Monday, December 9, 2013

Time To Fly Away - Act 2

Now for the conclusion to my look at what to do if you need to put your band on a plane. If you missed the beginning, check out Part 1.


Once you've figured out your ideal flight schedule, the next big consideration is price.

The days of cheap air travel are long gone, but there are still ways to find good deals. The further out from the travel date, the better - fares only go up the closer you get to travel. Sites like Priceline (which allows you to "name your own price") and Hotwire (which shows you a mysterious great deal with no details until you actually buy) aren't usually viable for touring, because you have to take whatever flight they give you, regardless of whether that fits into your plans. There are oft-quoted statistics that fares are usually best on Tuesdays; I haven't found a notable difference in my experience, but Your Mileage May Vary. Usually, fares are determined by how far in advance you're buying, what day of the week you are flying, the time of day, and the size of the airports involved in your routing (smaller airport = bigger fare).

As a touring band, your first stop should always be They are the only airline left in America that will check 2 pieces of luggage per traveler for free, and their oversize/overweight charges for your keyboard or cello are the lowest around. They are also the only airline left that doesn't charge a penalty if you need to change your flight (but you will still be on the hook for any increase in fare). Plus, they know they have become the airline of choice for musicians, and generally treat them well. Depending on where you live you may not be able to score a non-stop flight, but the cost savings may make up for the timing risk.

(PRO TIP: Southwest's major drawback is their stupid cattle-call seating system. The extra $12.50 they charge each way for "early bird check-in" -- thus guaranteeing you a boarding spot in "Group A" -- will be the best $12.50 you'll ever spend. This is especially important if you're carrying on instruments, as it will ensure you'll find plenty of room in the overhead bins.)

If Southwest isn't viable, check out JetBlue next. They only give each traveler 1 free piece of luggage, and their oversize fees are a bit higher, but they are also very musician-friendly and treat checked instruments relatively nicely. Southwest and JetBlue tend to have comparable fares, especially more than a month ahead.

If JetBlue isn't an option either, then it's off to the major airlines.

Rule #1 if you're traveling with gear: don't fly United.

United really does break guitars. 
And cellos, and banjos, and keyboards, and ...

Beyond that, it's a toss-up between Delta, American, Frontier etc. I use Kayak to see what the fare and schedule comparison is between the majors. Once you have the fares in front of you, it's time to look back at your list of checked pieces per person. The bag fees and oversize penalties vary widely by airline, so make sure you make note of the fees for extra pieces, overweight (usually over 50 lbs.), and oversize. Also, if you're going to be traveling with really heavy gear (hello, upright bass in flight case!) make sure you read the fine print, as some airlines will flat-out refuse to take on pieces weighing more than 70 lbs.

It's crucial to factor in your projected luggage fees while comparing flights, because what appears to be a cheap fare on one airline might actually turn out to be more expensive once you've added in the luggage fees.

I should also add, since this just recently came up in conversation: Spirit Airlines is a no-go, despite their insanely low fares. The fare may look low, but then you will discover that you'll have to pay extra to actually sit down on the plane (which, since it's mandated by the FAA, is impossible to get around). And they charge as much for carry-ons as other airlines do for checked luggage. In the end, you will end up paying as much as (or more than) other airlines where you will have a much better experience overall. Save yourself the effort, and don't even bother looking into Spirit.

At The Airport

Once the big day arrives it's important to get to the airport early, especially if you're flying out of a big hub like JFK or O'Hare. Curbside check-in won't work if you've got large items, so you'll have to schlep everything inside to the ticket counter. Allow extra time for clueless ticket agents who don't know how to deal with musical instruments, or who try to saddle you with extra fees. (Asking for a supervisor will add a chunk of time to the check-in process.) Chances are you will have to bring your large items to security yourself, but this is a good thing, as you will be able to observe the TSA agents as they open up your instrument cases.

(PRO TIP: If you are checking stringed instruments, detune them before putting them in their cases! Baggage holds aren't pressurized, and I've personally witnessed impressive damage done to guitars and cellos that weren't detuned first.)

At security, if you are carrying any pedals, cables, small amps, or anything electronic with you, do yourself a favor and make it as easy for the TSA as possible. Take the electronics and cables out of your bag and put them into a bin, and make sure your amp is separate from your other luggage. Otherwise, you will lose valuable time waiting for the TSA agent to go through every little bit of your bag, after you've experienced the fun of the "Special Screening". (We've already claimed dibs on the band name "Female Assist", btw. Don't even think about it.)

If you will be carrying on your guitar, fiddle, mandolin, trumpet etc., your life is about to get a lot easier. Congress recently passed the "Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012", which includes a provision requiring airlines operating within the United States to allow musicians to carry on their instruments hassle-free for no extra charge, as long as they reasonably fit into the overhead bins. The major airlines have already started sporadically implementing this, but they all need to be in compliance on every flight by this coming February (2014), which is right around the corner.

Here is a great rundown of this law and what it means. That link also includes great tips on how to ensure you will board early enough to get some of that coveted bin space.

There you go. Sit back, relax, and enjoy not having to drive 20 hours to a gig for a change!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Time To Fly Away - A Play In Two Acts

It's an age-old tale: band graduates from their garage, piles their gear and themselves into a van, and heads out onto the road. Or, similarly: solo singer/songwriter loads up her car with whatever will fit, puts the rest into storage, and heads off with only a P.O. Box for an address and a tour schedule to follow.

While it's fun to be the star of your own indie film for a certain period of time, eventually logistics are going to dictate that you'll need to ditch the van and fly to a gig, or a short run of gigs. You may not think this will ever happen to you, but trust me - it will. Even if it only happens once on your personal journey from beat-up Sprinter to tour bus, touring inevitably means that you'll have to experience the wonderful world of air travel with gear. Fortunately for you, I'm here to help you navigate this fun little minefield. I'll break it up into two parts, as there's a lot to cover.

Figuring It Out

Once you've accepted the fact that there's no way you're going to be able to drive from that lucrative college gig in Boston to your SXSW showcase in Austin in the 19 hours you'll have in between them (though while you're up there, you should swing by MIT to see how they're coming along on that transporter technology), your next step should be to figure out what is the absolute minimum you can get away with bringing with you on the flight.

I don't think all this is going to fit in the overhead.

Unless you play upright bass, chances are you'll always want to bring your stringed instruments with you; but you can probably live with some backlined gear, so be sure to find out what the backline situation is at your destination. Can you leave the amps at home? What about the drum kit? A snare, pedal, sticks and cymbals can all be carried on, if that's all your drummer really needs to bring. If you're lucky enough to have a keyboard as part of your rig, can you finagle having one waiting for you on stage? If not, what is the rental situation where you're going? Oftentimes, the cost of renting a piece of gear like an 88-key weighted keyboard for a day is less than the cost of bringing yours with you on the plane -- especially if you don't yet have a flight case for your keys, and would need to get one for travel. TSA-rated flight cases are cheaper than a new keyboard, but they're still expensive.

Make a list of what gear each band member is going to have to bring with them, including luggage. Determine what will need to be checked and what can be carried on, so you'll know how many pieces of luggage each person will need to check.

Now it's time to look at flights. There are two main variables to consider when picking a flight: schedule and price. I'll talk about schedule today, and tackle price in part 2.


This is pretty straightforward. What time do you need to be at your destination? Work backwards from there, allowing an hour to get off the plane, get your gear from bag claim, and either pick up and load your rental vehicle, or meet up with whomever is driving you and load up their car. How far from the airport is the gig? Add in a cushion for traffic. Then add a minimum of an hour for flight delays.

Pretty early on in my tour management experience, my mantra became "it's always better to be early than late". Getting to the gig 5 minutes after doors were supposed to open will take years off your life (not to mention your career), whereas having a couple hours to kill in a local coffee shop or napping on the green room couch is a much less stressful way to go.

Once you've worked out your ideal arrival time, see which flights fit that schedule. The cardinal rule of traveling on the day of the gig is to always fly non-stop wherever possible. This will help you avoid the fun of getting to your destination after a tight connection and discovering that while your sprinting sweaty selves made it to the plane in Chicago, your gear did not.1 If you can't get a non-stop flight, consider flying the previous day if you can. Even arriving in the wee hours on the last flight in is sometimes better than cutting it close on the day of a big gig.

In part 2, I'll talk about the all-important Price factor. Until then, if you have any tips of your own, please leave them in the Comments!

1 Funny (not) story: One summer we were traveling from Houston to Albany for back-to-back outdoor festival gigs, and the only way to get there was via Chicago. We had plenty of time between flights in Chicago, but when we arrived in Albany nothing at all appeared on the baggage belt - not just our gear, but nothing, period. Turns out there was a "worker action" happening amongst the baggage handlers in Chicago, and they'd decided not to load anything onto our plane before takeoff. And it was 60 minutes before sound check, and the festival did not provide backline.

Fortunately our trumpet player never lets his horn leave actual contact with his body, so he had that. And by total luck, our drummer was from the area and was able to call a buddy to deliver a kit to the stage. So all we needed was a keyboard. Guitar Center to the rescue!! I won't go into the details, but let's just say that we created a new retail concept called the "GC 14-day rental", and I'm now black-flagged in their system. But it was worth it for the show to be able to go on.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Travel Tools I'm Most Thankful For

It's the time of year when people post about the things they're most thankful for. Of course I am thankful for my health, my family, my friends, and my cats. But for my day-to-day existence, I'm thankful for a few things that make my professional life easier. They'll probably make your life easier, too.

(The following are not paid endorsements, yadda yadda...)

1. Kayak

Other travel-aggregator sites have come along since, but for me, Kayak is still the first place I go when I'm looking for flights or vehicle rentals. Their filters are the best I've come across, and the site loads really fast. It is true that the search results don't include every airline, but thanks to the miracle of browser tabs, it's still useful to have Kayak in one tab and (for example) in another to compare.


This has taken over from Kayak as my go-to for hotel searches, especially out of the U.S. but increasingly for domestic travel, too. The filtering on the site is rather clunky, but it includes the widest range of accommodations I've found, so it's the best one-stop to see what's available where you're going. One caveat: the prices on the site are almost never lower than what you can get by booking with the property's site directly, and it's always a good idea to book directly, rather than with a 3rd-party provider (how I know this is a whole 'nother post). So I use this mainly as an info-gathering tool, and rarely for a booking tool. But as an info tool, it's indispensable.

3. Google Apps

Like it or not, right now it's Google's world, and we just live in it. But dammit, their stuff is just so useful. Aside from GMail, I use Google Calendar to keep my life in order (across both business and personal accounts), and Google Drive to store important documents so I can access them from anywhere and share them with other people as needed. And Google Maps has basically been my brain for the past several years. Sometimes I feel kinda dirty when I think about how dependent I've become upon Google to live my life, and I'm sure eventually I will move on to the next big thing; but for now, what can I say, I'm drinking the Kool-Aid.

4. Evernote

I wish I could remember who first mentioned this app in my hearing, because I want to bake them cookies of gratitude. I have Evernote open every minute of every day on my laptop when I'm at home, and it's on the main screens of both my phone and my tablet. Everything, and I mean everything goes into Evernote, from task lists to bus schedules to meeting notes to set lists to random things I don't want to forget. I also put all my itineraries and tour books in there, in a separate notebook that is shared with band members so everybody has the latest version of our plans. I do keep a hard copy of the tour book with me on the road in case of catastrophic global technology failure, but otherwise this has already helped me save dozens of trees.

5. FlightAware

This one is fun even if you don't travel. You can literally track any flight in the air over North America at any time, so if you're bored some night when nothing's on TV, try it! If you know the number of the flight your friend or family member is on you can track their progress, so you will know exactly what time you need to leave for the airport to pick them up. If you're the one traveling you can know your flight's status before you leave for the airport, and if you're lucky enough to be on a wi-fi enabled flight, you can keep an eye on its status even while en route. You can also see the latest info on your arrival and departure gates -- this is helpful if you have a tight connection, so you can know in advance whether you'll need to be That Guy falling all over your fellow passengers to get off the plane upon landing.  (I've found that FlightAware has more accurate and up-to-date info than the individual airline "flight status" pages, because it gets its data from Air Traffic Control, unfiltered by the airlines and their need to appease their marketing departments.)

6. Loyalty Programs

Oh, points and miles, how do I love thee? I love the free flight home to visit my family this holiday season. I love the free nights I have gotten in nice hotels in NYC the night before buttcrack-of-dawn flights, and the free nights that have made an otherwise out-of-reach hotel workable within our band's budget. (Sometimes, even just one free room can bring your overall average price per room down significantly.) When out of the country in a world where hotels still charge for wi-fi., I like getting it free anyway because of my "Platinum" status. And in the coming year, I am really going to enjoy the "Elite" status that will give me 2 free pieces of luggage, priority boarding so we'll have a prayer of getting the guitars on board as carry-ons, and a precious extra 2 inches of legroom.

7. Twitter

I'm an admitted Twitter addict for a variety of reasons, not least of which is how easy it is to get real-time updates on info that is relevant to my current travel or my destination. It's also easy to let my family know that I've just landed safely, or have been delayed. When I'm overseas in the land of Overpriced Global Roaming, when I'm on wi-fi a free Direct Message (DM) sure beats a 69-cent text. Plus, in the case of certain (but not all) travel-related companies, it's been instrumental in getting quick customer service and resolution to issues. (Again, those details are a whole 'nother post ...) Related to this, Twitter is also great for venting off a bit of steam every now and then. :)

So there you go. Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends. If you're traveling this week, I hope you have safe and delay-free journeys. And Happy Hanukkah to my mispuchah out there!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

So You've Booked A Tour. Now What? (Part 1 of a series-of-as-yet-undetermined-length)

So the time has come to level up. You've done your time playing years of open mics at your local coffeehouse, working your way up to weekly features there, then doing regular gigs in and around your hometown. Your buddy with the minor college radio hit is doing a run of gigs through the Midwest for a couple weeks next month, and his management has gotten you added as the main support for the whole thing. You've got your first out of town tour! Congratulations!

So here you are asking yourself, what the hell do I do now?!

There are a few basic things that will help you get your head around this undertaking. I'll be going through these in more detail in future posts in this series, but for now I will list them here:

1. Don't Panic. 

This is the basic rule of galactic hitchhikers everywhere.

2. Get Organized.

It's almost 2014, so presumably you have access to some sort of online calendar, either via Google or iCal or whatnot. Use it! Enter all your gigs into it, starting with the towns the venues are located in so that information is what shows first when you look at your calendar in Monthly view. Make this calendar shareable, and share it with your bandmates so they have access to it too.

I also highly recommend getting an organizer app like Evernote, which allows you to make notes and keep task lists updated on any of your devices, from your laptop at home to your phone or tablet on the road. You can also share your notes/task lists with your bandmates (even with just the free version) so everybody can be on the same page at all times.

3. Make Lists.

You don't have to be a Virgo (ahem) to live by lists. Are you a solo artist? If so, what do you need to bring with you to make your shows happen? If you are a band, list who is coming, then list what gear each band member needs to bring with them, including personal luggage. Don't forget the merch (do you have CDs? Download cards? T-Shirts?)!

4. Get The Details.

This is called "advancing". As far as scheduling goes, you might not be able to get the specifics of what time you need to be at each venue along your tour until a week or so before the gigs - but you can get a basic idea, since you should at least know what time the show starts each night. How much are you getting paid per gig? This is key to working out your tour budget.

5. Make A Budget.

This is hard for most bands to stomach at first, but it's a sad-but-unfortunate truth: chances are you're not going to be pulling in much, if any, guaranteed cash on your first tour. Planning out a budget in advance is essential in making sure you lose as little money as possible. Make a spreadsheet (if you don't have Excel or OpenOffice at your disposal, create one on Google Drive) and list every expense you can think of, from gas to food to lodging to mid-tour laundry. Then put it away for a day. When you look at it again tomorrow, what jumps out at you? Maybe you can live without certain budget items.  Or maybe you'll suddenly remember that your bass player has a cousin in Topeka, and you can crash at their place after the gig there that night.

6. Make A Plan.

Look at your calendar. Where is your first gig, and how far is it from your hometown? How far apart are all the other gigs from one another? (Google Maps is about to become your best friend.) Do you have any days off between gigs? What does your budget allow for, as far as travel plans go? If you suddenly realize you have gigs on consecutive days in cities that are a 12-hour drive apart (not a problem for the headliner on their tour bus, but an issue for you as the opener), how are you going to make that happen?

7. Don't Panic!

Another reminder never hurts.

Future installments in this series-of-undetermined-length will go into each of these points in detail. Stay tuned!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ready For Liftoff

I have been a professional traveler and travel organizer for almost a decade. I work with an indie musician and her band on an endless tour. Over the years, lots of people have told me I should share my tips, best practices, things to avoid, frustrations, and funny stories from the road ... so here we go. More to come!