Successful traveling with your instruments begins at home. Pack your guitar with care; anticipate the drill at the airport. Here are some tips culled from various veteran guitar shippers and traveling musicians. All suggestions are just that: Your mileage may vary.
1. Remove all unnecessary items from the case. Ensure that what’s left in the accessory compartment isn’t going to cause problems with the TSA machines or humans — for example, pliers & string cutters or liquids such as polishing oils. Put any tuning devices or pedals into checked baggage or your carry-on bag. The main idea: Don’t give the TSA inspectors any reason to give your case any more than a cursory look or hold your instrument any longer than necessary. “The only time we have to do extra screening is when the owner has placed other items into the case with the instrument,” one sympathetic Transportation Security Administration officer says.
2. Detune the guitar. Don’t get carried away — just lower the pitch somewhere south of playing levels. You still want some tension on the strings. (Why? If worse comes to worse and the guitar’s in the aircraft cargo hold, it’s subject to wild swings in temperature and pressure.) The tuning keys should end up parallel to the headstock. Remove the tremolo bar and wrap it a bit. If there’s a removable pickup, remove it.
3. Gather your packing materials. Foam rubber, black & white newspaper pages, bubble wrap, the usual suspects for any packing job can be employed. Another favorite of traveling musicians is T-shirts. Not only do they help cradle the guitar, you can wear them at the destination. (Replace with clean souvenir/swag T’s for the return leg.) We can all agree that packaging peanuts suck, right?
4. Begin with a bit of support for the neck heel (where neck meets the body). Newspaper or heavy paper could work. Make a puck-like shape and mash it a bit. This offers some resistance to pressure on any packing on top of the instrument.
5. Get lots of crumbled padding under the headstock (peghead). Move the neck a bit and see if the headstock (where the tuners are) shifts. If so, add more padding, within reason. This is a good spot for T-shirts, not newsprint. Or rolled-up socks. Some people like to wrap the entire headstock in bubble wrap (small bubbles).
6. Fill in padding under the entire neck. Some people like to put a sheet of newspaper between the fretboard and strings. If your instrument is an archtop with a removable bridge, remove it.
7. Stabilize the guitar body. Make sure the end pin (aka strap button) has sufficient protection. If you can remove it, do so. If your case allows, add a layer of packing atop the headstock and entire neck. Cover the bridge with another paper puck. (Another school of thought holds that you’re better off with air.)
8. Close the case carefully. It should be a snug fit, but for the love of god don’t force things.
9. Tape the latches but don’t lock them. (Don’t use duct tape, which leaves silver-sticky funk behind.) If you feel the need to lock, attach the key in an obvious place. Alert the TSA guy to the key. No key and your latches might be toast when TSA wants in. Or use a case with TSA locks.
10. The TSA recommends for checked baggage: “Include short written instructions, where a security officer will notice them, for handling and repacking your instrument. Make sure these instructions are very clear and understandable to someone with no musical background.”
Random notes: Even if you feel confident about boarding with the guitar case in your hand, make sure there’s a baggage tag attached with your cell phone number. And a business card or similar inside the case. … “Fragile” stickers? Flip a coin. Might help; might draw unwanted attention from a troubled baggage handler.