above: the author, awaiting his flight back to the midwest...
Whether we like it or not, sometimes we have to fly with our instruments. I really like to travel, and I have traveled all over the world with musical instruments so I am used to it and quite honestly it doesn't really bother me that much. If you have never flown with a musical instrument it is important to know a few things that might help the process move smoothly and help you to get where you are going.
These tips are just my opinions and come from my personal experience. Your experiences may vary.
Tip #1 - Unless you have to or have a case designed specifically to allow the instrument to be put into checked luggage, carry the instrument with you.
Your instrument will change hands many times between when you check it and when you arrive at your final destination. Not everyone handling it will be as careful as you are when handling your musical instrument. Some people assume that because it is in a case that it is indestructible. Your best possible solution is to KEEP THE INSTRUMENT WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES if possible.
The airline employee might ask to gate check the bag, which means that they will handle it until you board the plane. Ask them if you can hold onto it. You never know what could happen to it when it is out of your hands.
If you are traveling with a Tuba, this might mean that you have to buy the instrument a seat on the plane which in some cases is cheaper than putting it into check luggage. I did it with the horn above. You can see it strapped in and ready to go below.
above: a very happy CC Tuba observing the "fasten seatbelt" sign
Most airlines allow musical instruments to be carried on the plane. If the instrument won't fit into the carry on compartment above the seat, check with the airline to see if they have a closet on the plane that will fit your instrument. I have personally traveled with a Tenor Sax, Trumpets, French Horns (cut bell), 5 Trombone hand slides (please don't ask), and (obviously) a Tuba. I have carried them ALL onto the plane.
Tip #2: Pack your instrument in a compact, lightweight but durable case.
When I have had to travel with instruments, I have found it best to pack them into a gig-bag style case with back-pack straps. I like to reduce the amount of weight I have to carry as much as possible and smaller cases make getting around and through security much easier. When flying with a musical instrument I usually travel with a shoulder bag, a suitcase full of clothes and one musical instrument. Having a lightweight but durable case is a must. For the Tuba above, all I had was the hard case so I had to work with what I had, but it could be done.
Tip #3: Allow yourself more time than usual to check in, get through security and board the plane.
You should give yourself more time than usual and expect to be asked many questions. If you have a larger item, like a Tuba, it will take more time to go through security and more time to board the plane. The TSA will not be able to put your Tuba through the X-ray machine so they will want to open it up and look inside. Once through security, go to the check in desk and let them know you have a Tuba (that has paid for a seat) and you need to get it aboard, but don't want to inconvenience any of the employees or other passengers.
Tip #4: Through all of this BE NICE, BE NICE, BE NICE.
The people who work for the airlines and the TSA agents deal with grumpy people all day and I have personally found that a good attitude and a smile help things get done much quicker.
Tip #5: Before flying, check with your airline to check their policies.
Every airline has different policies for musical instruments. Please check the links at the end of this article for different airline policies. Don't be afraid to call customer service or ask questions if you aren't 100 percent sure about an airlines policies. Like I said before, I have flown with lots of stuff and never once had an issue with any airline.
If you have to check your instrument, use a case designed to be checked. The case needs to be able to withstand movement in the "belly" of the plane, be able to have luggage and other stuff stacked on it without crushing your instrument and be able to withstand being dropped. These cases can be VERY expensive, but if you travel frequently and check your horn it is worth every penny and can save you lots of money in repairs.
If you have any tips that I have forgotten or have any interesting travel stories involving musical instruments, please let me know!
(select musical instrument, pick your origin and destination and they will provide info)