1. Know Your Airline’s Regulations
Extra baggage fees and weight restrictions differ from airline to airline, and depend heavily on where you’re traveling.
When you’re shopping for the lowest ticket price, don’t forget to factor in how much you may have to pay for that overweight keyboard case into the total cost.
The size limitation is around 62 inches (length + width + height), and the price for oversized luggage can be over $100.
Generally, the weight limit for checked items is 50lbs before the extra fees kick in.
For an extra bag under 50lbs, the price in usually around $50, but if it’s over the weight limit, the price can quickly go up.
A word of advice: don’t guesstimate that weight limit.
Each item you check will be weighed, and even if a box or case is just a few pounds over fifty, unless you want to pay that fee you’ll have to open it up and redistribute a few items to make it work. Not something you want to be doing at 5:30AM before you’ve had a chance to hit up that airport Starbucks.
Even if your instrument is more than the carry-on limit allows, most airlines will accommodate musicians.
Ask a flight attendant if you can store it in the garment bag closet in the cabin or gate check it.
2. Know How to Pack
Be creative! Most drum, guitar, bass, and other cases allow for some extra packing room, not to mention extra padding for your instrument.
Stuff your socks in your acoustic guitar. Line your snare drum case with rolled up shirts.
I brought three steel drums and a full drumset (including hardware) to Brazil, and thanks to the extra space in the cases, managed to fit all remaining clothes and toiletries for two people in one duffel bag.
Also, make your packing job as neat as possible.
Unusual cases are often opened and searched in customs, so help the airline employees (and everyone in line behind you) by making the process as painless as possible.
3. Know What to Pack It In
If your bass is your baby, by all means invest in a flight case.
But don’t forget all those nights you’ll spend lugging that thing through the subway or the bus from club to club.
Pack a gig bag, preferably a soft one, for day to day use.
For custom made travel cases that are light but durable, check out Hiscox Cases, a UK company. If you’ve got more unusual items, check out New World Case, Inc. And regardless of whether you’re checking or carrying on, it never hurts to slap on the fragile stickers (available at most post offices and UPS stores).
Editor’s Note: For more on packing instruments, look out for an upcoming article spotlighting various gear cases for traveling.
4. Know What Is (And Isn’t) Available
Depending on your situation, you may want to consider buying your instrument overseas. While American brands will have import prices, you may be able to find something local that’s high quality for a good price.
Make a list of items you’re picky about (specific strings, sticks, effects processors, etc) and bring a decent supply in case you have a hard time hunting them down.
Also, bring enough of the small stuff (cables, screws, wire) to cover yourself for the first few months until you’ve found your way around.
A quest for a distortion pedal in Tokyo when you haven’t even figured out how to read the subway map makes for a frustrating day.
And remember, if you’re only planning a temporary move, you can always sell any instruments and hardware before you head home to lighten your load and fill your wallet.
5. Should I Just Ship It?
Personally, I’d no sooner ship my drums then I would my dog. So unless you’re not too attached to your instrument and feel you can live without it in the worst case scenario, I’d say no. Some shipping companies are notoriously unreliable.
A package I shipped to Brazil took six months rather than the guaranteed six weeks, and the box was badly damaged and falling apart when it arrived. Luckily, I hadn’t packed any instruments in it (but life was tough without my espresso machine!). However, shipping to Asia and Europe tends to be much more consistent.
If you’re moving someplace with a record of reliable shipping, feel free to take the risk, but I would recommend using that box for something less precious than instruments.