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The Real School of Music - Blog

Basic Tips for Musicians Traveling Abroad

Posted by Andrew Clark on Thu, Oct 31, 2013 @ 42:02 PM

Basic Tips for Musicians Traveling Abroad

One of the perks of being a musician is the opportunity to travel and see different parts of the world. As we all know traveling can also be a bit stressful, especially when dealing the TSA and the airline you are flying with on your trip. I’ve been through security both in the USA and in Europe a few times lately and I can offer some useful advice.

When they tell you to be early to the airport believe them! I’ve only had one trip where my security screening took additional time but you never want to risk being late for your flight. Most of my traveling friends agree that it is better to sit and wait than it is to run and be late. I usually get to the check in for departures two hours before my flight. The earliest I have arrived is three hours ahead and one trip I got there with less than an hour before the flight. The same thing goes with traveling on a boat. I have literally seen a musician run through the parking lot with a bass guitar strapped to their back as the crew is taking off the lines and preparing to sail. On one gig the band was serenaded by the trombonist who missed the boat and blasted his horn from the dock!

When I travel I always wear very basic comfortable clothes on the plane. I never wear a belt and I keep jewelry to a bare minimum. Pick shoes that you can slip in and out off easily. In the USA they make you take off your shoes every time. In Europe they tend to skip this. I usually bring a hat that I can cover my eyes with when trying to catch some sleep on the ride.

The four ounce limit on liquids applies to each thing you are bringing. Some people pack small bottles of hand sanitizer, mouthwash, toothpaste and other personal items. Snacks that are four ounces or less are welcome so I usually pack a couple of candy bars or something like that. The one obvious thing to remember here with this four ounce limit is that you can’t bring a drink through security. It would be funny to see if one of the major beverage companies will come out with a four ounce can of your favorite beverage! Until then you’ll have to buy a drink on the other side of security.

Speaking of funny that’s one thing you’d better completely skip - never crack any jokes at all with anyone in the screening process. If you say something wrong you can literally wind up being pulled from the line for questioning. This is no place for humor! That is not to say that you shouldn’t be pleasant and cooperative, just don’t make any additional comments beyond asking for information about what is required to pass through security.

The TSA has created new guidelines for bringing musical instruments on the plane. There are many stories and legends about musical instruments and their owners. Chuck Berry would simply check his guitar and go get it from the baggage carousel on arrival. Other musicians literally buy an additional ticket to assure safe transport of their instrument. Would you allow your instrument to go under the plane? In many instances you may not have a choice. Be prepared to let go of your precious musical instrument by getting a good case. I’m a saxophonist and I have a case that is very sturdy yet lightweight. It has shoulder straps and several zippered pockets that are very convenient for packing my neck strap and microphones. This case retails for around $600USD. You may think think that is a tremendous sum of money for a case but if you consider that my tenor saxophone is worth ten times that amount it makes more sense financially. If you wish to research the TSA regulations follow this link to read their rules: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/musical-instruments

When I go through security I always send my saxophone through the xray first. I also have a small personal carry on bag where I usually pack my wireless mic and in ear monitors. It causes me less problems with security when they see the saxophone and then the electronic devices right behind. If security wishes to check your instrument follow their instructions to the letter. They will do their best to handle your instrument with care and you can ask them to employ special handling instructions from you. Keep in mind that they are working for the safety of everyone involved and they want you to move through this process as quickly and painlessly as possible. There has only been one time where I was pulled from the line for about ten minutes of additional questioning and a background check. Most of the time they simply let me go.

Once you leave North America you will probably need a travel converter for your electronic devices and appliances. In Europe they use 220V power and their outlets and plugs are completely different. I have used full size power transformers in the past but lately I have moved to using a smaller converter. Here is the one i have from Brookstone: http://www.brookstone.com/7-Piece-Converter-Kit-for-appliances-50-1800-watts. I like this adaptor a lot. It comes with all of the plugs you will need and a simple guide for which one to use in different parts of the world. The one drawback is that most outlets are recessed and you will need one of the adaptor plugs to plug the travel converter into a wall socket or power strip. Here is a photo of a common 220V power strip:220V power strip, surge protector

You can use North American extension cords with your travel converter but in my experience our power strips will not work over there when attached to a travel converter. I thought I could use one converter, attach a power strip and run two or more devices. It was a disaster! What I do instead is pack two converters (they aren’t very expensive or heavy) in my checked bag and I bought a 220V power strip like the one in the picture. Keep in mind that appliances like blow dryers have specific power needs and they won’t work with traditional converters. The Brookstone one has a blow dryer/appliance setting but I don’t like to use it for more than a few minutes at a time. One convenient thing to consider is that most cell phone chargers are built for power from 110V to 240V. With a simple slip on plug adaptor you can usually plug your existing wall charger into a European outlet. Here is picture of a label where you you see that this particular power supply is rated for universal power:

110-240V, power adaptor, universal power

There is one more thing that will need to be converted - your money! Converting money at the airport is the most convenient way but it is also a bit expensive.  AAA sells convenience packs of currency but they charge a service fee as well. You can use credit cards overseas but then you pay a conversion fee on top of interest! There are usually small branch offices of companies like Forex where it is safe and convenient to convert your money. Here is their online currency converter calculator: http://www.forex.fi/en/currency/converter/. Keep in mind this converter is specifically for their rates which may include service fees. It is very easy to overspend on a trip because you don’t understand the conversion rates, which can change quite a bit from day to day sometimes. When you’re shopping remember that you have to bring your items back with you on the plane. If you’re checked bag exceeds twenty-three kilograms (fifty pounds) you will be charged additional fees. One of my bags cost me $90USD in extra baggage fees! I probably should have bought postcards on that trip instead!

My final suggestion for this basic tips blogs is get noise cancelling headphones for the plane ride. These headphones use active noise control and usually have some additional padding or molding to effectively seal your ears from incoming noise. They range in price from $50-$500USD. The pair I use I got for $50USD and they run on a single AAA battery that lasts a very long time. One thing to check - make sure the power switch can’t be flipped accidentally while you are carrying them in your bag. I had to put a small piece of tape over the switch on mine. It is very frustrating to find a dead battery in your headphones when you were looking forward to listening to some music or enjoying a movie or show on the personal screen. Most European flights use the standard ⅛” stereo phono jack but some may still use the older European input with two separate prongs for left and right audio. Your headphones will probably come with an adaptor.

I hope these basic travel tips will help you organize yourself, your musical gear, and your personal belongings for your next trip. Maybe we can start a chat about which seat to reserve on the plane - aisle, middle, or window. I always prefer the window myself and whenever possible I get the escape row for extra leg room! What do you prefer?....

Andrew Clark, saxophone, Scala, Ystad, Sweden







Andrew Clark teaches woodwind lessons in Andover, MA at Real School. He travels to Europe a couple of times a year to play gigs at theaters and festivals. He also teaches master classes on saxophone techniques and how to play blues, rock, jazz, funk, and soul music.

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Tags: music lessons andover ma, The Real School of Music Andover, Andover, travel, international, TSA, musicians, carry on