Forget Carry-On: Traveling with Odd Luggage

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Sue Richards, a harpist for the musical group Ensemble Galilei, talks about the challenges of traveling with her four-foot Celtic harp. Listeners share stories of bringing oddly shaped objects onto planes.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

On one of the busiest travel days of the year, a substantial percentage of airline passengers is trying to figure out is it luggage? Does it need its own seat? Can it fit in the overhead bin? And how do I explain this to the TSA?

What's the strangest, most difficult unusual piece of carry-on that you've ever wrestled into an airplane? Call 800-989-8255 or send us an e-mail: talk@npr.org. You can also tell us your story on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Sue Richards has a chronic problem, like a lot of people who struggle with this issue. She's a musician who flies from gig to gig with her instrument, a Celtic harp.

Let me confess in the interest of full disclosure that she and I both perform with a group called Ensemble Galilei, so I have seen the look in an airline clerk's eyes as Sue wheels a large and strangely shaped green box up to the counter.

Sue Richards joins us on the line from her home in Rockville, Maryland. Merry Christmas, Sue.

Ms. SUE RICHARDS (Musician): Hello, Neal.

CONAN: So what it is like traveling with a harp?

Ms. RICHARDS: It's a lot of work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RICHARDS: It's really hard work.

CONAN: Do you remember that - I mean, you've seen it more often than I have as you approach the counter, the clerk looks in sheer terror at the size of this thing that you've got with you.

Ms. RICHARDS: Yeah. Well, usually they run straight for the regulation's book and, you know, grab their measuring tape and measure everything in it and, you know, do all the math and then decide whether they're going to charge us an oversize fee and, of course, they always do.

CONAN: Not always.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RICHARDS: Not always.

CONAN: But most of the time they do. There's also the eternal question - I should note - on the side of this large, heavy green box, the words harp are spelled out.

Ms. RICHARDS: Right.

CONAN: And I can't ask you the number of times people - hey, what's in there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RICHARDS: Yes. Yeah. I'm convinced that most of the world can't read.

CONAN: It's an extraordinary situation. Do you have to explain it - you take it through security, through the line sometimes?

Ms. RICHARDS: Yes. Yeah. It has to go through security. They always open it up. They usually riffle through everything and, you know, take everything out and put it back in and hopefully they put it back in the right way.

CONAN: Now, we should note this is a Celtic harp not a full orchestral or a pedal harp. It's about half that size, right?

Ms. RICHARDS: Correct. Yes. It's about four and a half feet tall. If you can imagine a child's bicycle boxed up. That's what it would look like.

CONAN: So just awkward enough that it really causes a lot of problem.

Ms. RICHARDS: Right. Right.

CONAN: What's the worst situation you've ever had with it?

Ms. RICHARDS: Well, I have not had any really terrible situations. The worse, most recent one other than, of course, getting it lost, you know, it doesn't always get on to the airplane and it's usually delivered a few hours later. But other than that, they try to send it down the conveyer belt and it didn't fit and totally got stuck and it looked as though the box has completely crashed but…

CONAN: This - right after one of your traveling companions was saying, hey, it's going so smoothly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RICHARDS: Yes.

CONAN: We're…

Ms. RICHARDS: (Unintelligible) I'm going to play and I'll talk back and everything was fine.

CONAN: The heavy outside box is what protects it.

Ms. RICHARDS: Yes. Yes.

CONAN: That's very well constructed.

Ms. RICHARDS: The harp is in a soft case inside a hard case, so it's pretty well protected. And I also pack stuff around - around the, you know, between the soft case and the hard case.

CONAN: And I have to say that it has, as you mentioned, been lost a couple of times but as long as - I've been traveling with you - it always lost on the way home, never on the way to the gig.

Ms. RICHARDS: Well, that's true. I don't know why…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RICHARDS: …but you're right. It usually gets lost on the way home.

CONAN: So Sue Richards, I'll see you in Ithaca.

Ms. RICHARDS: Yes, I will.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much.

Ms. RICHARDS: Yeah.

CONAN: And bring the harp with you.

Ms. RICHARDS: Yes. Absolutely.

CONAN: Sue Richards…

Ms. RICHARDS: I need you driving.

CONAN: Sue Richards of Ensemble Galilei. She plays the Celtic harp and travels around with it, around the country.

If you travel with something awkward, unusual, or if you had a time explaining it to the TSA, give us a call: 800-989-8255.

This e-mail from Chris(ph) in New Haven, Connecticut: In early 1980, I flew from the East Coast to Salt Lake with a handmade-kit assembled mountain dulcimer in a number three mailbag. It was often mistaken for a sawed-off shotgun though not on that particular flight.

Let's see if we can get somebody else on the line. And this is Angie(ph). Angie with us from LaPorte in Michigan - Indiana, excuse me.

ANGIE (Caller): That's okay.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ANGIE: How are you today?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

ANGIE: I have two stories. One is an unsuccessful and the other was successful. I called an airlines - I was attending a wedding in Tennessee and I was going to fly from Chicago. And I was - the gift was a knife set. So I called the airline people and I asked them if I could bring my knife set along. And they said, oh sure. Go ahead, bring it along but we want to tell you that you will not be attending the wedding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANGIE: And the second one was a garden sculpture made out of rakes and shovels and they're kind of - it was a gift birthday present for a friend of mine, and I got it in Florida and I was trying to take it on the airplane. I had it in a bag and I had wrapped it in newspaper. Well, they just hassled me to - knowing that at the end, the stewardess did take the sculpture and put it in that front compartment. And I was thankful because it was about the size of as high as my waist and it was sharp and, you know, full of things like rakes and hoes and things like that. So I was successful there.

CONAN: You mad - managed to get that one on but did not take the knife set with you.

ANGIE: That's right.

CONAN: Okay. I hope you mail that successfully.

ANGIE: I did.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much for the call.

ANGIE: Uh-huh. Fine.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Doug(ph) in Columbus, Ohio. In 1990, I moved to Hawaii from Columbus I was taking a cello with me. I didn't have the hard case for it so I had one built at a store that sold cardboard boxes. For some reason, the store made the heavy box in the shape of a coffin. My mother dropped me off at the airport, I was in tears.

In the emotion of leaving my home to move so far away, I put the coffin-shaped box on the sky cart and wield it with my luggage to check in. It took about five minutes to get to the front of the line. When I finally got to the front of the line, I noticed that none of the people behind me had advanced any further, wanting to keep their distance. The airline agent stamped the box and hoisted it on to the conveyor belt with a roughness that was not appropriate for a dead body and I started laughing at the horrified faces in the line behind me with the start of a memorable move for me.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this will be Kathleen(ph). Kathleen with us from Castroville in Texas.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Yes. Hello?

CONAN: Hi.

KATHLEEN: In 1986, we came back from Okinawa to the States and we brought with us our basset hound. And we - every time you fly that way, you have to go through Narita, and we were on tarmac at Narita with the engines off and I could hear our dog bang in the cargo bay.

CONAN: And Narita is the airport just outside of Tokyo.

KATHLEEN: Tokyo, yes.

CONAN: Yeah. And what could you do about it?

KATHLEEN: Nothing, nothing. We just sat there and pretended we didn't know whose dog that was.

CONAN: Was it being at an inappropriate moments, one of those - that dog's habits?

KATHLEEN: Well, he was just - it was non-stop and we had given him some medication to help him with the flight and everything, but it had worn off already.

CONAN: And it's a long way from Narita to - were you coming from Okinawa or going to Okinawa?

KATHLEEN: From Okinawa to San Francisco.

CONAN: So you had a long way left to go.

KATHLEEN: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah. Well, that - did you hear him on the rest of the flight?

KATHLEEN: No. Once the engines were running, we couldn't hear him.

CONAN: Softer than a jet engine. Well, then you could advertise him that way if you ever have to sell him.

KATHLEEN: Yes.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. This is an e-mail from Pete(ph). Traveling in the USA with my sister, we found some beautiful tools for her son, a cabinet-making student in Germany: a saw from Sweden and an ax. I carried the traditional saw wrapped only in a plastic garbage bag aboard and my sister brought the ax, a long-handled ax. The attendant never questioned my saw but she asked my sister about the ax. She explained that her ticket stated she could bring on board anything to make her more comfortable and feel safe. The ax made her comfortable and safe feeling. We flew from Los Angeles to Detroit with the saw and the ax both under our seats in 1995.

Let's go now to Carlos(ph), Carlos with us from Chicago.

CARLOS (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

CARLOS: I'm with a performance group here in Chicago we called E.E. And what we - regularly, we've flown with these giant, colorful, oversized hula hoops.

CONAN: Hula hoops.

CARLOS: Yes.

CONAN: And how do you explain those when you're trying to get them on the airplane?

CARLOS: Well, we basically check them in, as, I guess, oversized luggage. I mean, they're pretty light and they do bend so we manage to get them on into the cargo area. And like we're looking down at the baggage handlers and - oh, there's our hula hoops. Oh, there is someone's, you know, whatever…

CONAN: Right.

CARLOS: …I mean, apart from the fact that we're carrying drums and horns and regularly, we have to like do a gate check with some of the drums. And the other thing that we carry - actually one time, our - one of my last trips to New York City, my band mate found a perfectly good Danish chair on the curve. And the way he pack with its - with - he packed it so it was kind of recognizable as a chair all in cardboard. And there was a little area when we finally flew back into Chicago, where, like unusual-sized baggage, which is a long slow conveyor belt behind the carousel where it started slowly shoving out. So…

CONAN: The previously undiscovered parts of the airport, yeah.

CARLOS: Yeah. That little - actually, yeah, I was right there. So, I mean, it's is right behind, yeah, behind the carousel that in fact, no one really looks there unless you have like an unusual-sized baggage. But it was, I mean, kind of mundane compared to somebody's choice axes and saws. But just the same, we're a sight to see in the airport with all our hula hoops and instruments. So, yeah.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, thanks very much. And you've never had a hula hoop destroyed?

CARLOS: Actually, no. They're at the - bent, a little bit out of shape at the end, reshaping after awhile. They're made of, like, PVC.

CONAN: Yeah. Most of the passengers who arrive been out of shape too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARLOS: Yeah, I guess don't have to feel too sorry for those hula hoops.

CONAN: Thanks very for the call, Carlos.

CARLOS: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: So long.

CARLOS: Bye.

CONAN: A number of years ago, writes Cathy(ph) in Oregon, I won a contest on my flight for the most unusual item. I won a bottle of champagne from the flight attendant for my jar of bacon grease and a sketch of the design of my parents' headstone. The bacon grease was very family recipe the flight attendant's jaw dropped and she said, no question, you've won. We agree.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's see if we can get another caller on. Carol(ph), Carol's calling us from St. Louis.

CAROL (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi.

CAROL: Hi.

CONAN: What was the strangest thing you ever tried to get on an airplane?

CAROL: Well, I was at a conference down in Florida and at the very last minute, won a raffle and I won a flamingo costume. Now, I'm a humorist and the flamingo is my symbol and that's all I had to get this home but I had - it was too bulky for my carry on luggage and I had no room in my suitcase so I had no choice but to wear it.

CONAN: To wear the flamingo costume?

CAROL: Yes. Going through the security was a lot of fun. The TSA agent just looked at me and in total deadpan, said, you do know we'll have to pull you aside for extra investigation. And I said, that's fine. I have a lot enough time for that. And he said, don't take it personally. All flamingoes must be inspected before they (unintelligible). And - then he said, you can have a seat over here, just nest yourself in. We will get a female TSA agent over shortly. And he said, and only female TSA agents may inspect flamingoes.

CONAN: I see.

CAROL: So there (unintelligible)…

CONAN: Certainly didn't want to ruffle your feathers.

CAROL: Right. Absolutely. Now. The girl had to warn me like four times because she couldn't stop giggling. And they're supposed to be very serious and she was having a very hard time maintaining her composure and of course, I made sure the neck of the - there was a big, bulky body and then the neck came up in front of me and wrapped around my head like a cat to make the beak. And so she says I'm also going to have to feel your neck. And I said sure and she's feeling my neck and I was like, ooh, that tickles. And she's all (unintelligible) because I'm having a hard enough time. The sad thing was the flight attendants did not find it funny at all. I had…

CONAN: Really?

CAROL: …a quote on frequent flyer miles so I was flying first class and they just totally ignored me the whole trip. My seatmate, who I didn't know, had to order stuff for me because they would not talk to me or make eye contact with me. It was very sad.

CONAN: Oh, that flight attendants usually have the best sense of humor of anybody.

CAROL: I know. Well, this is, I guess, the wrong airline for that. But…

CONAN: Maybe they had a hard time with the last flamingo, you'll never know.

CAROL: Yeah, (unintelligible). Maybe they've had a violent flamingo on there or something. But I had little kids stopping and I think they're mad because I was holding up traffic because the little kids all had to stop and tap me and one asked for my autograph and I had one family asked to have their picture taken with me because it was the only flamingo they've seen in Florida…

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

CAROL: …(unintelligible) my husband waiting with a digital camera not get a picture of me but to get a picture of my then-16-year-old son's face when he saw me walk out of the…

CONAN: And you had an answer - just flew in from Miami and boy, and my wing's hard.

CAROL: Yeah, right. Exactly.

CONAN: There you go. All right. Thanks very much for the call, Carol.

CAROL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

CAROL: Bye.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from John(ph) in Waxhaw, North Carolina. When I was in the military, I took a flight with a stopover in Denver. The flight was cancelled due to snow so I teamed up with two women to share a room. But first, we had to track down the one woman's package: a side of beef. She said it was a great price so she decided to buy it and take it with her on the plane.

Let's see if we can get Greg(ph) on the line. Greg calling us from Washington, D.C.

GREG (Caller): Good afternoon. I flew once of a six-foot-long blowgun from the Amazon.

CONAN: Really?

GREG: Yes, and I (unintelligible) security when I said it was a type of gun and then they made me put the darts in my luggage carry-on but otherwise, they let me bring it on.

CONAN: Were there are curare tip darts in that you had with it that you put into luggage?

GREG: No, no. It was no - no curare. No poison at all.

CONAN: No poison at all, so you did manage to get the whole thing on.

GREG: Yeah.

CONAN: Did it (unintelligible)…

GREG: Yeah. Just held it in my lap.

CONAN: …and you just held it your lap, I was going to say, it wouldn't have fit in the overhead bin.

GREG: No. It's at - the kind of between my legs and then over my shoulder.

CONAN: And have you managed to…

GREG: …(unintelligible) sit in.

CONAN: …and is this now one of the treasured items in your home?

GREG: Absolutely, yes.

CONAN: And let me put it this way, are you single?

GREG: I am single.

CONAN: Hah. Can imagine why. Thanks very much for the call, Greg.

GREG: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

GREG: Bye.

CONAN: This e-mail from Chris(ph) in San Francisco. As a former member of the Yale concert band, I traveled with a 60-member ensemble to Brazil. The tubas and xylophones were one thing. I don't think the security personnel had ever seen a bassoon, long wooden tubes and metal rods raised some eyebrows to say the least. By the way, traveling with some 75-plus instruments makes overhead storage a tricky puzzle. Yes, indeed. It does.

This from Anne(ph) in Kansas City. I took a full-length fur coat to Chicago with me one winter, and in trying to stuff it into one of those overhead bins, one of its sleeves is hanging down, brushing some very patient man's head. And about that time, the guy in front of him turned around, said, you want me to shoot it? At which we all got a great big chuckle.

And Laura(ph) in Phoenix, Arizona got all the way from New Zealand to LAX via Tahiti with no problems, but then they charged me an additional $100 to get my board from LAX to Phoenix, Arizona. Of course, upon arrival in Phoenix, I discovered my surfboard was broken along the way. Oh, they dinged her board. They attempted to subdue me with a $50 travel certificate. All I know is I will never travel with a custom surfboard again.

Thank you all very much for your submissions by e-mail and by phone to the strangest thing you ever try to take out on a plane. And we wish all of you trying to do that today the best of luck the day after Christmas Day.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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