Traveling Abroad with a Bass

Waiting at the baggage claim

Photo by Reverses

Q: Always a great read and insightful subjects, many thanks to you & the No Treble team. I’ve been playing locally so far, but now I’m prepping for my first international trip for music. Travel insurance and gear insurance is my responsibility. I have have a ’74 Precision and a 2012 RW Jazz Bass, and I have a high-end SKB case with TSA locks, and the regular Fender hardcase, also with TSA locks. Also there is an NS NXT with a custom made flight case twin butterfly closures with gig bag that fits inside the case. Backline amps are provided but for obvious reasons I don’t want to take the P bass, because it’s vintage. So I’m wondering if I should get a road case the SKB can fit into, and locks – which I’m guessing will be costly due to the weight factor. Or should I get a Mono single bass case that I can bring on board? What do you recommend?

A: While I have answered questions similar to this and covered traveling with gear in a past column, I did have a few thoughts while reading your question.

In short: keep it simple, bring only what you need and don’t worry too much about things not in your control.

As I’ve stated in previous columns, I bring my bass with me on the plane and always use a high quality gig bag with some padding (but one that also has as small a footprint as possible). I typically use my leather Reunion Blues gig bag or the “Aero” bag if I really want to keep the bag as small as possible.

I’ve never had an issue gate checking an instrument and successfully get it on-board about 95% of the time.

I do also have the same iSeries SKB flight case (which is a tank) and feel secure checking my bass in that, but I have had mixed outcomes with my bass actually arriving with me at the same time. Some airlines are worse than others. I have about a 50/50 chance of getting my bass with Air Canada, if I check it below the plane. Not cool.)

Because I don’t want to ever have to scramble to find any bass I can get my hands on for a gig, I will always try to bring it on board, especially if I have multiple connections. On occasion – and with a direct flight – I will use the SKB. If you’re bouncing around different countries on all sizes of airplanes and on any number of small second or third world planes, I would would recommend keeping your bass with you.

Keep in mind that every country is different. There have been times I was forced to check my bass at the gate and retrieve it at the luggage carousal because a random airline doesn’t allow you to gate check anything. I recently had a mad dash through Schiphol Airport to get my bass at the baggage claim and go back through customs in time to catch my connection because the Latvian airline absolutely refused to let me bring it on or gate check it. All was well though, and my bass sat in the overhead bin for every other leg of the trip. You very well may have to check it here and there and hope for the best but, most every time, you’ll be fine.

You mentioned TSA locks a number of times. These are only good for travel in the US! You will have your locks cut off your bag in any other country, if they want to get inside. This goes for locks built into the latches of those SKB cases. If they want in, they will break the latch to get in and there’s nothing you can do about it. When traveling abroad, don’t use the TSA locks!

Again, my advice is to bring the minimum. If you need an electric and an EUB (electric upright bass), go ahead and check the EUB in it’s flight case and carry your gig bag with you to the gate. Pack your pedals, cords, tools, etc. in your suitcase. I usually pack gear in the middle so it’s well protected from any side. I don’t even use the flight case for my pedal-board anymore. I’d rather pack all that in the suitcase. However, if there is a pedal, my in-ear monitors or some gizmo that I absolutely must have for the gig, I’ll put it in my carry-on to protect myself in case of a misplaced suitcase.

Speaking of carry-ons, try and keep yours as small as possible if you’re bringing your gig bag. That, or ask if they would mind gate checking that piece of luggage so you don’t take up too much space on the plane. I ask if they would “prefer I gate check my small suitcase, so long as it can meet me at the gate at the next airport, and so I don’t take up the overhead space”. They appreciate the offer, and I’ve found that gate agents are more lenient with my gig bag afterwards.

Many musicians will speak of carrying a print out of the F.A.A ruling on traveling with instruments. I’ve yet to have this work (and is irrelevant outside of the US. Actually, it works against you at times because they perceive you as a typical American who thinks the world revolves around our rules). I find it more helpful to print out the rules regarding instruments from the airline’s website. Granted, on an extended trip around the world, this could be quite a stack of paper, but if you have your itinerary and know the airlines that you will be traveling, it might be worth checking out each airline’s website and searching for that information. If it states clearly that you can bring it on board as long as it fits in the over-head on the airline website, it’s pretty hard for them to argue with you about it. If nothing else, I always ask if I can at least leave it up to the host(ess) on the plane. For what it is worth, my problems have always been with the gate agent and not the people actually working on the plane.

The earlier you board the plane, the more room there will be as well. It pays to have mileage status just for this “privilege” alone, when trying to find an empty over-head bin. Many airlines will allow you to pay to get an earlier boarding group number (it’s often pretty cheap too). If you have a full flight, it could be worth it to you.

This is a lot of stuff to consider and to worry about and, like I said, 95% of the time, I can stroll right on the plane with zero problems. I’ll often put my instrument in the first class closet if there’s room (not all planes have a closet). Big international flights are usually a no brainer. There’s plenty of room. It’s the smaller airlines zipping you from Warsaw to L’Viv for example that are more likely to be an issue. Again, almost every time, a gate check is the worst case scenario and it’s pretty safe… last thing on, first thing off.

Small plane? Unless there’s an empty seat and a very cool crew, you’re going to gate check it. It just won’t fit up there. Although I have had my bass given a free seat three or four times!

You also mentioned insurance. I’ve never paid for travel insurance. If I’m forced to change a flight because I want to, it’s my cost. If the band is forced to change the flights, that should be their cost.

I will implore you to get instrument insurance, though. I’ve covered this topic as well. Check out this column. Instrument insurance is very cheap and can save you a lot of money if something goes wrong.

I hope that helps. Safe travels!

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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  1. Trent

    Caution if travelling to Australia (and some other countries), I’ve never had an Australain airline allow a bass as carry on. I fly here with basses often.

    I’ve seen guitars allowed some times in the past, but not anymore. You will be forced to check them.

    I’ve seen acoustic guitars in carbon fibre flight cases end up with holes and splits. No way I’d ever fly with a soft case (even though I do love my Mono bags).

  2. Brilliant article. As mentioned in the comment by Trent, Mono make some very good cases. The Musicians Union (last time I checked) cover you up to £2000 worth of equipment as part of the standard membership fee.

  3. lonnie Trevino jr

    Never have I had a problem. I’ve traveled abroad over 20 years.

  4. Jeff McElroy

    I’ve found that your #1 friend when negotiating with airline staff is a friendly attitude as soon as you step into the airport… which is easier said than done because alot of the time you’re usually in a hurry, very tired, often hungry and more than just a little lost.

  5. The more and more I traveled abroad, and in the states, I’ve found it harder and harder to carry-on my basses.

    I had used a double soft gig bag, and on big planes, I could usually get it stored in a closet, because it rarely fit in an overhead. But once I was overseas, if I had to fly between European countries, they almost always made me check it and pay $100 for the extra checked baggage. And then during one of those trips, one of my tuners was broke clean off, luckily I had two basses.

    So since then I bought a Scott Dixon flight case, its an expensive bugger, but totally worth it. I no longer have to worry about if my basses will be allowed to be carried-on, nor do I have to lug my basses around the airport. And this case would have to take the biggest hit or a massive, massive drop to damage the guitars. Although if I have checked luggage, checking the case cost extra. But, there’s always that chance that they’d make me pay for & check my soft bag anyways.

    Not to sound like a commercial, but I travel overseas a bunch (3 times just this year!), and I couldn’t be happier that I bought it.