Posted on October 3, 2019, 12:00 am
Ok, so you've read all the advice from the professionals here on this blog; you've honed your skills, dressed the part, nailed the audition, and (drum roll, please...) YOU GOT THE GIG! Congratulations! So, let's say that this particular gig is going to be all fly-dates on commercial airlines; no private jets, tour buses, or vans involved. Great! Except for one thing: air travel is often a royal pain in the ass. But it doesn't have to be! Here are some tips to make the experience a bit easier and less stressful.
First, let's talk about gear. On certain gigs, if you're working consistently, they'll hire a cartage service to transport all your equipment to and from each venue, and you'll never have to actually travel with any instruments or gear. This is MUCH easier and more comfortable for the jet-setting musician... so, um, yeah.... get one of THOSE gigs [end of article].
Well, ok, not ALL gigs are going to provide cartage, and you'll be responsible for bringing an instrument, and if necessary, a pedalboard. Typically drums, percussion, keyboards, and amps will be rented (backlined) in this situation, and it's up to you to give your production manager a list of your preferred gear for the backline rider. Guitarists and bassists will often bring one instrument and backline another. Always give three options for each piece of gear, in order of preference, as not all backline companies carry the same brands.
Here is a list of what musicians will typically bring on the plane with them:
Drummers: Most drummers that I've traveled with usually bring their own cymbals, kick pedal, and any small bits and pieces they may need. Cymbals can be rented, of course, it just depends on how particular you are. If you do bring your own cymbals, it's best to get a hard case for them, and check it rather than carry it on.
Keyboardists: Most will carry a USB stick with their sounds for the particular keyboard that is rented, or a laptop with all their Mainstage/soft synth patches if he/she chooses to go that route. It is strongly recommended that your laptop/usb stick are contained in your carry-on bag rather than your checked suitcase, just in case your luggage doesn't make it to your destination on time. This has happened to ALL of us at one point or another.
Horn/string players (with the exception of bari sax, bass and cello): You're usually safe to carry your instrument on, especially if it can fit underneath the seat. If it needs to go in the overhead, you can always (nicely) ask the gate agent if you can pre-board to ensure you find an overhead space for it. Some will let you, some won't. Explain that it is an expensive, irreplaceable musical instrument, and you don't want to get stuck gate checking it if all the overhead space is taken up. If an argument ensues, mention the FAA regulation for musical instruments that basically states "If it fits, it flies". Not all airline employees have been educated on this, as the policy has only been in effect for a few years, so it's not a bad idea to keep a printed copy of it with you every time you fly. You can download it HERE: https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/us-department-transportation-issues-final-rule-regarding-air-travel-musical
Guitars/basses: To carry on, or not to carry on... THAT is the question. Friends, I've been doing this for a long time (I'm a bass player), and I will tell you this: I gave up carrying my bass on YEARS ago. I got sick of having arguments with gate agents/flight attendants, and always having to tell them the same thing: "trust me, I do this all the time, it fits in the overhead and/or the front closet, blah blah blah.". So for the past 10 years or so, I've checked my bass in a decent flight case that weighs in under the 50 pound limit. I STRONGLY urge you to do the same... Even with the aforementioned FAA regulation, bassists and guitarists are still hassled constantly and often forced to gate-check their instruments in gig bags. I see friends posting about said experiences on Facebook quite often. Now, if you do insist on carrying your instrument on, I recommend you at least download and print that FAA ruling on musical instruments... get it HERE: https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/us-department-transportation-issues-final-rule-regarding-air-travel-musical
You may have to educate a gate agent or flight attendant on this policy that covers ALL airlines operating in the USA.
If you decide to check your instrument, make sure you alert your team that you'll be checking an instrument in addition to your suitcase. If you don't have elite/premier status, there will be baggage charges, so make sure you'll get reimbursed (save your receipts to turn into management). These charges are typically around $25 for one bag, $60 for two, and $150 for three. It is not recommended to check more than two, just because the costs can get crazy. If you need to check more than two pieces, make sure you talk to management first and come up with a plan.
Guitar/bass cases: After trying a few different cases over the years, I've found that my favorites are the SKB iSeries cases. They have wheels,TSA locks, come in many different sizes, are waterproof, and are lightweight; mine with a 4-string P-bass or J-bass plus a few accessories weighs in around 36 pounds. No, I'm not trying to push a product I endorse (I have no official affiliation with SKB), I've just had really good experiences with these particular cases.
Pedalboards: Of course, you can get a board with a flight case and check it... just make sure management is ok with the number of pieces that you'll be checking. Another option is to put together a compact board that you can either carry on in a soft case, or put inside your suitcase. There are may options out there for small-footprint pedals and multi-effect units. A number of compact analog multi-effect units are being made these days, for those that aren't into the digital stuff.
Ok, now that we've covered gear, let's talk about a few other things you can do to make your airport experience smoother:
If you haven't already done so, make sure you sign up for frequent flyer programs on all the airlines that you'll be flying. Also download their apps to your phone, and have all of your information entered into each account. Most of the smaller airlines are part of alliances with the bigger ones, so you can get the mileage credit on your accounts with the major airlines. As long as you have accounts on American, United, Delta, and Southwest, you should be covered.
I highly recommend signing up for Global Entry. This involves an application, background check, interview, and fee, but it will save you LOADS of time in security, immigration, and customs lines. As a Global Entry member, you'll get TSA Precheck on all US flights (make sure you enter your Global Entry number, also referred to as your "known traveler" number, into all your frequent flyer accounts), and you'll have access to the kiosks when you enter US immigration from another country. This will allow you to bypass the long passport control and customs lines. Sign up link: https://www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/global-entry.
Once you start accumulating miles, you'll eventually achieve elite/premier status on certain airlines. This will get you free checked bags, access to the priority check-in counter, and early priority boarding... saving you a lot of time and frustration at the airport.
If most of your flights are on one particular airline, it's not a bad idea to shell out a few bucks and join their airport club/lounge. These lounges offer you a peaceful place to hang before your flight, and have free wifi, food, drinks, and power outlets. Having a club membership is a godsend in those times when your flight is delayed or cancelled... if you travel enough, it's inevitable that at some point this will happen and you'll have to kill several hours at the airport before you can get on another flight.
Lastly, BE NICE! I mean even a little overly nice. Greet the employee at the check-in counter with a smile and a little "Hey, how's your morning going?", or something along those lines. These people deal with stressed-out, pissed-off, entitled people all day long. They usually have their defenses up already when you approach the counter, and are ready to do battle if you mess with them. Airline employees always have the power to either hook you up or screw you, so it's always best to disarm them a little and get on their good side. This doesn't always work (sometimes they screw you anyway), but it definitely increases your chances of getting an upgrade, waived overweight baggage charge, etc.
I suppose that's it for now, you've got plenty to think about before that first fly date! I'll address some other travel-related topics in future articles. Thanks for reading, my fellow road warriors... until next time!
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