Travelling with your instrument can be quite tricky, so we’ve compiled some insider tips to make it easier and save you some money.
Write in to [email protected] if you have any further information as we will keep this blog updated.
Best way to fly? In my opinion, it’s easyJet. Violins/violas go as hand luggage with an additional item permitted, cellos can be booked easily online, and taxes can be refunded easily via the online form after the flight. Shout-out to the ISM for campaigning for easyJet to allow instruments, and see below for the detailed roundup on the airlines.
Airlines must refund you any taxes charged for musical instrument seats. While some airlines (e.g. BA) do not charge the taxes upfront, others do. You can request a refund of Air Passenger Duty (APD) after your flight.
Similarly, if you have cancelled your ticket, even if it’s non-refundable, the airline can refund you any taxes paid.
Taxes are determined by departure airport and the amount varies.
Cellos and lutes always require an extra seat. Approximate dimensions and weight are 137x54x33 cm / 7 kg. Airlines get confused between lutes and cellos so it’s always easier just to say lute.
Violins and violas require an extra seat on some airlines – see below. Approximate violin dimensions are 80x24x13 cm / 3kg. Airlines usually get confused between violin and viola so it’s often simplest to always say violin.
Double basses need a flight case. Flight case sizes and weights vary greatly depending on the individual player so be sure to get accurate info. Some airlines will take basses up to 45kg, some up to 32kg. Check individually every time! Double basses are classed as extra-large luggage and will usually be paid for at the airport, not in advance. Smaller airports often have smaller planes that cannot take double basses so do be careful.
Some smaller harps can go into a seat – again, check the individual dimensions.
Violins and violas can usually be carried as hand luggage. Smaller (and less obvious) cases are better. If the agents don’t see the instrument, they won’t question it!
Guitars, wind, brass, percussion – please write in if you have more information! All of this info is from Paula’s personal experience, unless otherwise noted, and her expertise is in string instrument travel.
Know your rights
I highly recommend that you have a screenshot or printout of the rules of whatever airline you are using as staff often don’t know that your instrument is permitted on the plane.
“For travel in the USA, carry on your person at all times the following information from The Federal Aviation Regulations (known to the people in the business as F.A.R.) This states that not only are large “cargo items” ALLOWED on the plane, but that they MUST sit in a forward-facing bulkhead seat (the wall that separates 1st class and coach, or the service area from the seating area). There are a few planes that don’t have this bulkhead, so it pays to do a little research and look at the seating configuration of the plane you will be flying to see if you will have a problem.
Print the following information and be prepared to recite it firmly but politely when you encounter resistance:
FAR for musical instruments:
These include the “Special Federal Air Regulation” (SFAR), also known as “Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations,” “Carriage of cargo in passenger compartments” (14 CFR 121.285), and read as follows: “(c) Cargo may be carried aft of a bulkhead or divider in any passenger compartment provided the cargo is restrained to the load factors in 25.561 (b) (3) and is loaded as follows: (1) It is properly secured by a safety belt or other tiedown having enough strength to eliminate the possibility of shifting under all normally anticipated flight and ground conditions. (2) It is packaged or covered in a manner to avoid possible injury to passengers and passenger compartment occupants. (3) It does not impose any load on seats or the floor structure that exceeds the load limitation for those components. (4) Its location does not restrict those components. (4) Its location does not restrict access to or use of any required emergency or regular exit, or of the aisle in the passenger compartment. (5) Its location does not obscure any passenger’s view of the ‘seat belt’ sign, ‘no smoking’ sign, or required exit sign, unless an auxiliary sign or other approved means for proper notification of the passenger is provided.” (Doc. No. 6258, 29 FR 19202, Dec 31, 1964, as amended by Amdt. 121-179, 47 FR 33390, Aug. 2, 1982)
There are also special instructions in each airline’s flight attendant manual (the “bible” they consult when they don’t know what they are doing) dealing with cargo in seats. I refer to this also. Here is the one for United:
United Airlines Flight Attendant Handbook pg. 3.110.21 lists acceptable seat stowage locations for oversized musical instruments.
Now, the implications of this are that you generally cannot reserve bulkhead seats in advance, so it pays to get to the airport early and check in with the gate personnel early, so they can swap your seats BEFORE people board the plane. This will save them time and passenger strife if they take care of this before boarding. I have started flying Southwest in the US, because they allow me to pre-board the plane and don’t have assigned seating. They always treat me with utmost courtesy.” Thanks to Jonathan Dunford for these tips in March 2016!
How to book
Each airline has its own policy regarding booking – some require you to book people and instruments online, some book people online first and then ring to book instruments, and some require you to ring to book people and instruments. The guide below is accurate as of March 2016, but we always advise you to check with the airline first! Encore accepts no liability for airlines’ policies.
See their rules here. They give a 50% discount on fares for musical instrument seats.
See their rules here.
“We often travel (for the last 30 years!) with AirFrance with our old viols.” Thanks to Jonathan Dunford in March 2016 for this tip!
Violins/violas: their rules are ambiguous but generally violins/violas are permitted as hand luggage.
Cellos: my only experience is with booking a group, where names are not required at the time of booking. Ring afterward to get a refund of taxes.
Violins/violas/cellos: ring up to book the seats. They do not charge instrument taxes.
Violins/violas: permitted as hand luggage with one small additional piece.
Cellos: book people online, ring up and book the cello seat. They will promise to call you back in a couple days with the price, but they usually forget so make sure you have the confirmation code (sometimes a separate one from the human) and ring back within 3 days. They do not charge cello seat taxes.
Double basses: ring up to reserve space in the hold (but pay at the airport).
Cello seats: ring up to book people and cello.
Cellos: book people online, then ring up to add cellos.
Violins/violas: permitted as hand luggage. I recommend having a screenshot of easyJet’s website rules regarding violins/violas as the agents at the gate often do not know the rules. I have never used Speedy Boarding (even with large groups) but it is an option if you want to be certain of a space for your instrument in the locker.
Cello: book online as Mr Seat Cello. When checking in your cello, use your own passport info. Request a refund of cello seat taxes after the flight. “Since March 1st they have a new policy for children under 16 not paying taxes. If you put the age of your cello down as under 16 when you are booking online you automatically get the tax off so you don’t need to fill the form in later. It’s only for flights departing from the UK but if you are getting a return ticket it works both ways. I tried this a couple of weeks ago and I worked just fine!” Thanks to Ella Rundle in March 2016 for this tip!
Double basses: easyJet does not accept double basses as the dimensions are too large (even if the weight is under the allowance).
Violins/violas: permitted as hand luggage
Cellos: ring up to book – they charge a lower rate for musical instrument seats on return tickets. (This is the only train carrier that requires an extra seat for a cello.)
Double basses: as of January 2016, not all Eurostar trains have a dedicated luggage hold which will fit the double bass so they no longer guarantee space for a double bass. Ring them up to discuss options. They are incredibly helpful on the phone!
Violins/violas: permitted as hand luggage. See their website for confirmation.
Cellos: book people online, then ring up to book cello seats. Request refund of instrument taxes after flight.
Violins/violas: permitted as hand luggage
Cellos: seats must be booked in advance
Double basses: ring up before you make booking. Some planes are too small to accommodate double basses. See their travel rules.
Guitars: “There was never a problem carrying my guitar in a soft case. No extra seat required. Small extra item (laptop case) possible. The case must fit in the overhead lockers. This is usually no problem since most lockers are doubles, i.e. they are connected. Only catch: You have to make it past the check-in people, so online check-in is advisory.” Thanks to Jørgen Lang in March 2016 for this tip!
Cellos: can book by ringing up; however, as of early 2015, cello seats were charged at the more expensive rate, not the cheapest economy fare.
Violins/violas: permitted as hand luggage.
Cellos: ring to book people and cellos together. There is a tax return form on the website for musical instrument seats which you can complete after the flight.
“I don’t know if it’s their official policy, but in my experience, you can book both the person and the cello online. If you write down CBBG as a first name, then your own last name as the last name, it works. You write your own passport number for both your and the cello tickets, if they ask for it when booking. You go to the check in counter when you get to the airport and they either give you 2 boarding passes or only one and write the extra seat manually on it. I’ve done this over 15 times with no issues at all, as recently as one month ago.” Thanks to Marc Labranche in March 2016 for this tip
Violins/violas/cellos: Everything is booked online. Request a refund of the instrument seat taxes after the flight (NB I have never tried this but it should be possible theoretically).
Violins/violas: permitted as hand luggage
Cellos: ring up to book people and cello seats
Double basses: book people online and immediately ring up to request space for double basses. If the basses are rejected because of their weight, there is 24 hours to cancel the booking (the request usually takes about this time, and SAS can extend the 24 hours at their discretion).
Violins/violas: “I used SWISS in summer 2015 to carry on my viola with no problem.” Thanks to Jarita Ng for this tip!
Cellos: ring up to book people and instrument seats. Be very careful with SWISS as I recently had an experience where they told me a cello seat was booked and then cancelled it without informing me – I found out when I arrived at the airport in Zuerich. I would not advise using them for cellos.
Violins/violas: at carrier’s discretion – confirm with them in advance.
Cellos: book people online, ring to book cello seats. No instrument taxes charged.
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