There comes a time when almost every musician must decide how to handle traveling with an instrument. Whether it’s a road trip, a music camp, a backpacking trip, a weekend at the beach house, or a performance tour, there are considerations for your instrument’s safety and the logistics of transport. Let’s look at various scenarios:
Airlines are notorious for changing their regulations and pricing regularly. There has never been a reliable way to advise musicians about air travel with an instrument because by the time you get to the airport, the FAA will probably have changed the rules again. I once took a small harp to a conference, stowing it in the on-board coat closet for the outward bound flight; by the time I went home three days later, the regulations had changed and instruments were not allowed in the cabin at all - and this was years before 9/11. (I was forced to check my harp, which was in a soft case, as baggage. The predictable thing happened: it got smashed. It took two years to get the airline to pay up, but persistence brought results.)
The last I heard, the FAA said you may now check an instrument at no extra baggage charge, or bring it on board if it fits in an overhead, or buy a seat for it. At times in the past, none of these options were available, so if the flight personnel make good on one of these options you’re in luck.
Whatever the current regulations, the big challenge is to get the personnel to actually make good on the them. They are as confused as we are, what with all the changing that goes on. You can call ahead for information, but the info you’re given will not necessarily be applied once you’re actually at the airport. Therefore, before you go, it’s a good idea to access the FAA regulations on musical instruments and print a copy to bring with you.
If your instrument is small enough for the overhead (go with the smallest dimension for the shortest flight of your trip), you’ll have it easy. If they try to charge you for the extra carry-on, you can cite the regulation that says they may not do so for musical instruments. But it would be safer for it to be your ONLY carry-on. Be sure your instrument is in a very protective case, because you can;t prevent other passengers from putting things on top of it or jamming their own stuff against it.
If you have bought a seat for a large instrument (this is by far the safest option), you can’t use a flight case, but a soft case will do anyway. If it’s very large, you can ask for a seat-belt extension to strap it in. They keep extensions handy for large people.
If you must check your instrument, I highly recommend it be checked as oversize baggage even if it’s not oversize. The reason is that regular baggage goes on conveyors, gets stacked on carts, and gets handled roughly. Oversize baggage is hand-carried and is treated much more carefully.
Be sure to use a good flight case. Aluminum ones are available, as are hard-foam ones, and some folks have made wooden or fiberglass ones. I have owned several hard foam cases by Colorado Case Company, and find them quite satisfactory. Hard foam cases are covered with nylon and they zip closed. They are lightweight, which really keeps the price down at airline check-in.
Your instrument in its soft case should fit inside the hard case. You can pack clothing in there as well, so you won’t need a suitcase if you’re a conservative packer. Naturally, don’t pack any liquids in the case with your instrument.
If you must pack your instrument in a cardboard box, be prepared to have it opened for inspection. Bring lots of packing tape to reclose it. When it’s in a box, be sure to use plenty of bubble wrap, not packing peanuts!
Procedure: Take the instrument in its case with you to the ticket counter and tell them it must go as oversize baggage. Be SURE they do NOT put it on a conveyor. No oversize baggage should EVER go on a conveyor. The correct procedure is for them to summon a skycap with a cart to come and get it at the ticket counter and wheel it by hand to the plane. Therefore, you must stay and watch them do that so they won’t bypass regulations. If you see them trying to do it differently, be forthright and outspoken, and insist that they do it correctly.
When you are getting close to your destination, before the plane begins to descend and before pilot tells the crew to take a seat for landing, hail a flight attendant and tell him or her to call ahead to see that your oversize baggage is hand-carried off the plane. Otherwise they might not read the tag and it will go on the conveyor. (I’ve had that happen. Imagine my shock when, while watching for my regular luggage on the carousel, along comes my instrument!) You should have to go to a special oversize retrieval area to have it handed directly to you in person.
Be prepared to pay for oversize baggage. Also be prepared for the personnel to arbitrarily make up some price that may not be what you were told on the phone, because they really have no idea what they are supposed to charge, and I think their computer access to such information is probably confusing. If you can find the oversize price formula online in advance, print it out and bring it with you!
On a trip to Ireland, I flew American Airlines to Boston and hooked up with Aer Lingus there. For the first flight on American (which was partnered with Aer Lingus) I asked at the check-in counter about the oversize price for the full trip, and was quoted $500 one way. That would have taken care of my tour income right there. So I said, “I’ll just pay for this flight and then pay Aer Lingus when I get to Boston.” I paid the $100 or so for the domestic flight. When I got to Boston I went to the Aer Lingus counter and asked their price. They said “No charge for instruments.” Woo Hoo! So if something seems ridiculous, it probably is, and you should take issue with it.
Whatever your instrument is packed in, affix a very large red and white label on each side that says “MUSICAL INSTRUMENT – FRAGILE - HAND LOAD ONLY”. Take photos of your case with the label on it and keep them with you.
The info presented here is meant as suggestion and opinion. I am not liable for your experience. However, if your flight case is a good one and you check it as oversize and pay the fee, and keep a close eye on things, 99% of the time everything will be fine.
Next time: car, bus, and train travel