Airline Travel with Musical Instruments

So here I am, third day on the cruise. Today, we are tendering in Mykonos, Greece. It doesn’t look like I will be able to get off today; had a long day of training, and the rhythm section is supposed to maybe have a rehearsal (yeah, the musicians here are just as unorganized as anywhere else).

Before I start on my experiences so far, I figure it would be best to talk about traveling with your instrument.

I am a multi-instrumentalist, so I have had experiences with a few different instruments. On this trip, I brought two electric basses and my euphonium — with almost no hitches. If I was inexperienced, I can pretty much guarantee that my euphonium would be sitting in the corner of my cabin right now, completely unusable.

First and foremost, it’s important that you NEVER ask an airline worker what’s best – just do it. Look like you know what you’re doing, and keep a professional look about you. When asked, just speak in a calm, polite tone (and I can’t stress that enough) that you fly on a regular basis due to the nature of your job as a musician, and you are sure it will fit. Say something like “this is a 747, right? Yeah, it will fit.” NEVER get angry or testy. That’s all they need to either not let you on the plane, arrest you, or worse: to doom your baby to an early grave.

On the first leg of my trip, I flew aboard a Canadair CRJ. If you’re a musician, steer clear of this plane at all costs! Most smaller planes still have a standard overhead size. Not this one. Before the stewardess saw me, I had to think quick, since she was trying to find anyone with a bag that was at least half the size of mine, and forcing them to gate check it. I remember a suggestion from some of my friends from UNT and took action. I grabbed a blanket, and put as much of the horn under the seat in front of me. It still stuck out a good 20 inches or so, so I straddled my feet on either side, and put a blanket on my lap. By this time, the stewardess was going around and checking stuff like this out, and marking on a notepad. My heart was racing. The funny thing isn’t that she didn’t notice it. The funny thing is she completely skipped our row by accident! Someone up in the sky was on my side that day.

This is a good suggestion when other ideas don’t work. Only don’t try this with a trombone, it’s too long and you might bend the horn trying to make it fit between the two seats.

As for specific instruments that I know about:

Trumpets: Should have no problem. Dual cases seem to be fine, but for you cats that want to come and work on your classical chops, it’s best to not try to bring a quad case. Alto sax cases are right at the same size, so they should be fine too.

Trombones: This one is still up in the air by many trombonists. I’ve heard horror stories of players having to gate check their horn in its gig bag just before they boarded, only to get on the plane in just enough time to see a baggage worker literally throw it from the tarmac into the baggage hold. There were no survivors.If you really want to take the trombone on the plane, which we would all MUCH rather do, there are a few things:If you want to take it in a gig bag, you gotta be tall. I’m 6’6”, so I can get away with this. What you do is have it on your back with the strap, but make sure it’s parallel to your body; that way, it hides its true length.

If you want to use your standard hard case, you can always ask a stewardess to put it in the first class closet. Especially in the summer, and if you’re from Florida like me, there won’t be much use of the closet, anyway. Even so, the horn would go on the floor, while the coats are hung up. I’ve done this once, and they were very nice about it. I have friends that use it on more than one occasion. But don’t count on it. All you need is one airline worker to be in a bad mood, and you’re screwed.

Some bass trombonists use an SKB brand ATA rated golf club bag flight case. I’m not sure which model for this, but Dougla Yeo doesn’t seem to like it. He also has a trick for checking your horn in its standard hard case.

Euphonium: I play a Willson 2900s model. It has an 11 inch bell. The reason I’m telling you this, is because most openings in overhead compartments are 12 inches. I don’t think a 2950 will work with its 11¾ inch bell, because after you add a gig bag, there’s much more than 12 inches. Who likes to play a 2950, anyway? Corny eupher joking aside, aside from tuba, the euphonium has probably one of the most widely varied standardized look and dimensions, so I don’t know about many other brands. I know the Besson models work too. Steven Mead has never checked his horn.

Tuba: Get a flight case. No way around it. Pay oversize. No way around it.

Violins/violas: Should be fine, as long as you don’t have one worker in a bad mood. Airlines have been known to make players of incredibly expensive ones check them. There were no survivors.

Cello: You are still allowed to buy an extra seat for this instrument. Don’t check it.

Double bass: My best suggestion is to secure a good instrument at your destination before you even leave your hometown. But, if you need to take yours, this will be trouble. You used to be able to buy a seat for it, but airlines have stopped allowing this since 9/11. You’re going to have to buy a trunk. No way around it. Pay oversize. No way around it. Call David Gage, he sells refurbished cases that are a little cheaper.

Electric basses and guitars
: If you only bring one, or two with a dual gig bag, there’s a decent chance you can get it on the plane with you. There’s a little trick that I got from Vic Wooten’s site. I think it was Steve Bailey that said it, but, like I said, no internet to back it up. But here’s the suggestion: on most gig bags nowadays, there is a handle at the area where the neck meets the body. Hold the instrument there, and tuck the neck under your arm. If you don’t have a handle, either get a new case, or hold that area TIGHT. Practice this one in the mirror. You can actually make it look like a briefcase! Make sure the axe is on the opposite end of the ticket agent, so there’s less of a chance to be caught. Again, if it doesn’t fit in the overhead, you can sneak it into the first class closet probably. Some players suggest taking the neck off the body and reattaching it when you get to your destination, but I think this is absolutely a bad idea.

If you choose to take two, there was a suggestion from one of the readers of this blog that I now use, and it’s absolutely great. After I found that post, I researched exactly what I need. It’s the SKB ATA golf case 1649W. You can fit two basses in there with clothes for padding. I even put my M-Audio Keystation 49e between the basses. As for guitars, you could probably do the 4814W or something, but I don’t know. All I know is it made it here, and the basses and keyboard were unscathed. There were 3 survivors, four counting the euphonium.I couldn’t gate check the case, because it was too big to go through the ATA x-ray machine. But whenever you get a checked instrument back, look it over ASAP.

Another important thing is, if you plan to go somewhere you’re not used to, plan accordingly. I brought two extra sets of strings, my spare upright strings for the bass on the ship, and a full bottle of valve oil, slide grease, and rosin. The guys say they think there’s a music store in Naples, but they’re not sure. I brought tools to do quick work on my instruments, but make sure you declare it to an officer if it has a blade, and explain why you brought a blade onto the ship. The extra weight is worth being prepared.

Published by

Nick Rosaci

Nick Rosaci is a freelance musician in the Central Florida area. Nick works as a sideman in various jazz and pop groups, as well as playing in various wind bands and orchestras.

41 thoughts on “Airline Travel with Musical Instruments”

  1. Great stuff. I’ve seen a TON written about the topic and this is definitely the most thorough piece I’ve come across.

    I think it DEFINITELY helps to talk the part. “This is a 747? Yeah, it will fit.”

    Want to add that it helps to look the part as well. If people think you’re famous (or playing with somebody famous), they’ll be less likely to give you any problems.

  2. I found this again after a horror flight from Miami to Brisbane Aus with my now dead trombone. Short story I checked it in it’s hard case which I have done every other time I have ever flown and this time it came out with the bottom of the case completely shattered and a huge dent in both inner and outter main slide!! I was devastated but at least I was in the market for a new one and this made me bite the bullet and pick up something new and fancy… Problem now I’m flying back to Miami with the same companies (AA and Qantas) and I am determined to take it on board! It’s in a hard case and the case at the largest point of the bell is 10″ so I THINK I will be ok, as long as the gate people let me on!! I’m a bit scared.

  3. I’ve heard that airlines have to let you bring your instruments on board as long as it doesn’t cause any major problems due to it’s size. I looked up the TSA guidelines, it might be worth reading this.

    You’re allowed to carry one instrument along with one personal item and one piece of carry on luggage through security. Then you should take the advice of this article to get your gear on the plane.

    For a while, I had Platinum status with American Airlines, and they treated me like royalty. I was able to be one of the first to board, and they always let me place my guitar in the front closet or helped me get it in the overhead. If you fly often, that’s probably worth the cost of the program alone.

    Here’s another tip for guitarists:

    If there are two of you on the same flight, you can fit two guitars in the overhead of most larger planes if you put them in “head-to-toe” so the necks are next to each other. It’s pretty easy to convince gate staff or the flight attendants that this will allow for more space for everyone elses carry on. Plus you won’t have anybody trying to cram their stuff into a space right against your instrument.

  4. Has anyone that you’ve known had a situation where their luggage didn’t show up to the cruise gig due to the airports. That can go for any luggage. What would the cruise line do in that case?

  5. Good ideas to be tried!
    I have just had a long mailcorrespondance with Brussel air, in vain, they are very attached to their fixed rules. I had the idea, that buying a cheap model of my bass, that I could bare being handled as regular luggage would solve the problem of having to buy two tickets, but no! The price for an instrument is the same,,, No explanation on why it should cost the same as two night stay at a hotel, more than any aother regular luggage,,, You can choose a cheap B&B a sheap flight and enjoy the service accordingly,,, But instruments is altogether another matter. I guess its jealuosy!!
    So I have to praticing for 14 days, only in my head,, ughf!

  6. The solution for electric guitars that I’ve seen is you take the neck screws out and put the guitar in your suitcase. Doesn’t work for non-bolt guitars, doesn’t work for acoustics, and unless you replace the wood screws with bolts and inserts, you’ll begin to strip out your neck.

  7. Excellent article and advice!

    When I need to take a tuba with me, I take my 3/4 size Yamaha YBB-103 for gigging – since I’m mostly playing Pop music, I can get away with the smaller instrument.

    The upshot of this is avoiding the oversize fee. I pack it in a hard MTS flight case built for an F tuba (can’t find a hard case made for my specific model) and wrap the horn in several layers of bubble wrap with a beach ball poking out of the bell so it avoids bumping against the front. I finish it out with some air pockets to fill the holes and always carry on my oil and mouthpiece, and by the time I am done it weighs 45 pounds, five pounds beneath the usual weight limit imposed by airlines.

    The only drawback is that they *always* open it to inspect it and, although they always manage to repack it okay, I’m afraid that one day they won’t and damage will ensue. Juuust in case, I am now including a photo of how it looks packed inside the case so they can see for themselves how it should look.

    I have pictures at my blog here:

      1. It really is a great idea! And the YBB-103 is a great horn for traveling. It’s small, and not too horribly expensive if something happens to it.

        Last year, I flew with a brass band to Chicago for a competition. I was with the two tuba players, both of which had to buy a seat for their horns. Gate attendants gave them confused looks, and I made sure they knew not to mention their instruments until someone asks about them. On the way back from Chicago, the pilot let the three of us on first, because he just came from a United training meeting, where they required all employees to watch “United Breaks Guitars.” He said the airline has been dedicated to fixing that broken image since the video exploded on YouTube.

        After re-reading this article, I still stand by everything I wrote. There’s only a few things I can add to this a few years later.

        *TSA has been getting worse and more unreasonable over time, as we have seen. But last month I flew out of an airport that has announced publicly that they are going to do what they can to replace TSA with a private company, and TSA was extremely polite and pleasant when I was there. And this was at 5am. So maybe things are taking a turn for the better.

        *As for trombones, I was on a tour in China a few months ago where I was playing bass bone. I was just barely able to fit the horn in my tenor trombone’s gig bag, and carried it on. It fit in all flights on this tour, except the flight home, on a 40-something seat plane, but they let me keep it between my legs. All-in-all, it was probably around 15 flights or so. So put your trombone in a gig bag and put it in the overhead.

        *This one is quite important (maybe I should ask David to amend this to my original article): When you put your instrument in the overhead, CLOSE THE DOOR. The airline’s announcement over the intercom is that if a door is closed, the compartment’s full, so don’t bother opening it. It’s not guaranteed a passenger won’t open it and see some empty space between the instrument and the ceiling, and try to shove their already oversized suitcase on top of your ’57 Telecaster, but it definitely brings the chances of that happening down by quite a bit. I’m sure I don’t have to mention this, but just in case: don’t feel safe for your instrument until you’re in the air. Keep a sharp eye on it while passengers are still getting on board.

  8. Another good idea is to “gate crash.” No matter which boarding group you’re in, just board when they call the first (non-first-class) group. I do this every time, and not once have I been called out on it. Being first in means the carry-on bins will be empty, and that’s usually enough to make the cut.

    Once while flying back from a wedding I played in Aspen, I looked over at the guy standing next to me in line and realized that it was mandolin/violin titan Sam Bush. I told him I dug his music, to which he replied in a conspiratorial whisper, “this isn’t my boarding group… I just want to be sure I get a space for my instruments.”

      1. Yes, I am travelling to Barcelona and I want to carry a cymbal and a snare drum with me. I want to know if I can carry them with me on the plain and if I can’t take them with me, I want to know if they have some special care with musical instruments. It is a 20 inch cymbal and a 13and half inch snare drum.

        1. I traveled recently with a drummer and I watched what he did with the airlines. He put his cymbals in a road case and checked those as luggage. He carried on his regular luggage, which included his stick back, etc. He didn’t carry any drums with him.

          I don’t know if you could bring both the cymbals and the drum on the plane – but I bet you could take one of them.

          Could you fit the drum into an overhead-sized piece of luggage? If it were me, I think I’d bring the drum on the plane and check the cymbals. The drum would be more likely to be damaged by rough handling, right?

          I’m sure this is different for each airline, though, so you should also call the company that you’re flying with and ask them.

  9. Hey Ghostwriter…I have a hard flight case I just bpught for a piece of DJ equipment (that is unofficially considered an instrument when traveling) that measures 31.75″W x 8.5″H x 18.75″D. It’s an Odyssey FZGSPIDDJS if you want to Google it. What are your thoughts on me getting this in an overhead bin or under the seat? First class closet maybe? Measurements aren’t my specialty but based on the way you wrote the article, I’m thinking you know exactly how this may go for me.

    There’s a soft case for the equipment I want to carry in this case but I’m literally terrified that if I ever have to gate check it, I might as well call the equipment funeral home. At least if I have to gate check the hard case, the protection is there. Share your thoughts and/or email me if you can.

    1. Hi Lance,

      It’s a bit difficult for me to say, as I have no experience with it. The measurements sound like they SHOULD fit in the overhead, but I don’t know the exact overhead compartment measurements–I can only tell you that it seems smaller than instruments that I have stuck in the overhead. If it doesn’t fit, very politely ask a stewardess if you can put it in the coat closet. Just remember, not all planes have one.

      It’s a hard thing to tell with this, anyway, since even though there are rules that say you can do this and that, the ticket agents and TSA have final say on what goes in and what doesn’t. Just, like I mentioned in my article, to keep it professional, keep acting like you’re in the know, and things should work out fine.

      Another suggestion, for all musicians, would be to sit a little distance from your gate while waiting for the plane to board; that way one of the flight employees doesn’t try to tell you to check the instrument before you can even try to board with it.

    2. There’s no simple answer to your question because every plane has different sized overhead compartments. Larger planes used for longer flights tend to have more space.

      If you fly frequently, I used to have a Platinum status with American Airlines and was one of the first to board the plane. I was always able to get my guitar in a safe place on the plane.

      Whenever I’ve had to gate check gear, I’ve never had a problem. As long as your gear is packed well, gate checking seems pretty safe to me.

  10. One issue that no one has addressed here is getting the instrument through security. I took my flute with me on a trip to Sweden, and, due to a 13 hour delay coming back, had to run through the security gauntlest several times. Each time, I was pulled aside, my flute was inspected, reinspected, I was questioned, held up the security line, annoyed the people behind me, and it made me feel that it’s just not worth it. I’m willing to lose two weeks of practice time when I’m on the road to avoid the endless hassle.

    No one, however, batted an eye at the WiplStix travel fiddle that I’ve taken along overseas. Wooden instruments seem not to annoy the security folks as much.

    1. Hi Chris,

      This is actually more rare than it is the norm. I’ve flown many, many times, and I can’t recall anyone looking in my case. The closest I’ve had is some little jokes about my instrument when they see it in the x-ray: “ooh, looks like somebody’s ready to play some jazz up in here!”

      The only time I’ve actually seen it was when I was flying to Chicago with two of the tubas in a brass band, and they stopped only one of them. The other tuba player and I weren’t stopped. Of course, we waited for them to stop swabbing his horn. They caused no trouble, and it only took them a few minutes. It was actually interesting to see what they do when they swab and search the instruments.

      Just remember, if you do get stopped and asked to look in your bag, agree, but let them know what you have in there, and explain that it’s very fragile and if they are confused at all about inspecting it, that you can walk them through it. Always be very pleasant and polite. These people will be spending their day dealing with unruly passengers, especially with the recent media attention they get.

      I’m sure, as you fly, you’ll notice this was a rare instance, and you will have very little trouble with security in the future.

  11. Hey!

    Some nice tips! I also play the Willson 2900, but I was wondering if I can take it on the plane in the hard case or do I have to use a soft bag? My euphonium got som bumps last time I was flying, so I am worried when travel with it.

    1. Hi Sølve,

      I would go with gig bag. The first time I flew, I took it in its hard case and had an argument with the ticket agent, and she thought she won by telling me to go through the gate and have it checked there. The captain was boarding at the same time, and heard the commotion and let me put it in the closet. It’s much more of a gamble to do that than the hard case. Lots of planes don’t have the closet any more.

      What you want to do is find a compartment, put your horn in there, and CLOSE THE DOOR. That way, people are less apt to try to shove stuff in a compartment they think is full. Watch the compartment the horn is in like a hawk, and if someone is putting something in, just politely explain what you have in there. You should be good to go.

  12. acoustic guitar on a business class flight from burmingham to dubai then dubai to philippines…can i hand carry it inside the plane? tips please guys…thanks! i’m on panic mode now coz my flight is 10 days from now … *_*

    1. Some planes have a space between the last row of first class seats and the wall dividing the sections. A flight attendant showed me that space, and I’ve passed the trick on to a few other flight attendants as well.

      Otherwise your options are the overhead, the coat closet up front (which is usually full of coats in the winter), or gate checking. Make sure it’s in a hard case!

  13. thanks a lot for the info gyz,

    I have a lot of brand new stuf that im taking with me from US to India via qatar airways. I got an Axis X2 pedal , BOSS VE 20 Processor , Tech21 sans amp PBDDI , 5 Cymbals (16″ max) and some other small stuff.

    I was thinking of checking in the drum , bass and vocal pedals and try and get in the cymbals as a carry on.

    what do you gyz think ? will it be safe ?

  14. im flying from NYC (jfk) to Mexico City
    so far the best solution to carry my 2 strats seems to me
    taking the necks off,
    bodies go with my clothes in my suitcase as checked baggage
    necks go with me as carry on…

    you say it doesnt seem like a good idea, why?

      1. Hi MJ,

        When I typed this up, I thought it was a bad idea for the continuous act of taking your neck off and putting it back on. Some guys would agree, and some would disagree. If you’re worried about stripping out the neck plate screw holes, I would recommend against it.

        Though, I would still be careful about putting your bodies in with the luggage; they may or may not be protected.

        Some things to consider: a double guitar soft case as carry on (there is now a law to allow musical instruments on as carry-on, provided they can fit in the overhead), or get an SKB golf flight case. There might be guitar flight cases, too, I don’t know. But the SKB solution worked great for me.

        I’ve never flown with an electric guitar, but my bass fits in the overhead with a soft case in most planes, and the SKB golf case worked very well.

  15. Wait so you’re saying here that you successfully got two bass guitars and a euphonium as carry on? That really really makes me feel better. I’ve been wondering if I can get an sold body electric guitar, violin, and mandolin successfully from NYC to London on Iberia or British Airways. Seems like I could do it if I had no other carry on, as they allow two personal items and a musical instrument.

    1. Hi Abram,

      Actually, it was the euph as a carry on, and the basses went in a hard case under the plane.

      I think what you said is possible, just be ready to argue your case in a RESPECTFUL way. Something you might consider is a way to carry at least two of those instruments in one case, so you have two carry ons rather than three.

      You’re going to need to get creative with this. Good luck!

  16. I’m intrigued as to how I’m going to travel with my musical saw this Christmas…(still, at least I know I can pick up a suitable replacement for less than £15 at a hardware or DIY shop…)my guitars are definitely going to cause me more of a problem hence my question…I tend to take ferries, but the German law states you need winter tyres so that idea’s no good this time. Anyone have any ideas as to the cheapest way to get from the UK to northern Germany over the winter break, travelling with as many instruments as I can manage to take with me – (ideally glockenspiel, 2 guitars and a saw…plus CDs, pedals and leads)?

    1. Hey Hobopop,

      I would recommend the golf case I suggest above in the article. That will fit at least the guitars, glock, and the saw…maybe the pedals, too. You might have to pay extra, but it’s worth it to be safe. Then again, if you can fit all your clothes in the case, as well, you won’t have to bring a large suitcase with you as well.

  17. I have a question…I’m living in Ecuador, but my keyboard is at home in New York, so this Christmas when I go home for a few weeks I want to bring my keyboard back with me, but I don’t know the safest way to get it on the plane and all the way to Ecuador unscathed… any suggestions?

    1. Hi Jillian,

      I’m assuming it’s an 88-key, and probably a bulky one at that, if it’s worth it to need to figure out how to fly it there.

      There are two considerations you can try:

      1.) Get a hard case and check it under. It’s going to cost a bit more, but not as much as #2.

      2.) Ship it home. International shipping, however, is probably going to cost a bit more than overweight/oversize charges when flying.

      You should price both of those options, as I don’t know exactly what the prices will be.

  18. I’ve flown with an acoustic guitar a few times (Australia-UK), in a Hiscox Lite Flite case. The case is now pretty battered, but the guitar’s fine (use some t-shirts to make sure the guitar is snug!).

  19. British Air deserves a shout out. I have always found them to be more cooperative with getting my instruments in as hand luggage than all other airlines. Traveling with my wife, we got a guitar, a mandolin, a 61 key piano and a small battery-powered Vox amp as carry on luggage repeatedly on one tour. I’ve had good luck approaching the gate agent first, pointing out my instrument(s) and getting permission to board early with the elderly, ill and babies. Worth the extra few dollars to fly BA in my humble opinion.

  20. I bought a Chadwick Folding Bass. Quality instrument, checks like luggage according to Delta’s own website. Rigid flexible case. A great idea. The greatest enemy of this instrument is the TSA.

    1. Hi David,

      I’ve seen luthiers make something similar, but I never thought to look and see if there was a commercially available bass! This instrument kind of interests me; especially being stuck in China right now and am at the mercy of non-musicians to provide me with a “professional” bass!

  21. A couple of years ago, I flew from Brussels to Los Angeles with my acoustic guitar in hard case. I searched for the ultimate airline that would accept my guitar, and I found that United Airlines was a good one.
    Unfortunately, they decided to have a national strike the day I flew to LA so they had to rebook my flight. So, instead of flying to New York and from there to LA, I had to fly to Frankfurt, then to Texas and then finally to my final destination. I was totally stressing out because of my guitar and the fact that I had to go through a gate 3 times instead of 2.

    I had sweaty palms when I got on the first plane, and one guy was telling me ‘you’re a lucky girl for being allowed to take that in the cabin with you. Are you sure they won’t complain?’
    But I just gave my passport and ticket, looked as confident as I could and they didn’t even mention the guitar and even helped me getting a spot for it. They even emptied a spot so my guitar would fit in an overhead compartment!
    Then in Frankfurt the lady who checked my ticket noticed my guitar and gave it a check-in ticket. I was TOTALLY freaking out! this flight was to Texas, a 9 hour flight.. NO WAY, I though to myself. So I tucked in the ticket and again pretended I knew what was going on. The stewards inside took my guitar and placed it in a cabin closet in first class. Awesome!
    Again, on the third flight they let me put the guitar in the overhead compartment.

    They flight back was also so stressful, that I told myself never to travel with an instrument again, but it seems I can’t keep this promise. Next week I’ll be flying to Cape Town cause I’m moving there for a job. I’m a singersongwriter so I can’t LIVE without my guitar and I don’t have a budget to buy one over there.
    Fingers crossed that all goes wel next week! :)

  22. Hi

    Does anyone have an idea if Condor airlines are OK with carry-on an acoustic guitar?
    I have called their customer service and their answer was that officially this will not be possible and should be checked-in as cargo, but on the same breath they said that in some cases they let you carry it with you (depending on their mood?)
    since this is a long distance flight (Germany-Mexico) with a boeing 767, I wonder if it makes any difference.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>