Lost bags have long been a bane of travelers, and understaffed airlines lose a lot of bags these days. These tips can make sure yours isn’t one of them.
Wendy Carroll has had airlines lose her luggage more than once. Most recently, workers forgot to remove her suitcase from the hold in the bottom of the plane, where they found it at the airplane’s next stop. “They had to fly it back and then put it on a bus to bring it to me, about a two-hour drive away from the airport,” said the 70-year-old, who lives in Spokane, Washington.
Mitchell Bober, 75, recalls his mother-in-law arriving at Baltimore-Washington International while her luggage continued on to Boston. At the customer service counter, the agent asked her if she needed overnight toiletries. She said she kept those items in her carry-on. “The agent gave her his brightest smile and said, ‘You’ve flown with us before,'” Bober said.
“I vowed to always take meds as carry-on after that experience.”
Miami Beach resident Charlotte Tomic, 71, learned to keep essentials in a carry-on bag when her luggage went missing for a day on a flight to Connecticut to visit her stepson. “I vowed to always take meds as carry-on after that experience,” she said.
Good Is Not Good Enough
Bob Nesoff, of New Milford, New Jersey, recalls his daughters’ disappointment when he returned from Florida and was told that his suitcase, with gifts for the three girls, was California-bound. They got the toys two days later, when the airline delivered Nesoff’s bag to his house.
These stories all took place well before COVID wreaked havoc on the airlines. “This was when I still had red hair instead of all white,” Nesoff, now 83, said. “Probably in the mid-’70s.”
Even now, a substantial majority of bags carried on airlines arrive on time and in fine condition, but the recent relative increase in lost, delayed, misplaced, damaged or burgled bags has led some travelers to call the flying experience Airmageddon.
It is the product of too many travelers, too few airline employees, often-canceled flights, erratic pandemic rules, bad weather, and other factors.
Many More Missing Bags
Jannik Lawretz, CEO and co-founder of LuggageHero, a chain of luggage-storage locations in shops, cafes and hotels in more than 70 cities, says U.S. Department of Transportation data shows airlines mishandled or lost 684,000 bags in the first quarter of 2022. Mishandled bags include those that are damaged or pilfered, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
That compares with 241,908 mishandled or lost bags in the first quarter of 2021. People checked far fewer bags last year, about 60 million in the first quarter versus 105 million over the same time this year, but even after adjusting for that, the Department of Transportation says the rate at which airlines lost or mishandled bags rose by more than 60% in the first three months of this year.
Tips from Experienced Travelers
How can you prevent your luggage being part of those statistics? And what can you do if a bag goes astray anyway? Veteran travelers offer the following tips:
- Don’t check luggage, use a carry-on. On domestic flights, their length plus width plus height must measure less than 45 inches — including wheels and handle. International flights may have different limits.
- If you recoil at the idea of lifting a heavy carry-on bag into an overhead compartment, ask to “gate check” your bag at the plane door, along with strollers, car seats and items too big for a bin.
Carry Essentials With You
- If you must take a suitcase, put a few items (pajamas, toiletries, medications, underwear and maybe even a change of clothing) in a carry-on so if your luggage is delayed, you have options. If you’re traveling with someone, pack some of each traveler’s clothes in the other’s bag, so if one suitcase wanders you’ll both have something to wear.
- Use luggage that is any color but black. If you must use black, decorate it with colorful duct tape or tie a bright ribbon on the handle. Then photograph all sides of the bag. If an airline representative asks for a description, show the pictures. Also shoot a photo of what’s inside.
- Make sure you have one or two completed ID tags (don’t use a home address) on the outside and another inside as well as your itinerary. Put a photo of you on an ID tag and write, “This luggage and this face belong together.”
- Buy a Bluetooth-enabled tracker, such as an Apple AirTag, Samsung Smarttag or Tile Mate, for each bag and perhaps for each child, grandchild or cognitively impaired companion as well as scooters or wheelchairs. Make sure the tracker is compatible with your phone. (Trackers use lithium batteries but can be put in checked bags because regulations forbid only rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.) Be sure the holder clip is secure and not easily removed.
- Remove all airline-issued bag tags and stickers from previous flights.
- When you check suitcases, be sure the new airline-issued bag tags have the right flight number and destination. Take a picture of the bag tag stub in case you have to prove you checked a bag.
- If you can’t fit everything in a carry-on, consider wearing a vest with a lot of pockets, such as a fishing vest, a military tactical vest, a photographer’s vest, or vests designed for this purpose that may even have a pocket large enough for a laptop or tablet.
If you can’t fit everything in a carry-on, consider wearing a vest with a lot of pockets.
- Another storage trick is to stuff a T-shirt or light sweater in a neck pillow. Think about how much weight you can comfortably carry.
- If you’ll be traveling less than 500 miles, contemplate taking a train or driving.
Managing Accursed Connections
- Book the earliest flight out, to avoid the accumulation of delays as the day wears on, and fly nonstop, if possible, to eliminate transfer problems. Also, arrive at the airport early to improve the odds your luggage will make it on your flight.
- For long flights that connect, book the longest leg first. Consider predictable seasonal weather that can delay or cancel flights: summer days in the South and East can mean thunderstorms, for example, while winters in Chicago or the mountains can mean snowstorms or worse.
- Familiarize yourself with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new rules about what the airline owes you if it delays or cancels your flight because of circumstances within its control. The rules are at the Aviation Consumer Protection website.
Ship Bulky Stuff Separately
- Consider shipping bulky items, such as golf clubs or skis, separately. Several firms offer this service, some will even deliver to your cruise stateroom. Check the fine print. Does the company only return lost luggage to the airport, or will it deliver to your home or hotel room? What does it cover? Does it ship domestically and internationally? Does it deliver on Sundays? Does it have phone service if you have a problem or just email? When calculating the cost, ask your hotel if it charges to receive luggage or packages.
- Check your travel insurance to see whether lost or delayed luggage is covered, so you can buy essential items and be reimbursed for them. Also, check the credit card you used to buy the ticket to see if it covers your luggage inconvenience.
- If, in the end, the airline loses your luggage, insist that it give you a written report with a reference number before you leave the airport.