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Traveling with Your Guitar: Tips to Ensuring Your Musical Companion’s Safe Journey

Want to travel with your guitar but you're dreading it as you recall the "United Breaks Guitars" incident with Canadian musician Dave Carroll? We've put together this extensive list of things you need to know before boarding a plane with your beloved instrument.

Traveling with your beloved guitar, whether it’s for a gig across the country, a music festival in another continent, or simply for the joy of making music wherever you go, requires more than just a passion for music. It demands preparation, knowledge, and an understanding of how to navigate the often complex world of air travel with your instrument. The joy of strumming your guitar in a new city or sharing your music with people around the globe is unparalleled, but getting your guitar there safely is a journey in itself. Here’s some good news! This article aims to demystify the process, offering you essential tips and guidance on traveling with your guitar, ensuring that your musical journey is as smooth and stress-free as possible.

Image by Lars Nissen from Pixabay

Understanding Airline Policies for Musical Instruments

One of the first things any musician should do before planning to travel with their guitar is to familiarize themselves with the airline policies regarding musical instruments. Thanks to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, musicians have clearer guidelines when it comes to bringing their instruments onto planes. This Act requires airlines to accommodate musical instruments in their aircraft cabins, either as carry-on items or by purchasing a separate ticket for an additional seat, provided there’s space available and the instrument can be safely stowed.

However, policies can vary significantly between air carriers, so it’s crucial to research your specific airline’s regulations. Major airlines like American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United have detailed policies on their websites regarding the carriage of carry-on baggage, including musical instruments. These usually outline the dimensions for instruments that can fit in overhead bins or under the passenger seat, as well as the possibility of using an additional seat for larger instruments such as cellos.

For overhead compartment storage, most airlines allow instruments that fit within the size limits of standard carry-on baggage. If your guitar is too large to fit in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you, purchasing an additional seat might be the best way to ensure its safety. This option, often referred to as “CABIN-SEAT baggage” by airlines, allows your instrument to travel safely beside you, secured in its case.

It’s also worth noting that while the FAA Modernization and Reform Act provides a general framework, each airline’s implementation of these guidelines can differ. For instance, the definition of “suitable baggage compartment” might vary, impacting where and how instruments can be stowed. As such, contacting the airline directly, well in advance of your flight, is always a good idea to confirm their policies and make any necessary arrangements.

Remember, the goal is to avoid surprises at the airport. Knowing the air transportation rules for musical instruments, understanding potential fees for extra seats or comparable carry-on baggage, and being prepared for the weight of the instrument and applicable weight restrictions are all critical steps in planning your trip. By doing your homework, you can avoid conflicts with airline staff and ensure your guitar arrives safely at your destination, ready for whatever musical adventures await.

Choosing the Right Guitar Case for Air Travel

When traveling by air, the safety of your guitar hinges significantly on the case you choose. While gig bags are lightweight and convenient for short trips, they offer minimal protection against the rigors of air travel. For flights, a hard case or a hard-shell case is almost always the best choice.

Hard cases come in various materials, including wood, ABS plastic, and fiberglass, offering robust protection against pressure, impact, and the elements. A high-quality hard case or hard-shell case is designed to absorb shocks and prevent damage to your instrument during handling and stowage. For the best protection, look for cases that offer a snug fit for your guitar, plush interior lining, and strong latches. Some cases also feature TSA-approved locks, making them ideal for air travel.

Flight cases, specifically designed for air travel, offer the highest level of protection. These cases are typically constructed from heavy-duty materials and are engineered to withstand rough handling and drastic changes in air pressure and humidity. While flight cases are the gold standard for touring professionals, they are also heavier and more expensive than standard hard cases.

For those who frequently travel with electric guitars, acoustic guitars, or travel guitars, investing in a case with good thermal insulation is also a wise decision. This can help protect your instrument from the rapid temperature changes it might experience in an aircraft cabin or cargo hold.

Choosing the right guitar case for air travel is about balancing the need for protection with practical considerations such as weight and portability. A sturdy hard case or flight case might be heavier and more cumbersome than a gig bag, but the peace of mind it offers is invaluable. The cost of a good case is negligible compared to the cost of repairing or replacing a damaged guitar.

Packing Your Guitar for the Flight

Ensuring your guitar arrives intact begins with how you pack it. Even within the safety of a hard case, a guitar can still move around, which might lead to scratches, dents, or worse. Here are some essential packing tips to secure your guitar:

  1. Loosen the Strings: Before packing your guitar, loosen the strings to relieve tension on the neck, as changes in air pressure and temperature can cause strings to snap or warp the neck.
  2. Support the Neck: Use bubble wrap or a small towel to provide extra support for the guitar’s neck and headstock. These are the most vulnerable parts and can easily break if the case is dropped or handled roughly.
  3. Fill Empty Spaces: Use soft, clean cloths or specially designed foam pads to fill any empty spaces around the guitar in the case. This prevents the guitar from shifting during transport. Be careful not to overpack and put undue pressure on the instrument.
  4. Cover the Guitar: Place a soft cloth or a layer of bubble wrap over the top of the guitar to protect the finish from scratches caused by items in the case’s storage compartments or the case itself.

Packing your guitar properly can greatly reduce the risk of damage, ensuring that your instrument arrives in the same condition it was in when you packed it.

At the Airport: Check-In and Security

Navigating the airport with your guitar requires patience and a bit of strategy. Here’s how to handle the check-in and security process:

  • Check Airline Policies Ahead of Time: Before you head to the airport, double-check your airline’s policy on musical instruments. Knowing the specifics can help you advocate for your guitar’s safe transport if you encounter any misunderstandings with airline staff.
  • Arrive Early: Airports can be unpredictable. Arriving early gives you extra time to deal with any unforeseen issues that might arise, such as discussing your guitar with the airline staff at the ticket counter or ensuring it’s handled properly as oversized or fragile baggage.
  • Communicate with Airline Staff: Be polite but assertive when talking to the ticket counter and gate agents about your guitar. Explain that it’s a delicate instrument and ask about options for keeping it safe, such as gate-checking or using available closet space for storage.
  • Security Checks: Your guitar will need to go through security, which usually means sending it through the X-ray machine. If it’s in a soft case, you might be asked to take it out, similar to a laptop. Watch your instrument closely as it goes through the security process, and be ready to open the case for inspection if requested. Security personnel have the right to inspect any item, but explaining that it’s a delicate musical instrument can encourage them to handle it with care.

While the goal is to carry your guitar in the cabin with you, be prepared for situations where you might have to check it due to space limitations or airline policy. In such cases, having your guitar securely packed in a sturdy hard case is even more critical. Engaging with airline staff positively and being prepared to discuss your needs clearly can often lead to a better outcome for you and your guitar.

On the Plane: Stowing Your Guitar

Once past security and at your gate, your next focus is ensuring your guitar is safely stowed on the plane. The goal is to keep your instrument with you in the passenger cabin if at all possible. Here are strategies to help secure a safe spot for your guitar:

  • Board Early: Airlines often allow passengers with instruments or other special considerations to board early. Take advantage of this to ensure you have first access to overhead bin space or closet space.
  • Overhead Bin Space: If your guitar is in a gig bag or a smaller case, it might fit in the overhead bins. Place it atop other luggage to avoid having heavier items placed on top of it. If there’s a suitable baggage compartment, such as a coat closet, ask the flight attendant if you can use it.
  • Additional Seat: For larger instruments or if you prefer not to risk overhead storage, purchasing an additional seat for your guitar is the safest option. This is often the method chosen by professional musicians who travel with expensive or irreplaceable instruments. Ensure your guitar is securely strapped into the seat, much like a passenger, to prevent any movement during the flight.
  • Communicate with Flight Attendants: Flight attendants can be your greatest allies in keeping your guitar safe. Explain the importance and fragility of your instrument. They’re often willing to help find a safe spot for it if they understand it’s not just another piece of luggage but a valuable and beloved instrument.

By planning ahead and engaging with airline staff, you can significantly increase the chances of your guitar being treated with the care it deserves during the flight.

Special Considerations for International Flights and Small Planes

Traveling internationally or on smaller planes with your guitar requires additional considerations. Space might be more constrained, and regulations can vary from one country to another.

  • International Flights: Check the airline’s international travel policies for musical instruments. Be aware of any extra fees, applicable weight restrictions, and customs regulations that might affect your travel plans. Some countries have specific requirements for wooden instruments due to concerns about wood conservation and biodiversity protection.
  • Small Planes: On smaller regional or commuter flights, overhead bin space and under-seat storage are significantly limited. Contact the airline in advance to discuss your options. You may need to use gate-check services or secure an extra seat for your guitar to ensure its safety.
  • Extra Fees: Be prepared for extra fees, especially on international flights where you might face additional charges for oversized or overweight baggage. Knowing these costs in advance can help you budget for your trip and avoid any unpleasant surprises.
  • Communicating Needs: When booking your flight, communicate your needs regarding your guitar. Some airlines allow you to add notes to your booking indicating you’ll be traveling with a musical instrument. This can alert staff ahead of time and potentially smooth the way for your guitar’s safe passage.

Traveling with a guitar on international flights or small planes doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. With the right preparation and communication, you can ensure your instrument arrives safely, ready for whatever musical adventures await in your destination.

After the Flight: Retrieving Your Guitar

Once you’ve reached your destination, the final step is safely retrieving your guitar. Whether you’ve carried it on or had to check it, handling the post-flight process is crucial to ensure your guitar ends the journey in tune and intact.

  • Overhead Bins and Cabin Storage: If your guitar was stowed in the cabin, wait until the rush to disembark has cleared, but always keep an eye on it. This reduces the risk of someone accidentally knocking your guitar while removing their luggage. Carefully remove your guitar from the overhead bin or closet, checking for any signs of damage before leaving the aircraft.
  • Gate-Checked or Checked Guitars: For guitars that were gate-checked or checked into the cargo hold, proceed to the baggage claim area or designated oversized luggage area. If your guitar was gate-checked, it might be returned to you at the gate rather than the baggage claim. Inspect your guitar case for any visible signs of damage as soon as you retrieve it. If you find damage, report it to the airline immediately to initiate a claim.
  • Handling Damage Claims: Should your guitar suffer damage during the flight, it’s imperative to report it to the airline before leaving the airport. Take photos of the damage and ask for a copy of the report for your records. Each airline has its own process for handling damage claims, so familiarize yourself with these procedures in advance.

Retrieving your guitar safely is the final note in the travel symphony. With careful attention and prompt action when needed, you can ensure that your guitar’s journey from home to your destination is as smooth as the music you make.

Additional Tips for Guitarists on the Go

Traveling with a guitar can be a rewarding experience, offering opportunities to share your music and find inspiration around the world. Here are some additional tips to keep in mind for your musical travels:

  • Travel Guitars: Consider a travel guitar for convenience. These instruments are designed for portability, often with detachable parts or smaller bodies, making them ideal companions for the wandering musician.
  • Insurance: If you frequently travel with your guitar, especially if it’s valuable or irreplaceable, consider getting a musical instrument insurance policy. This can provide peace of mind and financial protection against theft, loss, or damage.
  • Back-Up Plans: Have a backup plan in case your guitar cannot be accommodated in the cabin. This might include researching rental options at your destination or packing a portable music-making alternative like a ukulele.
  • Regular Maintenance: Travel can be tough on guitars, so regular maintenance is key. After a flight, give your guitar a thorough check-up, tuning, and cleaning to keep it in top playing condition.

Traveling with your guitar opens up a world of musical opportunities. Whether serenading a sunset on a remote beach, joining a jam session in a bustling city, or bringing comfort to your travels, your guitar can be a constant companion on your journeys. With the right preparation and care, you can navigate the challenges of traveling, ensuring your guitar is always ready for the next song in any corner of the globe.


Traveling with your guitar doesn’t have to be a concerto of concerns and complications. With the right knowledge, preparation, and approach, you can ensure that your musical companion accompanies you on your adventures both safely and conveniently. From understanding airline policies and choosing the right case, to packing your guitar securely and navigating the intricacies of air travel, every step is a note in the symphony of a successful journey.

The joy of having your guitar by your side as you explore new places, meet fellow musicians, and share your music across cultures and communities is immeasurable. The world becomes a stage, and every destination offers a unique backdrop for the stories you’ll tell through your music. By following the guidelines and tips outlined in this article, you can focus more on the melodies and memories and less on the logistics of traveling with your guitar.


Can I bring my guitar as carry-on luggage on a plane?

Yes, you can bring your guitar as carry-on luggage on most airlines, thanks to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. This act requires airlines to accommodate small musical instruments in the aircraft cabin, provided there’s enough space available at the time of boarding and the instrument can be safely stowed in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. It’s always best to check with your specific airline before traveling to understand their particular policies and requirements.

How should I pack my guitar for air travel?

For air travel, it’s recommended to use a hard case or hard-shell case to provide the best protection for your guitar. Loosen the strings to reduce tension on the neck, and consider adding padding or bubble wrap around the headstock and inside any empty spaces in the case to prevent movement during the flight. If using a gig bag, be aware that it offers less protection, so extra care should be taken to secure the guitar, and consider gate-checking or purchasing an additional seat if possible.

What do I do if my guitar is too large for the overhead bin?

If your guitar is too large for the overhead bin, you have a few options:

  • Purchase an additional seat for your guitar. This ensures that your guitar stays with you in the passenger cabin, securely strapped into the seat next to you.
  • Gate-check your guitar. This option allows you to bring your guitar to the gate and then hand it over to be placed in the cargo hold, with special handling as a fragile item.
  • Check your guitar as baggage, ideally in a sturdy, hard-shell case to protect it from potential damage.

Always communicate with airline staff about the best way to accommodate your guitar safely on your flight.

Are there extra fees for bringing a guitar on a plane?

This depends on the airline and the method you choose to transport your guitar. If you’re bringing it as carry-on luggage and it fits within the airline’s size limits for carry-on items, there typically won’t be an extra fee. However, if you need to purchase an additional seat for your guitar or check it as baggage, standard fees for those services will apply. It’s important to check with your airline ahead of time to understand any potential extra fees.

What should I do if my guitar gets damaged during a flight?

If you notice that your guitar has been damaged during a flight, report the damage to the airline before leaving the airport. Provide them with detailed information and photos of the damage. Most airlines have a process for handling claims for damaged luggage, including musical instruments. Having a comprehensive insurance policy for your instrument can also provide additional protection and compensation in the event of damage.

GGM Staff


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