Excerpted from Strings magazine, August/September 2002, No. 104.

The Best Case Scenario

An expert shares some important tips for traveling with your violin

by Richard Ward

Even before the terrorist events of last September, carrying a violin or viola on board an airline flight was an iffy enterprise. In recent months, musicians have encountered greater scrutiny—and even more hassles—from airport security and baggage checkers.

For the past 12 years, I have worked with customers at Ifshin Violins in Berkeley, California, a large and busy shop. I've often been the first person in the shop to see damaged instruments when they're brought to us by customers. As a result, I have written letters to the insurance companies as well as airlines. In my correspondence I've learned a bit of background information regarding flight travel with instruments.

At press time, the maximum carry-on size allowed by most airlines measures nine inches wide, by 14 inches tall, by 22 inches long, and is much smaller than the standard violin or viola case. Yet, if you're a frequent flyer, you know that passengers routinely bring big duffel bags, and other large objects on board. Usually, if the item fits in the overhead bin, the gate attendants and cabin personnel won't object. But rules are rules, and if an airline employee does object, he or she can keep your treasured violin (and you) off the flight.

Today, airline regulations are in constant flux. Due to ongoing security concerns, there has even been talk of not allowing carry-on baggage at all. Everyone is on edge, and as a result, carry-on baggage regulations are much more strictly enforced. More than ever, you need to protect your investment. The one thing you should never do is allow airline personnel to take your violin case from you and check it in the baggage compartment. If you do, the chances are good that your instrument and bow will be seriously damaged resulting in expensive repairs and loss of value.

So, what can you do? You could take your chances and hope that authorities don't object to you carrying on your violin. I make a point of asking customers who have recently flown with their instruments about this and usually, there were no problems. If there is some objection to the instrument case, diplomacy and a good attitude may well help you get on board with a minimum of fuss. But you should be prepared or you may find yourself standing at the gate as the plane leaves without you.

Use a Good Case

If you hope to get the instrument into the cabin, remember that some companies, Bobelock for example, make cases that are designed for shipping instruments. Because the shipping case is shorter than a standard around-town case (there is no place for the bow) it is less likely to catch the eye of airline personnel. Keep in mind that some cases may still be slightly longer than the allowable size, and you'll need a case for your bow so you can carry it on board with you.

If you must ship your instrument, or stow it in the cargo hold, I recommend doing so only in a suspension case. The pads that support the top and bottom of the case's back go a long way toward protecting the instrument from shock. The shell that the case is built around should be strong, not flexible (plywood is better than Styrofoam). If the box is crushed, the case should be able to withstand the impact.

Packing the Instrument

Simply placing the violin in a hard case is not enough. Put foam rubber blocks or compressed soft paper on either side of the bridge, underneath the tailpiece, and under the fingerboard. The idea is to keep the bridge from falling. If there is a space around the instrument, place small pieces of foam or soft paper around it so that it can't move. If there is a case blanket, be sure it is in place. If not, use some thick bubble-wrap packing material to cover the violin.

If you're flying to a large city and will have access to a qualified violin repair shop, I recommend taking the strings and bridge off and having the sound post taken down. With no tension on the body, the instrument is much less likely to be damaged. Take the tailpiece off and place it in the accessory pocket with the bridge. If you must leave the tailpiece on, be sure to wrap it well so it won't scratch the top of the instrument. Whenever we receive an instrument from another dealer, this has always been done. If you simply loosen the strings, the post can move around and may have to be adjusted by a luthier.

Once the instrument is packed inside the case, it must then be put into a strongbox large enough to leave at least two inches of space all around the case. Use a new box, or one in good condition (boxes lose rigidity quickly). The packing material should either be Styrofoam chips ("popcorn," as it is sometimes called) or the case can be wrapped in bubble-wrap sheets with large bubbles. The case shouldn't touch the inside of the box at any point. Don't use wadded-up newspaper because no matter how hard you try to compress it, it will compress even more during shipping, and the case will bounce around in the box when it's handled.

Tape the box securely, wherever it can open, with high-quality sealing tape. Ifshin Violins frequently receives boxes that are partially open because the shipper didn't use enough tape.

When you check your instrument, insist that it is put in the pressurized section of the cargo hold where pets are placed. If it goes in the regular baggage hold, changes in pressure and temperature can cause serious damage.


If your violin, viola, cello, or bass is valuable, insure it. Get a written appraisal if you don't already have one. If you do have insurance, be sure to check with your agent and make sure that the instrument is covered during shipment. If you don't have insurance, you can get it from the mail carrier, but be warned, it's expensive (usually about 50 cents per $100 value). If your instrument is worth $10,000, that amounts to $50 just for insurance. Customers come in regularly with instruments damaged during shipping, but in our 20 years of shipping instruments daily, no instrument has ever been permanently lost. Damaged yes; but lost, no.

Which Shipper Should You Choose?

I usually recommend UPS or Federal Express. You should choose a shipper that can accurately track packages every step of the way. If your instrument gets lost and can't be tracked, you may never see it again. Whenever possible, go directly to the shipping company's own location. This will save you a great deal of money. If you're shipping across the country, you may want to pay the extra price for air (three days or less). The shorter the transit time, the less likely your instrument will be damaged. If the instrument is very valuable, overnight is best. Of course, if it's a Stradivari or Guarneri, you will want to hand carry it with you on the plane (or try to). The big shippers try to handle every box as carefully as possible, but with the enormous volume that flows through their systems every day, accidents do happen.

Ship instruments early in the week, especially during the summer. This reduces the chance that the box will sit in a warehouse somewhere over the weekend. If it is 110 degrees outside, and the shipment is stored in a non—air-conditioned warehouse, you can imagine the results.

Traveling with your instrument via air is invariably a stressful experience–especially with the current lack of clear across-the-board regulations. But don't forget that many airline personnel are under an even greater amount of stress. An abrasive, combative attitude on your part will only make things worse and make the gate agent much less cooperative. Remember, attitude is everything.

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