Flying With Your Hurdy-gurdy

These guidelines were written by Alden and Cali Hackmann, with help from the Over The Water Hurdy-Gurdy Association, RT Taylor, Pierre Imbert, Catherine Keenan, Felicia Dale, and Christoff Tellart.

The extraordinary security measures put in place in August of 2006 have made much of the document that follows obsolete, at least for the moment. If they won't let us have a paperback book, they certainly won't let us have a hurdy-gurdy. Professional symphony musicians have been subjected to the same restrictions, and forced to tour by train and bus instead of by airplane even though they have purchased seats for their instruments.

At this point our best recommendation is to buy a flight case or the equivalent. They are bulky, to be sure, but they're the only thing that will get the job done. Don't even think of checking your gurdy at the gate, unless you want to arrive at your destination with some of the world's most expensive firewood.

An easy and relatively inexpensive solution to the flight case problem are Pelican cases, manufactured for professional camera equipment. They are still bulky, but they are relatively lightweight. They have built-in wheels and a retractable handle. Model 1650 is large enough for most hurdy-gurdies, while the Model 1660 holds a Jenzat-style luteback. Be sure to get the "Pick-n-Pluck" foam inserts which allow you to easily carve out a cavity for your instrument (and some little holes for the other stuff - rosin, the crank, etc. These cases are available at a lot of places, but the best prices we've found so far are at B&H Photo ( At the same source you can get the Pelican 1506 TSA lock.

There is one caveat to this suggestion: while these cases are very, very tough, as far as we can discover they are not ATA approved. My bet is that Pelican cases are at least as tough as ATA-approved flight cases, but without the actual certification you are relying on the armor of the case to protect your instrument, and there could be some trouble with the insurance company should the case encounter something it can't deal with, such as a forklift. With that said, when we travel we'll be flying with Pelicans.

While some of it has been rendered moot by the new restrictions, some of the following older flight guidelines are still applicable, so please continue reading.

What we said about travelling with hurdy-gurdies before August 2006

Taking your hurdy-gurdy on an airplane trip has the potential to be a nerve-wracking experience, and for some it has been disasterous. Don't despair: even with tightened security after 9/11, many hurdy-gurdy players take their instruments on trips every year with no problems. Here are some of our experiences which should ease your journey with your instrument.

The principle is simple: Never let the instrument out of your control. Always carry it onto the aircraft with you. With this guiding principle in mind, here are the techniques to use to achieve it.

What kind of case?

There are several kinds of case available. These fall generally into flight cases, hard cases, and soft cases.

It is possible to purchase an ATA-approved flight case for a hurdy-gurdy. This is the only type of case that will allow you to collect insurance if the instrument is damaged. We have one, and we don't use it any more except sometimes as a coffee table: it's just too large and bulky. Although it's immune to most damage, it's still too easy to have it disappear to some unknown destination, and the treatment it receives is usually pretty rough - the baggage handlers figure that it's a flight case, after all, so everything in there must be well-protected.

Hard cases are, to our mind, the worst of both worlds. They're large and heavy, difficult or impossible to fit in an overhead bin onboard, and uninsurable. With that said, hurdy-gurdy players come from Europe to visit us and manage to get their hard cases on the plane with them.

A soft case is probably the best option. They provide the least protection, which can be an advantage when convincing a sceptical airline employee to let you take it on the plane with you, because it's obvious that it shouldn't go into the cargo hold with the luggage. They can be compressed a little bit in one dimension or another (carefully!) to get it to fit in a particular space. They are far lighter than the other kinds of case, which is good because you're going to be carrying it a lot more.


Take everything out of your case except for the instrument, especially your tools and electronic tuner. Store them in your checked luggage, because the TSA regulations no longer allow tools to carried in the cabin.

Before you go anywhere, remove the handle from your instrument. Store the handle either under the peghead (wrapped in several layers of cloth to prevent dents) or in your coat pocket or purse. If your luggage gets lost, you can probably replace the rosin, the cotton, and all the little tools relatively easily. The handle can also be replaced, but not nearly as easily - if you have to lose everything except one thing, the handle is the one thing to choose.

Check that your case shoulder strap and its clasps are in good condition.

New TSA regulations only allow one piece of hand luggage. There is an exception for musical instruments. If you are flying on an airline that is particularly sticky on this issue, just take your instrument as your carry-on piece. Put your other inflight needs (medications, reading material, etc) in your coat pockets, your purse, or a small briefcase.


At the center of travelling with your hurdy-gurdy is attitude. It is helpful to exude a sense of calmness and command: it is your right to travel with your instrument and to have it arrive at your destination unscathed. If you are hesitant, you allow the airline to have power over you: they are doing you a favor, and you are the supplicant. If you are confident without arrogance, you are doing them the favor of choosing their airline to meet your special needs.

At the check-in counter

The first line of defense is to simply avoid the question of whether you can bring the instrument on board.

Airlines often have a box at the check-in counter and gate counter with a sign that says, "If it doesn't fit in the box, you have to check it." When you take a look at the box size, you'll know your instrument isn't going to fit. Ignore the box: it's just there as a guideline. The crew and ultimately the captain of the aircraft has the final say about what goes in the passenger cabin.

Don't bring your instrument to the attention of the ticket agent. Before you reach the counter, put the case strap over one shoulder. Keep the case behind you, pointing vertically. This is why you checked your strap clasps earlier. If this position makes you too nervous about dropping the instrument, carry it by the handle and keep it below the counter. Another alternative is to sling the case across your back with the strap diagonally across your chest. This may be a little uncomfortable, but it's only for a few minutes. The ticket agent has seen literally thousands of passengers carrying luggage of every shape and size in every conceivable fashion, so you would need something pretty unusual to attract their attention if you don't do it yourself.

Have your ticket and ID ready for the agent. It's unlikely that the ticketing agent will hassle you unless you bring the instrument to their attention. Once you're checked in, their attention will shift to the next person. Stand aside and shuffle your papers or something for a moment until they're engaged. If there's no line behind you (unlikely as that is) just turn and walk away.

In the unlikely event that the ticketing agent hassles you, tell them that you'll check it at the gate if there's not enough space for it. This is a little white lie, but it will get you away from the agent.

At the Security Checkpoint

Depending on the airport, the TSA agents generally don't care about the size or shape of the bag so long as it doesn't contain anything dangerous. The hurdy-gurdy looks weird on the X-ray, especially if you have an electronic tuner installed. They will probably ask you to open the case and show them what it is. Sometimes they get uptight and want to open it themselves. If they do so, remember to explain to them very calmly that while it's not dangerous, it is fragile and sensitive, and that the wheel surface can be damaged by being touched. It's important to remain very calm, which is a little difficult because you are likely standing there in your stocking feet holding your shoes and the contents of your pockets (including your crank) while someone who regards your instrument as a danger is about to search your case. Take deep breaths and keep your voice level.

A few airports have size-limitation templates on the X-ray machines, though this situation has improved (in the US, anyway) since the federalization of airport security under the TSA. If your case doesn't fit through the template and the first-line security person won't agree to hand-search the case, ask politely to speak with a supervisor. They have the authority to decide that something odd-sized can go through. Open the case and show them the instrument, explaining that a) you've travelled with it before and it fits in the overhead bin, and b) it's too fragile and expensive to be checked. The hurdy-gurdy is so exotic-looking that this usually gets you through.

At the Gate

The best chance you'll have of getting your instrument on board and stowed safely is to board early, so you'll need to arrive early. Most airlines announce preboarding for "people travelling with small children and anyone who needs a little extra time boarding." This means you: you need some extra time to get your hurdy-gurdy into the overhead bin. Walk right up to the gate door when they announce pre-boarding. You can choose whether to try to conceal the instrument behind you, or to carry it in full view - it is, after all, the reason you are using this service. We've rarely been asked why we were boarding early. The gate agent's job is to get everyone onto the aircraft in a limited time period, so it's rarely worth their time to delay the process by having an argument with you.

If you arrive too late for pre-boarding or the gate agent refuses you early entry, stand as close as possible to the boarding line. Wait until your row is called, then get in at the head of the line. This should still allow you time to find a place for your instrument.

On the Aircraft

The best place for your instrument is in the overhead storage bin. Even the depth of a lute-back will fit in most overheads. Gently check that the bin or bin door closes.

Once it's in the bin, protect it. You know it's a valuable instrument, but someone may try to shove a duffel bag full of hockey gear on top of it. Be prepared to take aggressive action to inform the person who is sharing your storage bin that there's a valuable and delicate instrument in there.

If by some awful chance it doesn't fit, ask the flight attendant where it can be stowed inside the cabin. Most aircraft have a closet, a rack for garment bags, or some other bin where unusually shaped luggage can be placed.

In Extremis

In spite of all these precautions, at some point you may be informed that you can't take the instrument on the aircraft with you. If so, don't panic.

Sometimes airline employees will try to cite FAA regulations as the reason for having to check your instrument. This is not the case: we asked the FAA specifically about this, there are no FAA rules mandating size limitations or anything else that would affect you. While there is a "one bag" limit, there is a specific exception for musical instruments.

Be prepared to be very polite and yet very insistant with the agents and flight crew. Here are some things you can say:

"It's a very valuable instrument."
"It's quite fragile."
"I need to keep it with me in the cabin."
"It fits in the overhead bin."
"It's irreplaceable."
"I was told I could carry it on with me." (We're telling you, right?)
"It's essential that I have it available to play at a concert."

Generally saying one or two of these phrases with gentle determination will do the trick. The next step is to voluntarily open the case and show it to them, explaining again about the value, the irreplacable nature, and fragility.

If these measures are not effective, take a deep breath and try again, calmly. Airline people are accustomed to dealing with the irate and the belligerent, but that doesn't mean they like it. Facing someone with a problem who is still polite, calm and friendly will be a welcome change. Try these:

"I'm sure there must be a place on board where it will fit."
"I've flown on this airline before without checking it."
"I'd like to talk to the captain about this."

The captain has the right to allow or disallow whatever luggage he or she chooses. It's even possible that the instrument could ride in the flight crew's onboard storage bin: there's a hurdy-gurdy-playing pilot who flies with a lute-back in a large hard case.

Don't believe the airline people who insist that the instrument will be "perfectly safe" if it checked. They may suggest a door tag, which is what is put on baby strollers and other items which are returned to the passenger at the gate instead of at the baggage claim. You can counter this claim with, "My friend was told his instrument would be handled very carefully and returned at the gate, and his 150-year-old instrument was destroyed beyond repair." This happened to someone with a beautiful Nigout while flying British Airways.

Bon voyage!


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Alden and Cali Hackmann
Olympic Musical Instruments

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