Whether you are a casual hobbyist or a professional musician, there is a good chance that you will need to take your guitar on an airplane at some point. The problem is that you probably don’t enjoy the idea of having your precious stringed instrument rattling around among the thousands of pounds of checked baggage in the cargo hold, and therefore want to take it on board with you.
Domestic travel laws require that airlines allow you to carry on your guitar, provided that it fits beneath the seat in front of you or into an overhead storage compartment. Even if it does not, there are some creative ways that you can usually get your guitar into the cabin with you.
Despite this heartening news, it is not a universal guarantee that your guitar will make it on board with you. It is a good idea to survey the situation before arriving at the airport and take some fallback precautions in the event you need to check in your instrument.
Are You Allowed To Bring Guitars On Planes?
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Instruments follow the same carry-on requirements as other baggage: If you can fit them in an overhead stowage bin or safely beneath the seat in front of you, then you can bring them on board without incurring any additional fees.
While this works well for small instruments and those that can be broken down before storage, many full-size guitars will be too big to meet the general requirements of a standard carry-on.
If this is the case for your guitar, don’t give up yet; you may be in luck. According to the law—specifically Subchapter 1 of Chapter 417 for the transport of musical instruments, the Department of Transportation and the TSA, you are allowed to bring your guitar on-board, provided it meets these requirements:
- The instrument is in a case to avoid injury among other passengers.
- The instrument, including the case, should not be over 165 pounds—or the airline’s specific weight restrictions for carry-ons.
- The instrument is stowed in the overhead bins per the airline's requirements.
- The instrument or the case does not contain any items not allowed in the cabin.
- Instruments too large to be stored as a regular carry-on can enter the cabin but must have their own separate ticket.
Alternative Ways To Bring Your Guitar On A Plane
For those who view their guitar as an extension of themselves, purchasing an additional ticket to transport their beloved stringed instrument may be a no-brainer. Also, some low-fare flights may feature ticket rates scarcely higher than the cost of a checked bag, making the decision not to check the guitar even easier.
However, for those musicians not as emotionally attached to their guitar and who do not want to pay a full ticket price for a piece of oversized luggage, there is still some hope that you may be able to get your guitar into the cabin.
Try to Fly Between Major Hubs
The process of getting your guitar into the cabin starts before you even get to the airport, as you need to plan for any unforeseen eventuality that may arise during boarding. Choosing the right airports is a great place to start.
- Regional airports will likely use small, “puddle jumper” airplanes that do not have much overhead storage space. One look at your guitar will confirm with most agents that you will have to check it or buy a separate ticket.
- On the other hand, large national airplanes typically have many cubic feet of overhead storage compartments into which your guitar should slide with ease. It may require some additional expense in terms of ground transportation to make this happen, but it is a great strategy if you want to avoid checking or buying a ticket for your guitar.
Pay For A Zone 1 Ticket
Some airlines will allow you to upgrade your ticket by selecting a boarding zone. If this is the case, make the upgrade. Those passengers in boarding group 1 are the first to get on the plane, meaning that the overhead storage space should still be empty when you board. Make a beeline straight for your seat and snugly situate your guitar into the back of the compartment.
Once your guitar is in the bin, you won’t have to worry about getting it to fit among other passengers’ belongings since it will be the first there. However, if you are in one of the late boarding groups and are trying to find a way to fit your guitar into a bin that is firmly packed with roller boards, you will certainly be met with the familiar tap on the shoulder and, “I’m sorry. You’re going to have to tag your item.”
If your airline does not offer a boarding zone upgrade, select a seat in the back of the plane. Most planes board from back to front, so the chances of being in an early boarding group are greater if you are seated in the rear. Nearly every airline offers seat selection to drive revenue, so this should definitely be an option for you if a boarding group selection is not.
Use A Gig Bag
While the soft, pliable casing of a gig bag does not offer the protection of traditional hard-shell cases, it is the better choice when bringing your guitar into the cabin. The slightest give can be the difference between a storage bin locking shut or not, so the more flexible case will give your carry-on plans the best chance of success.
Furthermore, a gig bag is less likely to catch the attention of scrupulous flight crews. A hard-shell case looks imposing and unforgiving, so even if it does not actually take up more space than a gig bag, it will give the impression that it does, causing unwanted eyes to turn.
Although you should not use a gig bag when checking your guitar, it is suitable for carry-on purposes. A gig bag provides solid protection against scratching and normal trauma. As your guitar will be with you, you can intervene if you see it being mistreated or stuffed into a precarious position.
Get To The Airport Early
This is really the most important step you can take when trying to get your guitar cleared as a carry-on. (And you really can’t get there early enough, as it could take hours to sort through the numerous scenarios that may arise!)
You must clear several hurdles when attempting to get your guitar on the plane without purchasing a separate ticket. There is no telling how restrictive or permissive the agents will be at each location, so you need to give yourself time for a contingency should you be turned away at any point:
- Baggage Check – If you have checked luggage other than your guitar, the agents may try to detain you to check your guitar as well. If you tell them that you have carried on your guitar many times in the past and that it fits in the overhead bins, they may let you proceed. If you feel like the resistance is impossible, see if there is still the option to purchase a separate ticket. If not, you will have time to prepare your guitar for checking.
- Security – As long as your guitar fits through the scanner and does not contain any sharp edges or dangerous aspects that would get normal carry-ons flagged, you should not get detained at security. They may ask if you got it cleared at ticketing, but as long as your guitar rolls down the conveyor belt without any hiccups, you should be fine to proceed.
- Gate – This is the most significant hurdle. If the gate agents do not let you on the plane without a separate ticket, then you either have to take the dangerous action of gate checking your guitar or the inconvenience of exiting back through security and coming up with another plan.
One final note on the gate is that some people may try to wait until boarding and then walk on like they own the place. This nonchalance and confidence that carrying on your guitar is a commonplace practice may work, but if you get an agent who is unwilling to let you proceed, you leave yourself no wiggle room and have no choice but to check your guitar at the last minute.
Therefore, even if you get to the gate hours early, it is best to talk to an agent at the counter, let him or her know that your guitar has been approved as a carry-on by both baggage check and security and, based on your experience, fits into the overhead bins with ease. While there is a slight chance that this brings attention to a guitar that would have otherwise snuck past, the peace of mind and open communication will pay off more times than not.
Ask To Use The Storage Closet
Once the luggage is on the plane, flight attendants usually work with you to find ways to make it fit, as long as a solution can be safely arrived at. While it is true that some are quick to tag items that they feel have “snuck” so far into the boarding process, most will work hard to keep you with your things.
If you are a late boarder and there is legitimately no possible way to safely fit your guitar into the overhead bins, politely ask the flight attendants if you can use the storage/coat closet that the crew has for their personal effects. While the crew is in no way obligated to make this accommodation, there is always the chance that you may get an attendant who is sensitive to your situation and obliges.
What About International Flights?
If you are traveling outside of the United States, there is really no standard policy for instrument travel. As such, it comes down to the individual airline and, often, will differ from one employee to the other.
Therefore, when planning your international trips, it is best to do extensive research on the various airlines and see what each allows. Look into additional factors such as the size of the plane and usable storage space. Speak with as many people as possible within the airline to get confirmation, trying to get examples of precedent on how that airline has dealt with guitar carry in the past.
Other Considerations For Flying With A Guitar
Whether past experience tells you it is not possible, or you are just an ultra-conservative person who does not believe that you will be able to sweet-talk your guitar into the cabin without buying a separate ticket, there are ways that you can go about protecting your favorite fiddle when traveling.
Invest In A Travel Guitar
If you are concerned that the possibility of checking your favorite guitar will put it on the fast track to ruin, look into a backup guitar that can be used for travel purposes. While this is not a universal cure-all, and there will definitely be times when you need to travel with your main instrument, those musicians who fly frequently may benefit from the peace of mind of knowing that it is a lesser guitar clanging around in the cargo hold.
Look Into Custom Options
The next time you are ready to make a guitar purchase, see if you can get a custom guitar with a detachable handle. This way, your guitar can be taken apart to fit into a normal size carry-on bag, guaranteeing that your instrument is always with you.
Ask For A Green Tag Vs. An Orange Tag
When dealing with oversized luggage that will not fit in cabin stowage, you are likely to hear two different phrases that sound the same but can have a vast difference in your guitar reaching its destination safely:
- “You’re going to have to tag that item.”
- “You’re going to have to gate check that item.”
You want to avoid having your guitar gate checked. This will come with an orange tag and lead to your guitar being thrown into the muck of checked baggage, available for pickup at the baggage claim area.
If an agent says your guitar needs to be tagged, confirm that it will be a green tag and not an orange tag. A green label means that your oversized item will be placed in the cargo hold after all other carry-on bags have been loaded. Upon arrival, it will be waiting for you at the top of the jet bridge. This limits the potential damage that your instrument will be exposed to.
Even if you cannot get a green tag and are required to check your bag via the normal bag checking process, ask for a special “fragile” designation to be included on the case and that it be the last on and the first off of the cargo hold.
Have Ground Transportation Readily Available
If you plan on flying with your guitar, it is best to drive a personal vehicle. This way, if you realize that you will have to check your instrument, you can go back to your car and switch it out of its gig bag and into a hard-shell case that is better for checked baggage.
If you are looking to avoid airport parking fees and arrive via drop-off, taxi, or shuttle, then you will need to budget even more time for making this transition if you are not comfortable checking your guitar “as is.”
How To Prepare Your Guitar To Be Checked
In the unfortunate event that you must check your guitar, there are a few points to keep in mind:
- Never use a gig bag, as it will offer little protection if your baggage is under an extreme load of luggage. Opt for a heavy-duty hard-shell case.
- Loosen the strings of your guitar. Pressure and temperature changes can cause taut strings to snap and warp the neck of your guitar.
- Add extra padding. Even if the guitar is in a tough case, some bubble wrap or cotton towels can provide a layer of insulation against damage.
Can I Take My Guitar On The Airplane? Conclusion
Domestic travel laws require that you be allowed to take your guitar on a plane, provided that it meets all other carry-on restrictions and can fit in an overhead stowage bin or the seat in front of you.
However, as most guitars will not fit neatly in the 10x16x24” measuring case that airports use to determine carry-on compatibility, there may be some airlines that balk at you trying to carry on your guitar.
When this is the case, the law requires that you be permitted to purchase a separate ticket for your guitar to carry it into the cabin. If this is not a desirable option for you, many other methods may help you get your guitar on board before you have to resign yourself to checking it with the other oversized baggage.
Last Updated on December 31, 2020.
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