this happens on the way to the hold rather than the cabin, you won’t be there to repack the case in the best way. And you definitely don’t want someone who isn’t a guitar expert and who’s in a rush trying to fit everything back in.

Smaller parts of the guitar like knobs, selectors, or whammy bars should also be removed. If your guitar bounces upward, one of these pieces could snap on impact with the top of the case.

Add Packing Instructions to Your Case

As we just mentioned, if your case is stopped by security and searched, the chances of them repacking it properly is quite low. You can include packing instructions inside the case in a visible spot so that anyone who needs to close up the case again will have a better idea of what goes where.

An important part of this process is laying out the instructions in a clearly ordered way without using terms that someone who has never played guitar will understand. “Support the headstock” and “cover the bridge” are sentences that can be confusing and might even reduce the chance of your case being repacked properly.

Make the Lid Secure

You may be used to just using the latches on your case, but they’re not going to be enough when traveling. If another piece of luggage hits off them, they can easily open or even be broken. The less latches, the more likely it is that the case will pop open and your guitar will fall out.

Hard cases tend to come with some kind of lock, but using this isn’t the best idea either. If your guitar does get stopped at security on the way to the hold and the agents can’t open the case, they can bust the lock in order to make sure everything is safe. If you do want to use the case’s lock, attach it to the case in a visible way so that it can be used if necessary. Tying it with a string to the handle of the case can be a good choice, but make sure to tape it down so that it isn’t flapping around. It could get caught in something on the way through its journey.

The best way to secure the lid of your case is with tape. Packing tape is a good option, as it doesn’t leave a residue like duct tape. Security agents will need to remove it if they need to search the case, but at least they can reattach it afterwards.

Measure Your Case

There are several weight restrictions to keep in mind when packing your guitar. These restrictions can differ from airline to airline. There are also different limitations depending on if you check your case in as a carry-on or into the hold.

The same goes for the length and width of your case, especially if you’re hoping to bring it into the cabin. The overhead lockers can be different sizes on different planes, so you need to make sure your guitar will actually fit into them.

Both the weight and the length can cause you to incur additional fees, so confirm what dimensions your case can be and then measure it so you don’t end up paying more than expected.

Guitar cases come in different sizes, make sure it adhere to the airline baggage policy
Guitar cases come in different sizes, make sure it adhere to the airline baggage policy – bizoon (depositphotos)

Add Your Contact Info

You can do your best to protect your guitar, but it doesn’t mean that it won’t get lost. There is always a chance that your case doesn’t make it to the plane and is left behind. It can also get lost on its way from the plane at your destination to the baggage claim. It might not take long to track down, but adding your contact info gives you a better chance of finding it quickly.

Make a note of your full name, home address, the address you’re going to be staying at for the next while (if you have it), your phone number, and your email address. You can stick this to the outside of the case and put a copy inside it as well. If you forgot to do this at home, the airline you’re flying with can give you a tag for you to fill out.

Understand Section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012

One of the most important things you can do before booking a flight in the U.S.A. is to research section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. These changes were brought in so that all airlines would have standardized practices regarding musical instruments being transported on airplanes.

An important part of the document shows that you are allowed to bring your guitar into the cabin as long as certain safety measures are met. Your guitar can be considered carry-on luggage if you make sure to follow these measures. So, if anyone tells you that you can’t enter the plane with your guitar case, direct them to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and get comfy.

Bring Your Guitar as Carry-On with a Zone 1 Ticket

When buying your ticket, you can increase your chances of bringing your guitar on board by getting a Zone 1 ticket (also known as priority boarding). This means that you board first and, therefore, get first-pick of the overhead storage space. This means you can keep your case safe and close to you.

Not all airlines offer these types of tickets, so you can try getting to the airport earlier and cueing up to board as soon as possible. Keep in mind that if you travel by bus to the airplane, being first on means you’ll be the last off, ruining your chances of getting to the plane first. You can usually tell if you’ll be walking straight on to the plane or taking a bus depending on the gate.

Buy Your Guitar Its Own Seat

This tip isn’t for everyone, especially travelers that are on a strict budget. Some airlines allow you to buy a second seat for your guitar. This means it will be by your side throughout the flight, not stuck in the overhead storage or crushed in the hold. Although it’s not the cheapest option, it will give you the peace-of-mind that you might be looking for while traveling with a guitar.

Don’t forget to buy adjacent seats for you and your guitar. It will be hard to keep an eye on your instrument if you’re 20 rows apart.

Buy a Non-Stop Flight

Your possibility to buy a non-stop flight can depend on your budget and the availability of flights. Whenever you can, book a flight with no layovers or changes. With layovers, your case will be moved from the plane to the airport, sent around the baggage warehouse, and then out again to another plane. On a non-stop flight, you’ll know that your guitar won’t need to be transported more than necessary.

Contact the Airline

It can be common to feel unsure about traveling on a plane with a guitar, so feel free to clarify any doubts with the airline you’re traveling with. They all have customer service teams who know everything there is to know about their company’s regulations.

You can ask about bringing your guitar as a carry-on or checking it into the hold, how much space is in the overhead lockers and at your feet, what kind of fees you could face for bringing oversize luggage to the gate, etc. Once you have this information, you can also ask for any written documentation that confirms it. This way, you’ll have proof that you can pull up on your phone at the airport in case anyone tries to say otherwise.

Look Into Excess Valuation Insurance

When you buy a plane ticket, you should automatically get liability insurance that will cover the cost of damaged or lost luggage. In the U.S., domestic airlines have standard liability coverage of up to $3,300 per ticket. This can be enough if your guitar is worth less than this amount.

However, if your guitar and case are valued at over $3,300, you should look into getting excess valuation insurance to cover the extra costs of potential damages. Most airlines offer higher levels of insurance and you can also check third-party companies.

Find Out About International Policies

Another step to take when booking your flights is to look into international policies in the case that you’re flying abroad. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 may not apply to all international flights, nor does the standard liability we mentioned above.

You may need to review the safety measures for boarding with a guitar case as well as the size of the storage space in the cabin and any additional fees for transporting musical instruments.

Arrive Early

As we mentioned above, getting to the airport early can increase your chances of being the first to board. But that’s not the only reason to arrive a few hours before your flight. You’re going to go through a few different steps before actually boarding, and each one can cause problems for you and your guitar.

If you’re checking a bag in before going to the security point, the airline staff might try to convince you to check in your guitar as well. Let them know that you’ve packed according to section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and that you’re sure you don’t want to check the case in.

Next up is the security check. We’ve already gone over removing any non-essential items to avoid having the case inspected, but you never know if the agents will want to take a deeper look into it. Factor in some time for this eventuality. Finally, you’ll get to the gate. Again, if any airline staff want you to gate-check your case, let them know you’ve already discussed it with their check-in colleagues and that it’s the approved size for carrying on to the plane.

Request a Green Tag

In the scenario that gate staff find some issue with your case and are adamant that you have to put it in the hold, try and get a green tag for it. This means that it won’t be put into the bottom section of the plane at the same time as all the other luggage. It should be placed inside after the rest of the suitcases and unloaded first. Some airlines will even bring it back to you at the air-bridge, so you can carry it from the door of the plane through the airport instead of having it knocked around on the baggage claim belt.

You can also check if the gate staff have extra “Fragile” stickers just as an additional reminder to the baggage crew to be especially careful.

Ask About Using the Storage Closet

Here’s a tip that should only be used as a last resort. If you notice that there is little space left in the overhead lockers, check with one of the flight attendants if you can leave your guitar in their storage closet. Most larger planes have extra space for the attendants to store their own belongings. If you’re lucky, there will be enough room for your guitar case.

Again, you should only try this if you’ve run out of options for storing your guitar safely. There might not be space in the closet, or you might ask a flight attendant who doesn’t want to add your luggage to their designated storage. Many of them are kind and polite and wouldn’t have a problem with your request, but it’s best not to count on it.

Check Your Guitar When You Land

Your adventure isn’t over when you get off the plane. If your guitar ends up in the hold, you’ll need to pick it up from the baggage carousel and make sure that it’s in the condition you left it in. Don’t just check the outside of the case to see if it has dents or scratches; open it up and look over the whole guitar.

If the case was thrown around carelessly, there might be damage to the guitar on the inside. If there are any issues, you should report them right away to airline staff in the airport. If you only discover any damages after you’ve left, the company will have an easier time avoiding responsibility by claiming that the damage was done somewhere else.

If you do need to file a report, get a copy of it and the contact details you’ll need from the person who helped you make the claim. It’s easier to follow up on possible repairs if you have a report as proof.

Get a Travel Guitar

Most of the problems you’ll find with bringing a guitar on a plane come from its size. One way to avoid these issues is by getting yourself a smaller instrument. Travel guitars are fantastic alternatives to regular-size six-strings. They tend to be smaller and cheaper, but are still made of durable materials.

Although their sound can suffer slightly from the smaller dimensions, there are options that are so good that they are used by professional musicians for recording and performing. So, if you’re tired of worrying about your guitar being broken in transit, buy the best travel guitar for your needs and bring it with you on-board every time.

Travel guitar like Taylor Baby has smaller footprint and thus easier to carry in your trip
Travel guitar like Taylor Baby has smaller footprint and thus easier to carry in your trip – Taylor Guitar

Conclusion

If you know some of the best practices for traveling with a guitar, your trip doesn’t need to be as stressful as it can be. Picking the right case, planning your journey carefully, studying regulations like section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and opting for a smaller travel guitar can make for a smoother experience. And if your flight is smooth, the rest of your trip is going to feel even better.

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