Traveling with a violin

Edited: August 21, 2018, 3:46 PM · There are so many nasty threads and stories out in the www about what happened to people who brought their instrument with them on an airplane. And while most frequent fliers are soothing, telling us that they never ever had any problems, it is still impossible to foresee what might happen, and not even on cheap airlines. There isn't any single airline as far as I know who officialy allow you to bring something of an average violin cases size to the cabin.

There are smaller cases (not suitable for a bow which has to be stored separately in a bow tube somewhere in the luggage) which claim to meet the permissible measures.
There are some cases suggesting their air plane compatibility by their model names, like " slim flight" or "safe flight", but offer storage for a bow and being moreless ordinary size cases. Models I've found which might really work (if placed diagonally) are only two, namely the
- BAM hightech overhead (obviously the same as the BAM 2003 cabin case series), a CF case of decent quality and appearance but definitely not on the cheap side.
- ROKKOMANN SuperLight in flight, a hard foam case of rather basic impression which doesn't give lots of reason for excessive enthusiasm.
None of them contains plywood, and I don't know how one could buffer the rapid changes of humidity caused by the temperature changes during a longer flight. Why aren't there more models around?

What are your strategies to travel with a violin? How do you cope with the uncertainty? I suppose no one would stay relaxed if the boarding staff would insist on your giving your precious away to the conveyor belt...?!

Replies (17)

August 21, 2018, 3:49 PM · My experience is only relevant to U.S. readers.

If I have to fly with a violin, I fly Southwest and pay extra for the early bird boarding. That way I know there will be bin space available. On other airlines, I can't count on boarding early enough to have bin space, plus if the airplane itself is one of the smaller commuter jets, they may not allow my violin on board.

There is a TSA letter which I carry around but contrary to popular belief, it doesn't mandate that the airline *must* allow a violin as a carry-on--it only mandates that the violin must be allowed as a carry-on *if* there is enough bin space.

If I absolutely had to fly somewhere with my violin that Southwest didn't fly to, I guess I would probably pay whatever extra was necessary to be sure I didn't end up in the last boarding group.

August 21, 2018, 3:58 PM · Nuuska,

Before I retired I was a Subject Matter Expert/Consultant working out of Bell Labs and traveled a lot. While I haven't flown lately I'm familiar with the hassles of traveling with stuff that you simply cannot put in the baggage compartment.

A big part of the problem is that the cabin staff are highly stressed people and they have to consider safety as well as the airline policies to fill all the seats. Many of them like to pass that stress down-hill to the passengers, particularly those with special baggage needs.

If you can, get an early boarding pass as being one of the first in the cabin there is less contention for storage space. If that doesn't work try flying first class as those passengers get less hassle from the crew - and they board first! Yes that is pricey but not as pricey as the alternative that musicians with larger instruments have to face - a ticket for the instrument itself. That is the last resort. Personally, I'd go for the first class ticket because the amenities are nicer, the crew friendlier, seats larger,...

No, it isn't easy flying with your wooden partner. Actually flying isn't easy anymore - that is why I no longer travel by air. Then again, I'm retired and I really cannot think of anywhere I want to go to that requires a plane.

August 21, 2018, 4:20 PM · I'm about to do this again and am nervous as hell. You really are at the mercy of the flight crew and they know it.

After a close call a couple of years ago, I ended up buying a special case for traveling––a shipping case made by Bobelock, which is theoretically small enough to shove under the seat in front of me if need be (and definitely less obviously odd-sized than my traditional case). Because it's just big enough for a violin, I bought a carbon-fiber bow case to go with it. They are both really easy to fit into smaller spaces.

I second the pre-boarding advice, however. Worth it for peace of mind.

August 21, 2018, 8:55 PM · I think people are overly stressed about it. Be nice and smile even when they're being impossible, and even pretend to be confused about it and keep nudging.

I've been flying both domestically and internationally, and really only encountered problems at the check in counters (Paris at Ryanair — well you get what you get for Ryanair...) and Hong Kong (just remove the gate check tag after they make you put it on). I do use a flight case with a bow tub for psychological comfort to know I can kind of put it on the floor worse case scenario. Sure, if you have money to pay for pre-boarding, go for it!

But even when I was in the last zone to board, which is like usually always, there always was space in the overhead bins even for a regular case. Maybe not directly above your seat and you gotta put it in the first chance you get. Just make sure you're at the front of the last zone line and don't be a dummy to board last...

Edited: August 21, 2018, 10:24 PM · 1st find out as much possible about the official policy regsrding musical instruments on board; print it and have it ready - as other mentioned, flight attendants and personal at check-in have a discretion to decide about carry-on luggage, but you can use the document to negotiate.
2nd do not push your luck with the 2nd piece of carry-on; at most a smart-bag, nothing bigger. You simply declare your violin as the only carry-on luggage
3rd by all means use online check-in, if available - that way you eliminate the first hurdle altogether.
August 21, 2018, 10:31 PM · We have 5 professional string players in the family, flying from NYC (LGA), San Fran, St Louis, Tulsa, Miami, and Nashville/Memphis. It wasn't that long ago--1 month in fact-- when someone in the family experienced an issue. TSA agents have become a REAL issue in some locations, and they love to have one agent disappear with your instrument while another is "dealing" with you personally. And remember, when trying to board with an instrument, regardless of whatever papers you might be carrying from Ray Hair of the AF of M (worth the paper it is printed on) or if you even have the specific Airlines own policy printed out, the flight crew (and it's probably the first crew member that meets you at the hatch door) decides what comes on board and happens on the aircraft. The laws you expect are no longer in force on an airplane. While you can appeal a crew decision to the Captain, they probably won't over rule a crew member who they have to work with. Bottom line is the earlier you can board, and the more you can have your instrument riding low on your back and not visible when you walk by the gate agent board, the better. NOTHING you do before hand to assure you can board with your instrument carries any weight, including buying a seat for your cello (numerous instances of cellos with purchased seats being denied on board) this summer If you are forced to check your instrument at the gate or on board, i suggest using David Burgess' advice (I think it was David on another site). Remove your instrument from the case, check the case, and ask for multiple blankets to wrap your instrument in, and stow it under the seat in front of you. One family member did that not too long ago. And the crew doesn't care how valuable you say your instrument is. It's baggage.
August 22, 2018, 1:00 AM · Excellent point about not bringing on another large carry-on along with your violin. Nothing bigger than a purse or a computer bag--that's your personal item, and the violin is your carry-on.
August 22, 2018, 1:16 AM · I travel with a flight case just for the violin body, with the bow detached. (pic below). It was a cheap chinese case and has served me very well in many flights.
The bow is also a cheap bow case. With the bow detached, the violin case is smaller than the average backpack and it has never raised any comment. Once sitting in the plane is very easy to find place to put them, even if the above compartments are full. Worst case, you can detach both and put them in different places.

Re: The changes in humidity, put the violin inside a plastic bag... yes, the mundane trash bag, before putting it in the case.

A plastic bag, folded in the case is a must for me. It protects from rain and changes in humidity.

Edited: August 22, 2018, 6:15 AM · Something that has helped me immensely in this situation is realizing that if there is not enough bin space left, or even if one of the flight crew is just worried about bin space, a violin case can actually be slipped behind the last row of seats on the plane. I've done this many times. Even just telling the crew that this can be done usually gets them to relax and let me on the plane with it.

August 22, 2018, 10:58 AM · Good points, all of you.
Carlos, where did you buy these cases? I couldnt find something like that for an acceptable price. The idea with the plastic bag - that's great! As often it's the simple things that are most effective...
August 22, 2018, 11:55 AM · I use a shaped BAM case when flying, to reduce the case footprint.

Generally in the US I try to fly JetBlue, and take the option to board early and get more space; once you've paid for the extras you're all good to go, and I've never had a problem with my violin and my messenger bag/backpack. This has been my experience flying between Long Beach, San Francisco, San Jose, and New York City.

August 22, 2018, 12:03 PM ·
August 22, 2018, 9:01 PM · Nuuska: I bought the violin flight case in Aliexpress.

Living in Vietnam made the shipping free or very cheap for me. If you are with higher shipping costs, you need to consider if it is worthy.

The bow case I bought it in ebay... Can't remember the seller but there are many selling them in the USA and I think it would not be difficult to find one.

The attachment of both together that I use it's a DIY with thick rubbers that, again, is a simple idea that works.

August 22, 2018, 9:33 PM · Don't draw attention to yourself. I use a low-profile case (Bam Hightech), wear it as a backpack, preferably underneath another backpack while boarding the plane. It's small enough that it can usually fit in the overhead; in a crisis situation, it can be put under the seat. But my main strategy is stealth. They tend not to question bags worn on the back. Also, make sure you get to the front of whatever boarding group you're in.
If they give you a tag for planeside checking, smile, don't complain, and when you're out of sight, crumple up the tag and stuff it in a pocket.
August 22, 2018, 10:34 PM · I travel to Japan with violins quite often. I carry the smallest shaped case that i can find, and have a couple that fit only a violin, no bow. I put the bow in a tube and pack it in my checked luggage. I wear a black jacket when i fly and have a black case that doesn't stick up over my head. I put the violin on my back and try not to draw attention to myself.

On the other hand, my Japanese violinst friend is so suave that he-on a regular basis-manages to get his Jaeger double-violin case tagged as carry-on. I do not have his super power. I rely on stealth and camo.

August 24, 2018, 5:31 AM · I also travel to the US or Europe with violins quite often. I use a double-violin case. I had few problems sometimes with specific airlines like Norwegian and EasyJet. They wanted to put my violins in the hold, I said NO, we discussed a long time and finally they let my violins in the cabin.
I understand that violinists can be stressed because you never know what will happen... I read this article recently:
The idea 'Print the documents certifying that you can board your instrument' seems to be a great idea. You can proove that the airline accepts your violin as hand luggage.
August 24, 2018, 6:56 AM · Mary, I second the crumple-the-tag-when-out-of-sight strategy.... done that a few times and never had problems. I do think not drawing attention to yourself and being nice are key here. While I understand the suggestion to board early, my strategy is actually to board later... I've mostly been using Ryanair as I've been flying around Europe. I get near the back of the line because when boarding starts, they meticulously check the size of everyone's bag to make sure it fits requirements... they really WANT to catch you at this stage and make extra money on penalties...but as it gets later in the process, they have spent so long harrassing the early boarders that they start to get worried about the flight taking off late, so they pretty much just wave everyone through at the end. It has always worked for me. On Ryanair there is actually an option to pay more and be allowed to take an instrument on board, but I've never done it as it is often more expensive than the cost of the ticket itself! Only once someone gave me a hard time that I hadn't bought that, I played dumb pretending I hadn't noticed that option, said I was sorry and that I'd do it next time. They let me through.

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