One of the biggest hassles and pain points for performing musicians is flying with your musical instrument.
There have been many stories of instruments suffering severe damage or getting destroyed because the passenger had to either check them or load them as regular baggage.
So what do you do if you are flying with your musical instrument?
In this 2-part series, you will learn how to prepare for travel, what to expect, and which airlines really have musicians' needs in mind.
Be prepared BEFORE flying with your musical instrument
The first thing to keep in mind is that even though there have been new U.S. government regulations regarding carrying on musical instruments, you are NOT guaranteed that your instrument will be accepted as a carry-on.
In other words, you need to know the rules before you get to the airport, and even before you book your flight.
Check out this tip sheet from Department of Transportation.
Here are some tips to prepare your instrument (and yourself) for travelling:
- Do you have instrument insurance?
- Is all of your equipment packed securely?
- Can you possibly travel with a backup instrument, just in case?
- Do you want to ship it via Fedex or USPS?
- Did you take photos of the instrument securely packed in the case before you left for the airport?
- What about Music Instrument Rental Companies?
If you don't already have your instruments, expensive mouthpieces and other equipment you need to perform insured, you are doing yourself a huge disservice.
If you own a home, you could add your equipment to your homeowner's insurance as a separate rider. Be sure to speak with an insurance representative to see what is covered.
For example, here in California, there are earthquake and fire threats. It would be important for me to have a policy that covers my equipment in those types of situations.
There are other Musical Instrument Insurance Companies, such as:
- Music Pro – they have been recommended in the Musicians Union mags
- Huntington Block – you're covered if you are temporarily using someone else's instrument or someone temporarily uses yours
- Anderson Musical Instrument Insurance – covers many of the U.S. major symphony orchestras
- Heritage Insurance Services
Keep in mind, you may have expensive mouthpieces. You want to make sure your plan covers them.
You may also have expensive recording equipment. Is that covered too?
Packing Equipment Securely
There are many choices of secure cases for each instrument. The most important point is that your instrument fits securely in the case and that there is no wiggle room. Any extra space will allow the instrument to move and could result in bent keys or the body of the instrument being bent.
Usually, the hard case that came with your instrument should be sufficient for enduring airline flights. (Never use a gig bag for flying, even if you plan on carrying the instrument on the plane. You cannot guarantee that you will be allowed to carry on and there is always a lot of movement in the overhead bins. A soft case does not protect your instrument.)
The only problem with using the original hard case is that the dimensions make it very likely that it will not fit in the overheads unless it is a contoured case. The contoured case takes up a little less room and can fit in most airline overhead storage for these instruments: trumpet, flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, and possibly tenor saxophone and trombone.
Some popular brands of cases that musicians use especially for flying are:
- Wiseman London
- Protec – the cheapest of the bunch, but very good protection
These cases are not cheap, but many musicians have had good experiences while traveling with them. And this is not an exhaustive list of all the cases out there. For example, Walt Johnson saxophone cases are well-regarded as superior protection when traveling, but those cases are not being made anymore. A Google search can help you used ones on other sites.
When I recently attended the NAMM show in Anaheim, CA, one of my friends allowed me to take pictures of his Wiseman Tenor/Soprano case. The case is so small, but it fits both instruments securely. Be aware the case is very heavy – you need to use the backpack feature. It is also expensive, but the carbon fiber material will protect your horns.
Here's a product review I did for the BAM Hightech Saxophone case
Woodwind musicians' needs
Woodwind musicians should own key clamps and know how to use them. These clamps keep your pads sealed properly, help prevent pad leaks and prevent the keys from moving around.
Especially when traveling on a plane, you MUST use key clamps!
You need to ensure that the clamps are bendable so that your keys and pads are sealed – not all key clamps are made equal.
Here are some links to find them:
- Steve Goodson's Mistress Sharon Key Clamps – these clamps cover more of the keys than others and are heavy duty
- Horn Doctor Sax Savers – MacSax
- MusicMedic (they sell Steve's clamps here too)
- Hollywood Winds
One new invention helps the saxophone stop moving around in the case.
Extended End Plugs, custom made by Don Trimble from Orange Coast Sax Shop, fill up the gap between the receiver and the edge of the saxophone case.
If there is not a snug fit between the end plug and the case lining, there will be too much movement when transporting your horn, which can cause a bend in the receiver and other problems.
For those of us that store our reeds wet, that presents difficulties when flying due to the limitations of liquids.
One great solution is to use Reed Juvinate to store your reeds. You can soak the sponge in original Listerine and pour out any extra liquid before flying. The reeds will still maintain the humidity you need and be instantly playable.
Another option is to get the Rico reed case that stores 8 reeds and has a humidity pack. Although the reeds won't be instantly playable as with ReedJuvinate, there should not be a problem traveling with your reeds this way.
Brass Players' Needs
Brass players have less to worry about than Woodwind musicians. But, there are still some important points to consider:
- Valve oil should fit the airline regulations in terms of size. As an extra precaution, store the bottle in a Ziploc so it does not leak all over your case. To be really on the safe side, store it in a Ziploc in your checked baggage.
- Make sure your mouthpiece and any other accessories are not loose in the compartment in your case. Store mouthpiece brushes, slide grease in separate bags and fill up the empty space with bubble wrap so items don't ding your instrument.
One option that musicians with larger instruments have taken is to purchase an extra seat when flying with their instrument. This can get costly but it would be the best protection for your instrument.
Be sure to contact the airline beforehand and make sure that your instrument's seat can't be taken away to be replaced with another passenger.
Some folks have resorted to shipping their instrument via Fedex or USPS if they were on a longer tour instead of flying with their instrument. This has some advantages such as being cheaper than buying an airline seat, you can purchase insurance for your package, and you don't have the hassle of lugging all your equipment throughout the airport.
When I played some dates with Vicci Martinez (Season 1 Finalist from The Voice), she called her tour the “drum-in-a-box tour” for this reason. She used Fedex to ship the drums to the east coast for all those dates out there.
Don't forget, you must pack your instrument securely in bubble wrap but not over-do it so that the wrapping affects the keys in any way.
Keep in mind, Fedex and even USPS may not handle your instrument with the care you need. You must mark the package as Fragile and insure it, but sometimes packages get caught in conveyor belts or fall off.
Aside from instrument insurance and securely packing your instrument, another tip is to take pictures (with a time and date stamp) of your instrument BEFORE you are flying with your instrument.
Take pictures of your instrument outside the case (get as many angles as possible), and inside the case before you put on clamps or bubble wrap.
This will serve as documentation of the condition your instrument was in before travelling.
Another tip is to place your business card inside the case as well as on the outside of the case as either a luggage tag or as a sticker. Be sure to have your cell phone number and address on the card. I also tend to place my repair person's card in the case as a second person to contact if there's a problem.
What if the airline insists on checking the instrument?
Always be prepared for this!
As a reminder, store your instrument securely in a hard case that contains no wiggle room inside.
Make sure your identifying information is visible through a luggage tag or sticker on the case.
Extra tip – if you do have to check the instrument, mark the case as Fragile. Either bring your own stickers or ask the airline for some.
Music Instrument Rental Companies
Sometimes, the easiest thing to do instead of flying with your instrument is to rent an instrument for a short period of time in the city or area you are performing.
There are some companies, like Sparkplug, that rent backline equipment (guitars, keyboards, electric basses, amps and drums) in some major entertainment cities in the U.S.
One company in New York City and Connecticut, Rental Instrument Company, allows for short-term rentals of horns, strings as well as backline instruments. They will even deliver your instrument to the hotel you are staying in.
Unfortunately, there seem to be very few companies that rent professional horns. However, if you call a local music store in the area you are performing beforehand and inquire about short-term rentals (i.e. one-week), you may get lucky.
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Don't forget to check out PART 2, I will cover a few specific policies from some popular U.S. airlines.