Today was the first day of school for two of the household’s kids, and a vet appointment for three of the household’s cats, and the post about Florence isn’t finished. That, however, doesn’t keep us from posting.
Meet Plink, my Vagabond travel guitar. There are several ways to travel with a guitar; using one that fits in the overhead bin on a plane is only one of them, but it’s the safest and least nerve-wracking.
The first time I flew with a guitar (from New York to Minneapolis, on my way to college fifty-odd years ago), airline rules were looser, airplane seats were wider, and I got away with taking a window seat and stuffing the guitar case between me and the window. I don’t recommend it.
The next time, one of the flight attendants kindly let me sit my guitar in the coat closet with other passengers’ garment bags. (Do airplanes still have those? Some of them, maybe.) After that I modified a coat hanger into a hook, lashed it onto the case with clothesline rope, and slipped the whole contraption into an actual garment bag for the next several trips. I don’t recommend that, either.
Note that a lot of the following applies to other instruments; guitars are just what I’m most familiar with. It also applies more or less to other modes of transportation, such as buses, trains, and cars — I’ll get to the differences later.
If you have an instrument that’s small enough to fit in an ordinary carry-on suitcase or backpack, or under a seat, go for it. A hard-shell case will add protection, but isn’t absolutely necessary — a padded gig bag will provide enough protection, especially if you pad it on all sides with clothing. Just remember not to sit on your suitcase. That covers things like ukeleles, mandolins, fiddles, flutes, and so on. But it’s really hard to find a guitar that will fit in a 22″ suitcase, even diagonally, unless you can fold it (see below). The under-seat space is even smaller; the longest dimension is usually around 18″. What you need is a travel guitar.
There are four main types of travel guitar. The Martin Backpacker and the Vagabond have the same scale length as a full-sized guitar: 24.5″ or more. The Vagabond has the bridge set closer to the end than you would expect for a full-sized guitar, making it several inches shorter. Others just have a more traditional-looking body, but shorter strings — (the LX/Little Martin series has a scale length of 23″; some are even shorter).
Then you get into things like the Traveler, which wraps the strings around a set of pulleys and puts the tuners inside the slab of wood that passes for a body. Very ingenious. That needs an amplifier to be heard, but their “acoustic” models have a piezoelectric bridge pickup that sounds like most acoustic-electric guitars. (The Vagabond has one of those, too. If you’re going to be on stage, you’ll probably want an acoustic-electric anyway.) Finally, there is the Voyageair, which has a neck that folds down over the full-sized body, and fits under an airplane seat.
If you can’t fit your instrument into a carry-on suitcase, or under the seat in front of you, you can make it your allowed carry-on all by itself and put it in the overhead bin. Be sure to check the guidelines of whatever airline you’re flying with, and the length of the overhead bins, and see whether your instrument fits. Or comes close. Many limit carry-ons to a total of 45″ length+width+height; Plink fits, but just barely. A Martin Backpacker may also fit. Remember that your guitar will be your carry-on “suitcase” no matter how small it is; your backpack, large purse, or small rolling suitcase will go under the seat in front of you as your “personal item”.
Except for short trips, you’ll almost certainly want a rolling suitcase that you can check. That takes a lot of the pressure off. (If that suitcase is actually a rolling backpack but too big to go under the seat, you might get away with actually carrying it on, along with something like a zip-off day pack, large purse, or zippered tote bag to go under the seat. This is more likely if you’re traveling business class. You should still be prepared to check it, so put your drugs and your laptop in the under-seat bag.)
One slightly awkward problem is that your guitar will most likely be sitting lengthwise at the back of the bin, and other passengers will be trying to put things in front of it. Offer to help them. You can also put something of your own in front of it, your coat if nothing else. If you’re traveling with a medical device like a CPAP or a mobility aid like a folding walker or four-footed cane, use that. If you’re traveling with someone else, you can coordinate your carry-ons; my wife used to travel with a large dufflebag that went on the back of her scooter. Another trick is taking a bulkhead seat, which means that all your luggage has to fit overhead, so you can fill the space in front of your guitar with your backpack and so on. This works especially well if your travel companion is handicapped.
I’ve seen people carry on a full-sized guitar; that will work as long as there’s room for it, but keep in mind that you may have to gate-check it if the flight is full, so pack accordingly. Even with a travel guitar, you may have to gate-check if the bins are too small. That’s not too bad — it goes in last, with other large, fragile items like baby strollers and mobility scooters. (I only had to gate-check Plink once or twice.) Just make sure that it has a large, firmly attached tag with your name and phone number on it. Of course you can always buy your instrument a seat — cello players do that all the time. (I’ve seen a folding electric cello.)
If you don’t want to spring for a full-fare ticket, your only other options are checked baggage or shipping. And if your instrument is in a hard-shell case (as opposed to a well-padded gig bag), you need to read the next section even if you’re carrying it on.
If you are traveling with a full-sized guitar in a hard-shell case, this section is for you. In my opinion the definitive guide for packing a guitar is this article by Frank Ford at frets.com so you might want to read that next. Or right now. Even if you plan on carrying your guitar on, there’s still a chance that you’ll have to gate-check it in which case this information is also for you.
The main thing to worry about with a guitar in a hard case is the headstock. The tuning gears are heavy, and the neck is seriously weakened by the groove the nut sits in. If it falls flat, the head will snap right off. It doesn’t take much of a fall, either — if it’s standing on end and falls flat, that will do it. So go ahead and shim the body of the guitar with newsprint or bubble wrap, but concentrate most of your efforts on securing the head.
One good way to do this is to stuff crumpled newsprint or bubble wrap both under and over the head, so that the padding is compressed a bit when you close the case. Or you can use underwear and socks, or take closed-cell packing foam and carve it into custom supports. The important thing is to get the headstock held tightly enough that it can’t move. Loosen the strings about a whole tone or a third, but not entirely. You just want to take some of the tension off.
It goes (almost) without saying that in addition to a luggage tag on the outside of the case, you want something inside the case (like a piece of paper tucked under the strings), and a label inside the guitar as well. (That’s another frets.com page. The entire site is worth spending a couple of hours on. Watch out for rabbit holes.) Slap some “FRAGILE” labels on the outside. Run a luggage strap around the case and through the handle. Ford suggests using duct tape over the latches, but that was pre-TSA.
Another option is to use a rectangular foam-lined case of the sort used for electronic equipment. You customize it by cutting the foam to fit your guitar. (And you’ll have room for a mandolin on the side, or even a second guitar.) Add the word “ELECTRONICS” to the “FRAGILE” stickers; I’ve been told that it gets more respect from the baggage handlers and makes it less attractive to thieves. Throw in your tuner and the label will even be accurate. Not that it matters.
Put any loose accessories in the string compartment (under the neck) and add some padding so that they don’t rattle around. Or put them in your backpack. That brings us to…
The obvious accessories to pack are a capo, a set or two of strings, a string-winder (a crank-like gadget that makes it a lot faster to change strings), several sets of whatever kind of picks you use, and a clip-on electronic tuner. (You can use a phone app for tuning, but it’s awkward holding the phone, plucking the string, and tuning.) The kazoo is optional.
There are several songbooks, chord books, and so on that are sized to go in the neck section of a guitar case. Useful but not essential.
Then we get to the less obvious accessories: a fingernail-repair kit (or a tube of super-glue), nail clippers, a nail file, and a set of Alaska picks. I use my fingernails to pluck strings, rather than a flat-pick or traditional finger picks, and about half the time I break a nail slinging luggage around. (Super-glue being a liquid, you’ll need to put it in a bag with your other liquids, or put it in your checked bag if you have one.)
If a nail is split or only partly broken off, a dab of super-glue will at probably get you through a set. More serious breaks may want a repair kit, which usually includes a bit of fabric to reinforce a partially-broken nail, and complete plastic nails that you can glue on. You’ll probably have to trim those. I prefer Alaska Piks.
Unlike many guitar-players, I use my nails in both directions — plucking up, and brushing down. Normal metal or plastic finger-picks curve over the end of your finger, and will get caught if you try to go the other way. Alaska Pik, on the other hand, makes picks with a groove that lets you put the picking part under (what’s left of) your fingernail. They feel almost like (an extension of) your own nails. Get several sizes and experiment. You’ll probably want an extra-large for your thumb, unless you use a standard thumb pick. Once you figure out which sizes you need, get an extra set, because they can break. Or you may need to rescue a fellow musician who hasn’t heard of them.
For extra protection
If you’re going to ship your guitar, or just want it to have the best protection possible for traveling in your checked baggage, you will want to put it — in its case — in a box. Start by putting it in a hardshell case, following Frank Ford’s instructions. Then just click through to Page 2 where he talks about boxes (and case covers).
If you bought your guitar or its case new, keep the box it was shipped in and put the case in it. If you didn’t buy it new, you may be able to get a suitable shipping box from a local music store. Or a bike shop! It’s not clear whether the baggage handlers will treat what they think is a bicycle more gently than what they think is a guitar, but it can’t hurt.
By road or rail
Finally, we get to other modes of transportation. Available space can vary wildly — on a train there’s likely to be plenty of room, especially if you’re taking a sleeper car on a cross-country trip. Most inter-city buses have large cargo compartments underneath the seats, where you can stow a full-sized hard case with no trouble. Airport shuttles will generally have cargo space in the back. As a rule of thumb, if you can take your baggage on a plane, it will fit.
Commuter trains and buses, terminal-to-gate shuttles, cabs, and light rail cars vary all over the place. There might be an overhead rack, or you might have to put your gig bag in your lap, or stand up wearing your backpack and leaning on your rolling suitcase, with your gig bag between your feet. (I had to do this a few times a couple of decades ago; I don’t think I could manage it now.)
And then there are cars. If you’re renting a car, go for at least mid-sized if you can. (That said, it is possible to get three people, three suitcases, a travel guitar, and a scooter into a Honda Civic. Long story.) If you’re taking your own car, you presumably know how much you can put in it. There’s just one thing: don’t let your guitar overheat! Treat it like a dog, or a baby — guitars are put together with hide glue, which melts at the kind of temperature a closed car can reach in only a few minutes.