[Acoustic] guitar gets run over by a [baggage] car
June 18, 2007 9:30 PM   Subscribe

Am I a complete lunatic for flying with my guitar as checked baggage?

I'm moving to Tokyo in less than a week, and basically need to bring my guitar with me as a way of keeping me sane during the month before I get Internet set up at my apartment (and presumably afterwards, for the rest of my life. If you play an instrument, you know.) I've always been nervous about flying with my guitar, which, as far as guitars go, isn't actually worth that much, but you know, the sentimental value is through the roof. After reading numerous articles about it, I'm suddenly terrified.

The problem with these articles is that they all invariably advise that I check the guitar (which given the fact that it's an acoustic guitar is almost certainly not a possibility), and were written well before all of these new-fangled airline regulations, so I mean, how likely is it that I could get an item that is very obviously not regulation-sized carry-on past security? Let's imagine, realistically, that I will become pants-wettingly terrified when confronted with this, will stammer and tremble and will not be able to smooth talk my way past even a well-intentioned child.

Every article I read said 'Do Not Check Your Guitar' and then said no more about the issue...but, I mean, could I check the guitar? A few facts: I just bought a fairly heavy-duty hard-shell by Taylor; it won't stop a bullet, but it's got a raised top and nothing rattles around inside and it seems pretty secure. The guitar is an acoustic, and while not huge, is definitely large-medium. If it seems even at all possible that I might get it into carry-on, there's a soft-shell case too, but...I mean, it would be horrible to show up with this flimsy fabric piece of crap protection and then be told that I have to check my flimsy, piece of crap (but beloved) guitar, and then spend 15 hours worrying about its inevitable demise.

Also, in terms of lost luggage: I have one stop-over (in Detroit) and no address for a week after my arrival date, and no phone number for, I don't know, a couple.

And the airline is Northwest Airlines.

So: can I check my guitar? Am I a fool and a dreamer for even thinking of doing so? Will they kill my best friend???
posted by Tiresias to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I was on a flight from Denver to San Francisco last spring and watched an entire school orchestra worth of instruments be loaded on the conveyor belt. I watched an upright bass bounce once, and a smaller instrument (probably a trumpet) slide off one side of the conveyor and fall several feet to the ground before being scooped up and tossed back onto the belt.

It was horrible. I have the fortune of playing a small stringed instrument which fits neatly in the overhead compartment, so I've never faced the dilemma you're in.

As long as your hard-shell case can fit through the x-ray, I'd assume you'll be able to make it to the gate. (Preparing to be flamed) Possibly once on the plane you could beg for space in the small closet, or ask that it be gate-checked? If it must be checked, what about putting the hard shell case inside a bigger box (one of those flat bike boxes?) and stuff thing with vast amounts of peanuts? Best of luck. . .
posted by arnicae at 9:39 PM on June 18, 2007

MY brother flies back from college with his guitar and he gate checks it. It's electric but he's never had a problem. Basically, you do it like people with strollers and such I think, where you go with it through security and then give it to the airline people at the gate, collecting it on your way out. I think; you would definitely want to call your airline before trying this.
posted by MadamM at 9:41 PM on June 18, 2007

I found this after a quick google ...

posted by CoinOp at 10:13 PM on June 18, 2007


Here is the link
posted by CoinOp at 10:19 PM on June 18, 2007

I've checked my acoustic guitar numerous times. I've not noticed anything amiss, though I did once get a $150 credit when they scraped up the outside of the case. I usually loosen the strings, thinking maybe the temperature change will make them snap, but I bet that's not grounded in reality. The first three times I did it, I was super careful to pack t-shirts in there to prevent it from slipping around and so forth, but I don't do that anymore. It might also actually fit in an overhead, depending on the size of the guitar and the plane.
posted by mzurer at 11:03 PM on June 18, 2007

On a flight that long, I'd be worried about the low temperature and low humidity and the guitar's subsequent exposure to Japan's high summer temperatures and humidity. I wouldn't check it if I were you.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:06 PM on June 18, 2007

My older sister just flew back to Jacksonville, FL after visiting, and took her acoustic with her. Granted the flight wasn't as long as what yours will be, but if you loosen the strings to the point that they're about to fall off, you should be OK with checking it.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 11:17 PM on June 18, 2007

You most likely won't be able to take your guitar carry on on a full flight but imho, it's not a big deal to check it if it's in a hard case. I've checked my guitar at least a dozen times, even in the winter in Alaska, and never had a problem. Professional bands and film crews check their gear all the time.

A compromise may be to take the guitar to the gate and check it in there as oversized carry on. That way it still rides in the hold but skips the conyevor belt part of the day. They will tell you at the desk if you can do this.
posted by fshgrl at 11:20 PM on June 18, 2007

My daughter has checked her acoustic guitar numerous times. She has a rigid but not hardshell case -- we called the guitar shop and they gave us a cardboard packing box that fits very snugly around this case giving an extra layer of protection. You could consider that. Loosen the strings as noted. No problems so far.
posted by Rumple at 12:33 AM on June 19, 2007

I don't know if you'll be able to get hold of one but Hiscox Cases are absolutely superb. You can throw them around and/or jump on them without any worries. I've stood on mine when I weighed in at 100kg (220lbs) - I'm dieting now though :)

Only downside is I can't find a Canadian importer - they're a UK based company.
posted by anzoid at 1:16 AM on June 19, 2007

If its in a hardcase it should be fine.
Bands all check their instruments and they travel alot more than most people, so I would assume they come out ok.
posted by Iax at 1:31 AM on June 19, 2007

I took my 'cello to india from NY as checked luggage. It was in its hard-case, strings loosened, with t-shirts to dampen things. The hard-case went in a small refrigerator box filled with packing peanuts, and I think the bows were external to the hard-case in peanutland. My baby was fine, there and back.

That said, my baby's a lovely piece of crap, and I would have been sad but not devastated to lose it. Seriously, don't worry about the humidity - your guitar's a lovely piece of crap, and you won't notice if a seam breaks and you have to get it re-glued when you arrive. DO put a nice water-sponge there to keep things moist, as moist is far better than not moist. Incidentally, my cello case is a weird hybrid hard-shell guitar case, probably by the same company as yours. Not Hiscox, though.

I think the refigerator box is overkill, actually. Just hydrate, send it, and see how it is when you get there. If you want to try to carry it on, do it in the hard case.
posted by metaculpa at 2:13 AM on June 19, 2007

I agree with those who say "gate checking" is the best bet. Here are some letters from sample airlines - including Northwest - detailing their policy for gate checking. If you are still unsure give them a call.
posted by rongorongo at 3:24 AM on June 19, 2007

Here are some tips about flying with guitars from Bob Brozman's web site. The man travels a lot, and is about as authoritative as it gets. A lot of guitarists swear by the clam shell case.
posted by zaelic at 3:38 AM on June 19, 2007

Another vote for gate-checking -- my reason being that one way or the other, your case will get opened and your guitar removed and inspected, and you'd sure rather that happen at TSA checkpoint when you are there to supervise and repack, than by the luggage handlers behind the scenes. Tell the agent at ticketing that you want to gate-check the case, they can likely tag it ahead for you.

And, read these articles (especially the bit about carrying the AFM letter with you (PDF)) in case you get flak from the airline.

Is your Taylor case ATA-rated? (indicating that it's been built to specs provided by the Air Transport Association and should withstand 100 air trips). If so, it should be absolutely fine, as the ATA standard is practically "would this instrument be safe in the cargo hold of a plane." Musicians do check their gear all the time, but wouldn't dream of doing so in a case that wasn't ATA-rated. If it's not ATA-rated, maybe you can exchange it?

(in fact, I use ATA-rated cases for shipping computer equipment and electronics for work, and wouldn't think twice about putting laptops, plasmas, projectors, etc. under the plane as the cases are built to be rugged on the outside and very protective on the inside)
posted by pineapple at 3:48 AM on June 19, 2007

It's possible to do. I've done it plenty, and sweated my way through every time. I always carry a copy of the updated TSA letter with me to use at checkpoints - although the screeners have usually been the easiest part of the process.
The toughest part for me is usually convincing the gate agents that my hard shell will fit overhead [which it will, on all but the smallest props]. Once on board, I have never had a problem with flight attendants - especially internationally. They have always found a place for my beloved machine, even when the plane was sold out. Be prepared to be nice -- and say thank you.
There's some [similar] but good advice in this previously asked question, too.
Be strong at the gate, or at least be sneaky. Once on board, I always feel home free.
posted by rubberfish at 4:52 AM on June 19, 2007

I've flown with my trombone as checked baggage twice (well, one and a half times, if you want to pick nits, since one time was only one way.) It was in its original, heavily padded case, and I put a couple of extra straps around it just to make sure that the case didn't fly open on some godforsaken tarmac somewhere and drop my horn onto the pavement. The second time, the case got a little scuffed up on the way back, but the trombone itself was fine.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:30 AM on June 19, 2007

1. If you don't carry on, you must insure it somehow. I checked a guitar once, carefully packed, the neck was broken when I got it back.

2. Carry on is way way better of an option. It depends on the airline and the cabin crew and what order you board the plane. Arrive early, be winningly polite, and carry it on.
posted by ewkpates at 5:54 AM on June 19, 2007

Datapoint: I just recently flew from Chicago to LA with a checked electric guitar in a hard, padded case, and when I got it back the audio jack was broken.
posted by jacobm at 7:08 AM on June 19, 2007

1. Don't check it if you don't have to.

2. I'm told there is a pressurized section of the luggage area for things like this (and pets).

3. Pack clothes around the headstock and neck -- enough that it is totally immobilized and cannot move. The biggest risk in checking a guitar is that it will be set up vertically and fall down on its back, which 90% of the time will break the headstock clean off. Pack the headstock and neck tightly.

4. Insure it. A friend's cello that is worth more than my entire life had been checked on planes many times, and always turned out fine. Then one trip it came off the plane with a hole the size of a Quarter clean through the bulletproof case, the top and the back of the cello. It was insured for (if I remember correctly) several hundred thousand dollars. Good thing, too.

5. I have checked an acoustic guitar once, and it turned out fine. But it was not a priceless treasure, and I insured it. I would be terrified to check a nice Taylor or Martin.

6. I have checked solidbody electrics many times. They mostly turned out fine, but the neck on one did get messed up once. I always put an external buckle-strap thinggy on the outside of the case, just in case the latches or hinges fail. You never know. An ATA flight case would be better. Perhaps when I'm rich and famous I'll have one. Bands that check their instruments have to eventually replace the instruments.
posted by The World Famous at 9:12 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you're accepting anecdotes: I've flown with an accousitc guitar... oh... probably around 50 times, and almost half of those flights were international (Jamaica < --> US). I had a good hardshell case, loosened the strings, checked it like it was a suitcase, and never had a problem. The case got beat up, but the guitar was always fine. Do insure it, though, just in case.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:36 AM on June 19, 2007

I've done it lots. It'll be fine.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:43 AM on June 19, 2007

I wouldn't check any of my guitars. I've had enough things of mine broken in checked baggage in the post-TSA world that I'm convinced the screeners have damaged my belongings on purpose. Always really expensive things, too - they leave the cheap stuff alone.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:29 PM on June 20, 2007

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