The following are guidelines I’ve found to make traveling with an instrument easier and a bit more pleasant. (Disclaimer: These tips are for flying within the US with instruments that fit in overhead bins. I have no experience flying with larger instruments.)
1. Book a seat close to the back of the plane. Most airlines board from the back of the plane, so this will help the ensure that there will be room in the overhead bins for your instrument.
2. Print out the final ruling of the Department of Transportation and carry it in your case. I have highlighted the relevant sections in the linked file. Note that it requires airlines to allow you to carry on a musical instrument only if there is room for it onboard. This makes boarding early very important.
3. If possible, make your instrument your only carry-on. This will simplify your travel and make any request you make for “special” treatment even more reasonable. If this isn’t possible, make sure that your second carry-on is smaller than your instrument. It will have to fit beneath the seat in front of you, since only one of your bags is allowed in the overhead bin.
4. To further ensure that you’ll be able to find room in the overhead bins, pay for early boarding. If this isn’t possible, approach the gate agent and ask if there is usually overhead bin space by the time your row or boarding group boards. If they say yes, believe them. If they say no, politely explain that you are traveling with a valuable, fragile musical instrument and ask if it might be possible for you to board early.
5. Try to board near the front of your group.
6. Always be courteous to airline employees. If there is no more room in the overhead bin space, politely explain that you are traveling with a valuable, fragile musical instrument and ask if there’s a space onboard (such as a closet where the flight attendants store their belongings) where you could put your instrument. If that fails, ask other passengers if anyone would be willing to check their bag that is in the overhead bin. As a last resort, I sooner walk off a plane than gate check my instrument.
7. If possible, stow your instrument in an overhead bin directly across the aisle from your seat. This way, you can keep an eye on it and make sure other passengers don’t try to move (or remove) it.
Additional information to carry with you, especially when traveling internationally:
- Proof that you own your instrument and purchased it in your home country
The Department of Transportation has also provided these travel tips.