If you play music, chances are you’ll be traveling to a gig, performance or audition out of town. If you’re a violinist or flutist, this isn’t a big deal– at least it shouldn’t be. But what if you’re a cellist or bassist? Traveling with these big instruments can be a pain in the neck (and hopefully not your cello’s neck!). Here is some advice: carefully plan ahead! You can avoid these problems and more if you keep reading.
Get a Cello Case
If you’re going to be traveling, we recommend you buy a case that has a hard outer shell made from a durable material. You want to consider how much you’d like your case to weigh as well as cost. It will be important to have a lightweight case if you’re going to be traveling and walking around. You won’t want to have a heavy case to lug around. It’s important to balance durability and portability. Make sure you don’t sacrifice one for the other. You will want the option for good backpack straps and/or wheels. You will want the case to have easy-to-open latches, not zippers, when possible. This will make it easier for you to open and close your case for airport security. Temperature and humidity are also a concern. You want a cello case with insulation, which will help control the temperature and humidity conditions.
What are some good cello case options?
For those on a tighter budget but who need more protection than a padded bag, the Cushy® Hard Body Cello Case or Heritage® Mobile Lightweight Cello Case can offer significant protection from bumps, drops, and pressure. But these are ideal only for situations where the cello is at no risk of being stacked or squished! If the cello is being put in a storage compartment like a coach bus or luggage cart, a harder shell is mandatory.
If you want to spend a little more, we would recommend you consider an SL1000, SL500, or BAM cello case. These cases are well-built and known for their durability, strength and lightweight options. There are a few different BAM cello case options. The “Newtech” costs more than other cases, but its outside shell is a double layered structure. This means it has two layers: the ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) outer layer with an anti-scratch PMMA film. The Newtech is fairly lightweight. There is also the BAM Hightech case, which has a three layer outside shell, which is supposed to make it the most protective and the lightest weighing option. The Hightech is more expensive, but it’s very lightweight.
Carbon fiber is a good material for lightweight cello cases, but not in a pure form. The carbon fiber shell is made under much higher temperature and pressure than most carbon fiber cases, the shell is strong and stiff, even when opened and standing upright, which every cellist can appreciate. This case can accommodate most cello patterns but is also available for Montagnana cellos.
Flying with Your Cello
The cello case options mentioned will withstand walking around and car travel. But what if you have to fly with your cello? You will want to consider getting a dedicated cello “flight case.”
There are a couple of options:
1. You could either purchase a flight case intended to protect your instrument if you check it, or you could purchase a cello case flight cover. If you purchase a flight case, it will be heavy but it’s meant to withstand the rigors of touring, rough handling, and being checked underneath the plane (with the passenger luggage). They are made from durable Kevlar and fiberglass.
Pros: You won’t have to buy an extra seat or deal with the hassle with the airline.
Cons: No case will ever fully protect or 100% guarantee against super rough handling by an airline employee when it arrives at its destination.
2. If you’re going to choose to fly with your cello and you own a BAM case, there is an option to cover your cello case with a BAM cello case flight cover in order to protect it when it’s checked as baggage. This flight case cover is a thick cordura cover with approximately 2 inches of insulating polyurethane foam. This is an indispensable addition to the BAM cello case for travel. The cover is molded to fit most Bam cases (Light, Flight, American, Shuttle, Voyager, and Newtech models). The cover may fit other brands of cello cases but we cannot recommend its efficiency when used with non-BAM cases. If you end up purchasing one of these BAM case flight covers, here’s a little trick we found on the BAM website: “Fit the cello case, head first in the Flight Cover, zip around the head, adjust the bottom of the case inside the Flight Cover and zip around the bottom part, the zipper pulls meet in the middle.”
Pros: Very protective. You won’t have to buy an extra seat or deal with the airline. More affordable than a “flight case.”
Cons: No case or case cover can ever fully protect against super rough handling or bouncing in checked baggage, and temperature could also be a concern if you’re checking your instrument.
Should You Even Travel by Plane?
The bonuses of air travel are pretty obvious: you will go to your destination as quickly as possible, so you can be well rested and ready for your performance or audition. The downside? Well, it can get complicated when you’re traveling with such a large instrument. Here are some things you’ll want to consider:
1. Research the airline you’re flying. Know the rules and comply. Be sure to print the rules to show to the airline employees, who may not be aware of the policy. One complication: if you purchase your ticket through an American-based airline, if a subsidiary codesharing airline is operating your flight, they may not be obligated to follow their parent airline’s policies. If you are unsure, call the airline and speak to someone, rather than assume things when buying your flight on a website. Protect your investment the best way you can, by buying a good case or flight case or case cover.
2. Check the baggage rules carefully. Sometimes additional fees are necessary. Other times, they may not let you check a cello or bass with an external case cover. Be aware if you check your instrument as baggage, it will go underneath the plane and be subjected to very cold temperatures. Your cello or bass could sustain damage or have other issues due to the temperature change.
3. Be aware of the TSA and their policies and procedures. The TSA has opened up cello cases in the past for baggage checks and does not necessarily handle the instrument the way a player would. There are horror stories about broken bows and cracked instruments; there are stories about checked-in cellos not making it to the connecting flight’s cargo and the airline losing the cello.
4. Check out the rules of FAA (if you’re flying domestically) and be sure to print and have it with you, in case you encounter problems.
5. Be aware and check out the rules/laws about cellos on flights in another country. International travel might mean you’re dealing with different laws. Many materials are banned from traveling between countries, including Ivory, Tortoise Shell, and many other materials that could be part of your bow or instrument – some bows like the Klaus Becker World Bows were made to avoid trouble at customs. Most countries in the EU should allow cello travel, but double check to be sure. Canadian-based airlines don’t have to abide by FAA rules of American law (even if you’re boarding a flight headed to the US). If you’re traveling overseas to other countries that might have different policies than ours, it might even be wise to bring proof of ownership of your cello in case any officials or customs give you a hard time when trying to travel with your instrument.
6. Allow extra time! The amount of time you give yourself to travel to your destination can make or break your performance or audition experience. Allow time for potential arguments with an airline or TSA agent if you intend to take your cello on the plane. Allow extra time in case you get bumped off of a flight (not unheard of, especially when a flight is oversold and they consider your cello merely as cargo, despite having bought a seat for it). There have been situations where musicians get bumped or end up having to go with a plan B for travel, such as renting a car and driving to the destination, so you’ll want to book dates accordingly to allow time for potential issues.
Switch to the Flute?
There are a lot of ways to travel and a lot of options for cases to make it easier. Each player will have to weigh the risks and benefits and make their own decision accordingly. Unless you switch to playing the flute, there’s no doubt you will encounter your share of headaches when you try to travel with a delicate and expensive instrument. That doesn’t mean you can’t be as prepared as possible though, and we hope you’ll benefit from this advice when you travel to gigs and auditions!