How do I get a banjo onto a flight as hand-luggage?
December 30, 2013 8:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm wanting to take a banjo on a (domestic) United flight to Honolulu soon. The banjo fits the letter of the law (dimensions etc) for fitting it into the overhead locker, but I'm concerned that flight crew may want us to check it. Musicians of Metafilter, what are your tips and wisdom for getting a banjo on board a United aircraft as hand-luggage?
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace to Travel & Transportation around United States (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It has been a while since I've tried this (but post-9/11), but I was able to bring an acoustic guitar in a soft-sided case on a plane several times no problem. There was an area in front (coat area maybe?) where the flight attendants were nice enough to slide the instrument.
posted by radioamy at 8:39 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I brought my ukulele on the plane with no issue (though my Uke is probably somewhat smaller).
posted by crankyrogalsky at 8:44 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

On my (international, so domestic might be different) flights, all post-9/11 as well I never ever had a problem bringing my musical instruments on the plane. And the case for them (they all fit in one case) is long and somewhat narrow, so people sometimes do wonder what might be in it....But anyway, what usually happened was when I told the ticket agent that that was going to be one of my carry-ons, they would ask me what was in it and to open it to prove that what I said was in there actually was. Curiously enough, I never had to open the case when getting my boarding passes for leaving the US, only when I was returning.

I don't remember which airlines I flew on, but United was probably one of them.

[Honestly, the most flak I ever got was going through customs one year (2008, I think) when the customs agent was curious about the instrument and wanted me to take it out and show it to him. Held up the line, didn't dare turn around to see the likely annoyed looks from people behind me, promptly packed it up and headed on my way.]
posted by ditto75 at 8:48 PM on December 30, 2013

I just finished a class with Bill Evans, a noted banjoist. He flies with up to four instruments at a time. His most precious is carried on, and he's been hassled sometimes. On a full flight, the attendants want to gate-check everything weird. For checking a banjo, he uses a Reunion Blues case, about as gorilla proof as you can get, plus up-to-date insurance.

United's policy and the TSA regulations indicate you should be able to bring the banjo onboard, but the ultimate decision is up to the flight crew.

Whatever you do, de-tension the strings and pad the area around the headstock to avoid potential damage.
posted by blob at 8:53 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Even if the instrument is generally allowable, you want to make sure that you board early enough that there is enough space for it. Check and see if United is one of the airlines that allows to pay extra for early boarding (which lets you get your carryon as well as yourself on sooner) If not. the back of the plane usually boards before the front - I pick seats in the last 10 rows and almost never get forced to gate check my bags while people in last boarding group often have a problem.
posted by metahawk at 9:07 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yes, I flew over the Atlantic several times with guitars in both soft and hard cases. The flight attendants put the in a compartment near the front when I boarded and I collected on my way out. And over the summer I took a domestic flight with someone who had her guitar with her, they did the same.

Don't check the banjo unless you want a new one because every single time someone I know has checked a banjo it's been demolished. (Twice, two different people, two different banjos. Probably a coincident, but still.)
posted by mibo at 9:17 PM on December 30, 2013

I brought my ukulele to India on Malaysia Airlines two months ago, from Austalia. I carried it and a handbag (what Americans call purse/shoulder bag?) and a backpack. Not a word was spoken. Didn't even have to remove if from the case for scanning. I was grateful that it had a shoulder strap though, because there's so much fiddling with boarding passes and passports it was good to have my hands free.

I had it in a soft case* and put it overhead. As we had our brats with us, we boarded first so I got first pick in storage though.

(We sooooo won't talk about how little practice I've actually done since being here. It wouldn't be fair to the site to derail like that. )

*Edited to add... The soft case is actually a PADDED soft case and pretty firm.
posted by taff at 9:35 PM on December 30, 2013

I'd also make sure I had a locking case. These days, many people seem to be pretty rabid about not checking luggage and push the limits of the "one carry-on plus one SMALL personal item". The overhead compartments fill up fast and I have seen attendants take carry-ons and put them in other bins (meaning not necessarily the bin directly over your seat).

So make sure it's tagged with your info and locked. If it does end up getting stashed elsewhere, as soon as you land, keep a sharp eye on the bin until you can retrieve it.
posted by Beti at 10:08 PM on December 30, 2013

metahawk mentions early boarding above; on United, it doesn't work back-to-front though. You board in five groups, not counting military, disabled, etc:
- 1: First class
- 2: Economy-plus, frequent flyers (silver and above), United credit card holders
- 3: Window seats, and people traveling in their party
- 4: Middle seats, and people traveling in their party
- 5: Solo aisle seats

United definitely does allow you to purchase "priority access", which I believe is good for priority lines at security and boarding group 2.

Otherwise, grab a window seat and be near the front of group 3 in the boarding area. Good luck!
posted by Dilligas at 11:13 PM on December 30, 2013

I've flown with my violin, which is probably worth more money than most banjos and I would never, ever check it. Never. Here's what you do:

-at the gate, mention that you have an instrument and that you'd like the flight crew to keep it up front. Stress that you have a fragile instrument on your hands and you cannot check it.
-when you board, flag down a flight attendant. Same spiel as above.

Shouldn't be a problem, but don't leave it up to last minute overhead compartment stuffing craziness. I've flown with my violin and my guitar on several different airplanes - never had a any major problems. Just be proactive.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 12:14 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I travel regularly with a French horn on planes (flown around Europe with it, Australia-Europe, Asia Pacific). Good news is that you'll probably have a plane big enough to fit the instrument. Take a print out of either the airline hand luggage/instrument policy or the country policy on this (I have a nice version of this from my union, but print off from the website will do). Because my instrument is big I don't carry anything else with my carry on, just so I'm not adding fuel to fire (iPad has meant that my case is much happier!), and have a money belt for my passport/travel docs. Remember to take any oil/scissors/sharp or flammable things you keep in the case for your instrument out. Have a decent case.

Good luck!
posted by jujulalia at 1:00 AM on December 31, 2013

If you want to guarantee that your instrument will arrive safely in the passenger cabin, buy it a seat.

I think that as long as it is in an appropriate "carry on" that it should be fine, be super polite to the flight crew and they may put it in the first class closet for you.

If they start making noises like they might want you to gate check it, serenade them with United Breaks Guitars.

(You didn't honestly think we were coming out of this thread without that, did you?)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:30 AM on December 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Why not take all this worry and uncertainty out of your trip, and just go ahead and check your banjo. Buy an armored, bullet-proof, gorilla-tested case, a padlock, and a $20 starter pistol.
posted by dinger at 6:47 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ruthless Bunny, I was reading this entire thread waiting for that to come up.

If it's any comfort to the OP, a friend of mine flew with a guitar on United and it managed to survive to its destination. They may be more paranoid about these things than they used to be!
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:19 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Because my instrument is big I don't carry anything else with my carry on, just so I'm not adding fuel to fire

Yes, this is very important. Your instrument is your carry-on, and prepare to check any other luggage that you have. I'm not sure if these cases exist for banjos, but I have a backpack case that goes around my regular violin case. It has a very large pocket in which I can put some extra carry-on items - not necessary, but it's nice to have a book or two on a long flight, or maybe store something small I don't want in my checked luggage.

If you want to guarantee that your instrument will arrive safely in the passenger cabin, buy it a seat.

Only do this if your instrument is too large to store on the plane (cello, upright bass, etc.) or is extremely valuable (vintage guitars, etc.) Unless the OP is leaving information out from the question, I can't imagine that this is an extremely valuable banjo. If your instrument is really valuable to you, buy an insurance policy for it which will cost you less than a seat for your instrument. But, unless the banjo is an important tool of your trade or particularly valuable, I wouldn't bother.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 12:22 PM on December 31, 2013

Promise not to play it in-flight.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:28 PM on December 31, 2013

Response by poster: We ended up deciding to ship it due to the fact that we were travelling on 3 different airlines: we didn't want the banjo to get stuck half way home!
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 5:13 PM on February 19, 2014

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