The safest way to travel with an ukulele is to carry it on as your personal item. I have never had any trouble going through security carrying an ukulele. The closest issue I had was when the screener asked what it was and if I could play it. I offered to, but he waved me on through with a grin. I have a bit of bungee chord that I use to wrap around my case, through the handle, and fasten it to my roller bag. My roller bag is one of the smaller types that will actually fit under the seat in front of me. I can lift this up as a unit and lay it flat the x-ray machine belt without even having to take it apart! Incidentally, I often use this set up when going to festivals or workshops, allowing me to keep everything together and relatively easy to find.
While I currently use a hard-shell case for my instrument, I have traveled with a padded gig bag as well as the harder black case. A gig bag will require more vigilance to make sure it doesn’t end up someplace where it will get crushed. When there is an empty seat next to me, it can even be slide under the seats in front of me.
Federal Aviation Guidelines in the US require the airline to allow you to carry on an instrument of reasonable size. The appropriate reference is Section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 which can be read at this link: Musical instruments 49 U.S.C. §41724. Read the rules carefully and note that if there is no room in the cabin, they are not required to make room for you. They cannot make you take your bag out of the overhead and check it once you have it placed in the bin. It wouldn’t hurt to print a copy out and keep it in your case, in the rare instance that someone is not aware of this.
You must also read the rules for the specific airline you are traveling on. It should be clear if additional fees will be charged for carry-on items. Yes, they can charge extra for the instrument if they charge for other carry-on luggage.
Again, note the specific airline’s standards. Some airlines (one friend had a nightmare with Allegiant) have limitations on all carry-on items. None of them are allowed to exceed 22″ and that is applied to all items. Make sure you are aware of the airline specific restrictions before showing up (time to take that sopranino!). I have flown Southwest, Delta, American and United with my ukulele and without any issues.
If it doesn’t fit overhead or under the seat, you might have to buy an addition seat. By reasonable size, it must be able to fit in the overhead or under the seat in front of you. While this may a concern for someone with a cello, your ukulele normally won’t be a problem!
I have often found that someone else is also carrying an instrument on, such as a guitar or violin. I like to ‘double up’ with their instrument, making it less likely that someone will inadvertently shove something on top of yours. Alternatively, I will hang on to my instrument until most of the bins have been loaded up. There is usually some space between the bags and the front of the bin where the ukulele will fit nicely without being crushed, or a nice space with a lot of coats for more padding. It also pays to be nice to the attendants, you should always be nice to people, it’s what ukulele players do! They can often slide the instrument into the attendant’s closet for you if things are really tight.
I have never bothered to loosen the strings on my instrument when flying. In many cases, the instrument is still in tune when we get to the end of the flight. I like to pull mine out and practice a bit while waiting for my baggage at the carousel! I have had some great conversations with people because they see the instrument and ask questions. Some will even sing along!
So make the world a bit happier and don’t leave home without your ukulele!