Travelling tips for musicians or how to secure your musical instrument’s survival
Very soon, I will embark myself on a series of flights, both long and short distance ones, and I caught myself worrying more about how I will bring my instrument along, rather than all the other details. I believe that everyone who travels with his/her own instrument passes through a considerable amount of stress before, during and after a trip, especially those who play larger instruments like cellos, guitars and accordions. Recent news about a destroyed 17th century viola da gamba, reminded me that the issue of travelling with the instruments still remains a much discussed topic.
The first time I travelled by plane with my instrument I was 17, young and naïve. At the time, I did not know anything about extra seats and so I checked in my accordion at the baggage counter and proceeded to board the plane. When I arrived home, I wanted to show the new accordion (it was about 3 months old and my very first professional instrument) to my parents so that they could see what their investment looked like. I proudly unpacked the instrument, which seemed perfectly fine on the outside, and tried playing it… The left keyboard buttons got all pressed at the same time, the bellows was moving in and out very fast, the hissing of the air coming out from the right keyboard… Long story short, it was broken.
Ever since that terrible experience, I bought an extra seat on almost all flights, with two exceptions. The first one was during my Erasmus exchange semester in Helsinki. I found out that British Airways allowed musicians to travel with their instruments as carry-on hand luggage, so I bought a return ticket Helsinki- Venice- Helsinki. The flight to Venice – no problem at all. Now, the return flight. I arrived to the Marco Polo airport in Venice and encountered “heavy resistance” at the check-in counter from a woman, obviously in a bad mood. I was told that my “bag” was too big. After a rather long argument, I tried to propose taking the accordion on the plane without its case, that way it should fit exactly in the dimensions. In order to prove it, I put the instrument inside the metal box they had nearby (for measuring the size of the baggage) and it got in! Unfortunately, for me, it got stuck… and I had a tough time taking it out. At this point, I had no other option; I had to check it in. However, before doing so I rolled it with lots and lots of plastic. Here, take a look:
My accordion got to Finland with only a small scratch in one corner. The second exception was a flight I took from the beautiful island of Sardinia to Milan with Alitalia. I called the contact center to book an extra seat, but the flight was entirely sold-out. On the day of the flight I went to the check-in counter, ready to “put up a fight” for my instrument. The woman took my checked baggage, smiled and wished me a nice flight. I was taken aback by the situation; I couldn’t imagine that it could go like that, based on my previous experiences. One of the most relaxed flights ever!
I got lucky only twice, so it is more probable that problems will kick in. So, what can we musicians do in order to prevent our instruments being destroyed? Below are some key points to consider:
Inform yourself thoroughly about the rules regarding the musical instruments on the airlines’ website. You can usually find it in the Information section under Special Baggage. If you cannot find such information, try typing “musical instruments baggage” and the airlines’ name in the Google search engine. It usually works. If even the all-knowing Google doesn’t find anything, it is worth calling the airlines’ customer service.
Once you find the information about the conditions of carriage of the musical instruments, it would be a good idea to print it out and bring it along on your flight. You will be surprised at how many people working for the airlines have no idea whatsoever what their company’s policies regarding musical instruments are.
Very often, the people working at the check-in counters are very authoritarian in their approach to the passengers, even though they might not know all the regulations. Keep calm; be polite, but confident. Most important, be well informed! Most airlines allow slightly bigger dimensions for musical instruments than for a carry-on hand luggage (max 115 cm in length).
Don’t be surprised if at the check-in counter you manage to go forward with your instrument and meet the “resistance” at the gate or on the plane. Calmly, use the same approach as at the check-in counter. It seems, from my experience, that the staff members working at the check-in, gates and planes don’t communicate between them, so be prepared to repeat why you are allowed to bring your instrument onboard.
Generally, try to pack your instrument in a such a case that it seems smaller than it actually is. Very often the staff doesn't even check the dimensions. they just look at it and try to evaluate whether it is big or small.
If an extra seat on your chosen airline seems too expensive try checking whether there are other airlines going to your destination. A very useful website, which I always use for checking possible low cost flights, is Skyscanner. However, be careful, the prices shown are not always the right ones. Double-check all the conditions going to the airlines’ official website.
If you are not in a hurry and don’t mind longer trips, try considering buses or trains. Obviously only if it is a reasonable choice money and time wise. Flixbus is often a good alternative. I also used Arriva buses for long trips from Slovenia to Germany. Always check out the trains, as well.
If you do take the bus, make sure your instrument is in a hard case. It might fall during the trip, or even worse, other (heavier) luggage might fall on it
Wrap your instrument in something soft in order to prevent a direct hit or damage: a towel, a blanket, clothes, etc., anything works
It is worth telling the bus driver, or the person responsible for putting the luggage on the bus, that you have a musical instrument with you. If the bus is not full, you might be allowed to bring the instrument with you.
If not, ask the bus driver to take extra care handling it and find a place where it wouldn’t fall. I always do so and it works. (Only once I had the bus driver, obviously in a bad mood, curse at me in Serbian for making that request. I don’t speak Serbian, but I understand it. I found out in 30 seconds from the bus driver everything he thinks of me, my life, my luggage and my accordion :P)
Whenever possible, “supervise” how your instrument is stowed away and handled. Even better, do it yourself.
Search an “Offers” section on the website of the company you chose for your trip. Very often you can find very convenient discounts.
I would like to end this post with a few observations on the logic of how check-in counters regard the musical instruments, based again on a personal experience. On every airline’s website, you will find the cello as an example for extra seats. Strangely enough, the staff of the airlines, most of whom don’t really know how a cello looks like, took it as a standard. If you don’t travel with a cello you might need to explain the existence of other musical instruments as well. Two years ago, when returning from the festival “Tzlil Meudcan” (check out this great festival directed by the amazing Yaron Deutsch of the Nikel Ensemble) in Tel Aviv, Israel, together with two of my friends, both accordionists, we were told at the check-in counter that only cellos could travel on this flight. It seemed quite a racist statement, though that is not the correct word for this particular situation. After a short lecture about the different types of instruments, we managed to convince the woman to let us bring our instruments onboard. Thus, we also have the responsibility of educating the staff members whom we encounter in airports.
I remembered an anecdote, told to me once by Owen Murray, classical accordion professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He was travelling to Moscow with a string quartet to perform in a festival and all their tickets, including extra seats, were bought through a travelling agency. Apparently, the agency was told to book the extra seats for musical instruments and, following the examples given on various websites, the tickets were booked for cellos. Mr. Murray arrives at the check-in counter. The staff member of the airline: “I apologize sir, but your ticket was booked for a cello. As far as I know what you have is not a cello.” “That is a cello!” he exclaims, pointing towards the cellist’s case, satisfied that he managed to identify the instrument. The cellist comes closer: “Is there some problem?” The staff member: “Well, this gentleman has an extra seat for a cello, but what he has is not a cello, as far as I know.” The cellist, smiling: “Oh! No, no, no! Look, what I have is a “classical” cello. What this gentleman has is a “Bayan”-cello!” (bayan is a type of Russian accordion with buttons in the right keyboard). They had a great concert in Moscow :)
Travel safe and keep your instruments even safer!