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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I use an Enki case. It’s made of the same stuff that kayaks are made of. It’s a rectangular cube with a handle and wheels and it’s indestructible. The guitar sits in side surrounded in foam far away from any possible impacts and it checks in within size and weight limits. It also carries two guitars safely.
I have flown with mine across Canada and from Canada to Mexico, across Mexico to Mexico city, to Colombia, from Colombia back to Mexico, City, from there to Puerto Vallarta and back again to Canada.
7 flights so far with it and not a scratch on the guitars. The case gets the crap beat out of it but you can throw this thing off of a two story roof and it will just bounce while you’re guitar stays snug and safe inside. Will be heading to Europe with it this spring.
My duo partner and I are just off to Australia for our 14th tour down there. We have always used Hiscox cases and have never had any issues, they are light and they are strong. Sometimes I strap my mono soft case to my hard case (making one piece) so that when I get there I have my lovely back pack mono and two free hands for my pull along case full of leads, pedals etc and CDs. This makes festivals more doable.
I’ve never been able to get a guitar in any cabin on any plane so far. I have however carried them to the gate (which is not always easy as you can’t take your cart passed the gate) and they pack it in the hold at the gate (in flown nets so they say for fragile items) and they were perfectly fine.
I have two vintage Martins and I just don’t fly with them at all. I take my two workhorse guitars abroad, still beautiful and precious but more replaceable.
At the end of the day you can only do your best can’t you? then wave good bye to them, and hope….
I always make sure there is no move to in the case and that they are nice and snug, a bit of bubble wrap does the trick and Roger Bucknall who makes our guitars for us (Fylde) says detune by one half turn of each tuners, so we do.
Happy flying.. happy gigging..
I’ve been traveling with my guitar for years. I’ve ended up with a headless electric that I remove neck and place in a 21-in roller carry-on. Between that and my backpack I can get 10 days worth of clothes my mini amp and guitar.
I think the tips you’ve given in this article are really great! I have just travelled to Nashville for a guitar convention, and I’ve got my Maton acoustic in a Hiscox flight case made for this model. I was surprised that Hiscox wasn’t included in your list of preferred cases… any reason why? Maybe there are just too many good flight cases to choose from? My guitar is well protected and travelling just fine. Thanks so much for the good advice! Sheila
Hi! I’m really confused about Delta’s checked instrument policy. I have an SKB i-series that measures 45×17.25×6.5. This is more that the “62 linear inches” allowed for standard luggage. I’ve had different people tell me different things. Either that I’ll be fine, or that I’ll be charged $200 because I exceed that linear inch mark. Does anyone know if that applies to guitar cases too? Or how that works? Thanks!
Like most guitar advice, I think you’ll find it frustrating if you just ask around. Though we guitarists all mean well and want to help each other, you’d probably be better off calling Delta for clarification. If they tell you it’s fine and that you won’t be charged, be sure to get the person’s name and, preferably, a link to a written policy somewhere online that confirms what they tell you. If you find the policy in writing, be sure you print it out and have it with you when you go to the airport.
If you haven’t seen this already, have a look here, under “Musical Instruments”: https://www.delta.com/content/www/en_US/traveling-with-us/baggage/before-your-trip/special-items.html
According to that, you’re good as long as you’re under 150 inches, which is a pretty generous size. Still, I’d call Delta and double-check that you’re interpreting this policy correctly.
Thanks man! Yeah, I had two Delta employees tell me two different things haha.
Not at all surprised, which is why it’s always good to print the policy and have it on you at check in… just in case.
Hi. I’m from the UK, no right to take the guitar on-board here! Although it may be allowed it’s up to the discretion of the ground crew, and I don’t want to take that risk. I’m going to Spain this year for a guitar holiday, I’ve narrowed down my options to the following: 1. Buy a flight case (I like the look of the Gator), and check it in as above with some clothes in it as padding.
I can usually get away with hand luggage in Spain, but I’m going out of season so I may need more room for warmer stuff. So, 2. put the flight case into a tent bag or similar which is around the same size, but deeper and fill the space with clothing. The airline I’m flying with has a hold luggage size of 275 linear cm so that should be ok. This option also provides extra padding.
3. Take my cheaper guitar and unbolt the neck, fold it in a padded gig bag, wrap it in clothing and put it in a suitcase. No flight case required.
I have two electrics, an American Strat and at a 10th of the price, a Yamaha Erg 121 ( think Pacifica). If I do option three it’ll be with the Yamaha and I’ll replace the neck screws with bolts and metal inserts.
4. Take my travel guitar, sounds a bit ‘tinny’ though and I know I wouldn’t be happy.
5. Drive to Spain. – Too expensive.
I might do option three. It’s the cheapest and it’s a great cheap guitar. I doubt anyone would notice the difference at my skill level! Sorry for rambling on, sometimes it’s just good to write things down.
Hi Rob. Of all those options I would go with #3 as well. It’s absolutely what I’ll be doing as well the next time I travel with my electric.
The reason I don’t mention it as an option in this article is because there are a LOT of guitarists out there who are really uneasy with this option. They’re either intimidated by the prospect of removing the neck, in general, or aren’t confident setting up their guitars (so, they’re afraid they won’t be able to resolve any potential setup issues once they re-attach the neck).
Hi, I had a practice run and it went back together fine, and that was with screws. I suppose another option is to put a couple of dowels in to position it. The only problem I had was when I removed it the strings caught in the nut and it flew off! Still i can replace that now, something else I’ve never done.
If your guitar doesn’t have a locking nut, one trick is to put a capo loosely on the 1st fret before you loosen the strings too much and/or detach the neck. You could do the same with a piece of velcro wrapped tightly around the 1st fret too. Just be sure to put something soft between the strings and the fretboard before you do it, so the strings aren’t pressed into the wood of the fretboard.
This is what the travel guitar companies do on guitars that have detachable necks–to prevent the strings from flying off the nut and tuning posts. For example, if you look at my Acoustic Travel Guitars Review, look very closely at one of the first pictures I have in there of the KLOS carbon fiber guitar (where I’m sitting on the floor showing the back of the guitar). If you look closely… on the 1st fret of the neck lying on the floor… you can see the capo that KLOS includes with their guitar. This is to prevent exactly the issue we’re talking about.
Thanks, good idea, I’ll do that next time.
I have two Fender TSA approved guitar cases that have worked out very well.
Hi Gary. Those Fender Deluxe Molded flight cases look really nice, and I’ve wondered about them. Thanks for letting me/us know!
Excellent advice! Thanks! I am on about 200 flights per year, traveling with my daughter-who is a singer/songwriter. I travel with a Yamaha Silent Guitar. Fits in overhead bin and doesn’t take up all the space. No problems with flight personnel, as long as you are polite. They sometimes store it in cabinet, I always ask when entering the plane if that is a possibility. My daughter carries on a ukulele in a hard case. Never had to gate check so far.
The Yamaha Silent Guitar is a great option for anyone who travels a lot and/or wants a really cool, futuristic-looking guitar. I’ve never played one, but I’d like to, as I’ve heard nothing but good things about them.
I have an accoustic guitar and used a case similar to the ones recommended above. I recommend packing the guitar tight with clothes you would normally pack in your cuitcase. With this you won’t even need a suitcase (for shorter trips or travelling light). If you’re flying smaller commercial aircraft they will most likely gate check your guitar but you will avoid lots of machinery and your guitar will be handled mostly by people! Hope this helps!
I am planning to buy a Martin GPC-16ME during my visit to Portland this summer.
Do you have any proposal for a similar case that fits the GPC body? I only found Dreadnought on the Crossrock and Gator Amazon pages…
This would be a great help for me! The case that comes with the Martin guitar might not be as durable
I don’t know, off the top of my head, but your best bet is to use the guitar’s measurements… and compare with the interior measurements of various cases on Amazon. If you go to:
Martin Guitar Sizes and Types
… and scroll down to the Grand Performance model. Those will be the measurements for the GPC-16E. Then, the fun begins: you have to spend some time checking the interior dimensions of various flight cases. As a hint, Amazon isn’t always the best place to do this. Instead, go directly to the various manufacturer sites first to get detailed dimensions. Then, once you’ve zeroed-in on a few you think will work, go to Amazon to actually purchase them.
This is where Amazon’s generous return/exchange policy comes in handy. Order a case well before your trip. That way if it doesn’t fit you can simply return or exchange it before you run out of time.
Let me know if you find a case. I’d love to know which one ultimately fits that guitar.
Everything you said is true,good advice. I also wrap duct tape over hinges, catches and along the opening seam. Carry a large roll with me in case of customs inspection, then I can wrap again. BTW British Airways have Always up till now been very instrument friendly f friendly
I have brought acoustic guitars when visiting China and brought them back in the cabin. If you are lucky enough to travel business class the stewardesses will usually let you place the guitar in the wardrobe where they hang peoples jackets up, if there’s room. otherwise, it’s a case of get on early and take up a whole overhead locker which makes you unpopular. Luckily I’ve never checked a guitar, but the day will come I’m sure and the packing tips here are very useful (at least i will try to be prepared now). When I lived in Germany for a year I just brought a cheap guitar there and sold it before I left, actually made $50 on the deal. When I moved to USA I shipped all my music equipment in a container and had the movers pack my guitars (which were all in hard cases) in a wooden crate first and then in the shipping container so nothing heavy could impact them. Everything made it ok with zero damage. Insurance is fine for newish guitars but doesn’t help if you lose a vintage guitar.
I’m planning on moving from California to Europe in a few months and I will be taking all of my guitars. Three of them are quite expensive and handmade by a local luthier. A local guitar store owner told me to check them and to pack them the way you have described above with the addition of packing them in shipping boxes. What do you think? My only other option is a shipping container but apart from my guitars, I don’t have a lot of stuff. All of my guitars are insured so, at least, there’s that.
Wow, that’s a tough call Debbie. Obviously, the more protection you can give a guitar you’re planning to check as baggage, the better. So, going one step further and packing the cases inside shipping boxes is going to help even more (assuming that, inside the box, they’re also in a halfway decent flight case). To be honest though, I’ve never tried this, but it seems completely logical that an added layer of protection would be a good thing.
However, your issue is going to be practicality (the exact reason I’ve never done it). Can you maneuver through a busy airport with 3 large guitar shipping boxes PLUS luggage? If so, then your guitars stand a pretty good chance (but still no guarantees). However, I’d check with the airline ahead-of-time to ensure there aren’t any surprises when you get to the airport. If these are acoustic guitars we’re talking about here, those shipping boxes could be quite bulky.
There’s also the option of buying something like the SKB Injection Molded Acoustic Guitar Case.
Those are about as good as flight cases get, and you wouldn’t need an outer box. However, they’re pricey and heavy–though they do have wheels. Use those as your suit-of-armor for checking the guitars to Europe, and toss the other guitar cases into the shipping container with your household goods. May not be financially or physically feasible for you, but I wanted to at least mention it.
The main risk with shipping containers is that they can be tossed around quite a bit–enough to make the entire contents shift around. Even if your guitars (which should still be extremely well packed) are on the very top of the container… well… crazy stuff happens to those things sometimes (or so I’ve heard). It’s possible for a lot of weight to be shifted onto them, and that’s never a good thing. Then again, you said you didn’t have a lot of stuff. Also, shipping containers can take longer, which means your guitars will be exposed to temperature extremes for a longer duration. Not a huge issue–depending on the temperatures–but something to think about.
I wish I could give you more definitive advice on this one, but this is a situation I’ve not personally been in. Let me know what you decide to do, and how it turns out.
It didn’t used to be such a big deal to fly with a guitar. I think 1998 was the last time I flew with a full-size electric guitar in a gig bag. Just carried it on board and put it in the overhead bin. Never any questions asked. It seems like it was never a big deal to carry on a guitar in a gig bag until 9/11 when the TSA started clamping down on everything. Now I have a Traveler Pro Series mini guitar with a full scale neck that is made for traveling.
You’re absolutely right Mark. Way back in the day, not only was it easier to travel (by air) with a guitar, it was just an all-around better experience. Nowadays though, air travel just flat-out sucks (unless you’ve got the money to upgrade your seat to first class).
I chose a Traveler Guitar too! I actually wrote about my decision process in my blog post “Best Electric Travel Guitars.” I love mine, it’s great!
I took an electric in a gig bag from Montana to NY in 2004. Had a few stops along the way. I had no issues what so ever. I recall taking it on I believe it went over head on all flights except one where it was a very small plane. And even with that they placed it in a coat closet. Good experience.
Great info! I bought a used Steinberger Spirit last year for flying. If some people aren’t familiar with these guitars they were somewhat popular in the ’80s and are shaped like a cricket bat. Very short, small bodied guitars that actually sound and play as well as any great guitar. I was then lucky enough to find a fly fishing accessory case with the exact dimensions as the guitar. I carry on the guitar as well as a backpack for clothes and laptop. I stow the clothes bag under the seat in front of me and the guitar overhead. Never a question asked by TSA nor airline employees. The guitar plays great too. I play professionally and although it’s not my ‘go to’ guitar I play it live for certain songs at every show. In other words, its not a toy guitar like some of the small travel guitars I’ve seen and played.
Thanks for the comment Kirk. Indeed, the Steinberger Spirit was my very first thought when I decided to buy a travel guitar, but ultimately I chose something else, which I talk about in this blog post.
This is wonderful info! I have often wondered about traveling with my guitar, and you totally answered all of my questions. THANKS!!!
You’re welcome Bethany!
Howdy! An enormous thumbs-up for this great information about flying with a guitar. Seems like something every guitarist has to face at some point or another. I will likely be coming back to your blog for more…
Awesome, so glad you found the information useful… and even happier to hear you’ll be coming back! You can always send me a message and let me know if you have specific question or if there are any topics you’d like me to write about.
So pretty much I have an ibanez aeb5 that I wanted to take from Texas to Maine & back ; would it be cheaper in time or effort & protection ( don’t have hardshell case yet , was considering buying for trip) just to buy a new one up there & leave @ my dad’s there?
Well, buying a 2nd bass is far more convenient and safe, but whether it’s ultimately “cheaper” depends on a lot of factors. Since the Ibanez AEB is a bit cheaper (about $250), buying one and simply leaving it at your dad’s is potentially a good option, especially if you travel there a lot. If you add up the cost of a good flight case + repeated baggage-check fees + wear-and-tear on the case… over time you can see how the cost could add up or exceed the cost of a new $250 bass. Like luggage, these flight cases aren’t indestructible–just have a look at the damaged flight case near the end of this article. Same goes for luggage. Airlines can find a way to severely damage even the most expensive, road-tested luggage (and cases), so there will always be the risk of total loss.
Was going to take for a one time trip & bring back ; maybe years before go back again; so the info you are giving as far as cost actually leans more to buying a second one up there & leaving rather then spending all the money for a case that would survive the travel – as you said , fairly cheap model , & dunno if there is a case that would offset the cost of just replacing- thank you for the reply , not a pro or anything, just want one to continue learning playing tab while I finally have some serious time off for once- work 60 hour weeks and will be also doing a lot up there, so thanks for your info & suggestions
I take a guitar with a bolt-on neck, unbolt the neck, wrap the neck in soft clothing, put the body in a soft padded gig bag, and put both in my carry on bag.
This is a great suggestion that I didn’t think to mention in the article. I actually shipped one of my guitars like this–to have it repainted. I honestly believe it was safer that way than if I’d shipped it in the case.
This is an outstanding, up-to-date article! As a musician who frequently travels internationally, I can confirm these tips are relevant everywhere. Plan for the worst scenario so your guitar is protected, but remain very pleasant and professional, and oftentimes the flight crew will go out of their way to be helpful. Happy travels! Connie Yerbic, Skonnie Music
Thanks for the complement Connie! Many other blog posts on this topic encourage people to use a lightweight gig bag and then hope they can get the guitar into the cabin with them. That’s extremely risky, especially if your guitar is decent-quality and worth more than a couple hundred bucks (or is the guitar you need to play a gig at your destination). If all you’ve got is a gig bag and you’re forced to check your guitar, your guitar is toast. Why take that chance?
Excellent suggestions in your blog. I’ve flown with my classical many times, even overseas, and never had a problem. I have always been allowed to bring it onboard, most of the time being allowed to board early, ask nicely and politely. A couple of times the attendants stowed it in their closet. A couple of times on smaller planes I had to gate check it. Again, no problem, it was on and off quickly. All that being said, I always have it in a flight case-just in case.
Glad to hear you’ve not had your Classical damaged. Again, this is why I always recommend a lightweight ABS plastic flight case rather than rolling the dice with a gig bag. You just never know what they’re going to make you do at the gate, especially if you’re flying on a smaller plane, where cabin space is often limited.