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Flying With Guitars

I came up with some rules for flying with guitars that have served me reasonably well through the years. I thought it might be a nice idea to share them.

When I travel to Europe or Asia I have to fly. Sometimes it’s necessary in North America, too. I tend to carry two instruments when I fly (as opposed to four or five when I drive). Here are some rules.

  1. Know your airline’s policies. Some are more lenient than others. I’ve had very good luck with Delta (knock on wood) so far. The instruments fit in the overhead usually and the folks tend to be really helpful most, but not all of the time.
  2. Use a good flight case in the event that you do have to check them. I use Karuras and Caltons because they are no bigger than a normal case and they do provide a lot of protection.
  3. Understand that the TSA guys will open the case and move stuff around when you check an instrument in baggage. Lots of stories about stuff not being put back in the right places, cases being forced shut and necks breaking (This happened to two friends of mine). I put all my strings, tools, capos, picks, tuners—everything that I’ll need—in a separate bag in my suitcase and transfer it back into the guitar cases when I arrive at my destination. Just in case, so to speak. The fragile stuff like microphones go in my computer bag. The TSA guys will ask about that stuff so have it organized.
  4. Get there early. I can’t emphasize this enough. Get there early. Understand that it’ll take you a little longer to get through security with guitars. I try to get through security and to the gate at least an hour and a half early. I want to be one of the first people on the plane so I can get my guitars into that precious overhead space. That generally means I get to the airport three hours before flight time. It’s a good thing I know how to read.
  5. Sometimes there simply isn’t room for the guitars in the cabin. Almost all airlines will “gate check” a bag and, although they don’t always like to do it, you can ask that they give it back to you at the gate at the arrival point. Delta has a special tag for this; I think it’s pink. Generally they will do this and it means your guitars are last to be loaded in baggage and first to be offloaded. It’s always worth a try.
  6. Keep smiling. Be civil no matter what. They have the power; you don’t. Say thank you a lot. Try to remember that the next person traveling with instruments will have to deal with these same people and he or she will have a much easier time if you are nice. Sooner or later it’ll come back around to you.
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