So, you are looking to take the plunge and go on a little tour away from home? Or, perhaps you are simply going abroad and can’t bear the thought of being away from your beloved axe? I personally know I would be driven to lunacy if I had to spend more than a week without an instrument of any sort.
You get a vague feeling that something is wrong hanging over you consistently, and before you realize what is wrong it is already too late.
Whatever your reason for being here today, we will be elucidating for you the ins and out’s of checking a guitar on a plane, going through the procedure sequentially step by step, and hopefully letting you know what you might expect from each part of the process.
7 Must-Know Tips for Flying With Your Guitar
Let’s get right into it. Here are the 7 important tips for checking a guitar on a plane:
- Having the right case
- Reinforcing the case
- Protecting the frets, fretboard, pickups, etc.
- Securing all accessories
- Loosening strings
- Utilizing humidifiers, dehumidifiers, etc.
- Check-in process
1. Having the Right Case
Just as with anything, especially that relating to music and travel and the like, balance is crucial. Here, the balance will be between durability and weight. The more durable a case is, the heavier the case will be, making checking a guitar on a plane more difficult (if possible at all).
There is, however, a middle ground between the two, with many guitar cases that are durable and designed so as to eschew a bunch of excess weight while still remaining robust.
The case that your guitar came with, if indeed it did come with one, will almost certainly not do. They might seem sturdy, and they may be able to take a hell of a beating wherever you choose to take them locally, but they are not cut out to withstand the various abuses that can arise from air travel.
Likewise, if your guitar did not come with such a case and you are using a gig bag type case, one that is (eponymously) more like a bag or backpack, then this is not going to cut it either.
The ideal for durability would be something incredibly heavy, like the kind of heavy-duty road cases that big-budget world-touring musicians use. These are, of course, incredibly heavy and nigh on impossible to get through customs and the like unless you have the funds to throw at it.
Hm. If only there were some type of case that strikes a balance in between the two, that was durable but likewise did not weigh so much as to encumber the user.
Well, there is! They come in the form of ASB plastic guitar cases with high-quality latches and exteriors and interiors that are going to withstand the journey. The best of the best of these will be approved by the Air Transport Association.
2. Reinforcing the Case
It ought not to come as a surprise that baggage is not treated anywhere near well enough, hence why you have found yourself upon this article today, attempting to learn about how you might go about checking a guitar on a plane.
All baggage is thoroughly mistreated, far more than if it were being fed through ground shipping. Sadly, your fancy flight case might not be able to withstand the whole journey on its own, in which case it could use a bit of assistance.
It is worth packing the guitar as though you were going to ship it internationally (which you kind of are if you are crossing national borders of course). This way, there are far less likely to be any disappointments or upsets. Just as you would kit out a package for international shipping, you will want to fill any vacant air spaces in the guitar’s flight case with bubble wrap or foam or soft clothing such as underwear.
Note, however, that clothing is going to weigh more than lightweight materials like bubble wrap (which is specifically manufactured for the job) and paper and the like; an amount that might seem negligible but which will come to count gravely upon the airport’s weighing scales.
Special attention ought to be paid to the space around the headstock, as there is usually a wide gap so that more than one kind of guitar can find a home nestling within it. The aim should be to have it so the guitar is not able to move in any direction. A gentle nudge from a few angles, either of the case and/or the guitar itself as it lies there, should be enough to test the integrity of its bounds.
3. Protecting the Frets, Fretboard, Pickups, etc
Worth focussing on particularly in checking a guitar on a plane are the frets and the fretboard and the pickups, owed their own section if only for how often they can be overlooked in this packing process.
The whole journey will be brutal on any luggage, especially your precious guitar, whether that be in customs or on the plane itself – what can appear as a smooth and easy-going flight in the passenger seat is often a turbulent and stormy affair below deck.
You can’t go wrong with putting something soft under the strings, to stop them from moving about and potentially damaging the frets, if something happened to press them in and push them against the frets or the fretboard or the pickups, or if indeed one of the baggage handlers decided to toss the whole guitar without much care or consideration.
For the job, you can use cloth and folded-up paper towels, or anything else you have lying around that is soft enough to block the passage and not do any harm by preventing the lid from closing properly.
Though in some way helpful, you should do more than just put a small buffer in between the strings, but rather cover the whole fretboard with your chosen material. This is often how those sending guitars internationally will do the job, and for such things, you really can’t go wrong.
A pro tip would be to use foam wrap, thin enough to slide underneath the strings and to stay in place, cut to be just thicker in width than the fretboard, to which you will tie or tape each side of the foam (preferably with non-stick tape so as not to leave any undesirable marks.
4. Securing All Accessories
If your flight case is lucky enough to be bequeathed with an extra compartment for various small accessories, then, in checking a guitar on a plane, you are going to want to make sure this is just as secure as all of the other parts of the process discussed thus far.
This is especially true if your own accessory compartment is the kind without a lid, one that is proverbially open to the elements, in which case the items that might typically be stored with – whammy bars and small wrenches and the like – will be free to fly about however they like when they are tossed about by baggage handlers and sheer altitude.
Larger items, such as straps and guitar cables, and packets of strings, are more than likely going to be fine if kept in the case (though ideally, they ought still to be secured with bubble wrap or something). It is smaller items that can more easily be forced to move about the flight case against their will, and then potentially damage the finish of the guitar and who knows what else.
It is, therefore, preferable to take these smaller items with you on the plane or in your suitcase. If, however and for whatever reason, you find you need to include these items, then the best thing for it is to wrap them all together in a soft material.
There are innumerable things that you might use, most of which are probably lying right before your eyes at this very moment – bubble wrap, paper towels, and bandanas being only a few.
The guitar case, like the rest of the luggage, is going to have to go through security, so it would be best to use your common sense and leave any liquids that you might take along for the ride out of the case. Including guitar polish, lemon oil, fast fret, etc.
5. Loosening Strings
Another vital step in ensuring the safe passage of checking a guitar on a plane comes in the form of so simple a gesture, one that might even be misconstrued as inconsequential and unimportant, but which can actually have a far more significant impact than conceivable.
The key is not to have the strings go completely slack, as this could do more damage than good. A rule of thumb would be to tune each string roughly one or two steps down.
The idea of loosening the strings like this is twofold, though with one taking real precedence over the other. Since the guitar and the flight case it is in will be held in the luggage bay, it is likely going to experience at least some changes in air pressure, which could spell disaster for the guitar.
We have all left our guitar to its own devices in a hot or cold room and felt the effect afterward, where the strings have either loosened or tightened themselves respectively owing to the changes in temperature.
The same occurs when the air pressure dramatically, as it is almost certainly going to during a plane flight, and so pre-emptively loosening the strings prevents any accidents arriving in the form of strings snapping and causing any damage to the body in transit, loose strings rubbing against a potentially expensive and bespoke guitar finish.
Likewise, if the guitar in question has a floating tremolo system, you will want to reinforce it before traveling so that it does not bend and/or til too far back when the strings are loosened.
6. Utilizing Humidifiers, Dehumidifiers, etc
If you are checking a guitar on a plane and that guitar happens to be an acoustic guitar (and you want to know how to store an acoustic guitar properly), then you are definitely going to want to at least do some research on humidifiers and dehumidifiers and the whole host of benefits they can have on the sanctity of your instrument.
The guitar is a sensitive thing, prone to fluctuations in temperature, pressure, humidity, and climate, all of which are going to be in some way affected when traveling across (however many) borders and taking to the skies in a plane!
Acoustic guitars especially have little to protect them from these things, which is where these kinds of humidifiers/dehumidifiers come in. They seek to monitor and ‘fix’ the climate surrounding the guitar, in particular the sound hole, so that it remains relatively constant and thus is not altered too much.
Some of the best of these can even do both, humidify and/or dehumidify, depending on the specific atmospheric circumstances it is tasked with adjusting for the sake of the guitar. This means that if an ambient atmosphere is either too dry or too wet, it will be able to adjust this for the guitar and thus ensure that the climate inside the flight case is kept where it ought to be.
Many guitarists would encourage you to use these even in the day-to-day, which might be a shout depending on where you are living and what kind of temperatures your instruments are being stored in. Some temperatures are far better for guitars than others, and it might be the case that your habitat is not as friendly habitat for your instruments as it is for you.
7. Check-In Process
Now that you have packed everything properly and as tightly as possible, and have checked, double-checked, and triple-checked, you are finally ready to check yourself and your luggage and, most importantly, your guitar onto the flight!
During checking a guitar on a plane, it is sound advice across the board to take your guitar as far through the check-in process as possible, much as you would with carry-on baggage you would be taking into the aircraft cabin with you.
If this is not possible, and if you are indeed forced to take your instrument to the checked baggage counter (which you are almost certainly going to have to if you have other luggage with you), then make sure you have the musical instrument policy of the relevant airline to hand, just in case you might need it for reference or evidence.
It might so happen that you are pressured into having your guitar checked through, in which case you can politely remind whoever is doing the pressuring that this is an expensive and fragile instrument, presenting them with their own airline policy if this does not work.
The longer the instrument is out of your own hands and sight, the more chance it has of coming into harm’s way, and the higher the likelihood that it could be stolen and/or damaged and/or lost completely. There are several miles of automatic baggage conveyors in most airports, none of which are going to show your guitar much mercy nor human compassion in the process of taking it from A to B.
The ideal would be to receive the guitar before it is sent through these kinds of conveyors, whether that be upon boarding or upon landing. In the case of the latter, you will want to get to the baggage claim as soon as possible. Anyone will be able to tell a guitar from a suitcase, and yours would not be the first to be stolen away.
Some Additional Thoughts
Sadly, even if you follow all of these sequential pieces of advice down to the letter, there is still an inherent risk involved in checking a guitar on a plane. Being so out of your hands, it would be best to avoid doing so altogether and only do so in the most necessary circumstances.
So, if you do not need to do so for a performance, it would seriously be worth considering leaving it at home or taking one that does not matter as much to you.
It could even be worth investing in other musical instruments for the cause, one that: a) you are not going to miss so much in the case of destruction or theft, and/or b) that is actually easier to check in at all.
There are plenty of travel-sized guitars around these days, some artists even making a career out of using them exclusively, which in terms of being a touring musician is certainly thinking along the right lines.
I am just about to head on holiday myself and was racking my brains on how I could do so and still keep the music part of my mind occupied. I toyed with buying a travel guitar, but I realized I have neither the money nor the time to make it a reality.
I decided instead to purchase an even smaller musical instrument and one that I could get away with keeping in my main luggage. A harmonica, while rather removed from the guitar in a lot of ways, still fosters the aspect that I desire in taking it away, namely the ability to mindlessly play it without too much thought.
Flight Case Blues
For all the protection a fancy flight guitar case can offer, they can equally fall prey to the same fate as just about any other luggage. Baggage handlers, as we have already attempted to convey, simply do not treat the baggage with any respect.
Granted, they are not paid to do so, nor are they given enough time to do so. Flight cases will be taking the same route as any other checked baggage when checking a guitar on a plane, and thus will be subject to the same hardships.
One ought to expect at least some scuffs and scratches on the case by the end of the first leg of the journey. I suppose it does not help that most flight cases are black, a color which harbors stains and scuffs and marks of this kind rather too well for its own good. I have seen my own suitcases and checked luggage sustain a fair number of injuries in the past, with a convalescence that will be unending.
The flight case might even sustain further damage – it is certainly within the realms of possibility – if a checked baggage handler feels a little too strong in one moment and dashes the flight case sky high without a thought
Flight cases, though strong and durable, are not indestructible. In in-flight cases, there is a trade-off in terms of strength and ability to withstand outside pressure, the dichotomy between weight and durability.
They can take a hell of a kicking, sure, but they can also reap the consequences, and your flight case would not be the first to be caved in by the terrors and trials and tribulations of air travel. In these cases, it remains only to be thankful that they took the hit, and not the guitar.
More Flight Cases
Whatever flight case you do decide to invest in, chances are there is a bigger, beefier, and better one lying just around the corner out of reach, one that might make your checking-a-guitar-on-a-plane experience more painless.
The ideal flight case for the traveler that is flying alone (or at least without the help of a dedicated touring crew) is one that prioritizes balance between durability, a lightweight, and a low price.
If, however, money is no object and you do not mind how much you pay (for you only want the best), and if you also do not care how heavy the guitar case might end up being, then it would be worth investing some time researching some of the more heavy-duty flight cases. The sky is the limit with these sorts of things, and you can rest assured that manufacturers will always take these things way too far.
And if you do, in fact, have a dedicated touring crew along for the ride with you, or at the very least have a few more hands than just you and a friend (or special friend), then by all means sink some time into looking at some of the flight cases designed for these kinds of professional purposes.
You would be surprised at just how expensive a small encasement of four walls can be for your beloved instrument or amplifier.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are somewhat wiser about the process of checking a guitar on a plane, and thus are feeling a little more at ease with the procedure. Things are only as scary as you make them, and if you are as clued up as you can be and are equipped with the musical instrument policy of the relevant airline, then you will be absolutely fine.
So, whatever you decide to do and however you choose to go about it, and most importantly wherever you end up going, we all wish you the very best in your various peregrinations around the world on the end of a guitar string.