Like most of you, I do my best to get my guitar on the airplane when I travel. If I know I can get the guitar on with me, I use my well-padded gig bag, which is easy to carry once I reach my destination. To ensure overhead space, I try to get on the plane early by sitting near the back, or (on SWA) by getting an early boarding number.
If I must check the guitar – if I’m flying on a small plane with limited overhead space, for instance – I use the hardshell case. But to avoid having to carry that heavy case once I reach my destination, I fold a lightweight gig bag into my suitcase.
MY MAIN STRATEGY FOR CHECKING:
I ALWAYS carry my guitar to the plane. I suggest you, too, avoid the convertor belt, unless you have an indestructible case.
I take the guitar in its hardshell case through TSA to the gate, then gate check it. They hand carry it to the hold (with the crew’s luggage, under the cockpit on larger planes), and bring it back to me in the jetway as you disembark. After arrival at my destination, Itransfer the guitar to the gig bag so it is easier to carry around. A workable gig bag is $40 or so. Here is where I got mine: Gig bag.
These days, airlines are supposed to let you carry guitars on the plane – hardshell case or not – but my experience is that the employees are much less apt to hassle you if your guitar case doesn’t appear to be dauntingly large. And, guys, wear a tie (so says Guy van Duser!).