Guitars are fragile creatures, and airlines are notoriously rough on luggage. There have been plenty of horror stories from guitarists trying to fly with their beloved guitars, only to find they’ve been cracked or damaged in transit. Musician Dave Carroll even wrote a song called “United Breaks Guitars” after his $3,500 Taylor was destroyed during a flight. Even if you carry your guitar on the plane, there’s no guarantee you won’t get hassled by the flight staff.
Before you head out on your next big trip, it’s important to learn the applicable laws, and maybe a few tips, to make flying with your guitar a bit easier and safe.
Can You Bring a Guitar on a Plane?
Yes, you can take your guitar on a plane. It’s the law! The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, section 403 states U.S. air carriers are required to accept musical instruments on their passenger flights either as carry-on baggage or checked baggage, provided that certain conditions are met.
To be clear, this does not mean the airline is required to allow you to have the guitar in the cabin with you. There may be some instances in which it is not possible to bring the guitar in the cabin and you will need to gate check your instrument. Most airlines will try to accommodate you but if the plane you are flying on is particularly small, most passengers will need to check their overhead carry-on bag, including your guitar, if there is nowhere to store it within the cabin. Most large commercial flights will have coat closets on board that is typically used by the crew. Be sure to politely ask a flight attendant if there is closet space available within the cabin.
Tips When Flying With Guitars
While it might be legal for you to bring your guitar on a plane, that doesn’t mean it’s as easy as bringing a backpack or other luggage. They’re still much bigger and more fragile than standard baggage, which means you need to take a few extra precautions. You’ve probably seen how airport employees handle luggage… They might have to put your guitar on the plane, but there’s no law that says they have to do it nicely.
To keep your beloved instrument safe on your travels, here are a few tips to help you fly with your guitar.
1. Choose Your Case Wisely
Flying isn’t easy on guitars. Whether you carry on or check your guitar, there’s a good chance it’s going to endure a few beats and bangs along the way. That’s why choosing the right case is essential for flying with your guitar.
If you plan on checking your guitar, you should absolutely have a hard-shell case. They’re the best protection against a less-than-careful airline employee throwing your guitar under the plane and burying it with the rest of the luggage. Checking your guitar in a gig bag is a recipe for disaster.
While you might think it’s always a good idea to pack your guitar in a hard-shell case, that’s not always true. If you want to carry on your guitar—which tends to be the safest bet—a gig bag makes it easier to fit into the overhead compartments or, if the compartments are full, in front of you in the very limited leg space.
Gig bags are also good for avoiding the attention of flight crews. Flight attendants are always looking for oversized luggage to send down below. If you carry on with a hard-shell case, you’re more likely to be hassled by the airline staff.
Never, ever, ever try to fly without a guitar case. You’re almost guaranteed to end up with a few new scratches and dings (at best).
2. Pack the Case Tight
No matter which type of case you choose, make sure there’s not much space inside for the guitar to move around. Even inside the case, the guitar can beat against the case during turbulence or when “accidentally” thrown around.
Before you pack the guitar up for its flight, stuff the inside of the case with soft cloths, t-shirts, towels, or anything else you can find that’ll prevent movement. Pack just enough that it’s a little difficult to close the case. Stuffing too much can damage your guitar just as much as someone throwing it into the plane’s storage area.
It’s especially important to add a little support to the headstock. The headstock is under the most stress of the entire guitar. A decent shock could snap it off completely! Be sure to add plenty of padding under the headstock to give it some support.
If your guitar has a tremolo, knobs, or pickup selector switch, it’s a good idea to either remove them (at least, within reason) or put some extra padding around them. You don’t want your guitar to hit the top of the case and snap off the switch, or worse yet, break the wood around it.
3. Detune Your Guitar
Flying puts a lot of stress on your guitar. No, not just with the bumps and bangs. The temperature, humidity, and pressure changes can also cause the wood to expand and contract. If you’re not prepared, all those changes can warp your guitar’s body and neck.
To avoid damage from environmental changes, it’s a good idea to detune your guitar before you fly. With your strings loosened, there’s not as much tension on the bridge, body, and neck. Your guitar will be more prepared to withstand the changes.
It’s also a good idea to throw a guitar humidifier in the case. That will help regulate the humidity changes and protect your guitar—especially if you have an acoustic.
4. Secure the Lid on Your Case
Case latches are great, but they’re not foolproof. Before you take your guitar on a flight, make sure you secure the case with more than just the latches. Many musicians actually tape their cases shut to prevent them from opening during flight. Just don’t use duct tape; it’ll leave a goopy, silver residue behind. Packing tape and Scotch tape are ideal.
While most hard-shell guitar cases have locks, it’s not a good idea for flying. If the TSA needs to search your case for any reason and can’t get in, they’re going to break the latches open. If you do feel the need to lock your case, attach the key to the case in an obvious way, so agents can get in if necessary.
5. Remove Non-Essential Gear from the Case
If you want to carry on your guitar (which you should want to do), it’s going to have to go through the security scanner. Make sure there’s nothing in the case that might require a search—think pliers, string cutters, polishing oils, etc.
Even electronics like tuners and pedals should go in your carry-on bag rather than in the guitar case. If TSA finds something even remotely fishy in your case, they’re going to open it up to do a search. The less attention you can attract, the more likely you’ll get through the process without having to check your guitar.
6. Put Your Name Everywhere
Anyone who’s ever flown knows that luggage sometimes gets lost. The last thing you want is for you to end up in one city, while your guitar ends up in another. If you don’t properly label your guitar, nobody will ever know it belongs to you!
Before you pack your guitar on the plane, make sure you include all the necessary contact information on the case:
- Full name
- Home address
- Phone number
- Email address
It’s a good idea to put your contact information both on the outside and inside of the case. It’s unlikely, but there’s always a chance your guitar could get separated from the case—especially if you don’t tape it shut!
Most airlines provide stick-on tags for free, and some even offer privacy tags that hide your information from other passengers. Of course, don’t stick your personal information on the guitar directly (unless you’re into that sort of thing), but it never hurts to find a hang tag and hook it around the headstock or even the tuners, just in case.
7. Provide Packing Instructions
Airport agents likely aren’t guitar experts, and they might not know how to properly handle a guitar or put it back in the case. The TSA suggests that you include short written instructions inside the case that explains how to properly handle and repack your instrument. Leave them in an obvious place inside your case where the agents will be able to find them without much trouble.
Remember to keep your instructions simple, so someone without any musical knowledge can understand. Don’t use fancy words like “tuners” or “tailpiece.” They might not know what you’re talking about.
8. Carry On When You Can
It’s always safer to carry on your guitar rather than check it under the plane. When you carry on, you’re in charge. You know you’ll be careful when packing and transporting your beloved instrument, but you never know how the airline staff will handle it.
Whenever you travel with your guitar, try to fly out of major hubs. Small puddle jumper regional airports are more likely to make you check the guitar because there’s not enough space in the smaller commuter planes. Huge commercial airliners have plenty of space for luggage—but oddly enough, still not enough space for your legs.
9. Get a Zone 1 Ticket If Possible
It might cost a little more, but buying a Zone 1 ticket will help you ensure your guitar stays nice and safe on the plane. Zone 1 means you get to board before everyone else. In other words, you get dibs on all the overhead storage! You’ll never have to worry about trying to jam your guitar into an already-full overhead bin or the dreaded baggage avalanche.
Some airlines don’t do zones. If that’s the case, make sure you get to the terminal nice and early to be the first one in line. Board as soon as you can, and head toward the back of the plane. People tend to grab the first seat available, so the back is typically where you’ll find the most storage space.
10. Fly on Nonstop Flights
The more stops on your flight, the more likely the airline is to lose your luggage. This might not be an issue if you carry on your guitar, but if you have to check it, nonstop flights are the best way to ensure you and your guitar land at the same destination. Plus, you’ll get there faster!
11. Get to the Airport Early
While it might be legal for you to bring your guitar on a plane, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There’s still a good likelihood that you’re going to get hassled by at least someone along the way. Scenarios are going to pop up. Get to the airport early, so you can deal with the struggles without forcing you to sprint to the plane.
Leave plenty of time for contingencies at each “pain point” of the flying process:
Baggage check – If you have to check other luggage, there’s a good chance the airline employees will try to get you to check your guitar as well. It might take some time to convince them. If you tell them you’ve carried your guitar on plenty of times in the past, they might let you go. Otherwise, it might take some extra time to check your guitar or even purchase a separate ticket so you can take your guitar on the plane.
Security – Airport security is always a hassle, but especially if you have a big clunky guitar that may or may not fit through the scanner. If your guitar doesn’t fit through the scanner, they’re going to have to search your things, which takes extra time. Also, make sure you remove any “dangerous” or sharp items inside the case that wouldn’t normally be allowed on planes. Though typically, if your guitar fits on the belt and goes through the scanner, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Gate – The gate is the final obstacle that could get your guitar sent to the plane’s underbelly. It’s also the most significant. There’s always a possibility the gate agents won’t play along with letting you bring your guitar on the plane. They might require a separate ticket or gate checking your guitar, which could require you to go back through security and start over. When you arrive at the gate, it’s best to simply tell the agents that the guitar has already been approved as carry-on and it fits into the overhead bins. That’ll hopefully avoid any issues when it comes time to board. If not, it’ll also give you more time to come up with a new plan.
Whenever you fly with your guitar, it’s absolutely essential to leave plenty of extra time to deal with any obstacles that might pop up. If all goes well and you have tons of time to kill at the gate, just consider it some extra time to practice your scales. Better safe than sorry!
12. Ask to Use the Storage Closet
If you can’t get on the plane early and there’s no more overhead storage space left, you can ask to put your guitar in the storage closet. Most large commercial planes have an extra storage or coat closet that holds the crew’s personal belongings.
It’s possible to store your guitar in the crew’s storage closet if you ask nicely. That’ll keep your guitar out of your limited leg space and in a secure location for the flight. Of course, it’s not a guarantee. It’s always best to use the storage closet as a last resort rather than the initial plan.
Although they get ripped on quite frequently, airline employees aren’t unreasonable. Most are more than happy to accommodate you and your luggage as long as you’re nice and respectful about your requests.
13. Get a “Green Tag”
In the event that the gate attendants catch you and say you have to check your guitar, they’re probably going to say one of two things:
- You’ll have to gate check that item.
- You’ll have to tag that item
Try to avoid gate checking at all costs. It means your guitar is going to get slapped with an orange tag and get thrown into the assortment of other checked baggage. You’ll have to pick up your guitar after it beats its way down the baggage claim belt once the flight is over.
If the attendant says you’ll have to tag your guitar, make sure it’s a green tag. A green tag means an item will get placed in the cargo hold after all the other luggage goes onboard. Then, once the flight lands, the attendants will pluck your guitar from the hold and have it waiting for you at the jet bridge. That’ll help limit the potential damage to your guitar.
Getting a green tag doesn’t always work out, even if you try your hardest. If you’re forced to gate check your guitar and get an orange tag, ask for a “fragile” sticker and if it can be the last on and first off when loaded into the cargo hold. A fragile sticker isn’t a guarantee that they won’t mishandle your guitar, but it’s at least something.
14. Purchase “Excess Valuation” from the Airline
Even if you take all precautions, there’s no guarantee that your guitar will make it in one piece. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it is. So, it’s important to make sure you’re covered if something does go wrong.
Commercial airlines are required to pay for damages to your luggage or belongings. If that’s the case, how come musicians like Dave Carroll have to write songs about airlines breaking guitars to get attention? Well, it’s because there’s a limit to the liability coverage.
The standard liability for domestic U.S. airlines is $3,300. For most guitarists, this isn’t a problem. However, if your guitar costs more than $3.3k, like Carroll’s did, it means the airline doesn’t have to do anything if it’s broken in transit.
For guitarists with guitars that cost more than $3,300, it’s a good idea to purchase excess valuation insurance. Excess valuation is basically an extra insurance policy. You can purchase additional coverage for a fee. The fees vary, but typically it’s about $50 per $1,000 of coverage up to a limit.
On international flights, the liability coverage is significantly less, so buying additional excess valuation insurance is almost mandatory for guitars. Luckily, international insurance is much cheaper, typically around $10 per $1,000 of coverage. The downside is that any coverage you buy is only good for that specific airline and destination. If you have to transfer airlines along the way, you’ll have to buy more coverage.
15. Look Your Guitar Over When You Land
The minute you land, check your gear for any damage. The faster you find issues and bring them to the airline’s attention, the faster you can get the problem resolved.
If, unfortunately, your guitar was damaged, take it to the airline and report the damage immediately, before you leave the airport. Request the airline fill out a damage form and give you a copy. It’s also a good idea to get the agent’s name and office phone number, so you can follow up about resolutions.
Remember, it’s much easier for the airline to ignore and evade you over the phone than it is in person. Make sure there aren’t any problems before you step foot outside of the airport.
16. Have Your Own Transportation
It’s hard to know how the process of getting your guitar through the airport is going to go. Sometimes they’ll let you carry your guitar right on the plane, and other times they’ll make you check it. Since you don’t know which experience you’ll get (insert Forrest Gump quote), it’s a good idea to bring your own transportation to the airport, along with the gear you need for each possible outcome.
For example, if you pack your guitar in a gig bag expecting to carry it on the plane, but the airline is forcing you to check it, you can run back out to your car and grab your hard-shell case.
The plane isn’t the only place where your guitar can be damaged. Airport shuttles aren’t much better when it comes to storage space or gentle transportation. If you have your own transportation, you can avoid the cramped busses to and from the airport and keep your guitar nice and safe.
17. Get a Travel Guitar
If you plan on traveling a lot and still want to bring your guitar, consider investing in a travel guitar. Travel guitars are much smaller and lighter than their full-size counterparts, making them easy to stick in overhead bins or even in front of your legs on the plane. They also tend to be less expensive than full-size guitars, so you won’t be as sad if something does happen to it in transit.
Although a travel guitar won’t completely replace your pride and joy, they’re highly playable and produce a good enough tone to satiate your needs as you hop around the globe. Plus, they’re just adorable!
Check out this list of the 17 best travel guitars to find one that suits your style.
18. Research International Policies
While domestic flights must adhere to section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, these standards don’t apply to international flights. If you have to fly out of the country, be sure to do plenty of research about the airline’s specific luggage policies before you arrive at the airport.
Look for specifics regarding:
- The size of the aircraft
- Useable storage space inside the cabin
- Oversized luggage policies
- Additional fees
- Liability coverage
It’s also a good idea to look at reviews online to see what other people have said about the airline. You’re not the first musician to try and fly with their guitar; learn from others’ experiences.
Take Your Guitar on an Airplane without Fear
Travel shouldn’t stop you from playing your favorite guitar. No matter what anyone might say, you’re legally allowed to bring your guitar on a plane. There might be a few “annoying” details to work out, but if you take the right precautions, there’s no reason that you and your guitar can’t take a lovely trip together without worrying about damage.
Make sure you get to the airport early, choose the right case, and try your best to carry on. If you need to fly internationally, do your research. Learn about the rules and policies, so you and your guitar can travel safely to wherever you need to go.
You might have heard rumors that you’re not allowed to bring guitars on planes at all. Because they’re so big, bringing your guitar onto a plane can come with a lot of hassles. There’s not much space on planes, to begin with! But despite the hassle and possibly dirty looks, it’s against the law for any airline to prevent you from bringing your guitar onto a plane.
According to the law, small instruments, which includes guitars, are considered carry-on baggage and can’t be charged an additional fee, even if the guitar is larger than the standard carry-on size. You also don’t need to buy an extra seat for your guitar. You might have to pay the standard baggage fee if that’s something the airline does, but the airline is required to accommodate your instrument at no extra charge.
If anyone tells you you’re not allowed to bring your guitar onto a plane, including airport staff, politely point them to section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and enjoy your flight!
Do you have any tips for flying with guitars? We’d love to hear them! Drop your experiences in the comments below.
My name is Chris and I’ve had a passion for music and guitars for as long as I can remember. I started this website with some of my friends who are musicians, music teachers, gear heads, and music enthusiasts so we could provide high-quality guitar and music-related content.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13 years old and am an avid collector. Amps, pedals, guitars, bass, drums, microphones, studio, and recording gear, I love it all.
I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. My background is in Electrical Engineering, earning a Bachelor’s degree from Youngstown State University. With my engineering experience, I’ve developed as a designer of guitar amplifiers and effects. A true passion of mine, I’ve designed, built, and repaired a wide range of guitar amps and electronics. Here at the Guitar Lobby, our aim is to share our passion for Music and gear with the rest of the music community.