Tricks for Getting your Violin On a Plane

Are you like me? Do you constantly get told by snippety airline employees: “Ma’am, you’ll have to check that”. Yes? Well here are a few ways to get around the tribulations of Travel With Violin Case.

It is of utmost importance to have a case with backpack straps. If you are a rather tall and unthin* person like me, you should be able to hide it easily by having the violin down your back so no one sees it. 

Yes, there is a violin in this picture

Be sure to have your straps lengthened so the case is below your shoulders!

Don’t do this


If you are small and/or slender, try to wear a bulky kind of outfit, so it goes unnoticed

Do this, even if it looks a bit funko.

In either case, be sure to keep your eyes and front turned towards the employee at all times – never show them your back, or side

This scary situation might occur if violin case is spotted.

and smile heaps!!!

Always face forwardNow go

. You will find that the ticket taker will turn her or his attention towards the next passenger quickly. As soon as this happens, turn, and stride meaningfully (don’t run) down the gangplank – You’re nearly there!

Now, as you enter the cabin, the flight attendant will look at your ticket again (ostensibly because you are too stupid to be on the correct flight). Same as before! Smile! Ask her how she is!.

Turn at the last minute and walk as fast as possible down the aisle. If she says something, pretend you don’t hear and keep going. Other passengers will come in behind, and hide you from view. This should get you to your seat! (Ideally, you will have pre-boarded -but more on that later). If you are first to your row, put your violin in the overhead and plop down. Anything else – under the seat – don’t make trouble by shoving a big coat up there or similar.

Normally from here on in it’s smooth sailing – but sometimes you get an irate passenger who wants to stow his giant overstuffed rollaboard above (this happens more and more, as airlines are charging for baggage). He might huff and puff, complain and swear, and then you should explain to him that if he puts his rollaboard sideways, it will fit. If there are two of them, they will both fit sideways, with your violin in the back. If they continue complaining, you can sweetly point out that each overhead compartment fits three rollerboards wheels first, and yours fits a violin and two rollaboards sideways (please see excellently drawn diagram), so, what is the (optional expletive here – although it won’t help you, it does feel cathartic) difference?

excellent diagram

(I don’t recommend asking, in a very loud voice, if the passengers failed at building blocks in kindergarten, or have ever heard of tessellation. Trust me). 

A lot of this hinges on pre-boarding. So, how do you pre-board?

Good question. The easiest is: fly piles and upgrade yourself a lot. Another is: fly piles and have a gold airline card that allows you to pre-board. I realize these are not everyone’s options. If you haven’t either, always book yourself near the back of the plane – almost every airline boards from the rear, and even if you’re boarding a little late for the rear, you can , as a last resort, stick your fiddle in an emptier, more frontwards compartment as you pass…..but that’s kind of a drippy thing to do, so try to spy out what you’re in for up ahead – above you is always best.

In a small plane – they make everyone gate-check their rollaboards – don’t worry – if it’s a Dash-8 or bigger, your fiddle will fit! Plus, you have no competition – just don’t let them see it, and you’ll be fine.

Seaplanes don’t go above the danger zone, and the hold is in the cabin with you – ask them to be real gentle and they will, in Western Canada anyway….

Nearly Worst Case Scenario
(I have actually done this a lot). If it is on an airline that you; don’t often fly/ think plane might be small or full/ you really have got to get there; do the broken leg.  Go to the gate, and tell them that you’ve recently had your cast removed, and you don’t need a wheelchair ‘anymore’, but you need a little extra time to board. Be sure to limp (always the same leg, mind!), and try to look a little bit world weary, tired and sad.


In this case, do not forget the above advice – never turn your back! They’ll even try to wrench a violin off someone with a nearly broken leg.
{This works best on inter-USA flights)*.

Another Nearly Worst Case:
 They might come around the lounge and look for large items and try to force you to gate-check your instrument. Explain a little – if they get nasty, don’t fuss! – but as you are going down the gangway, simply tear the tag off before you come to the gate check bag collector, and voila! You and precious fiddle get on the plane.

Super Incredibly Worst Case Scenario (if there is truly no overhead space).
Stand up at the front of the plane, declaim who you are, what you do, and explain the value of what you have with you (if it’s less than a million, say it’s a million) (if it’s a violin made last year, say it ain’t – pick a year between 1690 and 1820 – Italy is a good default country of origin) and that you cannot take this flight if your violin is not in the overhead for insurance reasons . Explain that it’ll probably be a extra hour or two delay as they locate your suitcase to remove it from the plane (say this if you have checked bags OR NOT! Most airlines don’t bother, but it is a security issue so they can’t gainsay you). Ask passengers if any amongst them might deign to gate-check a suitcase, so the plane will take off as scheduled. This works EVERY TIME!!!….. but it’s really a last resort because it makes you feel like a complete schmuck. (I’ve done it three times – all with late connecting flights where I was the last one on).

Still, no matter where or when your instrument is from – it’s far more valuable than those other folks’ clothes and deodorant and toothbrush. Don’t be ashamed – be forceful….and resourceful! And polite, till you fight. And when you fight, make sense. Tears are not good (yes, crap! gah!  I’ve done that too…), but what really works is logic.

Good luck! And try to avoid US Airways, Delta, Southwest, and SAS.

If you can’t, try these ideas!! and be economical. Never pull out the worst case scenario unless you have exhausted every other means.

Lara,  2011

* –  I have coined that.

* – I don’t know why, but travelling within the USA with a violin is more nightmarish than other countries. However, they feel sorry for you and your leg much more easily than elsewhere. I guess that makes it even.

Special thanks to Eduard Laurel and Mara Gerety for their invaluable assistance and participation in the instructive photography.

49 thoughts on “Tricks for Getting your Violin On a Plane

  1. This is a good thing to know. However I would like to state that during one trip I did basically everything here, including the worst-case scenario (not exactly but it was basically the same) and the flight attendant still forced me to check my violin. I was very uneasy the entire flight and basically had “anxiety attacks” (not really, but you know what I mean) the whole way.

  2. This is brilliant, Lara. Thanks for the tips. I have had to do the “Super Incredibly Worst Case Scenario” once in my life. I did it out of sheer panic assuming I would be met with hostility from passengers but was blown away when a business man in first class quickly and calmly checked his carry on and insisted I use the space. He was horrified that the airline would consider forcing me to check my violin and said “All my things can be replaced, your violin is a one-of-a-kind treasure”. I think he was pleased to be able to help. Now I tell myself that sometimes people just need to be given the chance to help you.

    • If there’s no space inside the plane for one’s cello,
      or I cannot/or do not want to afford a second seat,
      or the company will not provide a ticket for my cello, then I fly with my cello in my Cellaire case. See my agency web site for more information accessed via

      Barbara Hedlund

  3. Excellent post! In Canada it’s a lot easier, luckily, but I toured with a small ensemble once who couldn’t afford a ticket for the cello. We got it on the plane by getting an “special boarding card” for a “bass violin” whilst holding a large violin case (actual cello not in sight). The boarding card was switched onto the cello (in a soft case prior) to showing up at the gate and somehow it got onboard and fit into an overhead compartment. It was an extremely stressful tour, as each flight we didn’t know if we’d all successfully get on, although we did in the end! Luckily it was short.

  4. I’ve actually flown Southwest many times with my oblong case (I even carry it in my hand rather than on my back as the strap is broken) and I’ve been pretty lucky to never have a single issue flying with it so far! Knock on wood!

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  6. Insurance will not even allow mine in overhead (not that I would wish a soft side in there anyway with all the pushing; crushing and shoving); so I buy seat in first class as there is much room (especially overseas to the states); or if in business I buy two seats.

  7. I have successfully put my instrument in the coat closet at the front of the plane near the entrance. There’s a little closet which is more than big enough to hold a tenor sax in addition to the other coats that are there. It never gets mentioned, I think it is usually just for the crew. But it holds an instrument safely in the cabin and I get to pick it up myself on the way out.

  8. I’ve actually never had a problem in Europe and I tour constantly. I have had trouble in the U.S. but it has always worked out. You mention avoiding SAS, but that is the main airline where I live and they have never given me trouble. I even very often bring a double violin case. KLM stewardesses are particularly attentive and usually notice I have an instrument and offer to put my case in a closet or strap it into an empty seat. All your tips are great. One thing to add is that you need to be confident and look like you know what you’re doing and assume that it’s right (which it actually is – violins are allowed). Another tactic which I haven’t needed to use for a while is to assure the check-in agent that it fits in the overhead and that you are happy to gate check it if it doesn’t (which of course you won’t do, but it pacifies them). But the main thing is….don’t let them see it in the first place, either at check-in or in the waiting/boarding area.

  9. ‘shaped’ case is better than rectangular…
    never say ‘viola’, always say ‘violin’…
    When available, I always request a cabin baggage tag for my instrument, to show it’s been approved for the cabin…

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  15. this we page contains an official letter from TSA allowing you to carry a violin on-board. DON”T TRAVEL WITHOUT IT.

    Click to access TSALetter.pdf

    Note the part about TSA agreeing to allow passengers to carry on one instrument.

    I have never needed to use it, but I carry the letter in my violin case just in case.

  16. Pingback: Airline Travel Headaches Mount for Musicians | Classical 101 - WOSU Public Media

  17. Lara, how do you keep an eye on your precious violin when it goes through the x-ray conveyor belt? What if you are delayed by a long line or the body scanner? How do you prevent an airport person from opening up your violin and touching it? What if they mishandle it roughly and cause damage? I’m always worried that they will use an explosive test swab on someone’s nice violin and ruin the finish or varnish! Do you lock up your violin to prevent strangers from opening up the case? Do you ask for a private screening? You are a celebrity after all! 🙂

  18. I have another suggestion. Try to put your violin in an another case that makes it look like a carryon piece of luggage.

  19. I fly with a french horn, and I have always said if they get nasty and insist it is checked (in a case that is not built to be thrown with suitcases!) i will simply remove my horn and give them the empty case. Wrap my horn in a jacket and keep it on the plane with me 🙂 Just another “worst Case scenario” option!

  20. Delta is now officialy allowing instruments up to the size of a guitar, I had the problem that the gitar did not fit in the overhead and the delta crew helped me to find a nice place for the guitar!

  21. I tour with an acoustic guitar fairly regularly, and I have had terrible luck with airlines. It used to be that they would provide a small closet space for moderate-sized instruments, but this had not been the case for several years. Last year I flew from California to Washington DC for a few shows, and Delta not only made me check my instrument, but they lost it on the way out AND on the way back. They were completely unapologetic and even hostile when I became upset. I managed to get them to deliver the guitar to my house a few days after I returned to California, and they simply left it in my driveway. It was also obvious that they had rummaged through the case. The entire experience with them was appalling. Any advice out there for guitar players?

  22. Singapore Air forced half of my school orchestra to check in violins/violas. Like the cellos, we half loosened pegs to and gently stuffed hankies, knit wool hats, soft gloves into open areas to minimize shifting. When carrying instruments on board, use SHAPED cases, and best not to stuff music in music pockets. Objective: lowest possible profile!
    Thanks for the article!

  23. I’ve also found that the storage compartment at the front of the plane for crew luggage is a good option. Usually if you’re nice to the flight attendant and explain that it’s a fragile musical instrument they’re more than happy to store it there. One time the flight attendant was so excited about having a french horn on board that he tried to convince me to play it for him!

    I’m also not above batting my eyes at a gate agent if it looks like a flight’s going to be extremely full and I think I can get a head start onto the plane…

  24. Can I simply say what a relief to uncover somebody that truly knows what they’re talking about on the internet. You certainly realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More people have to check this out and understand this side of your story. I can’t believe you are not more popular since you most certainly have the gift.

  25. Very good advice! I have found that if you can hide the violin on your back as you describe until you get to the stewards inside, you are home free. They are “yes people” and they will find a way to make it work for you.

  26. Very thoughtful! Thank you. I have recently found out that the music union has issued a policy that airlines may not refuse instrumentalists (especially violinists!) the right to carry their case on board! Next time, just mention this!

  27. I usually just talk to the gate agent before boarding even starts. I make sure to mention that it’s irreplaceable, very valuable (hinting that it’s worth more than they make in a year, cause it is), and I’ve never once had trouble fitting in the overhead. They’re usually pretty nice, and they used to even let me pre-board, although they haven’t since they realized they could charge people for that privilege. I find they’re way less pissy about it when you’re not trying to be sneaky! Even so, you’re totally right about keeping a low profile when you’re getting on. I’ve had an overzealous flight attendant try to put a gate-check tag on my instrument WHILE IT WAS ON MY BACK. She snuck up behind me while I was in line and tried to do it. Seriously. Like I wouldn’t see her crouching there? Gah.

    And I love the speech idea. I’ve never had to do it, but I’ve thought about it several times. Hilarious and probably practical suggestions on what to say.

  28. Asking questions are genuinely nice thing if you are not understanding anything completely, however this paragraph provides good understanding yet.

  29. Did you have to loosen your strings alittle bit before you get on the plane because of pressure changes?

  30. Lara, I performed with you with the former San Jose Symphony, soon after 9/11, and, as I recall, you were forced to remove your strings on your flight. I guess they thought you might strangle someone with them! During your performance the next day your strings slipped during a cadenza because of this. You handled it BEAUTIFULLY, but it has always remained my worst nightmare scenario!

  31. I’ve never had a problem with Southwest–in fact, I was once nearly the last person on the flight, and the flight attendant looked at me, said, “That’s a violin. You’re not going to want to check that,” and very helpfully found a spot for it in the cabin. My number one rule is never, ever call attention to myself. This most definitely includes approaching gate agents, which I never do. I do the backpack straps (I am tall) and always try to get a seat in the back.

    • I am a flight attendant for United Express. I work on the little CRJ700s, and I’ve never seen any crew member turn away a violin. We’ve rearranged things and people, dozens of times, to accommodate guitars and cellos, but I’ve never even seen a ripple, with a violin. I have seen a ripple with cocky or aggressive passengers, who enter, with the attitude that they are not getting on the flight without their “whatever”…
      But, an attitude can change everything. I know several Captains who play violins, and after watching the guy in the green shirt, play, angrily, outside the US flight, that they weren’t allowed on, makes me think that not only would our violin playing Captains ignore them, as well, but that the violins might not have been the main issue.

      • I don’t think that a lot of people start with that attitude – and you sound like an extremely reasonable person! I find that traveling these days brings out the worst in folks, and they default towards the idea that their instrument won’t be allowed and are somewhat defensive up front. It’s kind of understandable considering that the instrument is our livelihood – kind of like our baby. And all of us have some horrid experience. But I agree with you that attitude is key, and there is never a need to be rude.

        Hopefully soon we can find a happy medium betwixt musicians and flight attendants!

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