Musician traveling tips

We all know that traveling can be a hassle, but when it comes to flying with instruments worries can give way to outright fear.

So, what can musicians do to keep their instruments safe? We asked some of our instructors and alumni for their strategies and tips for traveling with their instruments.

Consider shipping

For some larger instruments, such as cellos or double basses, shipping your instrument may be the easiest route. If you opt to ship, make sure you pack the instrument in an approved shipping case.

Prepare your instrument for travel

While what happens to your instrument at the airport may be out of your hands, what happens to it prior to your arrival is in your control. A few simple preparations can give your instrument a better chance of survival.

Buy a hard-sided flight case. Soft-sided cases are light and convenient when you’re on campus, but they’re a no-go for larger instruments on airplanes. “When traveling with an acoustic guitar, it’s important to have a sturdy, hard case because airlines often make you check the guitar,” said Singer-Songwriter Instructor Courtney Kaiser-Sandler (IAC 89-91, IAA 92-94). “A flight-approved hard case that is fitted for your guitar is the best.” Instructor of Low Brass Tom Riccobono agrees, but warns that a flight case does not guarantee your instrument’s safety. “There are many cases that cannot be destroyed by the airlines, but that does not stop them from opening the case for examination,” he said.

Pad your case. If your instrument fits loosely in your case, or you have loose items in your storage compartment, add some padding. Strategies vary from instrument to instrument. Manager of Instrument Services J Berry (IAC/NMC 73-75, 77, AS 76, ICA St 92-17, IAC St 80-92) recommends reinforcing the bell sections of brass and applicable woodwind instruments with foam, cardboard or soft padding. For string instruments, Berry recommends extra padding around the bridge and neck of the instrument. Kaiser-Sandler suggests padding a guitar’s case to ensure a better fit. “There is bound to be space between the guitar itself and the case,” she said. “I use clothes from my packed suitcase, (socks, t-shirts etc). This is doubly awesome because then you have a little more room in your suitcase.” If your instrument has moving or removable parts, such as keys or mouthpieces, secure those as well. “Buy a device that keeps the keys closed on your instrument so that it is more stable,” said Conductor of the Academy Band and Saxophone Instructor Matthew Schlomer. “Also put extra padding around the neck and mouthpiece so that nothing is moving around in the storage portion of the case.” Berry takes mouthpiece care a step further, advising that mouthpieces be stored in your carry-on bag for safekeeping. Schlomer also recommends securing the outside of the case with a strap or duct tape in case the latches become dislodged—a strategy that works well for any instrument.

Control the climate. Instruments made out of wood are susceptible to changes in temperature, pressure and humidity. Install a small humidifier in your case to keep the humidity consistent (Academy Orchestra Conductor and Camp/Academy Instructor of Violin Ara Sarkissian recommends the Stretto humidifier). Changes in pressure during the flight can put stress on the strings of guitars and other string instruments. Kaiser-Sandler suggests loosening your strings slightly before the flight to avoid broken strings. She also suggests leaving your case open for several hours upon arrival to allow your instrument to adjust to a new climate.
Choose a travel-friendly instrument. If you have more than one instrument, consider traveling with one that is easier to transport. “A detachable-bell French Horn in a case that fits the dimensions for carry-on luggage is best,” said Brad Gemeinhardt (IAA 94-96, IAC 94, IAC Fac 11-17) of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. “If your bell is fixed...maybe bring cookies for the flight attendants?” Recent high demand for rosewood in China has created embargoes on transporting rosewood internationally—even in instrumental form. If you need to travel internationally, you’ll need to bring a different instrument or borrow one when you reach your destination.

Carry your instrument’s papers. Like rosewood, many common instrument materials are banned in other countries. “Don’t travel internationally without papers or receipts for your instrument,” said Sarkissian. “Know the rules for carrying ivory or whale bone and whether or not your instrument or bow has any, as they are largely banned and could result in your bow being confiscated.”

Get an extra seat. An extra seat is often helpful for carrying on a larger instrument—but it’s not a guarantee of an instrumental seat-buddy. “If the plane is overbooked, your instrument could get bumped,” warns Riccobono.

Remove banned items from your case. As a result of more stringent travel regulations, liquids and sharp objects are not allowed in carry-on items. As a result, you may need to remove liquids such as valve oil or reed soaker from your case. If you have knives for making oboe or bassoon reeds, these will also need to be placed in your checked bag rather than your case or carry-on.

Navigating security

Getting through TSA can be stressful. Be sure to follow the officers’ instructions closely to avoid conflict.
If your bag is flagged or you are selected for a random search, remain calm. Politely explain that you are traveling with a valuable (and fragile!) instrument, and ask if you may open the case and hand the instrument to them. If they refuse, offer polite and patient instructions on how to properly open your case and handle your instrument. When the search is complete, make sure your instrument is replaced into the case in the proper manner, and re-adjust it if necessary.

Boarding the plane

Boarding the plane is the most crucial and most difficult aspect of flying with an instrument, as this is the stage that determines where your instrument will spend the flight. Here are a few tips loading your instrument safely:

Try to board early. “I always board early—right after the veterans, parents with small children, handicapped/elderly, and 'gold' card carriers,” said Riccobono. “I just ask the attendant if I can board before my row is called so that I can situate my instrument.” Sarkissian agrees. “Speak to the gate attendant and try to explain that you’re traveling with an instrument and that you could use some extra time or help,” he said.

Carry on, when possible. If you have a smaller instrument, bring it with you as your carry-on or personal item. Interlochen Oboe Instructor Dane Philipsen recommends keeping small instruments, like oboes, clarinets and flutes, underneath the seat in front of you. “I like the peace of mind that comes from always knowing exactly where my oboe is,” he said. With these smaller instruments, avoid placing them in the overhead bins unless asked to do so by the flight attendant, as they can be easily crushed by larger bags.

Gate check, if necessary. Airlines will often ask you to gate-check larger instruments, such as guitars, low brass and low strings. “Take a pink gate check tag so that you can show it to the attendant,” said Riccobono. “As they tell you that you will have to gate check your instrument, I just tell them that I already have a pink ticket. The flight attendant on board is usually much more accommodating.” Riccobono also recommends handing the instrument directly to an airline employee rather than leaving it in a pile with other luggage. “I have never had a problem when humans handle my instrument at every step,” he said. On larger flights, says Kaiser-Sandler, other solutions may be possible. “You can often convince someone to put the guitar in a closet or get into the pre-boarding section so you have the time to work magic on the airline employee,” she said.

Be polite, but be firm. “Always be pleasant, polite and, courteous,” Riccobono said. “Smile, but be firm, and let the attendants know that 'this instrument is my livelihood, my life!'”

Let airline staff know your instrument is valuable. “Airlines do not want to be responsible for your instrument—they want you to be responsible for it!” Philipsen said. “Introduce the importance of the situation and make sure that the airline understands the liability they are assuming.”

Enjoy the journey

While traveling with instruments can be stressful, it can also have moments of levity, as Carol Jantsch (IAA 99-02, IAC 94-96, 98-99, IAC Fac 05) of the Philadelphia Orchestra knows well. “If you ever need to transport a tuba (or two) somewhere, chances are that on the way, at least one person will ask you if you wish you had chosen the piccolo instead,” she quipped.

Please note: We cannot promise that following this advice will guarantee a safe journey for your instrument. However, we hope that they give you something to think about before hitting the road.