I've heard horror stories about guitars being damaged on commercial airline flights. Is there a safe way to fly with a guitar?
A fully fitted flightcase is a starter. Lockable, but openable with a special key which customs should have. Is it a solid, semi or acoustic guitar?
Try to get a case which is the smallest possible. That way, you may be able to take it into the cabin with you - by far the best way. Last time I flew with an electric solid, it was in a flightcase, and I nearly got onto the plane with it. (I was told it'd be o.k.) Stopped at the last hurdle, and it had to go unto the hold. Return flight, just carried it onto the plane, and the steward helped me puy it into overhead compartment.
But in any case (!) any guitar going even out of the house should be in a proper solid case - if it means anything to the owner.
There is no protection on earth that will protect 100% against a baggage handler having a bad day :)
Some things to look at;
- Buy the guitar a seat. If my guitar was incredibly valuable, this would be the cheapest solution versus purchasing insurance on it, and it would never be out of sight. You'll get two inflight meals, as well... :p
- Insurance. Make sure that the guitar is fully insured, just in case.
- Put it in an TSA approved case. These are much harder to break 'accidentally', but the customs people can get into it easily with their special keys (that nobody outside the TSA has access to. No sir, nobody... :p )
- If the airline will let you, take the guitar to the gate as a carry-on. At the gate, they may ask you to put it in the hold - but if so, it will be one of the last on, first off items, together with wheelchairs, kids pushchairs, etc.; less likelihood of damage.
Reference: One of my guitars (used by my wife, mainly) flies six or seven times a year. Never had any issues with damage.
Ask a music store nearby for a cardboard box that will hold your guitar’s hardshell case. Pack it in the box and ship it fedex next day air with declared value. Check with your renters or homeowners insurance about coverage and ask about personal articles floater or valuable items addendum or whatever they want to call it.
Also check this document: https://www.chamber-music.org/pdf/Flying-with-Musical-Instruments.pdf
One of the interesting things in it is the statement that not all airlines will sell you a seat for an instrument, although it says “the DOT has encouraged them to do so”.
If you are in Europe and the guitar is worth less than about 200 euros, a good option is to fly Easyjet.
They have a very generous carryon dimensions policy for musical instruments, which greatly exceeds the dimensions they allow for a standard carryon bag.
The allowance 30x120x38cm covers most guitars in a soft case (especially if you tilt them a little to get around the 38cm width. The problem is, it doesn't cover most hard cases. The wording below avoids mentioning guitars, almost certainly deliberately.
That said, I have flown dozens of times with them between the UK and Spain with a cheap guitar in a soft case, often with a laptop computer in the case too, and clothes packed around the instrument "to protect it." In this way I get to carry on everything I need for my trip, and without paying a fee. The ground crews and cabin crews have always been extremely good to me, giving the guitar a seat if one is available, and allowing me to tuck it behind the last row of seats if not.
I try when possible to make sure I'm near the front of the line for boarding and I always carry a copy of the policy below with me just in case I have to argue, but I have never needed to use it, even with ground crews not directly employed by Easyjet (they use a service company in some cases.)
Taking instruments into the cabin
To take an instrument on board it must be smaller than 30cm x 120cm x 38cm and placed in the overhead locker. Violins, violas, flutes, piccolos clarinets, trumpets and bugles fall into this category and count as one cabin bag each. You can’t book a seat for small instruments as we’re unable to secure them safely into a seat.
If you’re carrying an instrument as your only cabin bag and you’re unable to fit everything in it, you can also bring a small under seat bag for free.
A large musical instrument like a cello can go in the cabin too, but you have to buy a seat for it. If you’d prefer, you can check your instrument into the hold instead by buying a hold luggage allowance.
To book a seat for your instrument, you’ll need to add a passenger to your booking and then use ‘Mr Seat Cello’ for the passenger name. For safety reasons instruments can only be placed in window seats and the maximum height including the case is 110cm.
I have flown with some of my guitars before and I typically just take it as a carry on. Since flight cases are pretty expensive ($300+ for a decent one), here's some steps you can take to protect your guitar as a carry on.
Store it in an overhead bin
I've stored a telecaster in a Fender soft case in an overhead bin without any issues. If you have understanding neighbors on the plane you can ask them to be careful when unloading their luggage so it doesn't damage the neck.
Unfortunately hard cases don't fit at all in the overhead bins, so you can only really do this with soft cases.
Ask a flight attendant
Try asking the flight attendant if they can store it up front - usually they will accommodate you. I was able to get my guitar stored in a closet up front without any issues.
I've fit a hard shell case in these closets before with no problems.
If you don't feel comfortable with the above options, you should probably get a flight case. There's no telling what baggage handlers will do to it, so you'll want to go the whole way: $300 case, $50 insurance, etc.
For a cheaper guitar I would take the risk of a carry on.
Guitar Player magazine had an excellent article on this subject some years back. It was reprinted in at least one of their collections of best articles. (I still have the collection but it's in a box at a location out of town so is not readily accessible.) The article had several horror stories from well-known professional musicians and guitar lovers like David Crosby and Steve Howe but also recommendations on the best way to transport a guitar safely. (I remember that one horror story involved a beloved guitar in a flight case being run over by a careless baggage handler in a fork lift; I think the guitar was damaged beyond repair despite the flight case.) You might be able to track down a copy of the collection at the Guitar Player website or even on Amazon. My only concern about the article is that it might not take into account regulatory changes since it was published.
One other precaution you might want to take, if you allow the guitar out of your hands, is to make sure the baggage handlers put the right destination code on it. Another horror story I recall involved a musician who was flying to Dublin to perform. He gave the guitar to the baggage handlers and they promptly mis-tagged it and sent it to Dubrovnik! I think the three letter airport codes for the two cities were very similar so I assume it was an honest mistake but it apparently caused the musician to either miss his gig or play with a strange guitar which might have caused the performance to suffer.
It depends if it is a particular guitar that you want to travel with or just any guitar....
... I recently travelled long haul and short haul with no problems with a guitar because I had it in my hand luggage and was able to keep an eye on it all the time.
The guitar was a snapdragon which has a hinge where the neck joins the body so that you can pack it into small spaces.
Now sometimes on short haul flights that say you have to put small trolley hand luggage in the hold at no charge - when this happened to me on one of the legs I had a small rucksack that it fitted into no problem so that I could still keep it with me.
The guitar is made of polycarbonate and pretty tough -- but not really loud enough to be a real acoustic. I now have a small plug in amplifier and small speaker ready for the next trip.... (model I have is traxe-noir).
So there are other brands like this of folding guitars, but for me this was the best compromise between price and quality + the guitar is pretty small and light and tough.
[I purchased one of these guitars to travel with. I have no connection with the business other than having bought one of their guitars.]
Take it with you into the cabin, for storage in a locker, and do not brook any arguments. Raise your voice slightly if challenged. They will fold. They have to. It is too late to get the item into the hold and they have to get the plane off the ground, and they also have to avoid all disturbances on the plane. You should already have asked at the gate (not the checkin counter) whether you can take out insurance. It is too late in the process for that to happen, and so they will say 'no, take it on board', and that's all you need to do so.
Be prepared for idiocies like confiscating your string-cutting clippers in case 'you might start snipping wires'. Never saw those again, in 39 years :-|
An organization I am connected with had to ship an entire string section of an orchestra 200 miles via plane. An idiotic airline security guard claimed that all the strings had to be removed from all the violins, violas, cellos, and basses. Fortunately the musicians were far more intransigent than the security guard: it all went ahead normally; and we subsequently extracted an apology and promised remedy from the airline. Moral: just say no.