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!