Getting your guitar on the plane as carry on luggage

I believe I am not alone when I say, I am in love with my guitar. The bond between guitar and guitarist is forged by hundreds of hours spent together in a passionate discourse. Spouses, partners and parents are often bewildered by this strange relationship and don’t seem to understand how precious the wooden box is to us. It’s no wonder, then, that we don’t want some burly stranger throwing our beloved around on tarmac and that we put up a bloody big fight to keep the guitar with us when we get on a plane!

I have heard horror stories about instruments that were damaged and destroyed from being checked in on flights. From disintegrated cellos that fall off luggage belts to punctured guitar soundboards that fell victim to curious security officers (John William’s Smallman!), fragile and very expensive instruments that have survived world wars and social uprisings stand little chance once ‘checked in’. I almost feel that the fragile sticker is sometimes a red rag to a very bored and angry bag handler. But that’s just me being cynical…

I have clocked up hundreds of hours of flying time by now (being from Australia has boosted my stats) and I have learnt a few strategies for getting my guitar on board. I am happy to share with my fellow guitarists some tips and I hope it means a safer journey for the little pluckers.

Arm yourself with knowledge

Airline policies differ in regards to carry on luggage so do yourself a favor and find out which airlines are guitar friendly. Here are a few examples:

American Airlines

  • Small musical instruments may be carried onboard the aircraft providing they meet existing carry-on size requirements and fit in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. Case dimensions may not exceed 45 dimensional inches (width + length + height), except for guitars which may be brought on board only if they can be safely stowed in an overhead bin or approved stowage location in the cabin.The instrument is considered the passenger’s one allowed carry-on bag. A personal item is allowed in addition to the instrument.

Delta Airlines

  • Guitars and other smaller musical instruments, such as violins, will be accepted as your free carry-on baggage item on Delta operated flights1. These items must easily fit in the overhead bin or other approved storage location in the cabin, based on available space at the time of boarding. If adequate space is not available, then the item must be checked and fees will apply.

United

  • You can carry on one guitar or similar or smaller sized musical instrument, which will count as your one carry-on item. The musical instrument, which may exceed 45 linear inches, must be able to be stowed under the seat in front of you or in an overhead bin or another approved stowage location. If space is unavailable prior to departure, the item must be checked as baggage

Continental Airlines

  • Musical instruments can be carried on board or checked as baggage. If necessary, a seat can also be purchased for an instrument. Carried on Board: A small musical instrument can be carried on as a personal item. If the musical instrument appears too large or irregularly shaped to fit under the seat or in the overhead compartment, it will not be accepted for in cabin stowage.

Southwest musical instrument carry on policy

Mind your attitude

The people at the airport (flight attendants, security etc.) are the one’s in charge and even if you think you are legally/technically in the right, the buck stops with them. Instead of acting aggresively and demanding that your guitar is worth a bazillion dollars (bad idea, trust me) be polite, courteous and respectful. Airport staff have a tough job and they deal with many grumpy and tired people daily, if you show a little kindness and good cheer they might be inclined to reciprocate the favor (this works for everything else in life too). You will be surprised how far your smile will get you, on a flight I had down to Charlotte NC the pilot actually took the guitar into the cockpit with him!

For example:

Scenario 1

Cordial flight attendant- I’m sorry sir but you cannot take your guitar on the plane, it’s over the carry on allowance.
Yngwie Williams – What?! I just saw that lady take on a giant sombrero and a a chihuahua in nappies and you won’t let me take this on? This guitar is very fragile and worth a lot of money so I need to take it on with me.
Irritated FA – You will have to purchase a separate ticket for your instrument then sir.
YW – You have got to be kidding me, I have taken this with me on hundreds of flights before. I will not take no for an answer.
Cue intimidating baggage handler and security – guitar gets put in the hold with a dash of spite – result: the most expensive set of toothpicks you will ever own.

Fail

Scenario 2

Cordial flight attendant- I’m sorry sir but you cannot take your guitar on the plane, it’s over the carry on allowance.
John Ghandi – Would it be possible to see if it will fit in the overhead storage or in a cupboard? If it doesn’t I understand that it needs to be checked.
Cordial FA – Well, it isn’t a full flight so you can see if it fits. What kind of guitar is it?
JG – Classical
CFA Oh! I love the Eagles.
Cue slight regret that you could have been a rock star if you stuck with electric – get on board and fly with your precious – result: relief.

Win!

Be discreet

You guitar is oversize, there is no way around it, so don’t bring attention to it!
The first hurdle is the check in desk. I know it sounds silly but I will always try to get served by the happiest looking staff member, even if it means letting people in the line go in front of me. Grumpy check in people seem to love sticking to the rules so I avoid them if I can. When you approach the desk have your passport and paperwork ready and in front of you so they have something to look at while you quickly put your guitar on the ground. If they ever ask about your guitar or if you have other carry on luggage, don’t lie – express line to the cargo hold. However, they rarely ask about carry on luggage, they normally ask if you have anything else to check in, which of course… you don’t.

Security is the next hurdle, but to be honest its the least of your worries. The security checkpoints are more interested in guitars that break without baggage handlers, if you get my gist. Just don’t put any prohibited objects for carry on in there. Things like music stands (a.k.a. sniper rifles) will always warrant a luggage search so keep that in your check in baggage if you want to keep unwanted hands away from your guitar.

The waiting lounge can be a minefield when the flight is full, attendants will hover around looking for oversize bags to check early so I advise keeping a good distance from the gate. When presenting your boarding pass make good eye-contact and have your passport and boarding pass ready. Keep your guitar to the other side than the attendant or on your back. When boarding the plane the first thing to look for is the type of overhead bins they have. If they are long , with removed dividers and doors that open upwards, you are set to go but if they are the individual drop down bins you’re in trouble. The only option in this case is to quickly find the first class/crew cupboards. These cupboards are located in different places on different planes but they are always close to the entrance (that’s were the posh people sit you see). If you get it in there, run like the clappers because once its in, its in. No self respecting flight attendant would ever move what they think is first class baggage. If you can’t find it, then politely ask an attendent to help out.

If it doesn’t work out, well, you tried your best.

Practical Issues

Know what kind of plane you are flying on.
Some planes simply will not fit a guitar in the overhead. Small commuter planes can barely fit normal carry on bags let alone your favorite fleta. Look at your itinerary and google the planes that you will be on. If you are on a Boeing 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, Airbus A320, A321, A 380 you will be fine. Dash-8, Embraer CRJ-700 or Embraer ERJ-135 save your time and sanity and just resign yourself to checking your guitar in. Of course, you might consider changing your airline/flight in order to avoid smaller planes.

The smaller your case the better your chances.
One of the biggest benefits of fancy shmancy cases like Accord is that they are small and form fitting to the guitar. This means that they look far less bulky than a Hiscox type case and stand a better chance of 1. being accepted and 2. actually fitting.

Insure your guitar
If you have invested a lot of money on your guitar then for heavens sake get it insured! Bad things do and will happen so if you cannot afford to buy another instrument then you cannot afford not to get insurance. There are several insurance companies out there that insure musical instruments and you will want to go over their coverage policy in detail. Be sure to check that your instrument will be fully covered for replacement and repair during all forms of travel.

Have a travel guitar
I am not talking about one of those coat hanger deals, rather, if you are going on a trip that doesn’t involve Wigmore Hall debuts why not buy one of those pink sparkly guitars in the store window to spare you and your guitar unnecessary stress?

Take up the ukulele.

Share some of your own tips and stories below and in the forum

Comments

  1. Paul says

    Knowing the plane would be small and my guitar big (1969 Martin D-28), I bought a ticket for it (tip: your guitar probably does not have a driver’s license, so ticket it as “Musical Instrument” or “Guitar,” not by maker’s name, which might be mistaken for someone who does have a driver’s license or ID). Even so, the stewardess started as she saw me boarding: “Sir, you can’t bring the guitar on board.” Even after I explained I had bought a seat for it, she kept on: “But it won’t fit in….”
    “It will fit just fine,” I said, and went to our seats and strapped us both in.

    Later, the same stewardess told my wife she couldn’t keep her coat in the seat with the guitar because “I already made a concession to allow the guitar on board.”

  2. says

    I was able to brought my guitar on board in a long return flight from Jakarta to Paris last year, the trick was I brought it with softcase, and the stewardress put my guitar in a room somewhere and I found my guitar was in perfect shape, it was a 6000 euros guitar. I was flying with Emirates that time, which is big airplane. If you fly with a smaller plane, like Airfrance for example, better bring it with strong hardcase because they don’t have a place on board that is enough for the guitar, even if your guitar is only covered with softcase.

  3. NEL says

    hi fellas…i would like to ask for your opinion on bringing an acoustic guitar on hand carry luggage. i’m travelling thru business class ( emirates) before christmas-burmingham to dubai then dubai to philippines. i still have doubts, even after reading comments regarding this issue w/c says that you can carry it inside the cabin, coz i’ve called the local office of the emirates and still having consistency of the issue. one staff said you can…the other day i called said you can’t. i’m confused really…what do you think guys? i would really appreciate your answer coz the day of my flight back home is approaching. thanks!

    • Erb says

      Nel– how did that flight through Emirates go? Did they let you carry the guitar on? Im about to take my baritone uke on an Emirates flight from dallas to Dubai.

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