Traveling on airplanes with musical instruments of any kind can be a challenge, particularly if we are considering professionals who are carrying fine guitars as opposed to a child traveling with an inexpensive student guitar or toy ukulele.
Although rarely voluntarily admitted to your intimate partner, size always matters — especially when transporting a musical instrument. Similarly, when transporting a guitar via aircraft, the particular carrier you are flying with, as well as the interpretation of the rules by each plane's flight crews, matters a great deal. The rules on United Airlines might be different from those on Spirit, American, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue airlines. Even the time you board your flight can make a difference.
That said, since 2015 the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has implemented rules which seek to bring a semblance of order, a universal protocol, and prevent last-minute price gouging that has plagued musicians for a very long time.
The following provides a quick run-down of the rules and recommendations for violinists, violists, cellists, double bassists, and, of course, musicians who play the viola da gamba:
Small enough to carry on board (no seat) - Violins and violas are usually deemed small enough to carry on board on most flights. Tip: Pay for early boarding, as that makes it more likely you will get space in the overhead bins near your seat.
Carry on board with a seat - While the rules are left to the discretion of each airline, it is possible to purchase a seat for a larger instrument (cellos, basses, guitars). Of course it makes sense to make that purchase in advance to ensure you and your instrument will be on the same flight. There is some judgment that may be left up to the flight crew as to whether your cello needs a seat in coach or first class, further emphasizing the need to work this out in advance.
Must check with baggage - When onboard space does not allow (which might happen with smaller regional carriers), it may be necessary to check your instrument. This is why your local guitar or music shop recommends a sturdy case, even though many musicians would never consider checking their instrument; at such times, particularly in lieu of shorter regional distances, travel by car or train might make more sense.
Humidity issues - Planes as well as destinations might have a very low humidity factor. This is potentially an issue for the instrument if you originate in a humid environment. Humidifiers in the form of sponges in specially constructed containers are available to release moisture in a controlled fashion
TSA screening - Minimize any additional items inserted into your music instrument’s case, as it might prompt the Transportation Safety Authority employee to open and handle the instrument in order to examine it. It is more likely to sail through x-ray screening hands-free if the instrument is contained in the case.
Non-stop, direct, connecting and smaller (regional) planes - If you have to change planes on a trip it means repeating the boarding procedures and possibly educating a new flight crew on what you are doing. Or if you have a larger instrument that is checked in baggage, it is one more opportunity to be mishandled or lost. So choose your itinerary to be as direct/non-stop as possible.
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