I am standing at the baggage claim, crowded with grumpy travelers pushing for their luggage. The conveyer belt is at an alarming angle and seems to be running way too fast. I canít make my way to the front. All of a sudden dozens of huge heavy wood crates start careening down the belt. I see my guitar dwarfed by them, and I cry out involuntarily as a particularly large crate falls on my guitar. The usually noisy baggage claim area becomes painfully silent as we all hear the horribly distinctive sound of a musical instrument, designed to transmit sound, transmitting its own death as it is reduced to splinters. I wake up in my hotel bed, a cold sweat permeating the sheets, mattress liner, mattress, and box spring. Oh thank God, it was just a dream.
How do we do it? Traveling with our beloved instruments is a nightmare. Should you check it or try to carry it on? Here are some tips to help you and your guitar survive your next flight.
CHECKING YOUR GUITAR
If you are going to check your guitar in baggage, be prepared to lose it. I have lost my guitar six times, and once it was missing for more than a month. So far I've been lucky: my guitar has always made it back to me, like those pet stories, "We lost old Sparky in Nebraska, but she caught up to us in Hong Kong." I only travel with guitars that I am emotionally prepared to lose. I can't tell you how much stress that has removed from my life.
Pad the peghead. One of the most common injuries to checked guitars is broken pegheads. Even in most good cases, the peghead is not supported. If a case is dropped, the weight of the tuning gears can snap the peghead right off. This happened to one of my guitars. Pack the peghead securely on all sides with T-shirts, socks, and other soft articles of clothing, or buy a case with padded peghead support. Crumpled newspaper or magazine pages will work well in a pinch, too. Just make certain that the peghead is wedged into the case so that it can't move in any direction if the guitar case is dropped.
Loosen the strings. On an average steel-string guitar, the strings pull 150 pounds of pressure. You won't want that kind of pressure on your guitarís neck while it is getting heaved around by sumo baggage handlers. Taking the tension off will also reduce the risk of snapped pegheads.
Choose the strongest case you can afford and/or carry. I've heard many musicians recommend Calton cases. They come in bright colors, which makes it less likely that someone will walk off with your guitar by mistake, and they have a good arch over the face of the guitar that gives the case more strength. Flight cases (usually triangle-shaped fiberglass cases) are also very good, but they are bulky and heavy. Sadly enough, I know many musicians who have developed tendon injuries not from playing their instruments but from carrying heavy cases. Generally, the heavier the case, the better the protection, so you will have to find a balance. Even the toughest cases, however, are not indestructible. One airline managed to spear a forklift right through the best case a musician friend of mine could find.
Pack your instrument and case in a cardboard shipping box. You can usually get one of these boxes for free from a music store, but you will have to get the box in advance since most stores don't get daily shipments of guitars. When I pack my guitar, I throw all my clothes and an empty duffel bag around the case for padding. The great thing about this method is that it makes your guitar so awkward and bulky that the baggage handlers have to handle it gently by default. The obvious problem with this system is that the box is awkward and bulky for you as well, and you end up taking a big empty box on tour with you for your return flight.
Once, when I wasn't using this method, I saw a baggage handler throw my guitar case over a baggage train where it landed miraculously headfirst on the conveyor belt. The baggage handler jumped up and down ecstatically at the sheer beauty and accuracy of his throw, while from inside the airplane I was screaming inaudibly and pounding on the airplane window. Of course when I checked my guitar the airline made me sign a waiver saying that any damage they inflicted on my instrument was my responsibility. Had I packed my guitar in a shipping box, I would have saved myself a $250 repair bill.
When you get to your destination, go directly to the baggage claim area to get your guitar. I once coincidentally ran into guitarist Nina Gerber as I deplaned and stood talking at the gate for ten minutes while my guitar went around and around the baggage claim carousel. Pretty soon my guitar was the only thing left, and when no one was looking someone stole it. Through some clever detective work on the part of the airline, I got my guitar back, but not until after I had played the festival.
CARRYING YOUR GUITAR ON BOARD
If you plan to try to carry your guitar on board, get a great gig bag, one that you can wear on your back. That way your guitar is pretty much hidden by your body so that when you saunter on by the ticket takers they may miss your guitar entirely. Find a bag that isn't too bulky but offers some protection. I use gig bags by Blue Heron and Reunion Blues. They use a foam similar to backpacking insulate, which is very dense and offers good protection. Gig bags donít need as much padding as regular cases because they aren't subjected to baggage handlers. And because they are so light and comfortable, youíre not always setting them down, so they donít get knocked about and are less likely to get stolen.
When you make your reservation, find out what the airlineís policy is for carrying guitars on board and what type of carrier the airline uses. Make sure you are not flying on an L10-11. TWA flies a lot of those. They have tiny overhead compartments that will not hold a guitar. The 700 series (e.g., 737, 747), the airbuses, and the DC-10s are generally fine. But, whether or not thereís room for your guitar on board, many airlines are now refusing to allow passengers to carry them on. A friend of mine used to disguise her guitar (in its gig bag) in a hanging wardrobe bag. It worked for her a few times, but now she just uses a heavy flight case and checks her guitar. In the past, I have had especially good luck with Northwest, Alaska, and Delta, but airlines are getting more strict about carry-ons all the time. When I fly overseas, I check both guitars through baggage. Most overseas carriers wonít allow you to bring your guitar on board. I also have insurance for my instruments that covers airline damage and loss.
When you fly on tiny commuter planes, you will have to relinquish your guitar, but you can watch the baggage person put it in the hold yourself, and at the end of the flight you pick it up right outside the plane, so it doesn't go through the maze of conveyor belts. I have never had a problem on these little flights.
Don't push the airlines. If you are attempting to carry a guitar on board, don't bring a lot of other carry-ons. Many people have to share limited space. I have seen musicians carry on needless extra stuff and act indignant when they get called on it. A friendly positive attitude and gentle persistence will generally get you and your guitar taken care of in the best possible way.
I always fill in the customer survey cards in the in-flight magazines and tell the airline that I am flying them because they have always been great about letting me on board with my guitar in a gig bag. Airlines cater heavily to business customers, and I remind them that we musicians are business customers, too. I always try to be friendly and polite, especially if I am carrying a guitar, so that airline workers will like accommodating musicians.