One of the favourite points of discussion amongst touring musicians is the whole twisted world of planes and instruments. From baggage limits to carry-on details, plane-side checking of bags, to buying extra seats for cellos, there are a million different takes on it, thanks to airline policy being so utterly baffling most of the time.
For years, I travelled everywhere with my bass in a standard lightweight gig-bag, and took it onto the plane. I even managed to get my bass onto Ryanair flights, but smiling, looking horrified if they suggested checking it, and in one instance, having a friend hold it while I checked in my luggage, but then taking it with me through the screening thing…
then a couple of years ago things started to tighten up, initially, i think, due to fuel price increases (and the ensuing panick about plane weight) and then it all went nuts after the london bombing (it had actually settled down a lot after Sept 11th, only to be reignited by London).
At that point, I switched to a foam bass case – I serendipitously lucked into a really nice lightweight case when a student of mine wanted me to help him sell his bass, which I did on the condition that I could keep the foam case and sell it with a gig bag instead… So I had that for a couple of years, and a great case it was too.
Then last year at NAMM, I picked up an InCase gig-bag – it’s a backpack style gig-bag, with shoulder and waist straps, but is more than padded enough to go in the hold. Since then I’ve been checking my bass in the hold, but carrying my rack-gear in a carry-on suitcase, and it’s proved to be pretty effective – no damage at all to my bass since I started doing it, and the case itself is holding up really well too.
Effective, that is, until flying back from California to Ohio, and the plane being completely full, so they checked my carry-on suitcase in the hold, and not via the usual ‘pick it up on the gangway’ method, but actually sending it through via checked baggage to my destination.
Because it was intended as hand luggage, I hadn’t packed the stuff in it all that well, and was pretty horrified by the idea of them checking it. I kicked up a fuss, told them what the contents were worth, but after a half-hearted attempt to find space in the plane, my bag was taken and checked.
I got off lightly, really – at the other end there were some marks on the faceplates of both the Looperlatives, but all the gear in it works fine.
It could’ve been a lot worse. A LOT worse. So what’s the moral of the story? Prepare for the worst. That’s part of the reason I started checking my basses in the first place – just couldn’t risk them putting a gig bag in the hold again. But now I need to do the same with my carry-on bag. Wrap the gear in clothes or towels, pack everything tight so it doesn’t rattle, and make sure that your travel gear is as SMALL AS IT CAN BE. I have a friend from California who toured Europe a couple of years ago, and got stung with a MASSIVE baggage overweight fee on the way from Sweden to Scotland… The worst I’ve had is about £30 on the way from London to Italy, back when I was trying to carry two Echoplexes in my bag (those things weighed a tonne!)… There are loads of bits of gear I’d dearly love to check out and use, but I stay away from as I don’t want my rig to become non-portable. and portable means ‘can fly with it on a cheap-ass airline’.
Anyway, for reference, if you’re flying in Europe, Easyjet have a ‘no weight limit on hand baggage within reason’ thing going on – if your bag fits the size restriction, they let you take it on. I think it’s because it saves them money on ground staff dealing with checked luggage, but it’s great for us, as you can pack the heavy fragile shit into your hand luggage. No such generosities from Ryanair, who have very tight weight limits.
Within the US, limits are generally much more generous than in Europe, but it’s definitely worth checking on policies, and PREPARE FOR THE WORST.
Also, for the americans reading this, you may well find that trains in Europe work out cheaper and easier than planes – there are no baggage weight limits (though if you turned up with 15 basses and a couple of ampeg stacks, you’ll probably get stopped!), and your gear stays near you. Look into Eurail passes for touring – it’s a great way to get to see the continent, and you aren’t penalised for changing your travel plans if a gig gets cancelled or swapped like you would be if you’d booked it all by plane…by