I’ll be flying with my harp again this week (to Australia), so logistics are on my mind. Here’s a little article I wrote for Harpbeat about traveling with your harp:
Up High in the Clouds
If you are attached to your harp as much as I am, playing on a different harp is wildly disconcerting. While renting a harp for far-flung engagements works for some, air travel with your own harp can be easier than it sounds, provided you plan ahead. First, your harp in its case must weigh less than 100lbs for domestic flights, and less than 70lbs internationally. Some airlines are more restrictive than others; for example United would not allow my Cithara Nova on a flight to Sydney due to its dimensions, even though it is only 61lbs in the case, while Qantas had no problem. So be sure to check individual airline requirements before you buy your ticket.
Also recommended is booking flights with the least connections. Each connection is an opportunity for your unusual luggage to get lost. Booking through a travel agent can sometimes smooth the path for you. Call the airline a week in advance to warn them you’re bringing a harp. It might not make much difference, but can head off problems at check in.
The check in agent is the gatekeeper, the one to make the call on how much you will be charged in terms of excess weight and dimension fees. Some harpists even bring CDs and schmooze. I’ve been charged anywhere between $150 (American Airlines to Boston) to $0 (Qantas to Sydney), so this is a really discretionary area. If an agent gives you particular hassle, be sure to call in a manager. I had to do this once, where a bad tempered agent was determined not to let my harp on board due to being slightly overweight (I was using my first flight case, now retired.)
Your harp will be taken at check in, and will be handled by the oversize baggage people. Some separation anxiety may occur, this arrangement makes travel easier, as you don’t have to lug the harp around the whole airport.
To feel confident about your harp while out of your sight, a hard case is essential, with your soft case inside it. The only one I recommend is the Colorado Case Company fiberglass model. It’s light and super tough. It comes with detachable back wheels – attached ones will only get ripped off on some conveyor belt, plus I recommend attaching a mini dolly (about 6 inches wide, $15 at ACE) to the front with Velcro so none of the weight of the harp is on your body. Order your case well in advance, as Colorado Case has a lot of customers and it could be months before your case is ready.
Some people recommend detuning the harp, but apparently the Cithara Nova is so light tension it wouldn’t make a difference – check with your harp maker. Throw in some clothes for extra padding if you weight permits. Your harp will get opened along the way by security, so if you have a particular way of packing it, leave a note inside.
Once you arrive, your harp will arrive away from the carousel, in the oversize baggage area. Well, hopefully – once I saw my harp getting launched out with all the regular baggage, making an almighty thump as it landed on the belt.
Plan your ground transportation in advance, as you’ll need an SUV, van, wagon, or some such large car on the ground, and these can be rarer than you’d think. If you will not be flying internally, consider stashing your hard case somewhere and using your soft case only. I needed to take a bus 5 hours south of Sydney, and they would not have let the hard case in the hold due to size restrictions. You’ll have a lot more flexibility with cars that way too.
If this sounds too daunting, I also test drove a Harpsicle all over Europe and Cyprus for 3 weeks. This can be brought on board with no hard case, and weighs 4.5 lbs. I had it just to keep my fingers moving, not as a performance instrument, although for people who haven’t heard harp much it can a charming thing (and got me some great offers for harp gigs with my Cithara in the Fall!) I brought the Harpsicle onboard many of the budget airlines, Ryanair, Easyjet, etc., which are notorious for giving people baggage hassle, with no problem. So if you won’t be performing or studying, the Harpsicle can be a good stopgap measure. I rented one from Diana Stork for a very reasonable $40/month, and was impressed enough to order my own one now.