I don’t like to go anywhere without a guitar so taking a guitar on a plane is one of those necessary evils. For someone who plays every day, there is nothing worse than sitting in a hotel room at night without one. Of course, you can always buy one at your destination and take it home. I’ve been known to do that even when I have taken one with me.
United Airlines Broke My Guitar
You’ve probably heard the song or seen a video of the story about a guy who traveled with United Airlines and arrived with a broken guitar and no one wanted to take responsibility for it. Well that happened to me too. I wrote about it at the time.
I had a brand new hard guitar case with plush velvet on the inside. I bought it for the trip as I had planned some gigs in the US, although I did intend to buy a new guitar on the trip as well.
The guitar case had fragile stickers all over it and I had hoped that perhaps the people handling the luggage would be musicians and therefore take some care.
Someone once told me that the more fragile stickers you use, the harder they throw the luggage into the hold of the plane. I don’t know if that is true, but I have sat in an airline lounge and watched my luggage (not a guitar) being tossed into a plane like a lifter throws garbage into the rubbish truck.
When you are going on an overseas trip, you have to deal with passports, tickets, baggage labels, waivers. Stop, did I say waivers? Yep, I signed a form agreeing that the airline took all care but no responsibility. You have a choice really, sign the form or don’t take the guitar and by then its check in time and you can’t exactly take it home again. So you sign and you hope you can trust them.
So when I got to Orlando Airport I went and got my guitar from the Fragile Luggage Counter and it rattled. It wasn’t rattling when I got on the plane. I was in Arrivals and I got on my knees in the luggage claim area and opened the case.
My beloved Takamine, which was worth a few thousand dollars before being reworked and made even better by a really good luthier, had a broken bridge and the piezo microphone set-up on the inside of the sound box was dislodged and a wire had come off it. For that to happen, it must have been subjected to some serious impact.
You Must Have a Faulty Case!
So I went back to the counter and spoke with a ground crew woman and told her that my perfect guitar had been broken in transit and asked what they would do for me. Well, if attack is the best form of defense, she took it to me. She told me that if anything had happened to the guitar, it meant that I had a faulty case. There was no way it was United’s fault. She told me in no uncertain terms what I could do with the guitar and case and pointed to the waiver sticker. But I said to her, it says you will take all care and your people didn’t.
I was horrified. I don’t know about you, but I have a relationship with each of my guitars. It’s like your favorite song. You can tell the story of where you were when you first heard it. Who you were with and more. So my second day in Orlando was spent repairing the guitar in a Florida guitar shop, because their guitar tech wasn’t working that day. I guess that is one good thing about musos, they were more than happy to let me fix it myself.
I repaid their kindness by buying another guitar while I was there. It was a nice Ibanez Custom Wood series guitar with the soundboard made of crushed maple. But I was pretty worried about going home with two guitars!
Taking a Guitar on a Plane
Ever since that trip, which was quite a few years ago, I have always tried to take my guitar on the plane as hand luggage. Each section usually has a wardrobe and they can fit the guitar in, nicely cushioned between coats and jackets. The only risk is if there are several people with guitars which sometimes happens. There is hardly ever room in the luggage racks these days, especially in the USA where they regularly overbook the seats.
Obviously you want to travel with a good quality hard case, but I have to say that is no guarantee that it will travel safely.
How to Get Your Guitar Onboard as Hand Luggage.
It comes down to being nice to the ground crew. Travel is stressful for everyone and I’m not sure who has it worst, the traveler or the check in team. The traveler gets to arrive at a different destination where there is a good chance they are going to enjoy new surroundings whether it is for work or a vacation. The ground crew get to deal with lots of tired, frustrated travelers who frequently vent at them, or perhaps act entitled, demanding upgrades or better seats and then go home to do it all again the next day.
I have found the best thing is to strike up a conversation with them. I ask if they are into music and if they play an instrument themselves. If the answer is yes, or no but a friend/relative does, you have a great conversation starter where you can mention how precious your instrument is, and ask if it might be possible to take it as hand luggage.
Sometimes I’ve had to pay extra for it, but often the answer is yes and have a great trip.
On my last trip to Rarotonga, the woman checking me in said that it was going to cost an extra $100 to take the guitar on board. I chatted with her and it turned out that she played violin and was originally from Rarotonga. She waived the fee and wished me bon voyage. It was a great trip and I composed a piece of music, which I appropriately called Rarotonga. Excuse the video imagery, it is just random video I took on the trip, but I really like the composition and hope you enjoy listening to it.
You can’t guarantee that your guitar will arrive in one piece but there are a few things you can do to improve the odds.
- Don’t travel without a good hard case. Make sure that the guitar fits snugly in the case and can’t bounce around. Newton’s Law implies that if the case is thrown onto a plane, or dropped, an equal amount of impact will occur inside, just like a couple of rugby players crashing heads in a tackle. Their skulls might be OK, but their brain can get scrambled. Maybe a bad analogy, but you get the point, right?
- Be nice to people at airline check ins. They are people just like you and I, and they have feelings. The saying that they have heard it all before is true, and the number of people who act like they are better than them gets tiring. They might even be pleasantly surprised if you are nice to them and show an interest.
- Make sure your luggage and especially the instrument is properly insured. You can specify expensive items of luggage so that in the worst case scenario, you can get your instrument fixed or replaced.
- You could take a photo of the guitar on your phone when you put it in the case and another when you close the case. That way you have a time stamped, location based, audit trail to prove that it was in good condition when you left.
- Safe travels and enjoy your trip.