Flying overseas with a violin - tips, suggestions, ideas, warnings, recommendations, etc.

January 18, 2009 at 03:21 AM ·

I'll be traveling to Greece in May (from the US), on Continental air lines, my first transcontinental flight with my violin.  (In Greece, I'll be on Olympus.) Although I've read through the old threads on flying with a violin, I'm looking for up-to-date information such as string tension (loose, tight, normal), humidifiers (the more the better?), extra padding in the case, propping up the bridge with padding around it (just in 'case'), etc.  

What about the case itself?  Is there any particular one that people recommend, i.e. that nice, light (3.5 lb) BAM shaped case (since you can put a bow in it, but no music), or the Gig bag?  

Is it safe to take my good instrument  (my preference) or should I take my cheaper one?

Would you carry the case as hand luggage, or over your shoulder, or wear it as a backpack?

Is special insurance recommended - or even available?

Replies (27)

January 18, 2009 at 03:58 AM ·

I've flown a bit with my violin over the past couple of years, both domestic and internationally. I've never done any of the detuning or anything and haven't had a problem, but I could just be incredibly lucky. I'm sure a luthier on the site would have a better idea than I would about that kind of thing.

As for cases, nothing beats traveling with a shaped case worn like a backpack. When I moved abroad, I had two big suitcases, a backpack, and my violin on my back in a little shaped case. It was great, because it didn't get in the way of anything. I just put my music in a folder in one of my suitcases, so it wasn't a problem to have the case without a music pocket. I don't have one of those BAM cases (I have a shaped Bobelock), but I'm seriously considering purchasing one for travel, as my current shaped case is getting pretty worn out - having a shaped case on your back is just so much nicer to travel with than having to lug around a big oblong case by the handle.

As for the specific airlines, I haven't brought my violin on a Continental flight, but I haven't had a problem on United, US Airways, or JetBlue - I really think something as small as a violin is a non-issue most of the time, especially compared to all of these people bringing "little" suitcases on planes these days.

January 18, 2009 at 05:37 AM ·

Note that security rules on items you are allowed to carry on board can change at any moment and once you are at the airport you are at the mercy of what security personnel tells you, silly or not, right or wrong. To be safe, do not carry anything in your violin case that could be construed dangerous. For example, to security personnel, rosin cake may be confused for plastic explosives, spare strings may be construed as weapons (to strangle or threaten to strangle someone), peg dope might fall under the no-liquids policy etc etc etc.

As for insurance, ask yourself whether or not you can afford to lose the instrument and simply write it off. If the answer is no, you probably want to get insurance. If the violin is worth more than 2000 USD, do not rely on household insurance or other such basket insurance plans. Go for insurance, specifically for musical instruments. IIRC, this usually costs about 100-120 USD per 1000 USD or insured value for a whole year and the coverage is worldwide. There are many providers, just type "violin insurance" into a search engine and you'll find plenty.

Household insurance or travel insurance may cover a violin as a household or carry on item, but if you are unfortunate enough to have to claim insurance, they will drag their feet as much as possible. First they will want to delay the processing and then they will deduct some 40 to 50% if not more from the value because the violin was "used". They will only accept the full value if you just purchased it the day before a claimable incident. Also, if you carry a camera or other valuables as well, the total value of all items is likely to be above the maximum such insurance policies set. Musical instrument insurance is far better suited, which should not be a surprise.

January 18, 2009 at 03:44 PM ·

 Thanks Tommy and Benjamin for your responses.  

Tommy - I also like that shaped BAM case, the price not withstanding!  I would, however, like to see it but haven't yet been able to find anyplace local where I can actually see it and hold it.  (In NYC!!) The one I've got my eye on is that 2002XL at 3.1 lbs. - 2 bow holders, strap for shoulder rest, but no music pocket.  I do have a nice, sturdy, lightweight Gig bag that I like but it's kind of large.   I would love to know if anyone has traveled with that Gig bag.  The airline web sites list a size limit at 45 linear inches (height + length + width).  Even that BAM case is 3/4" longer than that.

Benjamin - I do have insurance on my violin and will just have to check with my agent about the extent/limits of the coverage when traveling.

Thanks again!!

January 18, 2009 at 04:31 PM ·

In 10 years worth of regular commercial coach class flying domestically as well as internationally, only once have I ever been in a plane that did NOT fit a standard oblong violin case in the overhead-that was a tiny 2 engine puddle jumper that seated 15 people, and then the steward let me put my instrument in a closet.  Once.  Don't sweat it--just be early in the boarding order so you get your instrument in the overhead, this approach has worked to the extent that I have never been parted with my instrument, even on overloaded/overweight aircraft.

 Don't worry about those linear dimensions-odds are HIGHLY unlikely no one will pester you about it, a few have in 10 years asked me "are you sure that will fit...", to which I talk them down.

Rule of thumb: if the plane is a "Canadair Regional Jet" or larger-your oblong WILL fit in an overheard.  Period.  Tiny prop planes I haven't flown as often, but only once in many flights did I have a situation.

Again board early, to get an overhead...if all else fails, tell the steward/ess that your case has an instrument inside and cannot go in the hold-and anyones ridiculously oversized suitcases people brought onboard can and should.

Use your same old same old case.  If you choose to go the route anyway-avoid BAM cases.  As they are overpriced and poorly put together, and wear out very fast, and don't protect the instrument well at all.  My humble opine-as well as many folks.

I've never bothered "unpacking" my violin case of potentially "suspicious items" when flying-before or after the TSA came into existence-too much hassle for no gain.  Security will want to open my/your case and look around anyway, it just is more hassle for me for nothing.  There's no real knowing what will be "suspicious" anyway.

Example:

In November 2001 I was flying out of a small local airport, with a mass of musicians.  Security was backed up out the door-as they were paranoid (perhaps justly considering the time).  Of ALL the things in a violinists' case that a violinist NORMALLY carries, guess what they took objection to?  Strings?  clips? chin rest wrench? peg dope?  emry boards? Tuning fork? aluminum practice mute? digital tuner/metronome? Nope.  My fingernail clippers.  Not even the clippers so much as the 1 inch metal nail file attached to them.  Yep.  It was utterly ridiculous-even at the time, and I and many of my friends I was flying with raised our eyebrows, but I said "fine snap off the file"-the person did so, gave me my nail clippers back, and let me through.

January 18, 2009 at 04:40 PM ·

"I've never bothered "unpacking" my violin case of potentially "suspicious items" 

well, good luck traveling like that in Europe. Greece has a reputation of being lax (in general) so perhaps it won't matter there, but I can assure you that at Heathrow or Charles de Gaule, you will get yourself into trouble if you do not screen your carry on luggage for "suspicious" items. A guy I know got into trouble because he had a marzipan chocolate bar in his carry on luggage and most x-ray machines cannot tell the difference between marzipan and C4 explosives. I had some honey in my bag (left-over from the breakfast buffet at the hotel) and they made me throw that into a big garbage container next to the x-ray machine at Charles de Gaule airport. If you don't mind the risk of having to throw your strings or rosin cake away (the alternative being to miss the flight) then go for it.

"There's no real knowing what will be "suspicious" anyway."

Anything that is liquid or semi-liquid (peg dope) or any substance that may be confused for some kind of solid fuel or explosive (rosin cake) or anything that could be used as a weapon (an uninstalled string). Depending on the threat level of the day, those items may be considered suspicious, even if only technically, so why risk having to throw them away?

January 18, 2009 at 05:08 PM ·

Well Benjamin,

I flew out of Da Vinci Airport in Rome (quite a bit, 20 some years after the notable incident there in the terminal), and all the flights on AlItalia to the US were leaving through the same security area as flights to Israel...which meant lots  of gaurds walking around with MP5s ready to go.  No one bugged me about my rosin or peg dope.  Frankfurt has been the same, even sooner after incidents.  Prague the same.  Same with Gatwick.  

Which is worse-a few extra minutes at security, or getting to your end destination and unable to do emergency maintenance on your violin-as your luggage and all your "suspicious' violin items inside got lost-and you have an engagement the next day?  The odds of extra regs being tacked on at the last second are quite small-realistically speaking.

If items get taken away-you're out a bit, but the odds are so low-that it is worth the dice throw.


 My experience in the last few years is that the TSA in the US is more paranoid than most of the EU airports I've been through.  That has been my experience.  And I have yet to have any issues with them.

January 18, 2009 at 05:15 PM ·

I've flown many times overseas with my violin (using the backpack GIG bag you mentioned) and have never had a problem, though I worry about it all the time.  I carry it on my back and it looks like nothing compared to the multiple bags everyone else brings.  Just make sure you get on early to get overhead space.  Usually I don't bring my good violin but when I get to my destination, I wish I had.

January 18, 2009 at 05:20 PM ·

Just because you were lucky doesn't mean that you will continue to be lucky, nor does it mean that others will be lucky. It also depends on other factors, just like some people seem to be lucky with price draws and lotteries all the time, some people are lucky at airport checks all the time while others get picked out all the time, maybe its the spelling of your surname or your face, or the way you dress or your accent or whatever that makes you more prone to either being lucky or unlucky. Still it is a different thing to give others advice and say they never need to care, because that is simply not true. For every x "nothing happened to me and my stuff" stories there are y "look how they mistreated me" stories and you can't be serious telling somebody you don't know that they will be in the clear and should not be careful. I have been on a flight out of Brussels where every passenger had to surrender their shoe strings at the gate. Yes, that probably was a one time measure, but these days you never know what will be the policy on the day you travel.

The only proper advice to give is that if someone has something they would rather not like to have to throw away, then they should take precautions accordingly, just to be safe. The security policies are often paranoid, hence the safest strategy not to get caught up is to prepare with a likewise paranoid mindset. The only certain thing is this: What you don't have in your carry on luggage cannot become an issue.

January 18, 2009 at 05:21 PM ·

I had a small half used tube of crest tooth paste that I was not allowed to carry on.  At the point where security picks these things out, the only recourse is the trash can, which the security person "kindly" pointed out to me.  It's too late to put into checked baggage.  To prevent possible hassles, remove anything from your case that might be construed as a liquid.  This would include a case humidifier filled with water (ex: Arion case humifier), rosin, etc.  Making a fuss is a good way to not board and be out the cost of your ticket.  Training of security is not consistent, applying the rules is not consistent.  What may pass at one airport could potentially get you arrested at another.

Also, the recommendation for a smaller case is highly recommended.  Each airline has posted the size of carry on baggage.  Some times they can be picky (arbitrary) and not let you board if only one dimension exceeds the limits.  Unfortunately, can't squeeze a case to fit.  You could make it all the way to the gate, where you could then be asked to put into baggage.  Again, make a fuss and you may just not be allowed to board.  Airlines and security can just say that the rules are posted and claiming ignorance will not help you.

leave your better violin home.

Read this and other forums for airline travel.  Some of the posts have some horror stories both domestically and over seas.  problems can range from not boarding, stowing in baggage, or paying for a second fare (even for a violin).  These kinds of stories will better prepare you than the posts that suggest no issues.

It is better to prepare for the worse, than have the worse done to you.

January 18, 2009 at 05:31 PM ·

any travel stores prior to Sept 11 just don't really apply.

Listen to Ben

If your a risk taker, listen to the other posters.

January 18, 2009 at 05:36 PM ·

Benjamin,

I was about to append a  "YMMV", but oh well.

The "worst" that can happen is that you are going to a festival in the middle of a dry-season nowhere.  Out of fear you threw everything "suspicious" in your checked baggage.  Your luggage and your shoulder rest, strings, peg dope, humidifier, tuning fork, rosin are all in your bags somewhere in the airport system, lost-and gawd knows when they'll be found or get to you--and there isn't a violins/string shop in 20kms+....the festival start tomorrow, and you are playing in a concert in 3 days-and all you can do is hope/pray your violin does not split in 1/2 from lack of humidity.

That worst case scenario is far more likely than having your peg dope taken away.  Or being arrested for having a Dampit or other similar humidifier in your case.  There's always a risk no matter what you do-it is question of which cases are more likely, and which have worse consequences.

And of course, YMMV ;>)

January 18, 2009 at 05:44 PM ·

Michael,

If you care to read and do math, you'll see both stories I allude to happened after September 11.

mkthxbai. 

January 18, 2009 at 05:49 PM ·

I am only an amateur so any travel-to-concert-performance scenario doesn't apply to me, however, I have been a speaker at international conferences where I had to make sure certain things were in place and what I did was to ship a set of required backup items by FedEx in advance. I would do the same if I was a professional musician who needs to make sure that all accessories will be at the other end of the journey. Simply ship a set of strings and stuff to the hotel you're booked into. No big deal.

January 18, 2009 at 06:11 PM ·

there are ways to minimize risk and hassles.  Only way to completely remove risk is don't take your violin.

there is also ignore and be out a whole lot more.  You might have absolutely no issues, or the trip could be the worse, or anything inbetween.  I've checked in where one lady was told she exceeded the 1 carryon limit and would NOT be allowed to take a second bag on board.  Luckily for her, they allowed her to stuff her large purse into her other carryon and then everything was OK.

Strings: pack a set in checked baggage, put a set in carry on.  Easy solution.  Traveling to a big gig without being prepared is sort of silly anyway.  Anything construed as liquids, paste, gells, then be prepared to throw it away.   Yes, I have recieved my checked baggage by the time I was scheduled to return home.  I also had luggage lost on the way home.  Yes, I ignored the rules and had to toss things at security.  traveling by air can be a hassle even without the security issues.

If it is a vacation, and just bringing the violin along for fun, then maybe I would just leave it home.  there is so much to see and do in Europe, not playing for a few days should be OK.

January 18, 2009 at 06:14 PM ·

Put an extra set of strings and rosin cake in your check luggage but never check your sheet music unless you can afford to never see it again. I'd recommend hand-carrying the violin (as opposed to backpack, which looks a bit odd). A standard violin case fits in an overhead compartment a lot easier than many rolling suitcases. You should be fine, but whatever happens try to remain friendly (not belligerent) so as to keep the security and airline personnel on your side. Of course you should remain firm about not allowing your violin to be taken away - in the unlikely event of a problem. If the plane makes an emergency landing in a river, hold the violin above your head while waiting on the wing for a rescue boat. ; - )

January 18, 2009 at 06:33 PM ·

 It is always worth printing off the official airline guidelines for hand baggage allowances; often you can find a specific reference to instruments. I've had times when the security people questioned if I wanted to carry on my violin so I presented them with the print-off of their guidelines and no more questions asked (except at Ben Gurion airport, that wasn't exactly surprising though). If you can't find official guidelines, email and ask for written confirmation. Ditto for whether a violin counts as your only cabin bag, or an extra (like laptops sometimes are). That is one to be careful of.

January 18, 2009 at 06:37 PM ·

hand carry what you cannot afford to lose, check what is easily replaced.

Large items can fit in the overhead.  I've done it.  I have also shoved and pushed (crushed) until it fits.  Squeezing until it fits is common for the overhead bins.  Slamming the overhad bin doors two or three times till it latches iscommon.  I've also tried to put a large item under the seat in front of me, only to be told to put it overhead.  It seems the rules very every flight.

with higher fuel costs, airlines are more likely to enforce size/weight limitations on baggage.

Minimize issues:  check all banned items (liquids, pastes, gells), nail clippers, anything sharp or pointy.  carry the minimum carryon.  (1 per person). example: carry the one violin case yourself, get your significant other with you to carry the rest.  Remember, all the carryon has to go through the x-ray, the hassle of taking off shoes, having carry on searched, etc, it is better to carry light.  Use a smaller case.  Put spares in the checked luggage.

January 18, 2009 at 07:15 PM ·

this trip might justify a new Musfia dart case with custom interior  that can float.

January 19, 2009 at 02:07 AM ·

Thanks very much for the responses you all gave.  It's actually an amateur music program I'll be attending, on Kythira.

I think I want to take my Gig bag because it's lightweight and protective, and has that nice big music pocket.  It's just a couple of inches longer than most oblong cases so I'm worried about that.

In response to:  " Use your same old same old case.  If you choose to go the route anyway-avoid BAM cases.  As they are overpriced and poorly put together, and wear out very fast, and don't protect the instrument well at all. My humble opine-as well as many folks."

Boy, that really stinks!  It looks like such a nice case - small, strong, etc.  That Musafia dart shaped case is really lovely but it is tres expensive - and heavy, even if it is one of their lighter ones.  (There's one on their discount page.)

January 19, 2009 at 09:55 AM ·

With regards to the BAM case comment, I am completely at a loss for words.  I have two Mustafia cases, and four BAM Hi-tech cases.  One of the BAM cases got caught in the baggage handling system of an airport that I have now forgotten.  I only noticed it after the fact because it would not close quite as well as it once had.  There was slight visible damage to the exterior of the case and nothing visible on the inside.  I think that there are other cases that would have been crushed in a similar situation.

I just bought the latest BAM Hi-Tech for a new instrument and was surprised at some of the improvements made to an already excellent case.  Excellent humidity seal around the edges, excellent case latches with built-in combo locks, a velcro clasp for the shoulder rest, etc. As for the overall construction of all the cases, they are well made (with the exception of cheap bow spinners...this is still a myustery to me, the good ones can't cost that much more.)

I will not buy another Musafia case but may sell the ones I have and replace them with BAM cases.  I also have the BAM backpacker case and this will fit into a large suitcase once the bow tube is removed.  With the violin case surrounded by clothing and the suitcase, I have never had any worries checking this suitcase, with regards to physical damage.  (But I keep in mind that the luggage hold of the airplane is not climate controlled and gets quite cold in flight.)

Regarding extras kept in the case: if you are forced to check the instrument, the case may be opened and inspected before loaded.  It may happen that all the compartments may be opened and everything inspected and NOT put back in the compartments again, but left loose in the case.  Tuning forks and other hard items may be left to rattle around in the case until you receive the item again (this is especially true if you ship the instrument ahead of time.) It is best to have nothing in the case except the instrument.

Hope this helps.  P.S. I don't own BAM stock :-)

January 19, 2009 at 04:59 PM ·

 Edward - I was delighted to read your message - particularly the part about the improvements in BAM cases.  I've been spending way too much time on the internet researching light weight cases and I keep being drawn to that dart shaped BAM high tech one that weighs a little over 3 lbs (sans music bag).  However, several people (here as well as in another case-focused thread) have horror stories about the quality of those cases.  I hope more people will address this issue, especially those who have bought cases within the last 6 months or so.  Another highly recommended case is the Gewa Maestro - they have a shaped case that weighs 4 lbs and the recommendations describe it as very strong, very protective; I'm not sure but this one also doesn't seem to have a music compartment.

January 19, 2009 at 06:38 PM ·

Edward,

My experience with the BAM High-Tech (oblong) model lasted 2 years.  The first thing I noticed was the lid fabric getting clear indentations from closing into the bridge and strings.  After barely 2 years the rivets were pulling apart from normal use (the handle was pulling out of the case).  I used a pair of pliers to tighten them-and watched the shell bend and buckle as I did.  The case has a good seal around the edge for water-but no thermal insulation at all.  The temp outside the case-is the same inside the case within a few minutes.  The case shell lid can be distorted with only mild force with your hands, as it is only made with PVC.  these are the most concerning-apart from the many annoyances.  Fortunately I didn't pay close to MSRP for it-otherwise I would have been very ticked off.  It is light though, I will give it that.  There is also a thread on V.com I recall where someone's High-Tech melted after prolonged exposure to sunlight (extreme example of course).

The difference in build quality between a BAM and a Musafia are night and day.

Rae-Ann, my High-Tech oblong is still sitting in my closet unused since I purchased my Musafia last fall--if you really want it, I'll knock off 1/2 what BAM wants new for it to start.  biners and straps/ string tube/zip pouch/large music folio/keys included.  It is only eating up space.  Pics available on request.

January 19, 2009 at 07:02 PM ·

Interesting and diverse points of view here.  One point that has always worked really well for me is if there is ANY suspicion or aggravation from airport staff, I always start to talk in a really knowledgeable way about my violin/music/playing in orchestra/concerts/meeting musicians etc etc.  That has stopped my violin case being opened on several occasions as they obviously realise that you are the "genuine item" and not some pesky terrorist.   If you start to look and act worried/nervous when you are going through security - then it is probably a given you'll be stopped and searched. 

The piece of advice which I would most echo is always be polite but firm with anyone who starts questioning your right to take the violin in the cabin.  It is a tactical move to queue up at the gate in front of some overweight businessman with a huge roller-case, plus laptop bag, plus carrier bags of duty-free shopping, because a violin case is slimline in comparison.

By the way, if anyone on here had been travelling in the Hudson River landing jet, would you have taken a few vital seconds during the evacuation to grab your beloved violin from the overhead locker?   I've been pondering this one and decided that if I had my usual choice of a window seat (therefore not delaying anyone else's escape) I would undoubtedly have rescued Johannes the Fiddle...

January 19, 2009 at 07:32 PM ·

Hi Marc,

Thanks for the offer, however, I'm interested in the contour shaped case.  Interesting thought though:  v.com might consider a page where people can post what they're selling, or what they're looking to buy... 

January 19, 2009 at 07:37 PM ·

 Rosalind -

Good question!  Speaks to the importance of having a water-tight case - one that floats!  It'll be interesting to know if there were any string instruments on that flight... and how they survived.  Maybe Laurie can let us know.

January 20, 2009 at 02:09 AM ·

It wasn't sunlight that melted the bam hi-tech, but placing the case next to a vanity lightbulb www.violinist.com/blog/caeli/20077/7330/  typically, these use a 100 watt bulb.  A 100 watt bulb will melt plastic.  Looks to me it was placed awfully close to the bulb in order to melt the case.  When I was very, very young, I would use a 100 watt bulb to melt and shape plastic(not the best thing to do).  The bam should not have a problem as long as it is kept away from very hot sources.

bottom line:  do the research on the different types of cases your thinking about and be aware of the the pros and cons of each.  That way your prepared when you finally make a choice.

example based on what has been posted:  Bam hit-tech.  cons:  scuffs easily, will melt when enountering a hot light bulb, minimal interior space, and so on.  pros: very light weight, small, reasonable protection for a light weight hard case, good for airline travel.

musafia dart: cons: heaver, more expensive.  pros: greater crush protection, won't melt, with options may float, etc

January 20, 2009 at 04:10 AM ·

 Yup!  You've really summarized it all beautifully, Michael!!  Merci!!!

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