Flying with your instrument

It’s difficult for musicians to travel with their instruments on major US airlines. How do you go about it? Here’s a list that will help you plan for your next tour or gig when flying: 

Before booking your ticket, check the airline’s instrument policy 

I’ve flown on almost every airline in the US and I still make myself check each airline’s instrument carry-on policy. Every year or couple years, airlines change their policies so it’s important that you stay up to date and stay familiar with the airline you fly. Here's what you can do to prevent stress at the airport:

Check the plane model 

Now that you’ve checked the policies and have your airline preference, now it’s important to figure out if your instrument or case will meet the requirements of the plane you’ll be flying in. I know from personal experience when I boardedd a small plane and my case couldn’t fit in the overhead bin (I have a BAM oblong case). By checking the dimensions of the overhead bin in your aircraft, you’ll save yourself a lot of headache knowing that your case will fit. 

Boarding the plane 

Many US airlines have the option for their flyers to buy pre-boarding along with your ticket. This is probably your safest option when you travel with your instrument. However, there are musicians out there who are still in school and are traveling across the country for music festivals and auditions. Students, I feel your pain. I’ve been through it too. I was in Boston traveling home to Chicago once and the worker at the counter said that I won’t be able to fit my instrument in the overhead because the flight was fully booked. Before I get into telling you how to deal with a situation like that, let me give you some tips: 

Early bird gets the worm 

Every single airline I’ve flown you’re able to check-in for your flight 24 hours in advance. In my experience, the earlier you check in, the better chance you have in getting an earlier boarding group like group 2 or 3. Group 1 is usually for First Class flyers, airline credit-card holders, military personnel, families young children, etc. 

Being nice goes a long way 

There were times when I forgot to check in exactly 24 hours before my flight. Instead of boarding group 2, I got boarding group 4. I know whenever I receive boarding group 4 on my mobile boarding pass, I get stressed about the whole flying experience. You start thinking about every possible scenario if the workers won’t let you in the plane because by the time your boarding group is called, there may not be enough room in the overhead bins. But you get to the gate and you find out that there’s a full flight to your destination, what do you do? 

Whoever is working at the counter, I go up to them around 30 minutes before boarding begins and explain my situation. I usually say something like, “Excuse me, I’m traveling with my instrument today. Is it possible to get on the flight in an earlier boarding group?” Most of the time, the airline staff is happy to accommodate. If you’re nice to them, then they’ll be nice to you. 

Now, what happens if the worker is threatening you to check in your small instrument, even though it meets the requirements of the overhead bin? 

Section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act 

There will be times where airline workers are difficult to deal with. If they’re giving you a hard time about bringing your instrument on board, you can inform them that it’s the law for US airlines to accommodate musical instruments in the overhead cabin with Section 403 in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. Believe it or not, there are airline workers that may be unfamiliar with this law.  Click Here to see a copy of the document on the US DOT’s website. I recommend that every musician carries a copy of this in their case while traveling in the US. You can also use Twitter and Facebook to complain to the airline and receive a very quick response from them if the people you’re dealing with is giving you a hard time. 

My instrument is too big, do I need to check it in? 

This is a tricky subject for many. I’ve had a colleague that was forced to check in her cello. The airline wasn’t careful with handling her instrument and they destroyed her cello. Ideally, musicians with valuable instruments want to have their instrument on board the cabin. A solution to this problem is to buy another seat for your instrument. It’s not the best answer out there, but it’s better than having to check your instrument in, have it potentially damaged, raise money if it gets damaged (if you don’t have instrument insurance already) and go through the long process of finding another instrument. 

Have suggestions on flying with your instruments? Leave a comment below.

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