Flying with a violin (or any acoustic string instrument) can be daunting. It’s a bit like balancing a full glass of water on your forehead — precarious and not without risk. And travel is even crazier and busier at this holiday time of the year. Fortunately musicians make successful transits every day, which balances out the occasional horror story you might hear about an instrument breaking mid-flight.
Whether you’re traveling with your violin for the first time, or are a seasoned pro looking for additional travel tips, I’m here to set your mind at ease! These are some of the most effective methods I have used to make traveling with my fiddle a stress-free experience.
By the way: a fiddle and a violin are the same thing, just different in how they’re played. I play both my classical and Irish traditional repertoire on the same instrument.
I rarely travel without my fiddle. Whether I’m headed to a gig, conference, or just visiting family/friends, it’s a default luggage piece. I have been flying with my instrument regularly for the past five years, and have learned what works best for my travel style and what I should avoid. Your travel style may be different, but I hope that some of these tips will prove useful in your future trips!
These tips are meant for musicians who are traveling with one carry-on fiddle. I believe that you should NEVER put your instrument in checked luggage.
Tip One: Make Sure You Know Your Airline’s Instrument Regulations
One of my biggest fears used to be that I would arrive at my gate and the agent would tell me I couldn’t bring the fiddle into the cabin. There is usually a section in the flight booking process that shows the dimensions allowed for carry on luggage — if you actually measure out your case, it is often longer than what the dimensions allow for. However, it does fall within the required width. Because of this, your instrument qualifies as a special item, and you’re going to want to research your airline’s specific luggage requirements for it.
I have yet to come across an airline that does not allow fiddles in the cabin, but I know that budget airlines such as RyanAir can be tricky. It is always a good idea to confirm with the airline, whether you search online or call a representative. To research online policies, go to your airline’s website (even if you’ve booked through a third party site) and find the section that details their specific luggage regulations.
I recently looked up a flight through Spirit Airlines, and was able to find their specific instrument policy listed in their Contract of Carriage under “Special Items” on p. 29. (FYI, they do accept violins as carry on items!) Just keep in mind that every airline has slightly different rules.
If you have done your research and are still worried the gate agent will make you check your violin, then print out a copy of the page that lists your instrument as permittable carry-on luggage, highlight the section, and stow it in an easily accessible place in your case or personal bag. Never hurts to have some proof on hand. You can also reference musical instrument FAA laws.
Back in my early days of flying with my instrument, my college violin professor told me when all else fails, cry. I have yet to resort to this, but just throwing it out there for you.
Tip Two: If you need to check a bag, do some serious prioritizing and only pack the things in your carry on luggage that you couldn’t spend a night without.
Because I’m a major planner, I read every packing tip article I come across. Most times the writer is not a musician, meaning that I have to get creative with what goes in my carry-on and what goes in a checked bag. It’s possible that some airlines will allow you to carry on your instrument as a special item in addition to the overhead bag and personal item, but honestly I have never tried this before. Seems a bit like pushing your luck. I always end up checking a bag when I fly and have come to accept that I will never be one of those people who can regularly travel with only carry-on luggage. But that’s okay! I can still fit everything I need into a small duffel bag and even use some extra space in my fiddle case.
Typically you will find me in basic or economy seating on a flight — it’s just what my budget supports right now. I also like to travel light, so I use my fiddle as my carry on bag and bring a large purse or small duffel bag to stow under my seat. If you do this, remember you have to carry these things everywhere, so don’t overpack and weigh yourself down. It’s not fun. Everything else goes into your checked bag, so if you can put heavier things like shoes or an extra book in there, I highly recommend that!
Here’s what goes into my carry on bag almost every time I travel:
- Phone, charger and headphones
- Small purse with my wallet, keys, and passport (for international travel)
- Keto friendly snacks and daily vitamins/supplements
- A change of clothes
- Any toiletries that I wouldn’t want to be stranded without if my luggage were lost
- A light book/crosswords or sudoku puzzles
- (Sometimes) Jewelry
- (Sometimes) Printouts of important documents I need for my trip
Here’s where you can get creative. Depending on what type of fiddle case you have, there are likely one or two handy storage compartments that you can use for extra space. I like to roll up a t-shirt and a pair of leggings and stick them in my case (I use a Bam Original, which has an awesome secret storage pocket on the side). If you have a case that has space to store sheet music, you can use that space to store any documents you want to have with you such as proof of insurance, relevant airline regulations, etc.
Once you’ve gotten a place for your larger items, it is much easier to pack the smaller things in your personal bag! I prefer to use a small duffel (you can find decent quality, low price ones at TJ Maxx and Marshalls) because most everything fits in horizontally, meaning I don’t have to hurriedly go digging for my Driver’s License when I forget that I need it in order to be admitted into Security.
Trick: If you have any liquids in your case such as instrument cleaner or a humidity controller that contains water, take them out of your case and put them in with your other carry-on liquids in a quart-sized plastic baggie. This will increase your chances of getting through the line without any hold-ups or additional inspection. You can put them back in your case once you’ve gone through Security.
Tip Three: Get on board the aircraft as soon as you can.
You can do this in one of two ways, and I’ll go through the pro’s and con’s of each. This is based on my experience with Delta Airlines — so it may be different for others.
Method 1: Buy priority boarding.
- Pro: This ensures that you will get on the plane before a lot of other passengers, it’s a small additional fee on larger airlines, it saves a lot of stress if you’re traveling at the holidays when there are a lot of full flights
- Con: You might not be in the gate area when they call priority, it’s an added expense, usually not offered on smaller flights (e.g. Pellston to Detroit)
Method 2: Be at the front of the line for your zone.
- Pro: No extra cost, and it’s rare for there to be no overhead space left for your case (they mostly want you to gate check roller bags)
- Con: There’s no guarantee like buying priority boarding, you may have a long wait standing in line (no fun if your luggage is too heavy), you really should avoid cluttering the waiting area
I like to save my money and take my chances, so I opt for method 2 more often. Lately, I sit in the waiting area for as long as possible, enjoy the slightly fresher air of the airport, and get up to stand in line when they call the zone right before mine.
I’m usually one of the first people on board when my zone is called. Most of the time, there is still space in the bin above my seat to store my fiddle case. However, if the overhead bin above you is full, try to find space in a bin that is closer to your exit — that way you’re not fighting traffic to get back to your instrument at the end of your flight. It’s not the end of the world if you have to put it in a bin behind you, it’s just a little easier on your fellow passengers.
Tip 4: Airlines want your loyalty. Be polite, respectful and calm, and they will help you out!
Be polite to the gate agent. Be polite to the flight attendant. Be polite to your fellow passengers. People are always more willing to help if you treat them with kindness and courtesy. Calmly explain to the gate agent trying to tag your case that you have a musical instrument, which is fragile and easily damaged in checked bag environments. If needed, speak to a representative of the airline in person or via phone: they want your loyal and consistent patronage, so they will often be willing to help you out if there’s a problem.
You should try to be consistent with who you fly with. If an airline always treats you right and respects your instrument, they deserve your loyalty! It’s also a great way to build up frequent flyer points instead of spreading yourself thin across a bunch of different airlines. If you’re flying internationally, check to see who partners with the airline you’re flying with: I’ll most likely be flying AirCanada to get to Ireland in the future, so I’m planning on making a frequent flyer account with their US partner, United Airlines. No additional cost and the points never expire!
For national travel, I stick with Delta. Most of my flights go through Detroit or Atlanta (two of their main hubs) so it makes the most sense for me. They have always treated me well — I remember flying home from Atlanta the day after Christmas and they allowed me to go through (priority) security because I had an instrument. Shout out to Hartsfield Jackson for their efficiency!
Tip 5: Make sure you have both instrument and travel insurance!
Listen, hun. Life happens. Sometimes there are things we can’t control, and that means we have to take a deep breath and be patient as we find a new way to deal with a difficulty. Save yourself the extra headache and pay $3o-40 for peace of mind. Most of the time you don’t need it, but you will be so glad for it if you do! It’s just something you have to accept. If an accident does happen, use it as a learning experience for how you can make your travel go more smoothly the next time.
Were these tips helpful? Do you have other suggestions for stress-free instrument travel? Let me know in the comments! As always, thanks for reading!