Ask Damian Erskine: Traveling with your bass

Q: I have a gig coming up that requires me to fly with my bass. I’ve never done it and don’t know if I should check it underneath or try and bring it on board! Any help?

A: I’ve done it every way you can think of and each has it’s upside and downside. Here’s my breakdown of your options and I’ll tell you what I do.

Checking your bass underneath: While it is comforting to know that you don’t have to deal with the “will you let me on board with this?” quandary at the gate, your instrument is MUCH more at risk underneath the plane and especially so if you check it at the curb or counter as opposed to at the gate. I had a custom flight case made for my bass when I first started flying with it and that introduced another problem that I hadn’t thought of.

It doesn’t always make it there when you do!!!

Airlines make more money shipping freight and cargo for other companies than they do your luggage. So, when your luggage is bulky, awkward, etc., it will often get held aside for a later flight. I once received my bass at my hotel a week later, the night before I flew back home! I had to rent the crappiest Mexican jazz bass you’ve never dreamed of at the last minute. Some airlines are worse than others (yeah, I’m looking at YOU Air Canada).

If you do check it underneath, it will also get banged around much more, so make sure it’s in a seriously padded/hard-shell case.

Bringing it on board is always the preferred method, and it is definitely best to use a combo hard/soft case. Something that is as small as possible, but can take a little abuse if necessary. I’ve used InCase bags (one of the best but won’t fit a Fender or extra long basses very well), Mono bags (fit all styles of basses but are therefore a little on the big side) and am currently loving my iGig bag (seems the best of both worlds).

Some airport employees will give you a hard time at the gate, but I’ve found that most airline hosts and hostesses are very helpful. Best to be confidant and just bring it on board. (If they make you put a gate-check tag on it, you can still ask the flight attendant if there’s room.)

I’ll often ask the flight attendant if they’d prefer me to put it in the closet (every plane has a closet for their own bags, coats, etc… and stuff like… your bass!).

If the flight is full, this is usually the way they prefer to do it. I even had one flight attendant give my bass a seat and put the seat belt on it (lightly attended flight).

Often on smaller planes, or very full ones, they will ask you to gate-check it.

Tip: I know many airlines are charging for checking baggage nowadays.. this makes it tempting to try and bring everything on board. If you have a suitcase, laptop bag AND a bass, you have less of a chance getting the bass on-board. Pay the $15, put your bag under the plane and try to look like you just have that bass that you love and need to use on the other end of the flight… You have a much better chance if you aren’t bogged down in addition to your instrument.

Gate checking is the happy medium. It’s also why you don’t want to be using a super flimsy, cheap-o bag, though… You want SOME protection if it goes underneath.

When you gate-check, it’s the last-on/first-off and doesn’t get banged around on conveyor belts, thrown by large men from cart to cart, etc… but it isn’t exactly sitting on a silken cloud either.

Just wait at the very beginning of the hallway immediately after exiting the plane, and someone will bring it to you. I did have an experience with NW where they checked it all the way through to my final destination (connection after connection) and I eventually got it tumbling down the baggage claim rotary of doom… “Them’s the breaks” (pun intended) as they say.

Whatever you do, don’t give a lot of attitude to anyone, just be courteous and nice and explain (only if asked) that it’s worth a lot of money and this is your career in this gig-bag, can I please see if it’ll fit?

That was a long-winded way of saying, spend $200 or so on a very well made compact, backpack-strapped and firm gig bag, check your luggage and just walk on-board like you own the joint, and you should be fine!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. DRub

    There is another option — send it FedEx or UPS to your destination if there's someone there that can take it, but you better have a decent flight case. I'm sure they're brutal with baggage.

  2. DRub

    There is another option — send it FedEx or UPS to your destination if there's someone there that can take it, but you better have a decent flight case. I'm sure they're brutal with baggage.

  3. Joe Ianniello

    I have always brought my bass onboard, w/ softshell case. Having the softshell case gives you a better chance of getting on board. It works every time

  4. Eric

    I’m on a plane w my bass as I write this now. Everytime
    I carry my bass on questions asked. Never check it. The overhead space is for my irreplaceable and valuable bass..everyone elses dirty undies can get gate dirty clothes really get preferential treatment to expensive musical instruments? If they try to put the gawdy pink gate check slip on my bass, I don’t fight it anymore–let them put it on then rip it off on the breezeway walk to the plane itself. These planes are run by the flight attendants…let THEM tell you you cant bring it–its their show, not some guy at the gate who just thinks it won’t fit. I’ve flown the entire US and world with my TOBIAS bass and gig bag and have yet to find a plane, domestic or international, where it won’t fit in overhead. DO NOT SUCCUMB!!!!

  5. I had my american fender 5 string stolen on a job in Miami. As I was flying back home, I had to check it in at curb side checking (pre 9-11), but I got bumped from my flight. The bass apparently was on the flight I was scheduled to be on and arrived in St. Louis before I did. I did everything I could to have airport officials and baggage people look out for my bass and put it in holding until I got there . . but that didn’t happen. Bass stolen!! It took 6 months to get a settlement check that I had to call about every day for the last 4 weeks in order to get paid. Very frustrating!!

  6. Great Article!
    I’ve flight with my bass around the world many times, and I’ve NEVER let anyone take it away from me… once they tried, but I just explained them with a smile how valuable, and important it was to me. Once the plane was full and I just asked an attendant to place the bass in the crew closet.

    Regards! Doug.

  7. Wolfpackleader6

    Very interesting, thanks a bunch!! I’ve been pondering this question for quite some time now.. :O Unfortunately, I play a Peavey BXP Grind 5 string so not only is it bulkey, but it has Peavey’s signature body (quite goddamn massive). Hardcases are hard to find for it…

  8. Great article!

    I travel constantly (cruise ship bass player), and after Air France lost a Modulus bass of mine years ago (got it a week later), I’ve been traveling with both a less expensive bass (a used Cirrus) and an SKB bass trunk. I always check it and I’ve not had a problem for the past 8 years.