Airport Travel Wisdom for Guitarists - Oh and by the way, do you really play that thing?
Airport travel can be an anxiety provoking experience under normal circumstances. Add a guitar into the mix, and it can quickly become nightmarish. I’ve had many strange airport experiences over the years involving my guitar…some humorous and some devastating. I’m certainly not someone who travels with their instrument on a regular basis, but I’ve still learned some valuable lessons about traveling with my fragile wooden baby.
Let’s talk about fragility. Ever watch luggage being loaded onto a plane? You couldn’t pay me to be in one of those suitcases. I’ve seen them come back on the conveyor belt soaking wet, torn, covered in unidentifiable substances, etc. None of these conditions are anything I’d want to submit my guitar to! Unless you have a truly indestructible flightcase, I just don’t recommend checking your instrument. Also, regardless of durability, a flight case doesn’t necessarily mean your guitar can’t get lost during plane changes.
Don’t get me wrong, guitar is certainly not the most difficult instrument to fly with (my husband is a cellist…), but it falls in that weird size category that’s just cumbersome enough to cause problems. It feels ludicrous to buy it its own seat, but getting it in a crowded overhead bin or hoping there’s an empty coat closet on the plane is always a gamble. Even buying a ticket isn’t a guarantee on all airlines- I’ve been directly told this by an American Airlines agent. Buying a ticket is also very tricky with security. “Mr. Guitar” always raises a red flag on a ticket, and it usually results in all kinds of interrogation. This is necessary with a large instrument like a cello, and even after spending hours on the phone with airline companies, sometimes you still run into trouble. The best solution for guitars that I’ve found is to pay extra money for early boarding. If you can get your guitar in a bin, legally you cannot be required to remove it. There is a clause in the law (Section 403 of FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012) that states there must be room in the overhead bin at the time of the passenger boarding, so it’s imperative that you acquire priority boarding for each leg of your flight and be on time!
Luckily new scanning technologies have made getting through the TSA checkpoint a lot easier- most of the scanners don’t even require you to remove liquids or electronics anymore. This is good news for instruments, as it’s less likely that they’ll be flagged if anything looks weird to security, and that means no opening of cases or unnecessary handling! That being said, make sure you take out any string cutters, funky looking music tools, and of course the essential nail file. (If you’re a cellist, explain your endpin beforehand…)
On a lighter note (pun intended), traveling with a guitar attracts all kinds of (often unwanted) attention, and some pretty crazy questions! My personal favorite was, “do you really play that thing?” I’m not even sure how I answered, but I certainly wanted to know who would go through the hassle of airport travel with a large instrument just to make a fashion statement. I’ve had people ask me to play at airport cafes (free of charge of course), ask to hold and play my instrument, and (more disturbing than anything else) ask me what I’m actually carrying in my case…I just went through a scanner? Nothing spooky hopefully?
Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, always be prepared for some turbulence when traveling with a guitar.