I’ve been flying to gigs a lot more in the past several years and with that comes the issues of how to transport all the stuff I need as a performer. If we are friends on Facebook, you already know that TSA likes to harass me for wearing metal pincurl clips, so there’s an extra layer of hassle and precaution with them. At this point, I feel like I’ve got my packing down to a system and when I mention how I packed for any given event, some people have suggested that I should do a blog post – so here I am!
NOT CHECKING A BAG
I’ve heard stories of Lindy Hop instructors whose bags were simply lost outright by airlines. As a collector of vintage clothing and someone who has one-of-a-kind performance-wear, this is absolutely terrifying. I’ve definitely had a particularly vulnerable moment at a gate where the agent made me check my bag (she lied, there was still room in the overhead bins) and I essentially wept and said goodbye to my vintage clothing (it survived). Thankfully, I’ve gained a bit more trust back with airlines (thanks, Delta and Southwest), but there are still occasions that arise where I don’t want to check a bag.
For the scenario of not checking a bag, my personal item is a North Face Women’s Recon Laptop Backpack, which I selected after reading a lot of reviews about backpacks. I am a 5’3” tall woman with a history of lower back problems, so it was essential that my travel backpack be comfortable and to scale, in addition to being functional. Things I like about this bag:
- It’s large enough to carry all my stuff without overwhelming my frame
- Ample padding in the back and straps
- Curved straps to accommodate my lady dimensions and personal comfort
- Easily accessible, soft fabric-lined top pocket for easy access to electronics items
- Front main pocket with sensible organization system inside
- The bottom of the front main pocket seems to be bottomless at times – when the main pack is full, I feel like I can always push down more stuff into that area
- The back padding is firm and feels secure when I put that laptop in the interior laptop pocket
- The front mesh pocket is great for things that need to be hastily stowed or thrown away later
- Mesh side pockets for water bottle and umbrella (if needed)
- Hip and upper chest straps to help redistribute the weight, great for when you have to run to catch a connecting flight or have to hike a million miles to the next terminal
Things I don’t like about this bag – it doesn’t stand up on its own, it’s a leaner. There’s usually something to lean it against, so it’s not a deal-breaker. My guess is that this is a sacrifice for the shape/design of the bag that makes this comfortable and not feel like a dump truck sitting on my bum/lower back.
I pack my toiletries, makeup, jewelry, medications, hair electronics, steamer, and incidental items I may need in flight or at the airport in the backpack. This means my toiletries need to be travel sized in order to comply with carry-on liquid regulations and conserve space in my backpack. I am fortunate that I am able to do this, including makeup liquids, but it does mean making some very specific decisions about what I will need and what I can do without. I don’t trust quart sized plastic bags to be durable enough, so I have a comparably sized cosmetic bag (similar to this one) made of more durable clear plastic and keep a quart-sized Ziplock bag within that bag. Only one TSA agent has made me prove that everything would fit in the Ziplock.
The travel toiletry that has made the biggest difference for trips where I don’t check a bag is trading travel bottles of shampoo and conditioner for a Lush shampoo bar. Not having those two bottles in my quart-sized bag means space for other liquid toiletries. Bar soaps FTW!
My husband received a Skyroll for Christmas one year and it quickly became my go-to carry-on, such that I was later gifted one for Christmas because I used his so much. The concept is that there is a cylindrical core with entry points at each end for packing shoes and other items that are not flat and a garment bag that wraps around this core for your clothing. As someone who wears dresses most of the time, this is a brilliant piece of luggage. I usually stow my shoes in one end (2-3 pairs, depending on the shoes) and everything that doesn’t fit anywhere else in the other end. Because hangers tend to make the Skyroll bulky, I have a collapsible travel hanger that I pack and simply lay my clothing flat in garment bag without hangers, zip it up, then roll up the garment bag (it Velcros to the core, then clasps together). When I get to where I am going, I can steam each garment as I need to wear it. The Skyroll fits in every overhead bin I’ve ever encountered with it, thankfully; but I’m not often in a puddle jumper.
CHECKING A BAG
I was gifted an Away suitcase (The Medium) for Christmas a couple of years ago, after a tip from dance instructor LaTasha Barnes, and it is definitely the best suitcase I’ve ever had. On first inspection it seems like there’s not a lot to it, but simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lacking – the simplicity means that there’s every possible square inch to cram your belongings. The exterior is lightweight and incredibly durable German polycarbonate that has magically transported my belongings without incident, including rum, wine, and two jars of honey. This bag rolls like a dream through the airport and as well as can be expected over asphalt parking lots, all on 360 degree wheels.
The Medium is somehow the perfect size for a 2 or 3 night gig weekend – which means if I wasn’t having to change from day-wear to performance-wear, it could accommodate a longer non-work trip, as well. I have also used it for a weekend trip to my parents’ house, it just seems to accommodate whatever I’m doing.
The suitcase is divided into two sections – one side zips up with a mesh panel to separate it from the other section and this is where I store my toiletries, wet set tools and products, hair flowers, hair electronics, steamer, sewing kit, and anything else that is not clothing. I essentially leave the mesh side of my suitcase packed at all times, as I have a travel double of almost everything I use in my daily life. Clothing and shoes go in the other side, which has two adjustable straps with closures to secure them. I typically roll my day-wear outfits and I have an insubstantial garment bag that I place my performance clothing in with hangers, then accordion fold onto the top of that side of the suitcase after the day-wear and shoes are already packed. I use said garment bag now because TSA pilfered through a suitcase where I had carefully laid out my vintage/performance dresses on the top of that side of the suitcase and there’s nothing like seeing crumpled 1940’s rayon shoved hastily into your checked bag to incite rage and inspire alternative packing solutions.
I also like that this suitcase can be locked with a combination and TSA has some sort of special key that opens the suitcase – as long as I don’t have to keep track of a key and deal with a lock, we are good. I don’t like TSA going through my stuff and re-packing it sloppily, but at least there’s no forced entry.
For domestic flights, my backpack remains the same North Face bag mentioned above as my personal item that I stow under the seat, only the toiletries, hair electronics, and steamer have moved to the checked bag.
Swing DJ and sound man Rob Moreland recommended the eBags packing cubes to me, because of the array of things he probably knew I needed to transport in a limited space – who doesn’t need more bags for inside your bags? I got the 6 piece value set and, while I rarely use all 6 at the same time, I do use different configurations of these at different times, usually to compartmentalize types of undergarments and pack accessories like scarves and belts. Each packing cube has a handle, which has come in handy when you get somewhere and need a smaller bag to transport something or I’ve put an entire outfit or components of an outfit in there, so that when I got to the hotel and had to go immediately to the gig/sound check I have everything in one cube I can grab easily out of my suitcase.
When traveling internationally, my personal item/carry-on changes to the eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior – it’s a larger capacity backpack that opens up on the side like a suitcase. The rationale behind carrying this larger pack is that I need to be able to pack an entire performance outfit in this bag in case the airline loses my luggage, so I can still do my job when I get to my destination, in addition to all the regular things I put in my backpack. It definitely takes up the maximum amount of under-seat space, but I also have the option of putting it in the overhead bin.
TRAVELING WITH AN INSTRUMENT
I’m going to preface this section with a note that it is imperative that people hiring musicians flying in for a performance consider that some musical instruments cannot and should not be checked – the risk is too great and often we are traveling with instruments that are expensive, not easily replaced, and have parts that can be irreversibly affected by a heave-ho into the hull of a plane. Some economy flights do not allow for a checked bag, only a personal item that can be stowed under the seat in front of you, and I have received different answers from different airline personnel as to how a musical instrument will be classified under these economy flight circumstances. Yes, I am aware of the Federal regulations – said regulations do not appear to matter to some gate agents and flight attendants. Please err on the side of booking a flight that will ensure that your musicians will be able to do their job with their instruments when they arrive, which means a personal item and carry-on included in the ticket.
When my band, the Mint Julep Jazz Band, is flying somewhere to perform, I travel with a glockenspiel, which has a fantastic rolling case that can accommodate a glockenspiel, stand, a collapsible music stand, a bicycle horn, a stand light, and 4 of my band’s books. My husband/co-bandleader and I each carry two more books in our backpack as our personal item. The glockenspiel case takes up a symbiotic space with my husband’s trombone in the overhead bin. Then we each have a checked bag for everything else we need. The rationale here is that if we arrive with our instruments and sheet music, we can still do our job even if our checked bag does not arrive with us.
I know other bandleaders and musicians have their own unique sets of logistics, trials, and tribulations – know that you are not alone in the stress of getting from place to place with everything that you need!
In the summer, I often fly with a light or mid-weight cardigan and plan my outfits so that said cardigan can be used with both day and evening outfits. If rain is in the forecast, I throw in my Eddie Bauer Rainfoil Packable Jacket – I am mostly happy with this purchase – after much research into summer weight packable rain jackets, this seemed to be the option that had most of what I was looking for. My only complaint is that the Velcro on the front of the jacket sometimes gets caught on more delicate things, like hosiery. If I am doing my hair for a gig, I also pack an umbrella and I always keep a plastic rain bonnet in my bag in case of wind and rain – I feel like I have achieved full granny status, actually using my grandmother’s old rain bonnets, although you can also buy similar items online and in brick and mortar stores.
For winter, I have given up on packing any sort of dressy overcoat to coordinate with my performance clothing because it’s simply not practical. One coat has to take care of all needs and withstand being tossed about under all sorts of conditions. I have been very happy with my Eddie Bauer Girl on the Go Insulated Trench Coat as an all-weather, all-situations coat. I bought this coat a couple of years ago in a printed gray herringbone pattern so that it reads a little dressier and I love that it has a removable Thermafill insulated lining that buttons in and out. It’s seam-sealed, windproof, waterproof, and wears beautifully. I use it as a blanket on airplanes and have slept in it when the thermostat failed in my hotel room. It comes in petite, regular, and tall sizes, which is critical for me as someone with the shortest arms ever. I would absolutely buy this coat again.
My first recommendation is primarily vocalist-specific, although it is not specifically marketed to or exclusive for vocalists – vocalist Hannah Gill recommended the Humidiflyer to me as a way to combat the extreme dryness on flights and the subsequent damaging effects that dryness has on your vocal chords, not to mention the overall wellness of not feeling dehydrated. We are often flying on the same day we have a gig, so there’s not a lot of recovery time to get that moisture back. I’ve only had my Humidiflyer for a short time and used it on two flights, one domestic and one international, and there was a noticeable difference in my comfort and capabilities as a vocalist after using it during the flights.
Actual photograph of me looking scary on an airplane with my Humidiflyer and Trtl neck pillow.
I was gifted a Trtl Pillow Plus neck pillow this past year for Christmas (notice a trend? I get travel stuff for Christmas and I love it) – I’ve used it three times now and I’m not 100% sure about it yet. I have it adjusted to the shortest setting and I think my neck may be too short for it, but I’m going to give it some more chances because the three times I used it I was traveling with other people and was more chatty than sleepy or could rest on my husband’s shoulder. It’s a step up from my prior Hello Kitty neck pillow, but this neck pillow journey may continue.
On longer flights (3+ hours) I use a Back Joy, that is also referred to as Butt Joy because you sit on it and that’s a funnier name. This was recommended by my Rolfer and dance event co-conspirator Jason Sager as a way to help facilitate a healthy posture in airplane seats, which were absolutely not designed for anyone’s comfort, much less mine. When I say healthy posture, I am referring to my musculature’s particular tendencies to manifest tightness and pain during and after long flights, and I more often than not don’t have access or time for physical therapy or Rolfing when I land, so the Back Joy is one of the tools I use to make sure I arrive ready to work and in a reasonably healthy condition. If you are considering purchasing, I would recommend getting a color instead of black – I have left a black Back Joy on an airplane simply because I was sitting on it, forgot about it, and when I looked back quickly upon exiting I didn’t notice it was there. I have a green one now and I always see it.
The transportation of hair flowers is all over the map – I have about 10 different vessels for transporting various sizes of hair flowers, ranging from old Erstwilder brooch boxes to cardboard boxes of various sizes to plastic containers of various sizes. For my largest blooms and some hats/fascinators, I am usually using the same 6 quart Sterilite boxes I use for their storage at home. This size Sterilite box fits perfectly in The Medium Away suitcase, it’s the exact height to go under the zippered side and the exact width to wedge securely next to/stack against my toiletries case and wet set supplies case. The boxes are stackable, so I have a stack of them in a closet at home with two large blooms in each or three medium blooms in each. When traveling with the Sterilite boxes, I use acid free tissue paper to cushion and bolster the shapes of the flowers in transit.
Yet another Christmas gift this past year was the Away Mini Suitcase, a surprise gift for me, made of the same polycarbonate as the full size suitcases. At first, I wasn’t sure what I would use this for, but it quickly became clear when packing for Cal Bal that it was perfect for hair flowers of an average size and some larger flowers that aren’t too tall. I can even clip some of my flowers to the mesh pocket inside so that they don’t slide in transit.
I have a fully vetted checklist for packing on the “Reminders” app that came with my iPhone. When it’s time to pack, I go look at the completed items from previous trips and uncheck the ones I will need for the upcoming trip. Then, as I pack these items, I check them as done again until the list is back down to zero items.
Keenan McKenzie, who is frequently a travel companion on Mint Julep and Rhythm Serenaders gigs, recommended getting a Delta AMEX Skymiles card, primarily because RDU is a Delta hub and you get a free checked bag with every flight. With the $100 annual fee, it essentially pays for itself after two flights, plus you get the miles with purchases. I’m not aiming for any sort of status at this point because I don’t make that kind of money and don’t fly enough, but the free checked bag has been a really great benefit.
There’s probably even more I could go on about, but let’s stop here – I pack and unpack so much at this point that it feels like a hobby, but I should probably more appropriately categorize it as part of the job of being a musician. Thanks for reading and feel free to share your travel loves and recommendations in the comments.