Flying with your guitar

No, I don’t mean riding it like a broom. I mean taking it on the plane.

If you’re traveling to a gig, you have to bring the guitar. But if you’re just flying on a vacation or business trip, should you take the guitar along? And if so, how?

First of all, yes, you should bring the guitar with you. “Oh, but it could get damaged in flight,” someone is worrying

Well, it could get damaged in a fire or stolen in a burglary if you leave it home, too, you know? Your guitar is not a precious jewel to be safely stored. It is a fine tool — yes, an “instrument” — to be used as much as possible. And when you’re away on a trip you probably have more time to practice (yes, even if it’s a business trip — turn off the TV when you’re in the hotel room, and pick up the guitar). You might be visiting relatives who want to hear you play. And if you’re camping or somewhere else out in nature, there is nothing like picking for yourself, your companion and the trees and birds.

The only way you should leave it home is if there is a guitar you can use at your destination. Check with the relatives you are visiting, and see if they have a guitar, or a nice friend who might loan you one to use while you’re there. If it’s a place you visit regularly, you might even consider leaving a cheap-but-decent guitar there for you to use whenever you’re there.

But let’s say you are traveling BYOG. So how do you do it?

The case — Go to one extreme or the other. You can get a super-heavy-duty travel case from a company like Calton or Anvil, and then check the guitar on. Nothing will happen to it, even if an elephant steps on it. But those cases are expensive and heavy and bulky. Unless you are flying a lot, or flying with more than one guitar, you probably want to go to the other extreme: the soft gig bag.

Really? Leave my regular hard-shell case at home and put my precious guitar in a gig bag? Yes. Because you are going to carry the guitar on. The gig bag slips over your shoulder, making it look less intimidating, and making it actually smaller and easier to fit into the overhead compartment.

Your preparation actually begins when you book your flight (or when you choose the seats). Unless you are flying first class (in which case you will not have a problem carrying a guitar on), choose seats that will board early, which usually means in the rear of the aircraft. You want to board while there are still some fully clear overhead compartments.

When you pack for the flight, you will plan to carry the gig bag and one other carry-on bag. This is allowed. Read the fine print on the airline’s web page about baggage, and you will see that passengers are allowed to carry an instrument and another carry-on. Print out that page and carry it with you in case you have to explain it to an employee. If you have tons of other stuff to bring on this trip, pack a big suitcase and check that on. But when you stroll confidently and smilingly past the ticket-taker at the gate (you are following the rules, so no need to look sheepish), have the gig bag  slung on your back (you can even pack some extra clothes into the bag with the guitar if you need to) and the overnight-size bag in your hand or over the other shoulder. If the gate agent says something about gate-checking the guitar, accept the tag she hands you, put it on the guitar if you want, but still carry the guitar onto the plane with you with the intention of stowing it in an overhead. If any airline employee tries to stop you from doing that, just say calmly and politely, “I believe it will fit in the overhead. Let me try. If it doesn’t fit I’ll be glad to gate-check it.”

Once you get onto the plane, breathe a quick sigh of relief. The onboard attendants don’t care about what you’ve carried on, as long as you can quickly stow it and sit down and they can get the plane on its way. Find an empty overhead. It does not have to be the one by your seat. Place your guitar into it. There is room for your other bag near the skinny end of the guitar. But to be polite, you will place your other bag underneath the seat in front of you, leaving the space near your guitar for someone else. Do keep your eye on it until the overhead door closes, to make sure no one tries to squeeze something on top of your guitar.

What if there just isn’t room in the overheads for your guitar? This can happen if you are getting on late or didn’t book the proper seats, and/or if it’s Christmas season when people are carrying on a lot more stuff.  It also can happen if you have a large guitar and a very small plane — try getting it in from different angles, sometimes an odd one will work, but sometimes it just doesn’t. If you really can’t find space for it, ask one of the attendants for help — maybe she will put it into a closet up front, or maybe she knows of one overhead that has space. But if that doesn’t work (and this is a very rare occurrence, one that has happened to me only two or three times in hundreds of flights with guitars) you will let them gate-check it. That means they tag it and hand-carry it to the dreaded luggage hold underneath the plane, with assurances to you that they will take good care of it. And in my experience they do. They hand it back to you in the Jetway as you get off, just as they do with baby strollers. If you have let the guitar out of your hands for the trip, then make sure to check it for damage as soon as you get it back, and file a claim if necessary. I have heard various stories about the results of claims, from big struggles at getting any compensation to people happy to be compensated for more than the guitar was worth. But before you worry (or drool) about those possibilities, remember that damage is highly unlikely to happen, because the vast majority of the time, you will be the only person handling your guitar.

Addendum on strings — there is a myth that you’re supposed to loosen the strings before you fly with a guitar. Don’t. That guitar is meant to have the full string tension on it. And it’s traveling in the compartment with you anyway, not in any depressurized baggage hold, so no need to do anything special to it.  Do pack extra first and third strings in case you break ’em on the trip, especially if you’re heading out to the wilderness. And bring your capo, slide, and maybe the lyrics or notes on some tough songs you’re going to work on while you have the time. And have fun!

UPDATE: Since most airlines have started charging for check-on bags, it has become a little more difficult to carry your guitar on. The trouble is, other travelers carry on much more and bigger stuff, to avoid the check-on fees, and the overheads fill up quicker. But if you follow the advice above and board near the beginning of the line, you still should be OK. And take extra care to watch that no one throws a big heavy suitcase on top of your priceless guitar in the gig bag, since the late-boarders will be trying hard to fit their luggage in somehow!

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17 Comments on "Flying with your guitar"

  1. Dan Revel
    14/09/2009 at 9:25 am Permalink

    Another approach would be to allow the airline to smash your guitar, write a song about it and become an YouTube phenomenon: YouTube – United Breaks Guitars

  2. Erik Wedsmark
    25/04/2010 at 10:23 am Permalink

    Hey, just wanted to thank you for the advice (and the easing of my mind) about traveling witn my guitar. You´ve saved me the cost of a needless huge bulky hardcase 🙂

  3. Nathaniel Monahan
    15/05/2010 at 7:55 am Permalink

    Thank you. This is very helpful and will ease the mind as I travel.

  4. Lezioni di Chitarra
    11/07/2010 at 2:22 pm Permalink

    I met a guitar player who got his precious Gibson L4’s neck broken for taking the guitar on a plain. ever since – to my surprise – he flies around with a soft case. Good Tip!

  5. Casey Friday
    14/09/2010 at 11:26 am Permalink

    Thank you so much for this post. I am taking a trip in a few months, and I made sure to book only 757’s, as I’ve heard their storage compartments are some of the largest (for domestic flights). I have a gig bag and a $200 Yamaha FG700s – I’m new to guitar – so it doesn’t seem like a big deal for my instrument to break, but I really don’t want it to. Also, I don’t want to buy a $200 hardshell case to transport the guitar, because well, it’s just not worth it.

    You’ve quelled my qualms, and I’m now confident to pack my clothes in my gig bag and carry the sucker on. (Already got the rear seats in the plane.) It’s only a weekend trip, but why should I be without my axe, right? Thanks for rocking!

    PS – This post is extremely well written.

  6. MJ
    20/02/2012 at 7:43 pm Permalink

    reading and following your advice, as i’m flying 2 the states for a guitar-teaching counselor job (at the camps) and was thinking on getting a new Fender there (in Mexico, its costs over 30% its price, and there’ no variety)…

    let’s see how it works XD

  7. Eleanore ("Miss Ellie") Hartz
    17/07/2012 at 8:49 am Permalink

    Hi, Steve…I’m finally going to make it to Centrum Blues Week this year. Hope all is well with you. Hope the little Yairi survives. Thanks for the advice.
    “Miss Ellie”

  8. Terri
    02/11/2012 at 2:41 pm Permalink

    Great article! Only problem is, I’ll be flying from Montana, USA, to Lusaka, Zambia for two years in the Peace Corps, and this seems infinitely more dangerous than taking this tactic on a domestic flight. I don’t what airline I’ll be traveling on (though I’m THINK Peace Corps only uses U.S. carriers …). Would you still make the same recommendations for flying to Africa? Thanks!

  9. chezztone
    02/11/2012 at 3:00 pm Permalink

    Terri — Well, I think it would be infinitely sadder to be guitar-less during a two-year Peace Corps stint than it would be during a week-long trip. So you sure better figure something out. Yes, bring a guitar, unless you know you will be able to buy or borrow one there. Bring a sturdy and not super-expensive one, in case something happens to it in flight or afterward (I’d guess the climate will be different there and might affect your guitar). And I’ll also guess there will be guitar repairpeople or other wood craftspeople there who will be able to repair your guitar if anything does happen to it, probably very well and very inexpensively. So yes, by all means, bring the guitar! Have a great trip and let me know how it goes. And bring back some tunes that you learn there.

  10. Andre
    20/12/2012 at 12:08 pm Permalink

    I don’t have an experience in traveling what an acoustic. Last time I flew to Jamaica some security lady didn’t want me to take the guitar until somebody else intervened and fix the situation (she had no clue what she was talking about). Since then I didn’t want to take any more chances. What I do is to take my Fender Stratocaster, take the body and neck apart and pack it on my backpack. No problem traveling that way. The body goes with me in the plane and the neck is in the checked luggage.

  11. john
    24/02/2013 at 9:22 am Permalink

    Wow thanks .. I am going to costa rica .. last time I took my guitar they let me carry it on and I placed it behind the last row seats.

    Going to get my self a gig bag for this trip and hope for the best.
    Great advice.

  12. Cosmic Superheroes
    03/10/2015 at 5:35 pm Permalink

    Great advice. I totally agree. Don’t let anybody tell you no! Ask for a manager! Ask for their manager! Keep going up the line and don’t stop til you find a senior employee who knows the deal. This goes for other situations too. When you know you’re right, and it’s extremely important to you, stick to your guns and make it happen!

  13. chezztone
    03/10/2015 at 8:55 pm Permalink

    Well, sometimes you might have to check the guitar on, or at least gate-check it on. I don’t think you have a right to take anything on a plane.

  14. Jim Pilk
    09/10/2016 at 1:34 pm Permalink

    I’m finally getting a softcase for my trip to Charleston this Christmas to join in the Chez festivities…see y’all there

    love ya man

  15. chezztone
    20/12/2016 at 9:25 pm Permalink

    Hard case the way to go when flying! Just in case they make you gate-check it. Or even after placing the guitar into an overhead — sometimes someone throws a heavy item on top of it. Use the hard case.

    20/11/2017 at 12:05 am Permalink

    É certo. Desafie-as para atos sexuais.


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