I would first like to offer the disclaimer that this article is being written during the first few days of a European tour. I apologize if jet lag affects my objectivity, writing style, common sense, or font.

At a time like this, my thoughts turn to musicians and long distance travel, chiefly air travel. I’m actually writing this on a train in Switzerland, but I have very little to say about train travel in Switzerland, except that you should do it any chance you get. Train travel doesn’t apply much to US musicians unless you live in the northeast corridor, and maybe one or two other regions that refer to themselves as “corridors.”

I have little to say about bus travel either because my band abandoned the tour bus idea years ago and instead opted to keep the money. We look a little funny showing up to festivals in a matching fleet of navy blue Scions, but we still use the term “bus” for our band vehicles anyway and hope no one actually looks.

That leaves plane travel, and for a bluegrass musician, this mode of travel is full of pitfalls, the biggest of which is the issue of traveling with musical instruments (note to mandolin and fiddle players: most of this next section won’t apply to you because you can put your instrument in any overhead compartment or under any airplane seat. This is why we quietly resent you. Feel free to take a break right now, have a cup of coffee, check your email, and brush up on Fisher’s Hornpipe).

Even if you own one of those expensive and heavy flight cases, it’s still well worth doing what you can to carry the instrument on the plane. I recently had my Gallagher–the one  I’ve had for 30 years–banged up badly in a well-known brand of flight case. On the plus side, the case looked remarkably undamaged. The guitar was another story. It must have either  fallen off the top of one of those tall luggage carts, or it was dropped from the plane itself, just as the plane was about to touch down. I mention this just to illustrate that no case is invincible.

Are you allowed to carry the instrument on the plane? It’s a loaded question, and the answer is a definitive “yes” and “no.” I’m not even sure what the actual policy of most airlines is, and a lot of airline employees apparently aren’t sure either. For musicians’ union members, there was an AFM letter circulating that stated that there was an agreement with the airlines okaying the carrying on of instruments, which you could print out and carry with you. This still isn’t really going to impress a stubborn ticket agent who thinks he/she is following rules. Maybe that sheet of paper will help you win an argument with the agent, maybe not. There are just some ticket agents who are not going to bend, no matter what. It may seem like they have it in for musicians, but to be fair, they really have it in for all people.

The best course of action is to not have this argument in the first place, and instead, say nothing about the instrument at all and go on your merry way to the gate. The following is exactly the wrong conversation to have with the ticket agent (we’ll call her “Francine”):

Francine: “Next!”

You: “Hello, how are you?”

Francine: stony silence accompanied by glare

You: worried expression

Francine: “Are you checking any bags today?”

You: “Yes, I have one, and I also have this vintage guitar that cost me more than my house and is precious to me. Will it be a problem to carry it on the plane?”

Francine (who only heard the words “guitar” and “carry it on”): “You’ll have to check the guitar.”

You: “But, er … It …”

Francine: “I’ll need you to sign a release form, so we’re only liable for damages up to 12 dollars”

You: “But it’s worth …”

Francine: “Did you loosen the strings?”

You: “Did I what?”

Francine (with her now customary glare): “Did you loosen the STRINGS?” (the unspoken “dummy” is implied).

You and Francine here now have some common ground. You have no idea why she asked you about this, and she also has no idea either. Somewhere in her training, someone told her she should say that. Asking her why, though is a bad idea, but you do it anyway:

You: “Why do I need to do that?”

Francine: “You need to loosen the strings on your guitar before you check it.”

You: “Ah!”  And you proceed to open up the case and loosen your strings. Don’t look behind you at the guy in line who’s perfected his own characteristic glare. By the way, the right answer to the string-loosening question is, “Yes, I did. They’re loose enough to play the guitar solo on ‘The Race Is On.’ Thanks for asking.” Say this, whether or not you’ve loosened your strings.

At this point you hand over the guitar to fate. Maybe you’ll be lucky. I was lucky for many years, then I wasn’t.

The right conversation to have with Francine is this:

Francine: “Next!”

You: “Hello, how are you?” (you return her stony silence with a smile that says, “You have no idea what I’m doing right now. You just enjoy your little bit of power.”)

Francine: “Are you checking any baggage?”

You: “Yes, I have one bag.” The guitar should not even be in view.

Francine: “That will be $35 dollars.” Now it’s your turn to glare. Francine is used to this.

Once you have your bag checked and your boarding pass, you subtly pick up your guitar and walk off. I even recommend stepping aside first and fumbling with your boarding pass for a few seconds until the next customer steps up and creates a distraction. The really diligent Francines of the world will shout after you. Just pretend you’re hard of hearing. If she’s energetic enough to chase you down, well then you’re stuck, and you have to at least applaud her effort.

The main point to take away from this is: don’t volunteer the information and don’t advertise the fact that you own the instrument. Resist any desire to chit chat with Francine and let her know you’re an important musician. This is no time for name-dropping: “Man, I’m tired after 3 good gigs in this town, We got Sam, Bela and Del to sit in with us last night, and like wow!” Those names mean exactly zero to Francine, and you will have just annoyed her (and probably anyone else within earshot), further hurting your cause. If you see her eye the guitar, it’s best to treat it like it’s some strange object someone left there by mistake.

If you manage to get your precious instrument to the gate, you’ve already achieved a huge victory, even if they make you check it before boarding the plane. Still, once you’re there  you might as well do all you can to get the thing into the plane’s overhead compartment. Knowledge of what kind of plane you’re flying is helpful in this case. If you’re flying on a small regional jet, gate checking is inevitable, but on larger planes, most guitars and banjos will fit easily in the overhead. If someone tells you that it won’t fit in the overhead, just say “Oh, I’m pretty sure it will.” Try to do this without sounding too smug,

The problem you’ll encounter here is that these overhead compartments fill up very quickly with people’s overly large carry-on suitcases and garment bags (why doesn’t Francine ever make an issue about those, huh?). Your mission is to get on the plane ahead of them, and there are a few ways to do that: one is to try to get a seat assignment at the rear of the plane because they board from the rear to the front. Another is to accumulate enough air miles to make it to the elite level of an airline’s frequent flyer program. A few family vacations in New Zealand every year should accomplish this, or you could just fly to Oklahoma City on the same airline every week for no reason. Passengers with small children board ahead of other non-first class passengers, so you might think about acquiring some small children, or possibly just getting some parents to lend you one or two while you’re at the gate. Many parents, after flying with small children for a while, are more than willing to do this. If all else fails, you can try to use your charm to get yourself bumped to first class. Mentioning that Sam, Bela and Del sat in with you at your last gig might help. Or not.

I’d continue with the discussion of flying with upright basses (don’t), what to do if you’re checked banjo doesn’t arrive with you (start crying), and other related topics, but I have to get off this train in Basel in 5 minutes. So for now, good luck and safe travels.

  • timcarter57

    Hi Chris.. hope your trip is going well, I know some of your band members (mark and ned), please tell them hello… I too fly quite a bit with multiple instruments and have little trouble because of alot of the tips you brought up… but this little story still cracks me up.. I travel with a banjo (in a soft bag) and a mando (in a small flight case) and they both fit neatly in any overhead.. while switching flights in Orlando I arrived at my gate and was told I could not take the banjo of board, I assured the attendant that I fly with this weekly and its all good. She proceeded to threaten me… there was a line of people behind me ready to board the plane… she asked me what was in the case and I told her it was a banjo, she said, and I’m not making this up, ‘it is considered a weapon and will have to be put under the plane’, I said ‘but you haven’t even heard me play it’.. she didn’t like that and her boss came over.. the folks behind me were laughing their heads off. I relented and said,’sure, go ahead and tag it’… once I got it to the plane I nicely asked the flight attendant if she would let me store it in the coat closet and she said ‘of course’. If you can get your instrument to the plane itself, then you most likely will be able to take it on board… I’ve had several instances where the pilot would stop me at the door of the plane and ask if I’d like for it to ride with him… well of course I would. They are obviously pickers and know what we have to go through…

  • Peter Noorman

    Hi Chris,
    I’ll remember your story when we’re flying to Norway coming February for a gig in Bergen. I think I go for a soft bag. Just read you were in the hospital in Baden, but home now in Sexsmith. Hope you are fully recovered. Say hello to Sally and Joanna for me. Regards, Peter