On my way to Icicle Creek Music Center in Leavenworth, WA, land of snowy mountains and high desert and beautiful music.  My thoughts turn to travel...
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ICMC in the Winter (Photo copyright award-photography.com)
As I transfer from plane to plane, starting with big ones flying out of Cleveland and O'hare to a smaller one in Seattle (en-route to Wenatchee, WA), I am reminded of stories from colleagues and friends of baggage mishaps and heartbreaks, especially with regards to precious cargo.  For some, the unfortunate item be a fragile souvenir purchased during a vacation, for others, it may be the means by which one makes their vocation.  

In the field of music, a damaged piece of equipment, or worse, an instrument, means not only a financial setback that could cost years of a musician’s income to remedy, but sudden painful separation from an artist’s closest friend.  Sometimes, a simple repair can do the trick to restoring the functionality of one’s damaged instrument; other times even the most exquisite and complex repairs, no matter how skillfully executed, will never return an instrument to its former glory.  

Fortunately, there are some things that are replaceable -- at a cost.  But who is there to help?  In the world of independent travel, the responsibility (and liability) is largely left to the ticket holder.  Some instruments are simply too large to be carried on to the coach section of an airplane.  If an instrument must be checked, it is important to know that airlines often do not accept liability for damage and have limited liability for loss.  Airlines are not liable for damage to any instrument not presented in a hard-sided case, and also are not liable for damage to the instrument unless the exterior case is also damaged.  I have heard more than one story of a friend checking their instrument (with “FRAGILE” stickers pasted all over the case) and watching from their seat on the airplane as it was chucked out of the plane or fell off the baggage ramp.  Our cases are built to be strong -- so strong, in fact that a fall like that may not even make a scratch or dent on the outside, but any owner of a fine instrument will immediately envision their precious cargo turning into firewood tinder and scrap metal.

What to do?  I don’t play a huge instrument, so I would love for others to share what they have learned from their own travel experiences. 

In the meantime, here are a things that I’ve found really helpful.

Insurance:  the no-brainer.  There are tons of companies that can insure your valuable belongings, and lots of policy types to choose from.  You should be able to find plenty of options at an affordable price, no matter where you are in your career.  Since my husband and I now own a house, my instruments and music and all equipment related to my work is covered under my home-owner’s insurance, under a special “valuable personal property” rider.  Sure, you say, you can afford that now that you’re ‘all grown-up!’  Well, when I was a student, I still had insurance for my musical property, even when I didn’t have health insurance.  I’m not necessarily advocating for that path -- I think both are essential -- but at that point it made sense for me.  

Imagine it this way:  Your instrument disappears while you’re sitting in a train station on your way to your next big east-coast gig.  If you’re not insured, you have the police report and the ‘power and flexibility’ of your ‘extremely large’ bank account to fix the immediate problem so you can still play the gig, and the long-term problem of recovery and repair or ultimate replacement.  OR, if you are insured, you’ll be able to quickly procure a short-term, equal-value replacement at little or no cost to you, and you’ll have a network looking out for your stolen article.  In the long term, if your instrument is recovered but damaged, the repairs will be covered.  If your instrument needs to be replaced, that will also be covered.  Which door would you choose?

Here are some insurance options (I'll list some specific options on a later post):
  • Rider on a home-owner’s or renter’s insurance policy
  • Companies specializing in instrument insurance
  • AFM or CMA low-cost insurance for members.
On and off the plane.  In addition to the tips I’ve given in my Arizona article, “Take the "I" Out of Itinerary” here are a few essential guidelines to stress-free travel.
  • K.I.S.S. and live to tell about it.  We live in a fast-paced world, and many of us who travel a lot get a sick enjoyment from the energy of hustling about.  To quote a classic airline ad, “We love to fly, and it shows.”  We like feeling “on top of the world” ... We... I digress.  Think about it.  If you find travel stressful, examine what makes it stressful to you, and figure out what you can do about it (and can’t, for that matter).  A lot of people find that the flying part is just dandy, but it’s the getting-to- and getting-through-the-airport that makes it less than fun.  And when you’re flying with an unusual item like a bassoon or a cello, it can be even more nerve-wrecking.  Make sure that you are packed correctly and efficiently to get through security, so that it doesn’t take you 10 minutes at the metal-detector to strip off, unpack, repack, and get dressed again (my overachiever husband keeps a packing list on his laptop).  Read the travel restrictions for your airlines (especially if you’re switching carriers and/or countries) ahead of time and keep up-to-date on the rules.  Additionally, I actually have a shelf in our bathroom dedicated to travel-size necessities and refill items regularly so that I am ready to go at a moment’s notice.  When you do go through security, make it easy for the security team so that they can focus on doing their job well.  If you’ve been easy to deal with, they probably will be happy to help when you ask to make sure your precious Strad doesn’t go flying over the rolly-bumpies on the other side of the scanner.  They may even stand by and pull it off carefully for you.
  • Ask nicely, and DO ask.  If you need assistance, or just peace of mind, a smile from you to an airport staffer can go a long way.  Just like you, they’re nice people, just tryin’ to get through the day.  Before boarding begins, 98% of the time I ask for pre-boarding.  And 98% of the time, I am permitted to do so.  I ask especially if the plane is small, if it is a crowded flight, or my boarding group is other than 1 or 2.  My violin always fits in the overheads, but it sometimes needs some patient explanation, which always goes over better when you’ve got a smile on your face and no one waiting behind you to board the plane.  This little thing saves me the headache and potential drama of facing someone who thinks they have to gate check my fiddle.  I also get first dibs at the overhead and can make sure that my violin is safely stowed.  If you are traveling with a cello, which admittedly I’ve never done, I’d imagine that this would also help you get down the aisle and seated comfortably with your companion, Cello Nicholson.
  • Carry proper documentation and supporting letters if needed.  I keep copies of all my important travel documents (including flight info, copy of passport and credit cards, insurance info, etc.) in a safe place that stays with me wherever I go.  I don’t check important papers for the obvious reason -- the one time I do check important papers is the time when my bag will inevitably get lost when my flight gets cancelled due to weather and re-routed five times.  If you are working abroad, have your visas, work permits, letters of invitation -- whatever fits the rules of your government and the country you are visiting.  It is also a good idea to keep a copy of all of these things in a safe and separate place.  Trust me, I’ve been there... and you don’t want to be me, do you?
  • Finally, and I know I’m repeating myself, but expect the unexpected, and (ahem) fly with it.  What is really important is your safety and the safety of those around you.  Ultimately, our instruments are tools, just tools.  They are not individually replaceable, but people are far less replaceable and far more individually valuable than any instrument.  If the unimaginable does happen, well then, I suppose you have a blank canvas, you artist, you.  Have fun with it.