This blog post was updated on January 20, 2021.
For any musicians, their gear is their baby. Taken carefully from show to show, and faithfully (almost religiously) cleaned, there’s nothing more special. But there comes a time that every instrumentalist hates…lugging their precious gear on a flight!
Sure, if you’re in The Rolling Stones you’d have hundreds of road managers who’ll make sure all your gear gets to your show in one piece. But when you’re just starting off as a band or solo musician, there’s nothing more terrifying than hearing the person at the airport check-in counter say “Sorry, but you’re going to have to check that in.”
What? Leave your precious baby in the hands of baggage handlers to be tossed around like a bale of hay?
Here’s what every musician needs to know when flying with music gear and instruments!
What the DOT Says About Flying with Music Gear & Instruments
To sum things up for you axe-men, ivory ticklers, and skin beaters: Most of the time, guitars, and compact wind instruments like saxophones and trumpets, or any other small instrument in a proper casing, can be taken on board as carry-on luggage AS LONG as they fit in the overhead bin or under a seat. If not, and according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, you’ll be able to take it on board only if you have “purchased an additional seat to accommodate the instrument and the instrument is contained in a case or cover to avoid injury to other passengers, the weight of the instrument does not exceed 165 pounds or applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft, and the instrument can be stowed in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the FAA.”
For those of you who are lugging around a harp or an upright bass, then it’s sometimes possible to secure them to a seat as “seat baggage” or “cargo in passenger cabin.” It also could mean that you may have to purchase an extra seat (and some airlines may offer this minus fees, which should make it a bit cheaper).
However, it’s very important for all traveling musicians to remember that “carriers are not required to give musical instruments priority over other carry-on baggage, therefore passengers traveling with musical instruments may want to buy the pre-boarding option offered by many carriers to ensure that space will be available for them to safely stow their instruments in the cabin.”
This means: Don’t take things for granted! Check with your airline about their policy on instrument storage way before you get to the airport. Some airlines may even want you to come in a bit earlier than your flight day to see if your instrument will fit in their cabin space.
Other things to remember:
- Be nice: Being nice, friendly, and conversational at the check in counter could be the difference between allowing your gear on board or being forced to part with it and chucked in with checked-in luggage.
- Pay attention to your case: A soft case with padding might be better for in-cabin storage, but you will need a sturdy hard travel case if you have to check in.
- Talk to other musicians: Some fellow traveling musicians will have great advice on how to travel with your gear.
You may also like: Love Music? Check Out These Music-Themed Things to Do in Memphis!
What the TSA Suggests About Flying with Music Gear & Instruments
The TSA has some of the following suggestions, some of which we have already talked about. Be sure to check them out before you book those cheap one way flights if you intend to travel with your precious musical instrument!
- Check with your airline about gate-checking or storing your instrument in the cabin prior to travel so you can fully understand their policies.
- If you have a fragile instrument, we recommend you carry it on the aircraft. Brass instruments are safe to check as baggage as long as you have the proper case.
- TSA officers need to either X-ray or physically inspect your musical instrument. You’ll be involved in the process as much as possible and can advise the officer of the best way to handle the instrument.
- Your instrument may need to undergo an explosives trace detection test which involves running a soft cotton or paper swab across the case and instrument.
- When checking your instrument as checked baggage, include short written instructions, where an officer will notice them, for handling and repacking your instrument. Make sure these instructions are clear and understandable to someone with no musical background.
- When possible, we encourage you to stay with your instrument while security officers screen it to make sure it is repacked properly.
- If you check your instrument as baggage, be sure it is either unlocked or that you are using a TSA-recognized lock. If your case is locked with a lock the TSA can’t open, they may have to remove it if the instrument needs to be inspected.