Flying With a Guitar as Checked Baggage
How to Make Sure it Survives the Trip
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Last Updated: April 30, 2019
“I was wondering if you had any suggestions for flying with a guitar if it is not allowed to be carried on the plane.”
Even though there’s a law that allows musical instruments on flights, it doesn’t mean air crew have to let you take your guitar into the cabin. Just as they can force you to gate-check your carry-on baggage right before boarding, they can also force you to gate-check your guitar if they deem it necessary.
Since you know you have to check it, I won’t waste time talking about carry-on tactics like gig bags, jacket closets, boarding the plane first, etc. I’ll focus instead on how you can give your guitar a fighting chance when it’s treated like luggage.
A balance between durability and light weight is critical here. The wooden factory hardshell case that might’ve come with your guitar isn’t going to cut it. Those are fine for everyday protection, but they’re not designed to survive the abuses of air travel:
Of course, the best protection when flying is a heavy-duty road case like the touring pros use. However, they’re ridiculously heavy and impossible to lug through an airport by yourself:
What you want is a molded ABS plastic guitar case with high-quality latches and a TSA lock. Sometimes you’ll see “ATA” (Air Transport Association) listed in the description, or wording such as “ATA approved”, “ATA flight case”, etc. (but not always). Most flight cases look something like this:
Below I’ve listed a handful of flight cases that I know are great. There are several in each category because guitar shapes differ, so I’ve chosen a case for most of the major guitar shapes. I can’t guarantee these will fit your guitar. Do your research to make sure your guitar will fit, and if you discover that it doesn’t promptly send it back for an exchange/refund. Do all this well before your travel date so you have time to get it right.
Yes, there are more guitar flight cases available than just what I’ve listed here. However, my point isn’t to overwhelm you with choices but instead show you what kind of case you should be shopping for (should you need to shop for something other than those I’ve recommended here).
If you’d like to learn more about flight cases, check out my another article I wrote where I talk in detail about guitar flight cases.
Now that you’ve got a good flight case for your guitar, it’s time to get down to business. We already know how badly guitars can be damaged during ground shipping. Well, having your guitar treated like baggage is even worse, so pack the inside of the guitar case as if your were about to ship it internationally (this is exactly how I pack guitars that I ship to people):
Fill any air spaces inside your guitar case with bubble wrap, foam, or soft clothing like underwear or socks.
Before flying with a guitar, fill all air spaces around the guitar with something soft. You can use bubble wrap, balled-up newspaper, or you can pack soft, buttonless clothing like t-shirts, socks, etc. in there if you’d like. Pay special attention to filling the spaces around the headstock as well as the strap button on the back-end of the guitar. When you’re done stuffing the inside of the case, the guitar shouldn’t be able to slide or move in any direction.
Tip: using clothing as padding is going to make the case heavier than if you use lightweight materials like paper, bubble wrap, etc.
I was going to include this with #2 above, but wanted to call it out separately, since it is often overlooked.
Put something soft under your strings, otherwise your strings can damage your frets, fretboard, or pickups if the guitar is thrown (and believe me, it will be) by a careless baggage handler. You can use cloth, folded up paper towels, or whatever fits between the strings and the frets. Just be sure it doesn’t prevent the lid from closing naturally. My favorite thing to use is 1/8in. PE foam wrap, cut to be just a bit wider than the fretboard and long enough to cover the fretboard and pickups, if it’s an electric. I use PE foam when shipping guitars too, so I (usually) have a roll of it on-hand here at my house. Whatever you use, be sure it spans the entire length of the fingerboard, and hangs over each side of the fretboard a bit:
I’m putting a kitchen paper towel, folded 3 times, between my strings and frets. This protects the frets, fretboard, and pickups from a severe impact. Normally, I prefer to use a strip of 1/8in. PE foam wrap for this.
If the accessory compartment(s) inside your case are the open kind that don’t have lids, then keep tiny wrenches, whammy bars, and other such accessories out of the case when flying with a guitar. Put them in your checked or carry-on bags instead. Bigger items like guitar cables, straps, string packages, etc. are fine, but smaller items can be jostled out of the compartment and potentially damage your guitar’s finish.
If you must include these tiny items in your case’s open compartment(s), roll them together in something soft (bandanna, paper towel, bubble wrap, etc). Then, place your little soft accessory burrito into a securely sealed plastic bag. That’ll bulk things up enough to prevent them from migrating out of the accessory compartment:
Before flying with a guitar, secure small accessories by wrapping them up in a paper towel or cloth and sealing everything inside a plastic bag.
Don’t forget: your guitar case has to go through security, so leave all liquids like guitar polish, fretboard oil, etc. out of the case, as well as any sharp objects like string cutters, screw drivers, etc. Use common sense here and you’ll save yourself some hassle.
Don’t make them completely slack, but basically tune the guitar down 1-2 whole steps. This will also make it easier to get your fretboard guard (see #3 above) under the strings. Your guitar will be in the plane’s luggage bay, and will probably undergo changes in air pressure, so having the strings a bit looser when flying with a guitar will help it cope. Some luggage bays are pressure and climate controlled, but many are not. Don’t take that risk.
Tip: if your guitar has a floating tremolo, place something soft-yet-firm under it to keep it from tilting back too far when you loosen the strings. We refer to this as “blocking” the tremolo.
If you’re flying with an acoustic guitar, I highly recommend you use the D’Addario/Planet Waves 2-way humidification system in the soundhole. This ingenious little system protects against excessively dry and wet conditions, so you’re guitar is protected either way:
I don’t recommend flying with a sponge-based humidifier that contains water, even if you think it’s leak-proof.
In other words, take your guitar with you all the way to the gate, just as you would any carry-on bags. Don’t check it at the main luggage/check-in point. If you must go to the luggage-check counter (to check other luggage, for example), have your airline’s musical instrument policy with you–just in case. They may try to pressure you to check your guitar with your luggage. If this happens, very politely tell them that it’s an expensive and fragile guitar. If that doesn’t do the trick, then present them with their own policy. I can’t emphasize enough: you need to be very humble and polite during all this.
You see, the longer your guitar is out of your hands and out of sight, the higher the likelihood it can be stolen, damaged, or lost. Miles and miles of automated baggage conveyors will beat the hell out of your guitar. It’s best to keep it in your hands as much as possible.
Gate checking your guitar usually means you get it right from the plane’s luggage compartment after your deplane. However, if yours is not a direct flight (you have 1 or more connections), they may gate-check your bag all the way through to your final destination. Unfortunately, this means your guitar will be at the mercy of the baggage system for awhile and you’ll have to get it at your destination’s baggage claim. In that case, once you deplane at your final destination immediately get your butt to the baggage claim carousel as quickly as possible. Watch where the bags are coming out onto the conveyor very carefully. Thieves know a guitar case when they see one, and yours wouldn’t be the first guitar stolen right off a baggage carousel.
Even if you follow all these tips, there’s still risk involved. Honestly, it’s best to avoid flying with a guitar if at all possible, especially if it’s an expensive one. If you don’t have a dire need for your guitar at your destination (e.g. a performance), then please seriously consider leaving it at home. Or, you can do what I do: take a cheaper guitar that you can afford to lose.
You could also look into purchasing one of the many high-quality travel-sized guitars that are available nowadays. In fact, this is what I’ve decided to do, and wrote about the electric travel guitar that I chose in addition to the other contenders that I was seriously considering.
We all know what happens to our checked luggage. Expect the same for your new flight case. At the very least, accept that your shiny new case will have some serious scuffs and scratches. There’s also the possibility that it’ll sustain more serious damage–they’re not indestructible. Whatever happens to your flight case, just be thankful that it was the case that took the brunt and not your guitar.
The case recommendations I gave earlier are a good balance between durability, light weight, and low price. However, if you’re willing to pay more and don’t mind a (potentially) heavier case, most of those same manufacturers offer beefier flight cases. Some even include wheels. If money is no object, have a look at the guitar flight cases made by Hoffee, Karura, and Calton, just to name a few.
If you’d like to learn more about the different types of guitar cases available, check out my ultimate guitar case guide here: Guitar Cases: The Ultimate Guide.
Have you ever flown with your guitar? How did it go? What tips do you have that you’d add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!
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