Travel has always been a glamorous mark of success for a musician. From touring bands playing in stadiums all over the world to school band trips across town or in the next state, musicians have been in planes, trains and buses, transporting their beloved instruments all over the world, sharing the amazing gift of music and praying their instruments make it in one piece.
Success = safe and fully functional instrument when you arrive at your performance.
Failure = broken, unplayable instrument or lost baggage and no instrument to play at all.
I have traveled a lot and have had experiences with both success and failure. Often my instruments travel without incident, but they have been damaged during traveling and I have even had them go missing, leaving me without a saxophone for my performance.
So how do you fly your instrument safely?
The options include - carry-on bag or flight case?
A Disclaimer is necessary here. Airline regulations are constantly changing. Is there a cost for checked baggage? How many bags are allowed? Are there weight and size limitations for carry-on bags? Please check the airline website for baggage limitations before planning any instrument travel.
The best travel option is to 'carry on' your instrument. You will have the inconvenience of carrying it everywhere with you, but it will not get lost or damaged if you keep track of it and take good care of it. Many small instruments can fit right in your backpack. There are also travel or gig bags for almost any sized instrument.
I prefer gig bags with some kind of hard shell protection like the BAM, Protec and SKB cases. Many of these cases or gig-bags require a little more caution than a traditional heavy wood case. Sitting on a gig bag, dropping a bag, or even a simple tip-over can cause minor damage. It is important to always treat your valued instrument with respect and care, regardless of the case in use.
I prefer my instrument with me.
The real issue arises when an airline attempts to force checking that carry-on bag, as baggage. A soft bag alto case could be a horrible and costly mistake for your saxophone if it has to go under the plane. The airline has all the control, and can even require a signed release form of all liability before trashing that prized pro sax.
For this reason, many musicians have purchased flight cases that can be checked as baggage, under the plane. Flight cases are expensive, large and heavy to move to and from the airport, and are not a guarantee that the instrument will be perfectly safe. If you drop a saxophone 5 feet on to the runway, your sax will likely have some adjustment issue regardless of how amazing the flight case was designed.
The down side is lost baggage. Bags are seldom lost forever but I have had instruments arrive days after I did. Unfortunately, even the airport personal have contributed to damage of instruments checked in flight cases.. Even with the best flight case ever made - the security inspections have resulted in broken reeds, dented necks, misplaced stuff along with general 'out of adjustment' issues.
When the security agents look thru your bag at the checkpoint, you are right there and they tend to be a little more careful. But a carry-on will have limitations that you could have items confiscated from your sax case - key oil, sticky pad juice, screw drivers or any knife or blade. Look in your case and read the forbidden item list to remove anything you can't afford to be without.
One final thought to keep adjustment issues away. When saxophones are shipped from the manufacturers, they have all the keys closed down tight. Key Clamps are available to do the same and can limit the damage done by being banged around in an overhead compartment or even a checked bag that could get thrown into the back of a plane. Key Clamps are the finishing touch for my travel plans with all my instruments, checked or carried.
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Los Angeles based freelance saxophonist Greg Vail is among the most versatile woodwind players on the west coast. His work in jazz, pop and contemporary gospel music spans over 30-years. Greg maintains an active digital presence at www.gregvail.com.