I’ve bought two guitars in the US, I live in the UK.
I bought a Parker Fly Deluxe in Las Vegas and a Paul Reed Smith Custom 24 in New York.
Why Buy Abroad
At the time I got these there was a noticeable difference in sterling/dollar exchange rates, the pound was stronger. I got the Parker for around £1,300 and the PRS for around £1,600, roughly 60% of UK prices at the time. These sound extravagant I know but I had to do some serious saving to buy these and they were a few years apart.
I doubt that there are many bargains to be had out there now.
The other reasons and probably the main one now is rarity and choice. If you’re looking at buying something unusual or very collectable it may be your best option (I wish I had the money to do that).
How to buy abroad?
I guess most people will look at the internet but personally I wouldn’t buy a guitar over the web from a private seller without seeing and playing it. I had bought from dealer over the web without playing first and not had any problems. However you have some comeback with a dealer and they’ll set it up or tidy it up for you first.
Personally I’d browse around a few shops it’s more fun and you might stumble on something that isn’t advertised on the web (my Parker was in a backroom and was brought out for me).
Check up where the guitar stores are either on the web or in Yellow Pages when you arrive.
Buying & Taxes
Obviously check the exchange rates and don’t forget that a credit card company will charge whatever the daily rate for the transaction is.
Check on what taxes will be applied locally, in the US and Canada there are local and federal taxes plus in some places even sports and city taxes. It can add up to a hefty sum.
These can be refunded at the airport when you leave. Make sure that you save some time for the crushingly dull experience and long queues for a refund. Make sure that you keep the sales receipt somewhere safe.
Don’t forget UK import taxes. Declare it, don’t try to smuggle it through, the Customs will probably check anyone coming in with an electric guitar and take care because some of them have excellent knowledge of electric guitars.
UK VAT is 20% and there’s import duty usually between 5 and 9% but I actually got “let off” that by one customs official once.
Getting it Home – Safely
There’s no doubt about it, the airlines make travelling with any large musical instrument a thoroughly miserable experience. You are very unlikely to be allowed to take it into the cabin. I did on one occasion actually get a seat allocated to my acoustic guitar on a flight back from San Francisco but that flight was almost empty, this is rare. Unfortunately I didn’t get my guitar’s wine quota.
If you ask the answer will allows be no and you’ll be told check it in to baggage.
Some guitar stores will offer to send it to the UK for you. The plus for this is that it’ll probably get there safely. The down side is you’ll have to pay for it and you’ll have to wait for it.
Don’t forget the weight allowances otherwise you could get charged a really stupid prohibitive, excess baggage fee. Allow 10kgs for guitar and case
Always get a hard case and get one with a good lock. Obviously the lock is not important for theft (they’ll walk away with the instrument) but it might stop the case from bursting open as the baggage handlers launch the case across the runway (fragile stickers carry no weight, it’s a challenge to them).
Also wrap the guitar in the case in bubble wrap or clothing for protection, make sure that any loose objects (trem arms, etc) are taped down or in a compartment.
One last thing – tape the case up thoroughly with gaffer tape. When I arrived at Heathrow with my Parker the case locks had burst but the tape had held the case shut.
Detune the guitar 5 turns on each string. The cabin pressure is different. A friend of mine recently forgot this and the neck snapped on a flight to Brazil. Please don’t forget to do this!
Guitars usually get checked in at outsize baggage at airports. They don’t always come off on the belt with the rest of the baggage. More than once I’ve stood at a belt for ages only to discover the guitar a few yards away stacked up somewhere already in the reclaim baggage hall.
One last Issue – Travelling whilst Abroad with the guitar
You may be asked to open it when you go into shops. That happened to me in New York.
Also don’t forget to check that it’ll fit in the hire car. The Parker didn’t fit in the back of the Mustang convertible I hired which meant I had to put it on the back seat in full view.
Also once you’ve bought it you’ve got to leave it somewhere. Obviously it’s too big for a hotel safe but it’s worth asking at the reception desk if they have somewhere to store it.
Don’t take any guitars with you that you don’t want broken if you backpack. I did backpack for 3 weeks in Africa with a wooden travel guitar and it was fine though.
I hope this helps