Flying by plane can be fun as well as stressful, especially if you want (or need) to take a beloved musical instrument with you. Is it best to check it in or take it on board and what’s the best way to protect it during the journey? In this blog, we provide some tips to ensure your instrument reaches its destination safely.

#1 Do you really need to take your instrument with you?

Depending on your destination and the instrument you play, it might be a better idea to borrow or rent an instrument once you get there. We understand you’d probably prefer to play your own instrument, but there’s always going to be a risk when you take your instrument travelling with you and you should seriously consider whether it will ultimately be worth the risk or not.

#2 Travel insurance

If you have travel insurance, check whether this covers items like musical instruments and if not, perhaps you can get it added to your policy. We also recommend making a note of your instrument’s serial number and mailing a copy to yourself, preferably along with some detailed photos and the original receipt if you still have it. That way, you can always prove that the instrument is yours, just in case you get an overzealous official who tries to charge you import or export duties when passing through customs.

#3 Check-in baggage or hand luggage?

Unfortunately, different airlines have different rules, so you’ll need to check the policy of the company you’re flying with each time you fly. Most companies have their policies online, but it may be worth contacting them directly as well. No matter the destination, make sure your item is clearly labelled and includes your contact details. If possible, take your instrument on board with you as hand luggage. Unfortunately, if you’re flying with an item like a guitar, there are no guarantees that your instrument will arrive unscathed, no matter how good your flight bag or case is. Even if you put stickers that say things like ‘fragile’ and ‘this side up’ on your bag or case, baggage handlers are normally too busy to notice. There are normally different rules for larger instruments like digital pianos, cellos and double basses, so again, you should check with your airline before flying. Often, you need to check these items in as exceptional baggage and even if you are allowed to take them on board, you may have to buy them a seat!

#4 Make sure your bag or case doesn’t have any ‘dangerous’ accessories inside

These days, all sorts of innocent items can be classified as ‘dangerous’ when it comes to flying. For that reason, you should check exactly what’s in your bag or case before you travel. It wouldn’t be the first time that a simple guitar tool you might use to cut a string, for instance, has been confiscated by baggage officials. As liquids, things like oils and lubricants are likely to be confiscated too, unless the amounts are very small. As a general rule, it’s best to put accessories in with your checked in luggage.

#5 Make sure you check in on time!

 The earlier you are, the easier it may be to take your instrument on board, particularly if a flight isn’t full. If you turn up later and there are already a lot of people before you in the queue, the chance of getting your instrument on board is going to be smaller. Many airlines will insist that a guitar is too big to take on board and that you have to check it in. You may be able to persuade them otherwise, but don’t count on it. It’s unlikely that a guitar will fit in the overhead lockers, but many airlines have other compartments that are normally used by personnel, so that may be an option for you if you’re lucky.

Do you have good or bad experiences with flying with your musical instruments? Share them below!

‘United Breaks Guitars’

Even if you’ve set up your guitar with a fool-proof hardshell case, or fully reinforced your flight case and made sure that the precious contents are held softly yet firmly in place; even if you’ve plastered the exterior with ‘FRAGILE’, ‘THIS SIDE UP’ and ‘HANDLE WITH CARE’ stickers, it can still be risky to hand your instrument over to someone you don’t know from Adam – especially if you’re flying.

Tossed Around

Of course, you’d much prefer to pluck your darling from the conveyor belt at the other end and find it in one piece. On the other hand, a little wear and tear can give both your career and cool points a nice boost. American guitarist Dave Carroll still profits from a fateful flight he took with United Airlines in 2009. During a stopover with his band at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, he witnessed ground personnel playing catch with their guitar cases. Once they had landed in Omaha, Nebraska, Carroll opened the case of his Taylor acoustic guitar to find that the neck had been snapped in two. A nine-month-long dispute with the airline company regarding compensation followed, and without success. United Airlines held its ground, finally offering to pay for the repair of Carrolls guitar alongside $1,200 in plane tickets. Carroll told them to give the $1,200 to charity instead.


Channelling his frustration, Carroll wrote the song ‘United Breaks Guitars’ and made a fitting music video to go with it. Including the lyrics, “I should have flown with someone else / Or gone by car/ Cause United Breaks Guitars”, the video was put online and immediately went viral – gathering ten million hits within the first month. It worked. Taylor noticed first and graciously reached out and replaced his broken guitar, while the dispute with United Airlines took a dramatic turn when they, driven to despair, offered him money to make the video go away. Since a guitar always means much more than money, Carroll flatly refused and the song remains as popular as ever. There are even recorded incidents of passengers bursting into spontaneous choruses of ‘United Breaks Guitars’ while being shuttled to the plane at Newark airport in New Jersey.

Flight Cases

Flight cases, as we now know them, were first designed in the sixties according to specifications that were outlined by the America Transport Association (ATA) which has since become the A4A, which many airlines are represented by. Dubbed ATA 300 cases, these first-gen flight cases were divided into three categories according to quality and always came in white to improve visibility when being loaded in at night. These days, flight cases come in all the colours of the rainbow and are constructed using high-density plastics as well as wood. But ultimately, while the exterior of a flight case might claim to be indestructible, it says nothing about the condition of the instrument it’s protecting. As such, much of the deep design when it comes to flight cases lies in the safe carriage of the instrument or equipment it’s designed to protect.

What’s the Best Flight Case?

“Plastic flight cases are great for flying,” says Jos van der Werf from Van der Werf Flight Cases, “Since they’re lightweight, they cost far less in terms of freight capacity and therefore baggage fees. Plastic cases are more expensive than wooden cases, but the extra expense quickly pays for itself.” Van der Werf supplies many big-name bands across Europe with flight cases made from a special kind of plastic, with a specific cell-structure that was initially designed by plane-builders, Fokker. In terms of quality, these flight cases offer the same level of protection as a birch plywood case would. “We can even build plastic cases that are stronger.” In terms of wooden cases, the company uses birch plywood, but the cheaper alternative, meranti is just as good for building flight cases. DIY flight case builders will often use birch/poplar or birch/spruce plywood. Building a flight case yourself can be cheaper, but does demand a little technical knowhow. But it’s not exactly rocket science, especially since flight case parts like butterfly latches, bolts, castor wheels, and corner profiles are easy enough to find, and build diagrams and tips are readily available online. If you’re not so good with a hammer, then you could invest in a made-to-measure custom flight case.


So, as a gigging musician, you don’t just need to be discerning when it comes to your gear, but you need to choose wisely when it comes to on-the-road protection. Some musicians prefer soft cases, while others swear by hardshell, wooden, aluminium, or hardened plastic cases. What you go for depends a lot on the way you travel and the size of your luggage compartment. Instruments tucked away inside soft cases are easier to get onto a packed bus, but the risk of damage is greater. Even drummers increasingly use harder plastic cases to pack and tote their drums. One of the most popular drum case builders right now is Hardcase.

Forty Years with the Same Flight Case

A good flight case simply needs to be able to outlast the band that loads it in and out every night. Take any veteran band that’s been touring for maybe 20 years or more, and you’ll find at least one trusted flight case, or road box that has been an essential part of their touring rig since the start. This is the kind of battle-scarred flight case that will never break and is so old already that it could comfortably retire in a museum, or as someone’s coffee table. It’s the kind of flight case that will go on surviving long after every member of the band is dead and gone.

Built with Your Own Hands

Eighties pop band, The Nits still have exactly this calibre of flight case backing them up, and they’ve had it since the seventies when drummer Rob Kloet built his own ‘big red cable case’ from scratch. Back then, made-to-order cases didn’t necessarily exist and according to Rob, ‘we had to do everything ourselves at the start, including building our own gear. So, I just picked up the parts from the ironmongers round the corner, got hold of some 10mm thick plywood and started hacking away at it. I basically learned to build a flight case while building a flight case. I’d already had a flight case that had collapsed because the wheels had been screwed directly into the bottom, so I knew that I had to bolt the box onto some sort of wheel base. We also had an incident where the wheels of one case smashed through the lid of the case it was stacked on top of. These days, there are special profiles you can get to prevent that. The self-made flight case collection of The Nits has continued to grow and now includes a custom-built case for keyboardist Robert Jan’s giant Leslie cabinet (for his Hammond organ). More of his self-built cases have started life carrying effect gear, and now take care of the cables for the lighting rig, so you can always find use for a good flight case. Meaning that it’ll still be a long time before Rob Kloet’s creations are sold to the highest bidder – someone looking for a coffee-table perhaps?

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