Flying with a guitar as carry-on luggage has always been a hassle. Last week, I had six flights in five days, and it reminded me of the troubles I’ve experienced since the 9/11 disasters that changed air travel forever.
For example, I once had big Anvil road cases for both my solidbody guitars and my Gibson ES-335. These things were bulletproof and lockable. However, the airlines began to weigh your bags, which made those road cases expensive to fly around the country. Then, they started charging for extra bags, and then they’d upcharge for any bags. Many solidbody electric players switched to soft gig bags so that they could stuff their guitars in the airplane’s overhead compartments, but that didn’t always work, either.
The American Federation of Musicians has an agreement in place with the Federal Aviation Administration that allows working musicians to bring their expensive and fragile instruments on board commercial flights. But each airline has its own policy. Once, while traveling from Los Angeles to Italy on Delta, I was told, “No instruments in the cabin” at the check-in counter. I asked to speak to the manager and threatened to fly a different airline. Not an option—my bag had already been loaded. I could buy an extra seat for $1,450.
As there was no way I would check a vintage instrument in a soft bag, three Delta employees produced two cardboard boxes, some duct tape, and a lot of packing material, and proceeded to box up my guitar. This took at least 30 minutes, and caused the line at the counter to back up. And behind me were four more guys with guitar cases!
Arriving home from that tour I sat down to write to AFM Local 47’s Overture magazine, but the current issue had the headline, “Musicians Boycott Delta.” Apparently, all the orchestral players in the country had been subjected to the same treatment. Delta changed its policy immediately.
But traveling with carry-on guitars remains a nuisance, so here are some guidelines I follow to ensure my instruments and I get onboard safely.
• Never take an irreplaceable or vintage guitar with you.
• Check in early online to get in “Zone 2.” Earlier boarding means the overhead compartments won’t be totally filled.
• Ask the flight attendant as nicely as possible if you can stand up your guitar in the coat closet. On a Boeing 777, there are two in business class, and most long-haul flights have plenty of closet space.
• The seats at the back of each section don’t recline, and, occasionally, I’ve been able to slide a hardshell case behind them.
• If you can upgrade—or get your employer to give you a business or first-class ticket— all your problems are solved! I’ve taken three guitars on those flights.
• Checking your guitar at the gate is a last resort, but on smaller planes with tiny overhead bins, it’s often the only option. At least your guitar doesn’t have to go through the entire baggage process if you check it on the jetway.
• The skies are still friendly, but being courteous and attitude-free goes a long way. I’ve even given away free concert tickets to super-nice and helpful flight attendants. Sometimes, that courtesy gets me a free upgrade for my return flight!
Carl Verheyen is a crtically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, arranger, producer, clinician, educator, and tone master with 12 CDs, two live DVDs, and two books released worldwide.