The video above makes my case of why you should never check a guitar. Although it is a humorous music video, sadly it is also a true story that so often repeats itself on a daily basis. So traveling musicians be warned (grin).
I posted a forum response on TheGearPage.Net on March 7, 2012 about travel guitars. As a result, I have received a lot of positive feedback via emails over the years and I thought I would share that post of mine on my website as well.
I'm a frequent traveller who used to travel with guitars...so this can also create some issues while on the road. In this post, I will share some of my experiences over the years of traveling for work and pleasure...with a guitar. I will share some suggestions on where NOT to put your guitars, then I have share some thoughts on "what to bring".
NEVER CHECK GUITARS ON AIRLINES?
I can think of a few good reasons...first, the obvious, guitars that are checked become luggage...nothing more...nothing less.
Next, guitars don't do well with the extreme temperatures and altitudes experienced in the aircraft's cargo holds. Some are pressurized...others are not. So your instrument could be subjected to compression and shock and temperature extremes as well as rain while it's sitting outside waiting to be loaded.
For example, think about the weather extremes on the ground in Salt Lake City in both January and July. If you checked your "baggage", I sure hope it ends up where you may end up. Now lets talk about cargo holds that aren't pressurized. Meaning that it wouldn't be unusal to see -50C at 40,000 feet for the duration of the flight at altitude. Now I don't know what the temperature in the cargo hold is because nobody has sat in there without oxygen long enough to tell us. That kind of temperature is not kind to electronics or precious wood instruments.
It is for the same reason that I recommend that pets and cameras not be checked when ever possible (pets usually will end up in a temperature controlled cargo hold...but when it's 105F in Salt Lake City...it's probably closer to 120-130F in that same hold). You would never leave your guitar (especially your acoustic guitar) in a trunk due to heat and glue issues, so why do it on an airplane?
IF YOU ARE KEITH RICHARDS...
If you are a professional musician who travels to and from gigs then maybe you could try your luck with insurance and ATA cases, but I would recommend bringing your guitar aboard in a gig bag. Maybe the flight attendant will find a spot in the front or the back if they are understanding and your guitar isn't a huge acoustic in an hard case. Of course it helps if you are sitting in first class and you are Keith Richards!
So if you are a traveling, professional musician, then you may HAVE to bring your original '57 Les Paul or '69 Strat along in a gig bag, but try to bring it into the cabin is my point. Traveling with a full sized guitar is a risky maneuver in my opinion.
I often see musicians carrying a full-sized acoustic guitars on board and most of the time it works for them, but if you travel often enough, eventually you will get that gate agent or flight attendant that insists that your non-standard sized guitar must be checked. You can't help but wonder how that all turned out. A friend's Dad recently had his mint, early 60's Harmony Sovereign H1260 acoustic guitar destroyed when he tried to head down to Venezuela on the airlines. Of course they made him check it. You can only get the insurance at the front counter when you check in. Needless to say, his guitar had limited liability by the airline. I think it was $800 he got for that guitar. Ouch!
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
Ok...so don't check your guitar, but how do I get my guitar in the cabin? To do this, it would be much better if your guitar was made for traveling (i.e., smaller size). You don't want to draw too much attention to your non-standard sized carry on luggage (your guitar!). So I would reduce the volume coming into the cabin with me, by checking my suitcase and bringing ONLY my guitar aboard. Because this is your "only" luggage as far as the crew and passengers are concerned, they may be more sympathetic to your begging not to crush your precious guitar with their roll-aboard suitcases. Putting "Fragile" stickers on your guitar may, or may not help.
As a passenger, I board early so as to insure my one carry-on (guitar) finds a safe place in the over-head storage. Then I get to watch as hundreds of passengers walk past me looking for a place to store their belongings. There will always be 2 or 3 out of the 100 or so passengers who will attempt to compress my half-sized acoustic guitar ("half-sized" because the neck folds in half making the case the size of a large backpack).
Anyhow...I have "fragile" stickers on it so it is obvious that they shouldn't attempt to push on my "backpack". On this particular flight 3 passengers attempted do do just this. The last last guy turns out he was a guitar tech...let's just say he had a verbal meltdown in front of me and some kids on board about me taking up all the space with that backpack. All I can say is, Wow...he of all people should have known not to crush the guitar. No apologies to me or the kids for his foul language either. What a douchebag!
Anything that you have to put together (i.e., leg/arm rests, necks, etc) is probably not going to get played as much as you think when you are traveling...especially after a long day of sight-seeing or visiting family or friends. How long will it take to pack and unpack each time? Baby and Mini versions of guitars may work (i.e., Baby Taylor, Martin Backpacker, Baby Strat, etc.), but they are still too long to travel with and the sound/quality can be very lacking.
Acoustics...as much as I love the sound of an acoustic...they suck to travel with: they aren't very durable, good sounding ones are close to full-sized, and most acoustics have humidity issues. Carbon is light and resists humidity issues, but that neck can still be broken, its very expensive and easy to scratch. The key with accoustics...if you are traveling someplace and plan on being there for a length of time...then acoustics are great. If I was planning on traveling around Europe on planes, trains and automobiles...I would be needing a vacation, after that trip (grin).
It is not good when you went through all the hassles of traveling with your guitar and on day one you broke the little E string while bending. Bring extra strings is my point.
What if you broke the same string a few days later? I've done it and I was soon disappointed. In retrospect it was kind of funny to realize I went through all that trouble to play to relax and now I have to go get a cab to go get the most expensive guitar strings I have ever played because you have to include your round-trip cab fare plus tip into the total price.
Oh...and don't forget to bring something to clip the strings with if you have to change them...nail clippers will "work in a pinch" but they won't work very well shortly thereafter...ask me how I know that.
LET'S LOOK AT SOME TRAVEL GUITARS...
The Fernandez Nomad sucked...I had one of those (new) in the 90's. I kept breaking strings (I think it was both the 1st and 2nd strings) due to some bad engineering on the bridge (sharp angle off saddle?). It was clumsy to hold too and didn't seem balanced at all. Besides the audio was just downright silly...not to mention the looks. Kind of looks like an elephant doesn't it? Sounds remind me of those cheap keyboard toys that you would find at a garage sale. These were some of the reasons that I think they were not selling very well...you can always find them on eBay for cheap.
I tried the Stewart Guitar's Stowaway...wanted one for about 10 years. It is basically a Strat that has the neck pop off and slide into the body. Can slip into a brief case. Great concept...bad execution. I finally got one and was so disappointed that I sent it back the next day for a refund. I setup my own guitars and I have never seen one that was so haphazardly set up. Frankly, I was astonished at all the rave reviews on Harmony Central, but perhaps this is just an isolated experience. I think if I spent some time setting it up and fixing saddle and pickup heights, neck adjustments, intonation, etc. I could have made it work. But I shouldn't have to...it should have come playable! He's a nice guy to deal with and a lot of guys swear by these guitars on Harmony Central, but my experience wasn't good.
I don't think I would ever travel with a carbon fiber Steinberger unless I had a private jet to get on and off. Beautiful guitars...maybe the Korean built, wood versions would be fine, but I personally don't enjoy traveling with a full-sized, or almost full-sized guitar. I mention them because I considered it once until I talked to another traveller who sometimes took his Korean built Steinberger. It's a real guitar...full-sized neck.
Now I would never travel with a carbon fiber guitar...but they solve a few issues for those that fly someplace and are there for a long period of time. First off, they aren't a Rainsong knockoff. They are meant to travel with. Humidity or moisture isn't a problem with carbon fiber. Hell...on a canoe trip, if you ended up Sheesh Creek without a paddle, you could probably use the Blackbird guitar for these duties. The key is...if you are traveling someplace and plan on being there for a length of time...then this may be a great option. If I was planning on traveling around Europe on planes, trains and automobiles...I would be needing a vacation, after that trip.
The Traveler Guitars are at Guitar Center and I have tried them, but I'm not a big fan. On most of them you still have to attach a rest...the gig bag isn't very protective in my opinion. Maybe it was the quality of the workmanship, I am not sure...I just didn't take to it very well. They just didn't seem like real instruments to me...the originals (still sold as acoustic versions) came with stethoscopes...they have evolved over the years and now are getting bigger with fancy paint jobs and pickups...naturally they are also getting heavier. The gig bag that comes with them doesn't offer much protection, but the neck is a full-sized neck and they are readily available on eBay and in Guitar Centers. Try it...it's not a bad option if price is of concern. I would suggest skipping the Les Paul and Strat looking guitars and go for the better for travel original body style electrics: Speedster or the Ultra-Light. They even have full-sized (Fender-looking) tolex and tweed hard-shell cases as an extra purchase. Now why would anyone do this?!
Now let's discuss the Voyage-Air Guitars...the Belair and the VAOM-04 acoustic. More money, but much more impressive with setup, quality, and musical...as one would expect from a well known luthier: Harvey Leach. I purchased both after trying them I loved them so much! Wonderful instruments. The Belair is easier to travel with as it is a full-sized guitar that fits in a very protective case (the neck folds over, nothing to take apart). The acoustic plays beautifully too, but is just too big (think commuters) to travel on the airlines with. It won't fit in some overheads, and sliding under the seat may or may not work with the Flight Attendants. Even if you put "Fragile" stickers all over the acoustic's case...other passengers don't care...they just want to make their bag fit at your expense. Sad but true...so if you go this route...just keep an eye on it during boarding. Don't forget about humidity adjustments too for acoustic guitars when you get to the hotel...let the guitar adjust to the room for about 30 minutes before setting the neck and tuning. I found that it took about 2 days to fully adjust to the humidity in the new hotel room...so it really works best if you are NOT traveling on a daily basis. If you are setting up your base camp for a week at a time, then I think the acoustic would be a nice addition...having said that...I travel a lot on a daily basis, so this guitar will probably be sold soon. The Voyage-Air Belair is a much better compromise as it's an electric guitar with the same neck that folds in half like their acoustic guitar. Electrics are much more durable...and quieter in the hotel rooms as you can use headphones with an iPad or iPhone for the effects. I will keep but still requires setup time. If you are going one destination for the week, then fine, just leave it against the wall in the hotel and it would do you very well. Voyage-Air Guitars are worth what they are charging in my opinion. The Voyage-Air guitars can be upgraded by yourself if you so desire with better tuners (Schaller locking tuners) and compensated acoustic saddles and Fender electric saddles (Graph Tech). These are improvements I make to all my guitars when I am able. I didn't bother replacing the nuts as they are specially designed for guitars with folding necks. As I said before, these upgrades aren't necessary but I found that they helped improve the tone and keep the strings in tune for much longer than would be expected. After unfolding my guitar...it is usually only the first string (little E) that you will have to tune up. That's pretty impressive when you think about it. In comparison to the Stewart Stowaway...forget about it. These guitar have zero intonation issues! These are my second choice.
I just ordered a Lapstick guitar from Phil Neal. He is a luthier that has been building guitars since 1978 working for Chris May at the famous Overwater Workshop in the UK. Later Phil opened up his own shop in Holland in 1984. His resume is impressive...his instruments are beautiful. Phil's instrument were designed out of his desire to practice while traveling to and from his own gigs. He wanted an instrument that he could play while on a plane or train...valuable time having been wasted. This is exactly how I feel...I also don't want to travel with a guitar that isn't durable enough, and may annoy others while they try to sleep. This led me to discovering Lapstick Guitars. For those long-haul flights as a passenger...this seemed like the perfect idea as you could actually practice WHILE traveling as it's only 20" long overall. What a novel concept. You tune it to "A", but you can either transpose your music or just play it as it reads. I plan on doing the later. This guitar comes with a built in amplifier to connect either headphones, amplifier, iPad/iPhone, or Pandora effects box. I could fit this guitar in a carry on bag...so what if someone wants to compress your bag in the overhead too. No "Fragile" stickers needed here. That is why these are now my first choice, but to be fair...I haven't actually played it yet and will later update my opinions here.
WRAPPING IT UP
In summary, never check a guitar if you actually like your instrument! Anyhow, I spent more time than I should have with this, but my hope is that some of my opinions help fight off those "traveling blues" for you...and your guitar.