Top 7 Tips for Flying with a Musical Instrument

A question that comes up quite often is, “How do I fly with my instrument?” Between the government and the various commercial airlines, rules seem to change almost daily. Run afoul of any of them and you could face a very frustrating, time-consuming, and potentially expensive outcome. There are, however, ways to boost your chances of a hassle-free flight.

Before we dive into this, let me first offer the following disclaimers:

  • As mentioned above, rules change ridiculously often. For the latest information, please check your government’s up-to-the-minute rules and restrictions for flying with musical instruments.
  • For the same reason, please check your carrier’s current rules prior to buying your ticket(s).
  • If the ticket agent or gate guard is in a bad mood and you remind them of their ex (uh oh!), you just might encounter difficulties no one else has ever seen – and hopefully never will again. We’ll discuss that, too, but if that happens, all bets are off.
  • No one knows everything. We’ll share our advice, but ultimately, there is only so much we, or you, or anyone, can control. Read all you can, prepare the best you can, and be flexible. Prayer helps, too.  :-)

Ready? Pull up a chair and let’s get down to business.

Tip #1: Compare airlines

Airlines vary significantly in how they handle musical instruments as carry-on items. According to this document from the Transportation Safety Administration, the TSA allows an instrument in addition to your carry-ons for US flights. That only gets you to the gate, though. I’m not aware of any airlines that allow an extra carry-on, even if it is a musical instrument – so unless you find one that does, figure on counting yours as one of the two you’re usually allowed.

Check which airlines operate from your airport, then visit their websites to compare their rules for musical instruments/carry-on baggage. We had to fly with a violin recently, and we discovered that while Southwest Airlines allows a larger carry-on than most other airlines, the dimensions are fixed (currently 10″x16″x24″). American Airlines’ overall measure was smaller, but dimensions could vary (45 total linear inches, i.e. length+height+width). Due to the length of the violin case – which was made long enough to accommodate a bow, of course – we flew American.

Tip #2: If you’re close on measurements, buy a smaller case

We purchased the smallest case we could find for a violin…and just barely met the maximum dimensions. The standard, larger/heavier case would have exceeded the airline’s maximums. You can take your chances, of course, but luck favors the prepared.  :-)

Tip #3: If you have a large instrument, drive

I’m only half joking about this. If you have an instrument larger than a viola, your options are:

  • Drive, take the bus, or take the train.
  • Pay for a seat for your instrument. Please note that this doesn’t guarantee that a ticket agent or flight attendant won’t ask – or insist – that you check your instrument.
  • Buy the best travel case you can find and check your instrument.

Depending upon circumstances, the last option may be the only viable one. Before you start pricing expensive travel cases, though, you should watch the video below; it’s enough to make a musician sob uncontrollably…and rethink their travel plans.

Tip #4: Wear your instrument to minimize its profile

If your instrument is straining the high end of the allowed measurements for your airline, you’re far more likely to go unchallenged if you’ve strapped your instrument onto your back and thus minimized its profile. Many instrument cases have shoulder/backpack straps; use them! An instrument that is securely strapped to your body just looks smaller than something you’re lugging in one hand while trying to pull your other carry-on behind.

On the whole, airline personnel are generally pretty friendly folks, and they don’t like to challenge anyone if they don’t foresee a problem. Don’t make it look like your instrument will be a problem, and you’ll be far more likely to board without a hitch.

Tip #5: Don’t worry, be happy

In today’s travel environment, airline personnel are trained to watch for suspicious actions. This is a good thing, but if you cast frequent, nervous glances at the ticket desk and/or gate guards, there’s a very good chance they’ll wonder what you’re up to. Wouldn’t you? This can only increase the scrutiny you and your baggage receive, and if you’re pressing the limits for carry-ons, you’re not necessarily looking for extra attention.

Tip #6: Bring documentation

Print the airline’s rules for musical instruments/carry-ons and bring them with you. In the event you are challenged about your instrument, producing that airline’s rules/policies/guidance demonstrates that you have done your homework and want to discuss the published guidelines, rather than one person’s potentially more-restrictive interpretation of them.

Tip #7: Be polite and respectful

Remain calm. Even if a gate guard tells you that your expensive instrument must be tossed into the cargo hold and they’ve just issued the last boarding call, be polite and respectful…but firm. If the person with whom you’re dealing won’t yield, ask to speak with their supervisor. The airline doesn’t want you to miss your flight any more than you do, and they definitely don’t want to delay it, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to resolve the issue properly. Explain your situation calmly and factually, reference the airline’s own documentation, and measure your instrument case to demonstrate that you’re in compliance with the rules. This approach offers the best possibility of a successful resolution if things get to this point…but if you’ve followed tips 1-6, chances are good it will never come to this.

Bottom Line

In most cases, it is possible to fly with your instrument with little or no added difficulty or expense. Following the seven tips listed above can dramatically increase your chances of having a hassle-free flight and a fully intact instrument when you arrive. Plan well, pack well, and play well.  :-)

Do you have a tip you’d like to share? Other governments/airlines to add to the list below? Please leave us a comment or send us an email. We’ll happily update the article so everyone can benefit from the information.

Bon voyage!

Mark

Helpful sites:

Transportation Safety Administration (TSA)
American Airlines
Continental Airlines
Delta Airlines
Southwest Airlines
United Airlines
US Airways

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