- Get a flight case
- Pack light for carrying-on
- Know the aircraft types and overhead bin sizes
- Use online check-in to avoid the ticket counter
- Use the priority line at the security checkpoint if you are running late
- Board the plane early
- Use a shoulder strap when getting your boarding pass scanned
- Don’t forget to de-tune the strings
- Gate Checking as a last resort
Get a Flight Case
There are several flight approved hard cases that will offer adequate protection should you decide to check your instrument. I have, however, seen some of these “virtually indestructible” cases get damaged thankfully keeping the instrument cargo inside unharmed. The Gator GKPE-61 TSA is a great case for airline travel if you can afford the extra cost and hassle of checking over-sized luggage. The focus for the rest of this article is for the streamlined travelers bringing aboard their treasured timber in soft cases and gig bags..
Second tip is to pack as light as possible. You are usually always allowed 2 carry-ons with most airlines. Even though they have size restrictions they will accommodate guitars and harp guitars.
Know your Aircrafts
Third tip is to check which aircraft is used for all the flights you are taking. Most domestic flights to larger airports use Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 planes which have large enough overhead bins. Your itinerary should tell you which planes are used when you book your trip and you can do an Internet search to find out how large the overhead bins are.
Use Online Check-In
Fourth tip is avoid the ticket desk and print your boarding pass either online or at the e-ticket check in terminals if available. Some ticket clerks can try to enforce the size restrictions for carry-ons. Should you be put in this situation, you can insist that the instrument is fragile and will fit I the overhead bin. They want you to use their airline again so this will likely not happen unless the flight attendent is having a bad day. Airlines I have successfully gotten a harp guitar on board have been: Alaskan, Delta, United, Allegiant and most of their subsidiaries. Southwest has also been recommended to me by other traveling performers as “musician friendly.”
Use the priority line at the security check point if you are running late
I was late getting to the Newark New Jersey airport and ended up in the security check line with only 45 minutes to spare before my flight left. The gal checking ID’s at the end of the line pointed me to wait in the huge line that was not going to get me to my gate on time. After biting my nails and waiting 20 minutes in the line I knew it was too late, and just then an attendant came up the priority line calling my name. When I identified myself he motioned for me to jump into the empty priority line and bypass the other line. Had I have known this I would not have waited that first 20 minutes, made it past the first lady, and jumped immediately into the priority lane where there was no line and made my flight. Though I still missed my flight for the first time in one of my least favorite airports and had the sleep with one eye open in the lobby that night, I learned a valuable lesson that hopefully I pass on to you. You can always duck into the priority line at the security checkpoint if you are running late even though one of the first gate keepers tells you otherwise. If you are late, that means everyone else in front of you at the security check point has a flight that leaves after yours, so you should be in front of them.
Board the plane early
Sixth tip is get on the plane as early as possible before the overhead bins fill up. This is ensured by selecting a seat towards the mid/back of the plane when you book the flight. You will then be one of the first to board to plane. If your seat is towards the front, you can usually still board early even if they have not called your group or zone number yet. Most of the time they just scan your boarding pass without checking the zone (unless it is still priority boarding) and send you on your way.
Use a shoulder strap when getting your ticket scanned
There is a moment as you are in line approaching the jet way for the attendant to scan your boarding pass that makes you vulnerable to getting spotted as having too large of a carry-on. If you are holding your harp guitar like a briefcase in all its 42+ inch glory, she may likely see it and flag you for a gate check. If you have a shoulder strap, use it while you are in this line approaching the attendant. You can use your body to hide the instrument along your side opposite of the attendant who is usually distracted reading the names off the screen as they come up.
Gate Checking as a last resort
The worst case scenario is it is a small plane and/or it is fully booked and the overheads are all full when you board. In this case the first (and preferable) option is to ask one of the attendants if there is any closet space to fit the instrument. Sometimes there is room where the captain keeps his extra uniforms to fit a harp guitar. The second option (and last resort) is to “gate check” the instrument with the strollers and extra bags at the entrance of the plane on the jetway ramp. There is usually a baggage handler standing by the door of the plane to accommodate you and you can tell him directly to be careful with it when he puts it under the plane. This is usually free depending in the airline. He will give you a tag and when you arrive at your destination it will be waiting for you in the same spot as soon as you step off the plane onto the ramp. At this point I would inspect the instrument for any damage before accepting it. If you suspect anything, take pictures if possible and gather as much info as you can (names, airline and flight info etc.) so you can make a claim with the airline. Always de-tune the instrument when bringing it on the plane as cold temperatures shrink metal strings which adds additional tension.
If you think about it, a lot of people flying commercial airlines are musicians traveling with instruments of all sizes including guitars and harp guitars. Like I said before, the airlines want your returning business and are usually willing to accommodate.