I’m going to relate some of my own experiences, good and bad, and some things that have worked for me. I will be taking at least two trips in the next few months with guitars and it’s likely I will try carry-on with one and checking a guitar on the other.
There has been much written about the recent federal law that requires airlines to allow musicians to carry their instruments on board. Where it still gets iffy is the somewhat vague language of the law that states “…as space is available.” So it really comes down to the discretion of the gate keepers. Sometimes if you are checking baggage and the counter agent sees a guitar they will tell you that you must check it. Rather than get into a debate about the new law, just say you are going to “gate check” your guitar (whether you intend to carry it on or not).
I have seen many, many people in the last few years board planes with guitars with no issues at all. On a recent flight I even saw a guy carry on TWO electrics – they appeared to be well-traveled by the beat up condition of the cases – but they were both solid bodies so they were relatively thin even in their cases; perhaps that’s why he got away with it. Also, he was smart (experienced!) enough to know that paying for early boarding ensured he would get overhead space.
The take-away here is two-fold. First, don’t draw attention to yourself. Leave the big jumbo guitar in a big hard shell case home; buy a travel guitar and use a padded gig bag (more on this below). At the very least your big dreadnought will draw glares from stressed out fellow passengers as you are waiting to board. At worst, you will be denied permission to board with it (due to those vague and arbitrary space limitations, in the opinion of the gate attendants) and be forced at the last possible minute to gate check. This could easily result in your guitar being left behind for the next flight. That might not happen of course, but sitting on a plane for a few hours wondering if your guitar is riding along does not make for a comfortable flight!
I’ve flown with a parlor-size guitar in a gig bag – no problem with carry on – and tried one the collapsing TravelAire guitars a few years ago, but even collapsed in its padded bag it was too large for the overhead bin on a smaller connecting flight. A nice flight attendant allowed me to put it under my feet on the short flight but she was breaking the rules to do this. Plus it sounded pretty bad, so away that one went.
Last year I bought a Hiscox hard case for my expensive Taylor (GA size) and took the big chance of checking the guitar through from Boston to Key West. I had confidence in that case, which was designed for rough handling by baggage handlers. I was more worried about it not getting into the cargo hold on my planes but thankfully there were no problems. Hiscox cases are very pricey but I viewed it as a lifetime investment. I will be using it again on my longer trip to Florida Keys in April. But some trepidation will remain I’m sure!
Another thing I am going to try this year is using one of the TrackR devices to hopefully keep track of just where my guitar is at all times. I’m not sure if they work while INSIDE a case, more research needed on that, but if something bad happens in terms of loss or (God forbid, theft) I will have some way to track where it is. I may have to figure out a way to attach it to the outside of the case. I will post the results of this after that trip.
Yeah, this is all well and good, Gene, you may be saying. But I can’t afford another guitar just for travel. Fair enough, I get that. If you absolutely can’t bear to be away from playing for the duration of your journey, some guitar stores will rent you an instrument. Of course you have to take what you can get, which may or may not be decent. And if you’re staying somewhere for a couple weeks the cost of the rental may bump into the cost of a decent parlor size acoustic, such as the lower end models from Alvarez, Yamaha, Washburn and others. You can find those on line from the big retailers in the $200 - $300 range, but then of course you will have to buy a good padded gig bag, which may drive the price up another $60 or more. Plus, in my admittedly limited experience with low-end small guitars, the sound and/or playability may be mediocre at best.
So here’s my recommendation. Right now I strongly believe the two best options in “travel” guitars are the Taylor GS Mini and the Martin Dreadnought Jr. Both are smaller than their larger cousins with the same body shape. I’ve owned a couple of both models and both were astoundingly good sounding and easy playing instruments. The Taylor comes in a couple wood options and is sold with a very high quality padded gig bag. Both the GS Mini and the Dreadnought Jr are available with or without a built-in pick-up. I like to have electronics available, if only because I may end up sitting in with a band somewhere and will need to plug in. Your call on that option, which drives up the price of both models about 15% or so compared to the acoustic versions.
But for my money, the Martin is the hands down winner. It is constructed of solid top, back and sides, which makes for better sound than the Taylor, which has laminate sides and back (but a solid top). I also prefer the 1 ¾” nut width on the Martin vs. 1 11/16” on the Taylor. The bag that comes with the Martin is not as good quality as the Taylor bag but it will suffice in most circumstances. I will be bringing mine along for a trip to the Keys in the near future – and will carry it on board. I hope (!!).
The Martin retails for a bit more than the Taylor but the superior sound justifies that, for me anyway. Plus, judging by the classified ads on various guitar forums the Dreadnought Jr is seeming to maintain more of its resale value than the GS Mini. This may or may not be a factor in your buying choice.
You can certainly find more expensive options in travel guitars. More and more people are becoming enamored with the latest generation of carbon fiber travel guitars but in all cases they are much more expensive than the two I mentioned above. The relative merits of carbon fiber guitars are a whole separate discussion that I won’t go into now.
In my next post I’ll comment on shipping a guitar to your destination. This is a viable alternative for many people but that too requires some planning.
So if you are planning a trip and want to be able to play while you’re at your destination I urge you to do your homework on everything this entails. Is it worth it? Well, I can tell you that one of my fondest memories will always be sitting under a palm tree with an adult beverage close at hand, while gazing out over Little Torch Key as the sun was setting, playing Jobim bossa nova tunes. So yes, it is worth it.
Peace & good music,