Paul Diamond Blow's Rock Musician Resources

How to Fly with Your Guitar on an Airplane
Need to fly to a gig with your guitar? Here's how to safely and securely fly on an airplane with your guitar ...

by Paul Diamond Blow

If you are reading this article and you are like me, you're probably a guitar player who's got an airplane trip ahead of you and you're searching the internet looking for tips on flying your guitar with you safely and securely. You've probably found a lot of conflicting tips, articles, and horror stories written years ago that don't really apply to today's times, what with added airline security and all. This article is based on my own personal experience flying with my Gibson Les Paul guitar on a recent airplane trip in May, 2009.

My rock band was offered a couple of shows in Texas and we determined that traveling to Texas from Seattle (where we are based) the traditional way (in a van with all our gear) for two shows was not the way to go what with the three day drive, motel rooms, gas, etc, etc. We told the promoter that we would play the shows if we could fly down with just our guitars, picks and pedals and have the promoter provide a backline of gear for us (guitar amps, bass amp and drum set). After all that was taken care of all we had to do was figure out how we'd get our guitars down there with us safely and securely.

I scoured the internet myself looking for tips on how to fly a guitar on a commercial airplane and found a lot of conflicting tips and many horror stories: stories of baggage handlers throwing fragile guitars on top of luggage racks, stories of opening guitar cases after the flight to find the guitar missing or severely damaged, stories of guitars being stolen from the baggage claim area or ending up in the wrong city...etc., etc. On the internet many guitar players said if you fly a guitar on an aircraft you should bring the guitar on as your carry-on item and stow it in the overhead containers. Some people said you had to pack your guitar in a soft-case gig bag to do this, that if you brought it in a hard case they wouldn't allow it as a carry-on. Others said the opposite -- that you should definitely bring the guitar in a hard case just in case they didn't allow you to bring it aboard as a carry-on. Other people said that you should gate check your guitar so that it would be loaded on the plane last and be brought right back to you at the gate without having to go through the baggage claim. Others insisted the way to go is to buy an expensive flight case for the guitar which will withstand much more abuse than a regular case and then just check it in as regular baggage. And of course, others insisted the way to go with an expensive guitar is to ship it down to your destination insured with Fed Ex. Still others insisted that the only way was to purchase an extra seat ticket just for your guitar... but of course, how many of us musicians can afford that?

Finally, I asked personal musician friends of mine who have flown to gigs how they did it, and still heard conflicting information. All my friends said to bring it in a hard case and tune down the strings on the guitar before you bring it aboard (to avoid the neck snapping due to air pressure -- that's actually the only consistent tip I've heard that everyone agrees on.) Some of my friends said that they always bring their guitars aboard as carry-on and that if for some reason they weren't allowed to they'd gate check the instrument, and other friends insisted that airlines don't allow guitars on board anymore and that they always check theirs in as baggage, with their guitars occasionally ending up in the wrong city. After all this information I received, I decided to take my chances...

Here's what I did: I brought my prized Les Paul guitar to the airport in it's Gibson hardshell case that came with the guitar. I tuned all the strings down and wrapped a a teeshirt around the headstock for extra protection. I was worried because the headstock had already broken twice before when it had been dropped. My Les Paul guitar case has a lock on it, but I didn't bother to lock it up since I also heard that the airlines may search the baggage while it's on the plane and break open the lock to search through the case. I have no idea if this is actually true, but I decided not to take that chance so instead I wrapped a nice strong leather belt around the case to keep it from flying open in the belly of the plane if it went on as baggage.Good to go!

We were flying from Seattle, WA to San Antonio, Texas on Frontier Airlines in economy class, and at the check-in counter I told the attendant that I wanted to bring the guitar on as carry-on and check my gig bag with all my clothes as baggage. He told me that I could carry the guitar on but that it was a full flight and I might have to gate check it instead. I decided to take a chance and said that I'd gate check it. Our second guitar player also gate checked his guitar and our bass player -- who had bought an expensive flight case for his bass-- just checked his bass in as regular baggage. Fortunately for us, they waived the $15.00 baggage fee since the flight was full and they offered to gate check bags for no charge. It turned out that if I had brought my guitar on as a carry-on item I would've had a hard time finding a place for it in the overheads since the flight was full and the bins were packed. That would've been a hassle, and my advice here is if you do carry it on, try to be first in line when they are boarding your seats to get first pick at the bins.

Upon arriving in San Antonio (after a connecting flight in Denver) we were told our guitars would not be brought to us at the gate -- they said they only did that for baby strollers -- and that we had to pick them up at the baggage claim area. Our guitars did make it to us on the conveyer belt and first thing I did was open up the case and was very relieved to see the guitar was still in there in one piece -- no damage to the guitar or the case.

On our return trip back to Seattle, I was a little more confident and decided to let the attendant at the check in counter take my guitar as baggage after she assured me it would be handled properly with care, slapped some "fragile" stickers on it, and waived the $15.00 fee since once again it was a full flight. The other guitar player decided to carry his guitar on the flight this time (since his case is flimsier but thinner than most hard cases), but he did have a hard time finding a spot for it in the overhead bins when we boarded. On the connecting flight he had them gate check it for him since that too was a full flight and they offered to gate check bags for no charge.

Once we arrived at the Seatac airport in Seattle we proceeded to the baggage claim area and I didn't like the looks of the conveyor belt at all since the bags first went down a steep slope to get to the rotating belt. I made sure I was standing right there where the guitar would come down so I could catch it quickly, but our guitars never came down this way -- the Frontier airline people actually brought all our guitars in from the plane special on a cart and when we picked up our guitars and thanked them they played a Ramones song on their music system... now that was a nice touch! (I believe they played "Cretin Hop" and the name of our band is the Space Cretins, and yes the Ramones are our favorite band.)

All in all the experience was not bad at all: no lost or stolen guitar, no baggage handlers throwing our guitars around, no damage at all to any of our instruments. Now, there is always the chance that your guitar will get lost and end up in the wrong city -- our drummer flew down separate from us on Southwest Airlines and they lost all his baggage! Luckily for him they found it all and brought it to him at his motel the same day.

Based on my own experience, here are MY tips for flying your prized guitar on an airplane in 2009 and beyond:

1) Pack your guitar in a hard shell case, tune the strings down, and put some bubble wrap or a teeshirt around the headstock for extra protection. Strap a good leather belt around the case for extra security.

2) Bring your guitar on the plane as your carry-on item. This is the best way to make sure your guitar travels with you without getting lost or stolen. Yes, the airlines DO still allow guitars on as carry-on, BUT if you are flying economy class and it is a full flight there is a chance you will have to gate-check it instead. Also, try to be first in line when they board your seat section so that you'll have first dibs at the bins.

2) If you can't carry your guitar on, GATE check it: this means you bring your guitar with you all the way to the plane where you hand it off and it is loaded into the baggage area last. This way at least you know for sure it's getting on the right plane, but of course if you have a connecting flight there's a chance it might not make it on... but if the flight is full and you have to gate check it they may waive the baggage fee for you like they did for us.

3) Ah, what the heck... if you're a well-to-do musician and you are super-paranoid about your prized guitar, buy an extra seat ticket just for your guitar, strap it in and have it buy you a few drinks on the flight!