Flying with an instrument is one of the most stressful parts of being a musician. It is truly daunting to have to wave goodbye to a beloved ukulele as they take it away to the conveyor belt. And despite the concern and complaining by musicians, the airlines are not making it any easier for us.
So here are 15 hands-on tips I learned for flying with a ukulele and keeping it safe!
1. Get a Hard Case
Let’s begin with what should be obvious. If your instrument is valuable, your first step is to protect it in a hard shell case. Yes it is heavier, but that is what keeps it safe from the outside. A couple of bumps here and there are inevitable during travel.
When choosing a hard case make sure it is exactly the right size so that your ukulele fits snuggly. It should not have any space to wobble inside the case as this can damage it. If it does, even slightly, I suggest wrapping a couple of old T-shirts or socks around it so that it is tighter during travel.
2. Label your Case
Once you get your hard case, put 2 labels on it: one with your name and phone number just in case. The other should say something like “Fragile. Please Handle with Care.” Of course, it is not guaranteed that the airport personnel will indeed handle it with care but it might encourage them to think twice before shoving it away with everyone else’s luggage. The label costs nothing so it’s worth a try.
3. Know your Options with the Airline
Every airline has policies about carrying musical instruments and you will find them on their official websites:
American Airlines policies: https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/baggage/specialty-and-sports.jsp
South West policies: https://www.southwest.com/html/customer-service/baggage/special-luggage-pol.html
In general, you have two clear options: have your ukulele as a carry-on item or have it checked it in.
The absolute best choice is to have your ukulele as a carry-on item where it will be within sight and within reach at all times. Avoid checking it in with the rest of the checked baggage at all costs or it might be the last time you see your instrument in one piece (or see it at all!). Don’t get me wrong, damage is not guaranteed. But in my experience, the constant worry during the flight is just not worth going through.
4. Priority Boarding
Many airlines are now including the option of buying priority boarding with your ticket. That means that for a few extra bucks, you get to board the airplane before anyone else and you get to be amongst the first passengers to choose some overhead space. So if your ukulele is a carry-on item, you get to stow it away safely and securely before everyone else gets on board the plane.
Tuck your instrument in to the side of an overhead shelf space and do not put anything on top of it.
If you do not find the option for priority boarding while purchasing your ticket, phone them up and ask them about the possibility.
5. Avoid the Emergency Exit
Instead of tucking the ukulele in the overhead space, you could also stow it away safely underneath the seat in front of you. There it will be just as safe although it does take away some legroom from you.
If you like this option, avoid sitting in the emergency exit rows because passengers sitting there are not allowed anything underneath the seats. Depending on the size of the plane, there will be 2 or more emergency exits.
6. The “Extra Item Ticket”
An alternative solution is to buy an extra ticket (normally known as an “extra item ticket”). a buddy of mine did this when he took his classical guitar to Spain and then to Italy and it worked fine. He travelled with a low cost airline and the extra ticket was really cheap. The hostess simply asked him to put the guitar on the window seat and fasten the seat belt on it. Nothing more. It was all really smooth.
I would still go with this option every time I can travel with a low cost airline. It is ideal for short trips.
7. Consider Getting Insurance for Costly Instruments
You do not need insurance if your instrument is cheap but if it is particularly valuable, buy travel insurance. When you do, take a few photos at the check-in so you will be able to prove that your ukulele was in perfect condition before the flight and that it was actually there (in case it somehow gets lost).
Right after the flight and while still at the airport, check the condition of your ukulele (and other valuables). If it is broken, damaged or lost, make the claim immediately. Otherwise it is likely that they will reject it.
8. Loosen the Strings for Less Tension
This advice is common because it’s good. The nylon strings of your ukulele can tighten up due to changes of pressure, temperature and humidity. And obviously, if they get too tight they will snap. That alone is not such a problem because you are carrying a couple of extra packets of strings (see the next tip) but it can get worse.
The real issue is putting tension on the saddle: the place where the strings are attached to the rest of the ukulele. Given enough stress, the saddle will snap and ruin your instrument. If the saddle is strong enough to withstand the tension and not snap, it might warp the neck instead. That extra tension has to go somewhere so loosen the strings and put your mind at ease.
9. Pack Tools, Accessories and Extras
Always make a note to pack a tuner, some nail files, one or two extra sets of strings and everything else you normally keep with the ukulele. You never know what you will need when on a trip.
10. Pack them Separately
Do not put these accessories with the ukulele but pack them separately in a luggage. Some things, such as nail files, can cause suspicion and are often checked by security. It is better to not have them open the case and manhandle your instrument.
What if you absolutely must have it checked in?
If for some unlucky reason you cannot carry your ukulele as hand luggage, here some further tips to avoid the worst.
11. Tuck it in the luggage
This is not the best solution but it is worth a try when options are limited. Put the ukulele (still inside a case) in a bigger luggage and tuck it in tightly amongst clothes. Make sure it is tucked in on all sides: top, bottom, left, right, front and back. You want the instrument to have a nice snug cushion from all sides and all angles!
In this case, always check the weight of your luggage and make sure that it is within the limits allowed for your ticket. If it gets too heavy, try a lighter or a softer ukulele case. If not possible, try the next tip.
12. Wrap the ukulele case with bubble wrap
I have been to many airports that are now offering a “bubble-wrap your luggage” service. You pay a few dollars and have the guy wrap your luggage (or any other item) in several layers of bubble wrap. I have never tried this myself with an instrument, but I have tried it with a small luggage and I got it back in perfect condition.
13. Travel-size Instruments
If the only reason you are taking the ukulele with you is to get some practice and have a little bit of fun, consider getting a travel size instrument. These instruments are cheaper, lighter and smaller making all the issues we have been talking about much easier to solve.
The Last Resort
c14. Travel in Other Ways
When my trip is not that long and I absolutely need to take an instrument, I almost always prefer an alternative such as a bus or train. It just makes it so much easier to keep the instrument close by.
Really consider going by car, by train or by bus. Yes, it takes longer and in some cases it’s not as comfortable as quick plane ride. But these alternatives are the best bet for the safety of your ukulele. Very often these alternatives are also cheaper. So always consider: is there a way to go on this trip without flying?
15. Stay Away from the Worst Airlines in the World
I understand that many people cannot even consider that last tip so here is a last one. Avoid the worst airlines in the world.
According to this list, these airlines provide the worst flying experiences and the worst customer care. Unless my trip is really short and unless I can get a really cheap ticket, I avoid these airlines at all costs.
16. Watch this video to learn more
That’s it for our tips. Wishing you safe travels to you and your treasured uke!