How to Fly with a Guitar: Guitars on Airplanes

Would you like to carry on a guitar when you travel? Or does the idea of flying with a guitar give you chills?

What do you need to know before taking a guitar onto an airplane? How can you keep your guitar safe, and keep your mental and physical health?

Below, you’ll find the good and bad of traveling with a guitar. You’ll get the best practices of flying with instruments. And you’ll also get a magic phrase to help you get what you want.

Is Flying with a Guitar Worth It?

Before we hop on a plane with guitar in tow, we may ask, “Is it worth the trouble?” Here are some questions that may help:

  • Will I have time to play guitar?
  • Will I have the space to practice?
  • Will I be checking my other baggage anyway?
  • Am I prepared for any injury or inconvenience that may result?

If the answers are all favorable, flying with a guitar may be great option.

The Downsides of Flying With a Guitar

The best part about flying with a guitar is that we have the guitar when we land and get settled. We can practice and play. We keep any momentum we may have in our practice. And we keep our hands in good shape.

But there are also downsides. Most of the downsides of flying with guitars involve the airport itself. Here are few:

Carrying it around the airport

At the airport, we often walk very long distances. If we have a guitar with us, we have to carry it everywhere. If we eat in a restaurant, we have to put it somewhere.

Guitars can get heavy. Toting a guitar around the airport can be tiring (and painful!). This may be the biggest inconvenience of the whole trip.

Guitars may be damaged on planes

Whenever we travel with a guitar, we must accept that something may happen to it. Travel can be bumpy and turbulent. As such, guitars sometimes get damaged on planes.

Years ago, a music video went viral with the title “United Breaks Guitars”. And it’s not just United. Even if the airport staff is careful, guitars can still become damaged. This is true even if the guitar is not checked through baggage claim.

Negotiating the Plane

Planes are small spaces, especially with a carry on guitar. Toting a guitar down the aisle can be cumbersome. Lifting the guitar into the overhead bin can be dangerous to the people below it.

And if we also have a shoulder bag or other item, the challenges can compound.

Best Practices to Fly with a Guitar

Assuming we are up for the game, what are the best practices for flying with a guitar? What can we do to ensure the best chances of a successful flight?

Accept the risk and relax

First, we must accept the risk. If we’ll be stressed the entire trip, it may not be worth it. Instead, we must fully accept that something may happen.

It helps to predict possible challenges, and have a plan ready in case.

Make sure the guitar will fit in the overhead

Before travel, we can check the overhead compartment size on the airline website. If we know on what type of plane we will travel, we can easily find this information.

Then we can measure our guitar to make sure it will fit. If it doesn’t, there’s no need trying to carry it on.

Classical guitar cases are smaller than normal steel-string acoustic guitars. These usually will fit in the overhead.

Pack it well

The headstock (with the tuning keys) are usually the most vulnerable part of the guitar in travel. If the case drops, or gets jarred violently, the weight of the headstock may crack it at the nut (top of the fretboard).

To guard against this, we can pack our “soft goods” (socks and undies) under the headstock. This will support the headstock in case of impact.

Likewise, if the guitar can move around in the case, the risk grows. So also fill the case around the guitar to stop any wiggling or sliding. We can wedge a t-shirt or sock alongside the guitar to fill the space.

Use a guitar case with straps

Whether we choose a soft case (gig bag) or a hard case, we can use backpack or shoulder straps. Straps make it easier to carry the guitar long distances.

That said… legendary guitarist Julian Bream often opted to carry his guitar or suitcase in his left hand, to build strength.

Still, it’s nice to have the option of freeing the grip and carrying the guitar on our back.

Loosen the strings

When flying with guitars, it’s best practice to loosen the strings. They do not have to be completely loosened. But releasing the pressure on the neck is common advice. A few twists of the tuning keys will usually suffice.

This means we’ll have a short “re-stretching” time when we arrive and tune it back up. But there’s no getting around that.

Be Extremely Friendly to Airport Staff and fellow passengers

When stepping out of the normal, expected airport behavior, it helps to be nice. Airline staff is tasked with getting many people on the plane and seated in a short time. Their responsibility is to all passengers, and the company.

In the heat of the moment, asking any sort of special treatment can trigger emotional responses for them. To guard against this, and as a general best practice for life, we can be friendly.

Arguing rarely works. In any battle of power or will, the airline staff will win.

If we’re friendly and light-hearted about it all, we can usually get what we want. And they can feel good about helping us. (More on this below!)

Likewise, flying is stressful for most passengers. Staying calm will help all around to have a better flight.

On the Plane, Closet First, Overhead Second

Once we step on the plane with a guitar, the first order of business is to address the welcoming steward.

We can (smile and) ask if the plane has a coat closet. And if so, whether we may store our carry on guitar in it.

If we can use the coat closet, we don’t have to negotiate the aisle.

If there is no closet, or if it is not permissable to store the guitar, we have to use the overhead storage.

Regardless of where we sit, we can use the first available overhead bin we see. This way, we don’t have to carry the guitar any further down the aisle than we have to.

Contingency Plans: What to Do If….

With all our well-laid plans, things may still not go as expected. We may encounter challenges or friction. Here are a few scenarios with suggestions.

The Magic Words to Get Your Way

We may be told that there is no room on the plane and that we must check the guitar. Or we may be told that it is too big and it won’t fit.

This is moment to pause, relax and smile. Here’s a statement that can help the steward to think of new ways to help, and let us through to the plane.

Magic Phrase:

“Look, I know this is non-negotiable, but what would have to happen to let me try to fit my guitar on the plane?”

“Look, I know this is non-negotiable, but what would have to happen to let me try to fit my guitar on the plane?”

This sentence is persuasive in many ways (explained in the video above). It helps the steward to visualize you getting your guitar on the plane.

Another tactic is to simply ask to try. If they say there’s no room, ask if you can try. They will often acquiese.

We may get nervous approaching the steward to board. That’s normal. Just take a deep breath and be nice.

Access Denied: Forced Checking of Guitar

If there truly is no way to get the guitar on the plane, the next best option is a Special Handling Tag. This is used mainly for wheelchairs and strollers.

With a special handling tag, we leave the guitar just outside the entrance to the plane, at the end of the gangway. Airport staff put it into the hold of the plane. Then, upon arrival, staff will bring it back up to the exit. Once we step off the plane, our guitar is waiting for us.

If this is also not possible, we have to gate check the guitar. Here, it’s best to take a moment and make sure that the guitar is well packed. And if the case locks, to lock it. We can remove any backpack or shoulder straps, and carry them with us. Then pray for the best.

What to do if your guitar gets damaged

If the guitar gets damaged, we must accept it. We can contact the airline for compensation. We can file an insurance claim. (Homeowners or renters policies will sometimes cover possessions damaged.)

It’s sad, but we knew this was a possibility.

All Part of the “Flying With a Guitar” Game

Perhaps the main tip for flying with a guitar is to keep an open mind and “roll with the punches”. Chances are, everything will be fine. We’ll have an uneventful flight, and arrive with our guitar intact. We can then get on with our travel and practice.

If anything bad does happen, there is no one to blame but ourselves. It’s not the airlines fault. It’s not the staff’s fault. It’s our fault. 100%. If we play the game, we may lose, and we know that going in.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

Become a Member and Play More, Beautifully!

“The basics are the basics, and you can’t beat the basics.”
Charles Poliquin

Join the program that takes you from the beginning fundamentals to advanced mastery, so you…1

  • Move your hands safely and fluidly
  • Enjoy fulfilling practices and meaningful work
  • Play beautifully with expression and flow

Click the button to take a step towards an
organized, effective guitar practice. >>>