Travel Tips for Bass Players

Traveling Bassist

Q: I am going on my first tour with a band. Do you have any travel tips? Any travel tips relating to driving or flying tours would be appreciated!

A: I most certainly do, as I’m sure readers of this column do as well.

In no particular order, here are some things that come to mind:

Flying

Checking your bass underneath is a little risky as even the sturdiest of flight cases can take a beating down there.
In addition to handling, awkward sizes and shapes are the first to get left behind for a later flight, because many airlines actually make extra money on flights by shipping cargo for various shipping companies. This obviously can be a real hassle, as it requires you to waste a ton of time tracking your instrument – and/or pulling your hair out.

I once had my bass finally show up at my hotel a week later – at midnight – the night before I flew back home. I had to rent a bass for an entire recording session, out of the country. Not ideal.

Get a sturdy gig bag in case you have to gate check it occasionally, but try and find one that is also as low profile as possible so it fits in the overhead compartment – and one that doesn’t scare any flight attendants from letting you board with it.

Keep your carry on as small as possible. This also serves to make your boarding with the bass more likely. I usually just use a thin laptop bag with my essentials in it (iPad, bluetooth keyboard, chargers, gum, etc.). Everything you won’t need on the plane can go in your suitcase underneath the plane.

Be sure to have hand sanitizer and vitamins – or dissolvable vitamin C packets – on hand. This is a must.

Be nice to ticket agents and air hosts/hostesses. They don’t care how often you fly and who else let you do what. If you smile and ask politely, it could mean the difference between getting your bass onboard or gate checking it. I’ve even gotten my bass buckled into an empty seat more than once on very small planes, primarily because I had a rapport with the hostess. More bees with honey, my friends.

The Van

If your bass is going in the trailer, you might as well use a hard case. Things get abused bouncing down the road.

If you have a tube amp or tube pre, you may want to also consider a shock mount rack. Also carry extra tubes.

You shouldn’t be aware of the person driving. If you worry about the driving, request that they slow down or change any bad habits. Never drive like you’re in a hurry. You don’t get there much quicker and the risk of an accident is too great. Plus, it costs more in gas.

Make a rule: the driver should drive in a way that makes the most nervous passenger feel comfortable. No arguments. It’s everybody’s safety and lives at risk.

The driver doesn’t drive sleepy.

Get a hitch lock for your trailer and a quality lock for the door. Also try to back the trailer right up to your hotel door space, if possible. Hotels are no place to take a chance with the entire band’s gear. That big Econoline with the trailer covered in music stickers? Prime target.

On that note, be as nondescript as possible. Keep the van and trailer relatively free of stickers or other defining features. Don’t make yourselves a target, for police or thieves. That small town you have to drive through with the 25 mph speed limit for all of a half-mile in-between stretches of open 65mph road? Obey the speed limit.

The Bus

I haven’t had the pleasure of a real bus tour, unless you count the bio-diesel school bus I use to drive for one of my earlier touring bands. So the only thing that comes to mind here is: respect the space. Clean up after yourself, don’t make a bunch of noise at night while the rest of the band is sleeping, only liquid waste in the john. Be accommodating.
Basically, be cool… it’s a fish tank with more fish than tank.

The Hotel

Not all hotels are created equal, but here are a few of my personal habits.

Do not spread your stuff everywhere. Keep yourself contained, you’ll be much less likely to leave things behind.

Carry a compact power-strip so you can get all of your plugs rocking somewhere convenient, with all devices in one power-surging place.

A hot spot or wifi extender can work miracles. Some hotels will only have an ethernet cable, which does the iPad guys no good, unless you can turn that into your own, password protected wifi signal.

Check the alarm clock before you fall asleep. People often leave it set for ungodly hours. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve gotten jolted awake a 4 or 5-something in the morning because somebody left the alarm on.

The comforter does not get changed or washed very often, especially in the budget motels. Pull that thing right off the bed and leave it on the floor at the foot of the bed.

Regarding coffee makers… I was told this by a frequent traveler (and I have no idea if it’s true) – flight crew members have a disturbing use for those coffee makers: they wash underwear and pantyhose in the coffee makers in hotel rooms. So, in case that’s true, you will want to avoid using the in-room coffee maker. An alternative is to have those Starbucks instant coffee packets, which are pretty good. Just add water! (Beats hotel coffee anyway).

“Do Not Disturb” signs are your best friend for a sleep. I also like them when there’s gear in the room. If you’re really worried about someone coming in your room when you’re gone, leave the TV on at a moderate volume too (but not so loud it will disturb your neighbors).

General Travel Tips and Tricks

Insure everything, down to the pedals. It’s cheap, and if you need it even once in your travels, it will save you money.

That stretchy workout shirt type material is great for travel clothes and underwear. Why? because it dries quickly. It may sound weird but you can seriously reduce the number of undergarments and t-shirts in your suitcase if you don’t mind washing a few things in the shower. They’ll usually be completely dry by morning. I know a guy who toured Europe for a month with only two pairs of underwear and two t-shirts because he’d wash that days clothing at night and let them dry through the next day. He was never without clean clothes.

Polyester doesn’t wrinkle much.

Although this is less common, for those who have the opportunity to go on an extended tour out of the country, you may get paid in cash. If you have over $10k on you, declare it on the customs form! I’ve yet to have to worry about this, but I’ve heard horror stories about musicians trying to avoid paying any fees on the amount of cash they have on hand coming home from a long tour, and getting hosed as a result of that decision. They can confiscate your money if you lie about it.

Take care of yourself. Eat healthy foods and don’t drink too much alcohol. Traveling is hard enough on your body.

Unless you know that the water where you are is cool, don’t take any chances (especially in other countries) – have bottled water on hand. Even if the water is fine, there are various bacteria that we just may not be accustomed too.

Also, as an aside… all bottled water is not created equal (some is even less helpful than tap water). Ph balance has a lot to do with water’s effectiveness and absorption. Fiji and Smart Water are my two faves.

I’m sure you guys have a ton more tricks and tips for traveling musicians. What do you say, fellow travelers? Tell us your tips, tricks and stories in the comments.

Photo by Damian Erskine

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Share your thoughts

  1. I would also say, if you are travelling with a bass in the hold, tune it town about 2 steps. I’ve heard some horror stories where the neck has snapped under the combined pressure of the strings and the hold.
    Also, you can get airlines to check your bags in as fragile and get it specially transported to the plane. Try to cover it with ‘fragile’ and ‘this way up’ stickers as well as your home adress and the adress of your hotel.
    I also always wrap it in bubble wrap as much as I can. Around the head and neck, and then packing enough in so there is some resistance when closing the case. This absorbs some shock and prevents anything moving around in the case. Give it a shake and if anything moves, pack more bubble wrap into any spaces.

  2. What do you use for insurance? Most home-owners policies don’t cover music instruments over $500, which doesn’t go very far with custom instruments.

    • I have an instrument specific rider added on to my renters insurance (with my custom stuff insured at a value I choose,) but there are a few companies that specialize in instrument insurance – MusicPro and Clarion being two of the larger ones.

  3. Great article! Tips I’ve picked up along the way:

    –Bring extra strings, batteries, cables, etc. Chasing down gear in a town where you don’t know everyone and the whole band is locked in to the same transportation is no fun. Also, throw a capo in your bag for the guitar player…having to play a song in a brand new key for the first time at a show due to a missing capo is an interesting challenge, but one I’d prefer to avoid!

    –When flying, arrive extra early.

    –If you don’t have a tour manager, make sure SOMEONE in the band has a list of venue and hotel addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and schedule load in/show times. Get this info in writing from the venues before you pull out of the driveway–along with PAYMENT details. Print it out. Arguing about money at 3:00 am in a strange town is no fun.

    –Don’t ever assume your gear was loaded. Have a system, and double check the trailer yourself at the end of every night.

    –Always have a sharpie.

    –Keep track of who you meet at the venue. Owners, bartenders, sound guys, other band members. Write it down (if you’re a nerd like me, use an Excel spreadsheet). This info will be invaluable the next time you come through town, and these people will appreciate being remembered and called by name!

    • Agreed! All important tips!

    • Agreed! All important tips!

    • Also, if you’re traveling with an upright bass, bring an extra bridge….

      A few years ago I was touring Europe with my band. At our very first show, the bridge of my rented bass EXPLODED (right in the middle of a cowpunk cover of “You May Be Right”).

      By an incredible stroke of luck, someone in the audience not only had an extra upright bass bridge, but lived only three minutes away. After working the bridge into place using business cards, I was able to make it through the second set.

      The broken bridge is now framed on my wall as a reminder of that night!

    • I always return to the stage and the dressing room before leaving the club. The same rule can be applied before going to the gig : always return to the rehearsal room or warehouse before getting in the car and drive to the gig.

      A friend of mine used to carry his Mesa amp with a hard case locked with a key. We arrived to a gig 120 kms far from our city and he noticed that he forgot the key and we didn’t get the chance to get borrowed or rent a guitar amp. I had to broke the lock with a screwdriver to open the amp case, so we played that night.

      in 1998 we played in a open air gig. A lot of bands but no much time. To save space in the stage and time between the sets , people shared amps. When the last band played there was a bass amp in the stage and nobody knew who was the owner. We stayed in backstage for a while, me and my bandmates were the last band to leave the enclosure and nobody came asking for the amp, so we carried it and we taked it home , and the promoter never called us asking for it or telling us about a guy asking for a forgotten bass amp.

      In 1997 our drummer lost a snare support in other open air gig.

      LessoN : always take care about your gear.

  4. Great tips there..
    when I go on tour, I will always loosen the strings on the bass and I’ll wrap a towel around the body of my bass for extra protection in my hard case whilst it’s in the hold of the plane. I usually neatly fill all the gaps in my case with t-shirts so I have some extra clothing whilst on the road. I also make sure that there are a couple of my business cards in the case too.. Just in case it does go on a magical mystery tour at least which ever airport has it, they will be able to contact you..
    Great feature as always, look forward to reading other peoples tips and tricks.

  5. Great article and comments.

    I fly with an electric bass in a gig bag as carry-on very often. I would like to stress being nice to the flight crew. Keep in mind that (at least on domestic US flights) the flight crew has the final say as to what goes on the plane or gets gate checked. Sometimes the gate agents will have their own opinion as to whether or not your bass will fit in an overhead bin, and you can (politely) ask them to wait for the flight crew’s word.

    Bigger airplanes have a closet for the flight crew. If your bass won’t fit in the bins, ask nicely if it can go in the closet. The answer is almost always yes.

    Funny story- I once had a gate agent forbid me from bringing my bass on the plane, and I asked her to ask the head flight steward. Upon her return, she said (with a confused look on her face) “He said it’s okay as long as it’s a Fender.” Luckily I had my Jazz Bass so it got on the plane just fine!

  6. Lots of good advice! Here are a few more:

    – Try to eat as well as you possibly can. It’s really easy to pack on the pounds if you’re not careful.
    – Bring your guitar/bass/horn into your hotel room with you. I know it sucks schlepping your instrument into the room with your suitcase, but do it anyways.
    – Avoid using a trailer if at all possible. Pain in the butt to park, tires are crap, kills your gas mileage, and VERY insecure. A van with a separate cage for gear and a transponder key & alarm is what I’d prefer. (Although you’re always vulnerable to the guy with a flatbed, so please have insurance.) If you have to use a trailer, invest in a high quality hitch lock, pin lock, puck locks for the door, and a trailer keeper, and try to put it where someone can’t open the doors or separate it from your van and maneuver it away.
    – Be nice to people. This one is key.

    • Yes, avoid a trailer if you can. Best tour van I ever rode in was 15 passenger with a platform that went horizontally from the top of the 2nd row seat all the way to the back. It was rock solid. All the gear fit underneath the platform and was completely out of site and secure. Two to three people could sleep on top of the platform, one on the backseat and if necessary, one of the floor. With foam sleeping pads, it worked very well. It was also very safe. We were broadsided in New Orleans on Halloween. It was 4am and a truck carrying crates of milk ran a light, hit us square in the middle, knocked the van on it’s side, and pushed us to the other side of a three lane intersection (the driver was DUI). We had some minor damage to a few pieces of gear, but zero injuries. We all walked away and after getting checked at the hospital, we rented a cargo van AND a car just to finish the last three dates on the tour. We were seriously missing that road warrior van.

  7. …for traveling abroad, remember to pack electric power plug adapters (assuming your amp is 110/220 convertable) and remember that DC will ‘contract’ your muscles, so carefull grabbing that microphone!

  8. It only takes one destroyed instrument to make you QUITE willing to buy and use a suitable flight case. Never assume a flight crew will let you carry-on a full-size electric bass. Unless, of course, you’re sponsored by an instrument company.

  9. Get to know your travel-mates. Knowing wich of them are morning persons and wich ones prefer not to be talked to before lunch goes a long way in keeping the moods of the group.

    Have on hand a colour copy of your passport. In case you loose it or gets stolen, it really quickens the process of getting a new one on your embassy abroad.

    Specially in countries were you can’t speak the language, have a small sheet of paper sticked to your passport, with the phone numbers and addresses of the hotels and embassies. If you include dates too, your passport could be sent to your hotel by the finder.

    Photograph your business card with your camera equipped gadgets (and camera of course). If you loose it it might come back to you (or at least a memory card).

    Healthcare: a scarf can make a huge difference! Also: the go-to jacket should be rain-proof.

    See ya!

  10. Space is always going to be limited, however if traveling to a foreign country, consider packing some toilet paper. As you use it, you also gain room for souvenirs.

  11. Damian is almost spot on about Hotels, but I will share some things I’ve learned while working at hotels.

    1. Always check in as early as possible to your hotel room. Sometimes you will arrive in a city with a large convention and many hotels will be sold out or OVERSOLD. Meaning your “reservation” can become useless the closer you get to 12am. VIPs always extend their stays and can “bump” other “reservations”. If in doubt call in advance to see what their “occupancy” is like.

    2. Always check the bathroom first upon entering the room. It can often get overlooked especially if the hotel is busy and/or the maid is new.

    3. Always remove the comforter, they never get washed enough. Damian is correct with this. Treat it like the stuff your dog lays at the park, get a plastic bag and use it like a glove.

    4. Call in advance to request for a room near the front of the hotel close to where you park your trailer or valuables. Security is more likely to see things that happen at the front of the hotel. It can’t be guaranteed, but never hurts to ask.

    5. Leave the radio on when you leave your room and the DO NOT DISTURB sign especially if gear is in the room. TVs have energy saving features and automatically turnoff after a few hours.

    6. Some hotels have laundry services, so inquire.

    7. Many hotels also have a courtesy shuttle within a certain radius of the hotel, so ask before you fork out dough on a cab ride.

  12. 1) Stretch – often. If you’re young you may not feel it, but sitting for long periods, whether car or airplane, is SO bad for your body, especially your circulation. I know several older musicians who have had blood clot issues. A few have actually died from them.

    2) Figure out a way to give yourself some alone space – even if its only for 1/2 hour. I can’t stress this enough. Get away from everyone for just a bit each day, even if you don’t feel that you need it.

    3) Have a system for keeping track of your stuff. I mean your personal stuff – wallet, cell phone, other Gak. Every band that I’ve toured with had 1 person who was always losing/forgetting/misplacing stuff, and it became a daily issue – for EVERYONE.

    4) Treat everyone like they are your friend, even the A-holes. Especially the A-holes. You never know where your future gigs/beds/meals are coming from. The comments here about flight crews should extend to promoters, sound guys, tech staff, caterers, hotel staff.

    5) Remember why your doing what you’re doing – always. It’s certainly not for the money or exotic travel. It’s because you love playing. Give it your all for that 1-3 hours that you are ACTUALLY playing.

    check out this from Henry Rollins:

    http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://backstage.blogs.com/.a/6a00d8341c9cc153ef014e8a901c77970d-500wi&imgrefurl=http://blogstage.backstage.com/2011/08/henry-rollins-appreciates-the-stage-managers.html&h=669&w=500&sz=51&tbnid=Uga2qwWvx-wn7M:&tbnh=90&tbnw=67&zoom=1&usg=__ae9MGRE5JtBc3UJPqzNqHGW_PFc=&docid=U3tXYP2NUHio7M&sa=X&ei=04DXUf_EOeTG0AHfoIHgCg&ved=0CC4Q9QEwAA

    and for the lighter side of touring, this from the late great Country Dick:

    http://sdam.com/artists/bf/roadrules.html

  13. I found something very useful on my last trip to Rome. I lost my passport during the day and had no idea it was missing. Fortunately, I had a tracer tag on my it. A waiter where I ate lunch found it and entered my tracker number on the Okoban website. I was automatically sent a text message (and an email) with a pickup location before I ever even knew my passport was missing. Lucky for me, I was leaving in the morning for Germany and getting a new passport would have been impossible. Tags are available through mystufflostandfound.com That tag saved my trip from total disaster and I put them on my phone, laptop and almost everything that travels with me now.

  14. Has anyone here ever traveled with a double gig bag (a gig bag that fits two basses)? I’m flying to Japan in a month, and I’d like to take my main bass as well as a backup. I have a Reunion Blues double gig bag, but I’m concerned about whether it will be allowed on the plane for the overhead compartment or closet. Any input on this would be greatly appreciated.

    • I’d take care of you Zach! I always do whenever I see someone come on with an instrument.

  15. Here’s a couple additional things I’d add to the mix:

    1) Make sure whatever instrument you are bringing is in good working order. This seems like a no-brainer but trust me, sometimes if you only have a couple days to chill at home in between tours/out-of-town gigs you may not feel like fixing that dirty volume pot on your bass but you should do it anyway. Make sure everything is tight: pots, tuners, etc. Which leads me to the second point…

    2) LEARN HOW TO MAKE BASIC NECK ADJUSTMENTS!

    I can’t tell you how many times people have played my basses and wondered who set it up because they like how it plays. Generally, the answer is: me. However, if I need fretwork done, extensive work on the electronics, or there just aren’t enough hours in the day, I’ll end up having a luthier set it up.

    Learn how to make small truss-rod adjustments, how to adjust the intonation, etc. Do not be afraid of it. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to do this and it’s really easy to learn. Have a luthier show you how to do this stuff. You don’t want your gig to suffer because your bass needed a few tweeks and you’re 2,000 miles from anyone you know who could fix it. Which leads to 3…

    3) Choose a bass to travel with that is going to sound good and will allow you to find “your sound” regardless of what you are playing through.

    I realize this is a personal thing but trust me on this one.

    Also, if the amplification that you are using is provided by a backline company, it’s more than likely you may not always be able to get the rig you specify on the rider and you need to make sure your sound doesn’t suffer because of it. I’ve been endorsing Aguilar since 2005. On the first tour I ever did with Screaming Headless Torsos, I told the person managing the tour that I wanted an Aguilar rig. There were still nights that I played out of other rigs because that’s all the backline companies in those particular countries had. I learned how to get my sound out of other brands of bass amps (which were great in many cases) because I wasn’t going to let unfamiliar gear mess up my vibe or affect my sound.

    I was using a Lakland on that gig and for all intensive purposes, I never had bad tone once on that entire tour. Choose wisely, friends.

    4) Assholes are everywhere (Maybe even in your band.)

    Hate to say it, but its true. Sometimes people are talented players but suck as human beings. You might have to be in a band with someone who you don’t necessarily get along with.

    Personally, I’ve had this experience. The best thing to do is keep it about the music. If it gets deeper than that, don’t forget to act professional at all times and NEVER, EVER fight on a gig or in front of people who are handling the finances. It looks bad and amateurish.

    That’s all I got…

  16. I was looking forward to reading about travel tips for Train/Commute, but since I sort of already built up a general routine, I guess the flight part was the most usefull.

  17. Hey there Damian! Thanks for the advices, i am getting on a tour with my band on September in Europe so this is really helpful for me, thank you. I want to ask you about getting with a bass on tour, i have a new Dingwall bass I’ll be traveling with and I want to keep it safe, in the van and on the flight. I don’t have the privelage of taking both hardcase and and gigbag… do you have any suggestions what to do? Thanks in advance, Gil G.

  18. DI box if you don’t already have a sansamp bass driver buy one and leave it with your bass ive had to result to using it instead of an amp probably 33% of the time for VARIOUS reasons and it has saved my life so many times.