The Latest Buzz: A Jedi's Guide to Traveling by Air with Your Guitar
It's always good to be busy working when you’re a full-time musician. It can wear you out, but it's hard to complain when the phone is ringing and work is coming in. Knowing you have a couple of months booked in advance is all the job security one can ever feel in this business. It's a good problem to have as a musician, and I embrace it.
As I take the red eye to the East Coast for a festival with Stray Cats' Lee Rocker, I have vowed to get something written for the blog.
“But what should I write about?” I pondered. The second-most-asked question I get while traveling by air is, "How do you travel with your guitar?" (The first question is always, "What band are you with?")
I have tried just about everything as far as how to handle traveling with a guitar, and I think I have it down pretty well. I thought I might share my findings with those of you who might be wondering what the best way is for getting your axe from one place to another. Here goes:
When I joined Sha-Na-Na in 2000, I was faced with the reality that I would be flying to 99 percent of the shows and would need to travel with my trusty axe as efficiently and easily as possible. I figured the best way to fly my guitar would be to have a proper anvil case I could check with the rest of my baggage.
I had a case built custom for my hollow body and thought, problem solved, right? Wrong. I quickly found out that checking a guitar would not be as easy as I thought. First of all, that anvil case is really hard to carry, especially if you consider you have your regular luggage as well. Secondly, some of the airlines would charge me as much as $100 one way, depending on their mood. I knew I needed to figure out something else before I spent my hard-earned drinking money on baggage fees.
After carrying a normal hard-shell case, I finally discovered two words that have become my favorite when it comes to guitar travel: Poly-foam. Or is that one word?
For those of you who don't use a poly-foam case, let me say you're making a mistake whether you are flying with your guitar or not. Poly-foam is a super-light material that is used in a formed case that, in my opinion, can take a hit as well or better than any regular hard-shell case. Best of all, they are extremely light and usually come with shoulder straps. This means you can carry it easily and still have two free hands.
So, you've got your poly-foam case and you figure, "Problem solved," right? Not necessarily. There is still the problem of getting your instrument on the plane with you. Although your guitar will usually fit in the overhead compartment, that doesn't mean the ticket-counter person will allow you to avoid checking it.
If you are forced to check your axe, not only will your case take a beating going through the conveyor belt, but there is always a good chance it won't be on your flight at all. I can't tell you how many times I have shown up with just hours till downbeat and I have no guitar at baggage claim. Airlines have a tendency to prioritize the guitar dead last when it comes to a full baggage compartment. You can't trust the airline. You need to take control of the situation yourself.
Whenever I fly, I always carry on my guitar. Sometimes I am asked at the ticket counter to check it with my luggage. This is where you really need to do your best Jedi mind trick. If you don't keep a cool head, the suitcase police will have you guitar hurling down the conveyor belt before you can blink an eye.
So do as I do and repeat after me: When the ticket counter person says you must check your guitar because it's too large or there is no room in the overheads, you say, "Oh, no problem. I have no problem checking it. I hate to carry this thing anyway, but if it's OK with you, I'd like to gate check it. It's really expensive and I don't want it to go down the conveyor belt."
The delivery of these lines is crucial. I guarantee if these lines are delivered kindly and in "Jedi mind trick" form, they will let you walk your precious cargo all the way to the to the gate. Nine times out of 10, they will have room in the overhead and will allow you to bring it on the plane and place it in the overhead compartment yourself.
Every so often, a crew member will even put it in one of their private closets designated for crew gear where your guitar will have more leg room than you do. Truly a first class experience—relish it!
Today they asked me to check it at the gate as the flight was very full, but I happily do so as I know it will be on the plane because I hand-delivered it myself. And it will most likely be on top of the luggage because I brought it there last after other luggage has already been loaded. I also believe they take a bit better care of your luggage after having contact with you directly. Best of all, no conveyor belt!
This is a 98-percent fool-proof method of getting that guitar on the plane safely, but I do need to touch on the 2 percent of suitcase police who live to stop you from bringing your axe safely to your aircraft. If the ticket counter person insists that you check your guitar, even after you've recited what we will now refer to as the gate check mantra, you simply ask nicely to speak to a manager and repeat the gate check mantra to the new person.
I have not had this fail in the last eight-plus years I have been flying to gigs. The key is to be very agreeable and nice. Most people flying are not used to traveling and are therefore stressed and out of their comfort zones. The airline employees are not used to someone who is cool-headed and agreeable. It defuses them.
"These are not the droids you are looking for, move along."
— Obi-Wan Kenobi
No matter what the rule for that particular airline, the person you get at the ticket counter makes the call. If you challenge them, you'll lose every time. They'll shut down all your pleas, toss your beloved axe down the chute and put your rock-star wannabe butt in a middle seat between two morbidly obese creatures without batting an eye.
So stay cool, calm and collected. Be nice. Use the Force, and control your destiny. Good luck and good flying.
Buzz Campbell, who is based in San Diego, plays guitar in the Lee Rocker Band and in Buzz Campbell & Hot Rod Lincoln.