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.