“Smuggling Guitars Onto Planes: A Comprehensive Guide” Kingston’s Journey #72


Yet another post that is outside the norm, today I’ll be sharing my nerve racking experiences of bringing a guitar with me as a checked bag across developed (US) and developing (Mexico & Brazil) as well as the tips and tricks I learned from these experiences.

So for context, many airlines don’t allow full sized guitars onto planes as carry ons and for those that do, many airline staffers are resistant, even if its allowed by airline policy.

And the reason musicians don’t want guitars as checked bags is the risk of it being destroyed by baggage handlers is too great.

Hogging an entire overhead bin to myself. Folks will deal with it.

Packing Your Guitar

But of course before even bringing the guitar onto the plane, it needs to be packed first. For that, a soft case is recommended. Reason behind this is you want as small a profile case as possible to bypass “gatekeepers” (flight attendants, baggage handlers, etc.) And within that soft case, wrap a couple of shirts around the neck (top) of the guitar to protect it from damage. The rest of the case, pack as much clothes as possible in it, this serves as bubble wrap. As for tuning, I’ve left the guitar on standard tuning no problem.

Where to Buy Your Ticket

Now onto purchasing the ticket, the preferred method is to book directly with the airline rather then a 3rd party site (Kiwi, Expedia, Booking, etc.) This way you are likely to be able to check in online and have your boarding pass on your phone (download the airline’s app.) Reasoning behind this is you want to bypass the first gatekeeper, the check in attendant, altogether and proceed straight to security.

That check in person is the first person able to force you to have your guitar brought as a checked bag (shudder). And make sure to pick a seat towards the rear of the plane, it will allow you earlier boarding which lends to more space in the overhead bins.

At The Airport

Now getting to the the airport, you want to get there earlier. And for those unable to do online check in and must do so in person, if you have a friend, have your guitar with them when you check in to get your boarding pass so it appears you have less luggage to the check in attendant.

If you are not so fortunate (like me), leave your guitar in a spot away from your person when in line checking in so it doesn’t seem like yours. BUT leave it where you can keep an eye on it at all times while you wait in line (odd chance someone will mess with it, more likely security will see the unattended bag as a threat.)

The Art of Concealment: Keep Your Guitar Out of Sight Out of Mind

Now boarding pass in hand, off to security/immigration. From here on out, your guitar has to be with you on your person, but there are a few things you can do to minimize the appearance of it. First off, when greeted by security, don’t wear the guitar like a backpack. This will make it quite apparent what you got on you. Instead, keep the base of the case on the ground, holding it by the top of the case to lift it ever so slightly off the ground when walking (or even drag it several meters when passing a gatekeeper.)

Do the above when security is checking your ticket and afterwards when at the boarding gate and when actually boarding the plane. And each time your documents are inspected, position yourself so that you are between the gatekeeper and the guitar (your body serves as camouflage). Plus you want to approach these gatekeepers when there is a good sized crowd queuing up. Think of it this way, by yourself, they have plenty of time to look you over. But amidst a crowd, staffers are under pressure to get things moving, lending you more odds of slipping by with your guitar.

As for waiting at the boarding gate (you got there early right?), seat yourself a bit further away so attendants responsible for your flight can’t see you as well. But when your boarding group is called, rush in line, guitar at your side (your guitar can still get gate checked at this point, that is, it is taken from you as a checked bag.)

And once past the boarding gate, walking through those long hallways to your flight, don’t think the coast is clear yet. No siree bob. Those pesky baggage handlers may be standing mere meters from the aircraft to take your precious guitar. Or the flight attendant that greets you as you board can give you crap. As such, continue applying the before mentioned concealment techniques up until you get your gear up and over into the overhead bins.

And if these final gatekeepers (right in front of the aircraft) do stop you, as happened to me, your next course of action is:

delay, delay, delay.

Be polite, but stall. Even a mere 30 seconds to a minute means more people backed up behind you waiting to board. As the line builds, pressure mounts on these gatekeepers to relent (personal experience).

Only when you are inside the plan with several people behind you are you truly safe (and remember to get on early so there’s more space for your cargo.)

That’s it, that is my experience flying 9 times with a guitar across different continents. Hopefully for the travelling musicians out there.

Kingston S. Lim

September 22, 2020

San Francisco, CA

About Kingston’s Journey Series: Kingston’s Journey is a lifelong series. This is the travel journal I take with me. Whether you have questions such as how to change my life or how to travel the world, I think you’ll find value in the life lessons I’ve experienced and documented in this travel notebook. They may serve as travel inspiration for you. In Chinese, there is a saying, “讀萬卷書,不如行千里路.”

This means, instead of reading ten thousand books, why don’t you walk a thousand miles. This is my inspiration to travel every nation (or as many as possible) in my pursuit of my global MBA by learning as much as possible and recording these life lessons learned only by travel. In the end, I think the achievement of dreams, personal growth & aspirations out there through travel and adventure will lead to a more fulfilling life. Living and experiencing the “now” is how I’ll make my life a great memory in the future.

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