Everything to Know Before Flying with a Musical Instrument

There are official rules that the United States Department of Transportation set for flying with a musical instrument across all US airlines. Every struggling musician knows the struggle of flying an instrument, especially the expensive, limited ones. And these standardized policies were written with them in mind, from the casual guitarist to the touring professional, and allow them to bring their music with them without incurring any unreasonable expenses or hassle.

A lot of musicians dread bringing their prized instruments with them on the plane, but with these new provisions, it seems that things are going to get better. There is now a way to minimize frustration, both for you and for the airline you’re flying with.

Everything to Know Before Flying with a Musical Instrument

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Flying with a Musical Instrument

The Rules

Just like anything else, there are rules to follow when flying with a musical instrument. Below are the rules you need to know by heart for a hassle-free flight.

  • Airlines should now allow smaller instruments like guitars and violins to be stowed on board as a carry-on, as long as there is room for the instrument in the overhead storage or under the seat. Unfortunately, storage is provided on a first-come-first-served-basis, though, so if it doesn’t fit the designated places, your instrument has to go.
  • On the other hand, once your instrument has been stored safely on board, you cannot be asked to remove your instrument from the plane once it has already been safely stored on board.
  • You cannot be charged any fees for bringing an instrument on board as carry-on baggage other than any standard carry-on fee charged by the carrier.
  • Passengers who have instruments that are too large to be carried on board as standard carry-on baggage (for example, double basses) may store their instrument in a separately purchased seat.

However, in this case, it’s not enough that you know the rules. There still are a few things to keep in mind before flying with a musical instrument aside from knowing the limitations. One thing to remember is that rules change ridiculously often, so check your government’s up-to-the-minute rules and restrictions for flying with musical instruments. Second—and for the same reason—check your carrier’s rules for flying before getting a ticket. Lastly, experiences are on a case-to-case basis, so read up as much as you can as well.

Other Things to Consider Before Flying with a Musical Instrument

Compare airlines

Different airlines have different rules and conditions when it comes to handling instruments as carry-on items. According to the Transportation Safety Administration, the TSA allows instruments in addition to your carry-on for US Flights. That rule alone can get you through the airport gate, but as mentioned, rules change and vary. There are some airlines that do not allow extra carry-ons, even if it is a musical instrument, so make sure that your flight okays it.

Also remember to check which airlines operate from your airport so that you can get access to their Web sites and compare rules for your baggage. Why does this make a difference? It’s because different airlines have different carry-on bin measurements—and this could make a difference for your instrument.

Consider driving

Ever wondered why musicians tour with RVs instead of planes? It’s because it’s cheaper to house all the crew, but it’s also easier to transport instruments. Seriously, nobody would want to lug around a drum set or a large keyboard at the airport.

If your instrument is larger than a viola, you have a few options. You could opt for land travel (drive, take a bus or a train) or pay for your instrument’s seat on the plane. However, this does not guarantee that a ticket agent won’t ask or insist that you check in your instrument. Or you could opt to buy the best travel case that you can to make sure that your instrument is safe in for its check-in luggage trip. Be ready for the last resort, though.

Preparing Your Instrument for Flight

Since storage for carry-on baggage follows the first-come-first-served system, a good rule of thumb for preparing your instrument for flight is to do so under the assumption that it’ll be gate-checked. This way, you’re covered even if there’s not enough room on board.

Make sure your instrument is in a hard and small case

When flying with a musical instrument, a soft case is not highly advisable, and neither is a polyfoam case. While polyfoam cases are great for their portability and generally provide adequate protection for day-to-day handling, they’re not well suited for the abuse the luggage may receive before, during, and after a flight. At the very least, your instrument should be inside a sturdy wooden case, although you can never go wrong with a flight-safe case with TSA latches. Gator and SKB are two great companies who make such cases, and while they do tend to be more expensive than the standard hard case, it is definitely a sound investment for frequent flyers.

Musical Instrument


Another thing, get a smaller case for your instrument. While most instruments are put in large, comfortable cases where they can be nestled properly, there are smaller versions that could be more travel-friendly. A few inches off your case could make all the difference in the world.

And when you’re flying with a musical instrument, make sure that your instrument should fit snug in its case. If there’s any noticeable wiggle room, it’s a good idea to stuff the open space with rags, towels, or T-shirts. Not so much as to add too much extra pressure that could cause harm, but enough to prevent the instrument from moving around.

Remove any accessories and tools from the case and pack them elsewhere for the flight

Flying with a musical instrument comes with a lot of risk and limitations. When on a plane with your instrument, you might want to get rid of any accessories and tools from the case. This includes, but is not limited to, things like string winders, cutters, multi-tools, hex wrenches, tuners, pedals, and cleaning supplies. You can pack them elsewhere for the flight. While these items may seem harmless and commonplace for you, they may be unfamiliar and foreign to airport security personnel. You want to avoid giving anyone a reason to need to search your case as this often provides an opportunity for rough handling and accidental dropping of instruments.

You do not need to loosen the strings of your instrument for flight

In spite of a fairly common travel myth, stringed instruments are designed to withstand string tension. As long as your bass guitar isn’t strapped to the wing of the airliner, your instrument is being transported in a pressurized, reasonably climate-controlled environment. If this were not the case, people would be unable to travel with their pets.

Boarding with Your Instrument

Musical Instrument in a Plane

Once you have your instrument safely packed, here are some things to ensure that you can board successfully:

If you could, wear your instrument

The bigger your musical instrument is, the less likely it is that you will be allowed to carry it with you on the plane. Here’s a quick tip, though: strapping your instrument on your back minimizes its profile, so there’s a better chance that the airline could just let you keep it. Why is this so? It’s a bit of a psychological take—if you don’t look like you’re struggling with your instrument, people will think it really is no problem. So if you carry your instrument on your back instead of dragging it around, you can likely get it on board without a hitch.

Always be polite when it comes to dealing with the airports staff

If you are flying with a musical instrument, it pays to be polite toward everyone especially the staff. They tend to be more accommodating with someone who’s treating them properly. Courtesy goes a long way, they always say. Remain calm if a guard tells you to put your instrument on cargo hold. Keep calm if they’ve issued the last boarding call while doing this. Ask to speak to a supervisor, it is best to resolve the issue properly, so explain yourself properly and argue using facts. Don’t get too emotional about it to keep things in perspective. If you followed the previous tips, it won’t be likely that you’ll have more trouble to deal with anyway.

Bring documentation

Help yourself win your case by printing the airline’s rules for carry-ons and handling of musical instruments.Gate agents and attendants may not be aware of the official policy regarding musical instruments, so it is important that you have a copy of the official rules printed and ready on hand in case questions are raised. In the event that someone challenges you, producing their own rules demonstrates that you are ready for travel and that you have done your homework. This is a better way to discuss policies—when evidence is on hand and not tight interpretations of a single person.

Buy priority boarding

Paying extra for priority boarding is worth it if it can ensure that you find a space for your instrument on the overhead luggage racks.

Check if the plane has extra storage for your instrument

There are planes that have additional closets on board specifically for extra storage; however, this depends on the size of the aircraft. Still, there is no harm in asking a flight attendant if you can store your instrument there for the duration of the flight.

Consider getting a GPS tracker

While following the rules goes a long way, it pays to take extra precautionary measures. GPS tracking has long been famed for its help when it comes to determining the real-time location of people, animals, and objects. At airports, these devices are used by passengers to find lost luggage in the event that the airline misplaces it. For the sake of peace of mind, you can attach one to your instrument so you’d always know where it is as you fly.

Bottom Line


Yes, it is possible to fly your instrument with you without any added difficulty or expense. In fact, the US Department of Transportation ruling is a huge step to making travel easier for musicians. New rules are just extra precautions, and you can now confidently and comfortably take your music anywhere without having to worry about the safety of your instrument. Just remember to keep calm and enjoy your trip.

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Amanda Thomas