Of the many, many, many events that make airline travel absolutely miserable, one of the worst is when the airline loses your luggage. We can suffer the indignities of having to listen to businessmen shouting on speaker phone at the gate, miniscule seats, and exorbitant prices, but it’s the final straw when we finally get to baggage claim and then wait, and wait, and wait… and our carefully packed suitcase never emerges on that torturous revolving belt.
Unfortunately, due to factors like erratic pandemic rules, understaffed airlines, weather-canceled flights and overbooking, there has been a relative increase in lost, delayed, and damaged bags. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines mishandled or lost 684,000 bags in the first quarter of 2022, compared with 241,908 in the first quarter of the previous year. Some of the increase is due to more people (inexplicably) checking bags this year, but even after adjusting for that the DOT reports that the rate at which airlines lost or mishandled bags rose by more than 60%.
So what are we to do? Read on for ways to help ensure your luggage gets to its proper destination on time.
- Use a Carry-On: The best way to keep track of your luggage is to keep it with you; use a carry-on if you can. Sure, it’s a pain to drag around the terminal, especially if you have a connecting flight (or two), but at least you know it won’t be on its way somewhere else when you land. If you’re worried about being able to lift it into an overhead bin, you can ask to “gate check” your bag at the plane door. In fact, many airlines are encouraging travelers to gate check their carry-ons due to limited overhead bin space. The only drawbacks to gate checking is losing your access to your bag during flight (how many times have I accidentally left my book in there?!?) and having to wait on the gangway for them to retrieve it for you upon arrival.
- Avoid Checking Your Bag At All Costs: If you can’t squeeze everything into a carry-on bag, consider wearing an outfit with lots and lots of pockets. Jackets, vests, and cargo pants can stow a surprising amount of stuff, and if it’s an easily removable layer you can just put it into the scanner at security.
- Avoid buying black luggage. Everyone and their mom has black luggage, making it really easy for another traveler to accidentally grab the wrong bag. It also makes it harder to locate if it’s lost. If you call an airline and ask them to find a “medium black bag,” you’ll be able to hear their eyes rolling. If you have to use black luggage, decorate it! Colored duct tape, well-tied ribbons, even embroidered luggage tags in bright colors will help your bag stand out from the others.
- Photograph your luggage. If lost it will help airline representatives track it down, and it will be helpful as a reference if you suspect your bag has been tampered with, as well.
- Always have clear ID tags. The ones provided at the gate work in a pinch, but only write your name and phone number (for safety purposes.) Ideally, you could make your own ID tag with just your phone number and a picture of your face. That way it’s clear that the bag belongs to you, but you’re not providing a prospective scammer with information they need. Put one ID tag on the handle, and place another one inside the bag in case that flimsy elastic band breaks.
- Remove all airline-issued bag tags and stickers from previous flights. Those poor airline employees have to move quickly, and they don’t have time to easily ascertain which sticker they should scan if there’s more than one.
- Buy a bluetooth-enabled tracker. Apple AirTag, Samsung Smarttag or Tile Mate are all options to help track your luggage in real time. Just make sure the one you buy is compatible with your phone. (Don’t worry — airlines only forbid rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in checked bags, but these trackers don’t have those.)
- Book the earliest flight out/Fly non-stop. Many bags are lost when the plane makes a connecting stop. You can help prevent mishaps by flying direct or by taking the earliest flight and therefore avoiding the accumulation of delays as the day wears on.
- Check the fine print. Know your airlines’ policies regarding the return of lost luggage. Does it go back to the airport, or to where you are staying? Does it ship domestically and internationally? Is there a phone number to call, or just online services?
Ways to Prepare for the Worst-Case Scenario
- Even if you follow all our tips, it’s still possible for things to go awry. If you must check a suitcase (we’re looking at you, full-size shampoo packers), put a few essential items into your carry-on. We’re talking about any medications you need, a toothbrush, travel-size toiletries, pajamas, and maybe one change of clothing. That way, if your luggage is delayed or lost you’ll at least have some options.
- If you’re traveling with someone, swap a few essential items between your bags so that if one bag goes missing you’ll both still have something to wear.
- If your luggage is lost, insist that the airline give you a written report with a reference number before you leave the airport.