Have Will, Guitar Travels: 10 Tips For The Modern Flying Guitarist.

I’ve lost track of how many times that I’ve flown with a guitar, but I’ve been doing it with various degrees of success since I was a teenager. It’s always a source of anxiety for me, but here are some tips that have helped me navigate the not-always-so-friendly-(to-musician)-skies.

1) Travel with a smaller guitar.

If you’re gigging regularly, you can invest in a smaller guitar. Martin and Taylor both make “mini” models that are travel friendly and play pretty well. There is even a company that makes a guitar that folds in half!

My “travelling” guitar is a Parlor guitar, which is smaller bodied than your standard folk/steel string guitar that you see most people play. A lot of folk and blues musicians back in the day liked these because they were more affordable and mass produced.

You can see the size difference, and how that would matter when you’re trying to store it above you.

Guitar Ready Bins!

After much research, I kept my eyes peeled for a used “Larivee” brand guitar. Luckily, one showed up in a local guitar shop, so I checked it out. It played and sounded great. There’s a famous Frank Zappa quote “If you pick up a guitar and it says, ‘Take me, I’m yours,’ then that’s the one for you.” I took it home.

Though it doesn’t sound as full or warm as my concert sized Martin or Taylor, it sounds fantastic when I plug it in to a P.A. or amp. I had bay area luthier/guitar repair whiz Mike Gold equip it with a pickup (Seymour Duncan Mag Mic)

If you travel with an electric guitar, you can probably get away with having a softcase or “gig bag” which you can sling over your shoulder, and store it in the overhead bin. I see this alot for acoustic guitars too. Never, under any circumstances, check a softcase as luggage though. Once it touches the conveyor belt, you can pretty much kiss your axe goodbye.

2) A Case for a Good Hard Case.

If you insist on bringing your $110,000 Les Paul from 1957, then by all means order yourself a professional case, or an “ATA” flight case

These are almost indestructible. They also cost about $700-1k. You’ll have to check it as luggage too, but at least it will be safe… (unless someone steals it, since these cases usually store really nice guitars)

3) Choose a Guitar friendly airline:

Southwest: Make sure you are an early boarder, i.e. the “A” group. You get on first and have first pick of overhead storage space.

Virgin, Jet Blue, American: When you pick your seat, get seated near the back of the plane (seats 19-23) Last Seats (24, 25) usually don’t have overhead space because that’s where they stash their water/beverages. (note: I’m typing this on an American flight, and in seat 25F where there is overhead space.)

4) Rent a guitar.

Some local used music stores will rent you a used guitar for the night. On a recent gig, I felt like playing an electric guitar, (I was playing with a band) so went and rented one for a night. Set me back $40, but I think people bought me about $40 in drinks, so maybe it was worth it. I definitely had more fun playing the electric that night, so it was a win for me.

5) Borrow a guitar.

If you don’t mind playing someone else’s gear, the best thing is to find a friend who has a guitar that you can borrow at your destination. Eliminates the need to babysit it everywhere you go too. I find that I end up playing the guitar for about 3-4 hours tops when I travel to and from gig.

How I Roll

6) The Force is With You, but Don’t Force it.

Dealing with the Airline Gate Attendants always reminds me of the scene in Star Wars, in which Obi Wan uses the force on the stormtroopers. The gate attendant is the stormtrooper. He/she is a robot who is programmed to not allow items of a certain size onboard. They are often kind of pissy and angry because they have to deal with mean people every day. Once in awhile, you will get a sympathetic guitar pickin’ human who will help you, but that is rare. Most of the time they are robots reading from a script to get everyone through as efficiently as possible. They will see you with your guitar, and say “this is a full flight, you’re going to have to gate check that”

Don’t panic. Definitely don’t be a wise ass or put up a stink. “Gate check” means your item is too big to fit above the overhead. They will attach a pink or red tag to your guitar and give you a claim tag, then instruct you to leave your guitar at the end of the boarding ramp where everyone puts their strollers and stuff. From there, they will put it below the plane, which is not optimal (due to cold temperatures) but it’s a hell of a lot better than checking it as luggage. (never do that)

What I do is say “thanks” and then walk right on the plane with the guitar. If the flight attendant tries to stop me, I gently and politely ask “Well- is it ok if I try and find a place for it in an overhead bin?” Usually there will be a cool flight attendant on board who will try their best to find a space for your guitar.

Some tactics that have worked before, but I haven’t used recently:

7) Try “PreBoarding”

When they announce “we are now boarding people with small children, or people who need a little more time on the ramp.” walk up with your guitar. If they question you, just say “I need a litte time to assure that I can stow this, which is like a child to me” I did this successfully on the suggestion of a gate attendant in 2006, but I think it was because she had a soft spot for guitar players.

8 ) The Price of Rock n’ Roll

Try to stash it in any open overhead bin you can while you’re going to your seat. People might get mad, but that is the price of rock and roll.

9) Call for Back Up

If you’re traveling with friends, lovers, or band mates, they might have some extra space. It will increase your chances to get your axe on board.

10) Give up.

There’s too many guitar players. Take up the shakuhachi or skin flute. Be an iPhone DJ! Bring “Mime” back! Start a portable musical revolution! …or take the train.

So to sum up…

Never:

Check your guitar in a gig bag.

Argue with the staff, you will lose.

It’s OK to Gate Check, but try and store it above.

One last tip: Allow yourself plenty of extra time, especially if your acoustic guitar has a pickup with a battery in it. Remove the battery if you can. It looks like a bomb when it goes through the x-ray with all the wires and electronics. Most of the people who are doing the screening have no idea what an acoustic guitar pickup is.

Happy Travels!

If any of you have any instrument travel stories/tips, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

2 Comments

  1. sarah
    08 January 13, 9:31pm

    Back in November my guitar and I traveled with Airtran which is owned by Southwest. There was a guy in line with me who had also brought his guitar with him who stated that he would NEVER check his guitar. He planned to stow his overhead, but since the flight was full he was required to check it anyway. When we got to Florida we both went to check out our guitars. I said that I was thankful that the case was undamaged, but he said that I should definately open up the case and inspect my guitar. His ended up being in fine condition, but mine was snapped in half right below the headstock. It looked like a personal vendetta had been waged. I still don’t know how it got THAT damaged while in a hard case. Inside the case was a notice from Homeland Security saying that my case had been inspected and they were sorry for any inconvenience. I was appalled- believing that HS had cracked my guitar as a part of the inspection process, I was determined to find the guilty party. Turns out that HS didn’t ruin the guitar though- they have video tapes to prove it, they said that it happened on Airtran’s watch. Finally persisted with the baggage claim folks and Airtran agreed to reimburse me the cost of the guitar when it was new and agreed to give us back the money they charged us to carry the guitar and the cost to have a new pick-up put in. I’m thankful to get the check, but I’ve been without my guitar for a few months now and of course, the replacement cost of the guitar will be considerably higher than it cost in ’96. But all in all, I’m grateful and now in the market for a “travel” guitar. After reading your article though, it sounds like it may be almost as risky to travel with even a folding one?

    • 08 January 13, 10:36pm

      What a nightmare! I’ve been lucky to have the option to gate check (carrying the guitar to the end of the ramp to that place where parents check their strollers.) The guitar will get cold and often the battery gets knocked out of my pickup, but I’ve never had major damage from gate checking when there’s no room in overhead bins. It’s not ideal, but it certainly beats putting it on the conveyer belt. The folding guitars could definitely get smashed if checked… also, they feel a little weird. Just my opinion. Thanks for the comment, let me know what you end up getting!

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