With all the improvements in luggage handling at airports, I have to admit, a part of me is still somewhat surprised to see my luggage pop out onto the conveyor at the end of every trip, especially after traveling two or three legs. In the last seven years, I’ve flown more than a hundred and fifty flights and have never had an issue with lost or delayed luggage.
Now, I’m a curious type and will chat up the check-in staff, airport employees and flight attendants and I’ve come to find there are a lot of little things we can do to prevent our luggage from going on a more exotic vacation that we are.
So, for those who don’t travel out of a carry-on, I’ve compiled a comprehension list of everything I’ve found helpful in preventing my checked bag from going walkabout.
BOOKING YOUR FLIGHTS
- Avoid booking a flight with short connection times. This not only runs the risk that you will not make your flight, but that your luggage won’t either. Depending on the size of the airport, I always prefer a minimum of two hours between connections. This is especially true of the larger hubs like Frankfurt, Hong Kong or LAX where I like to have at least three hours. It’s less stressful for me and for my luggage.
- Book all your flights on the same ticket (in other words – booked at the same time under one booking number). This means your bags can often go the whole distance without having to be picked up and checked-in again. It doesn’t matter if they’re different airlines. I’ve even had my bags move between alliances like Star Alliance and Oneworld with no issue because they were booked on the same ticket.
- Book the most direct flight possible. Every time a plane lands, the luggage is offloaded and distributed to other planes and the airport. Every landing increases the risk of a bag being misplaced.
- Buy insurance. Not only will good insurance cover any losses should the bags never re-appear, it should also cover you for emergency purchases while you wait for your bags. Don’t rely on credit card insurance without checking with your credit card company to confirm that it provides adequate coverage. Credit card insurance will almost always have to be topped up to give you enough coverage. As well, since I know my insurance will cover these costs, I don’t bother to weigh down my carry-on with extra clothes.
- Double check the baggage requirements for every airline you will be on, especially for multiple legs on different airlines. In most cases, the rules of the first airline you board is king, but in other cases, it’s the rules of the airline that has the longest leg.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME
- If you haven’t bought luggage yet, do yourself a really big favour and don’t buy black luggage. Even with different colour straps or stickers for identification, you still feel compelled to check almost every single black bag that comes off the conveyor. Buy something that is red, green, pink, purple, yellow…anything but black! The brighter the colour or more unusual the pattern, the better. It also ensures someone else doesn’t walk off with your luggage by mistake. If you already have a black bag, pick up colourful straps, tags and/or stickers. Anything to make the bag stand out.
- The first thing I do when it’s time to pack is take out my luggage, lay it on a table and inspect the outside. Except for my primary luggage tag, I remove everything hanging or stuck to the bag including previous flight tags and bar code stickers the airline may have applied to the bag. I remove hotel tags or stickers as well as any tags issued for a tour or excursion. The bag should be cleared of all stickers and tags except for your primary luggage tag.
- Most people put their home address on their primary luggage tag. That’s fine if you’re on the last leg of your flight home, but do you want the bag sent home if it’s misplaced en route and you’re on the way to Australia? I will put my full name, home city, cell phone number and email address on the main tag and double check it before every trip to make sure it’s up to date. Then, before I leave, I insert a post-it note on top of it with my flight booking number, dates, flight numbers and destination hotel listed on it. In addition to the cell phone and email already listed, this is the information that is most helpful to those that want to reunite you with your luggage. The note is easy to remove and turf before the flight home at the end of your trip.
- I recommend a sturdy primary luggage tag. I prefer one that is made of leather attached with a wristwatch width leather strap. I also use red tuck tape to seal the end of the strap so that it won’t work loose and fall off.
- Despite our efforts, tags do get ripped off the luggage while traveling through the luggage processing machinery, taking all that information with it. For that reason, I highly recommend that something to identify you and your itinerary be placed inside the luggage. One airport employee told me that a large portion of the bags that stay in the lost and found long term have no tags and nothing inside to identify the owner. I now print out an extra copy of my flight itinerary and hotel list, laminate it and place it inside the luggage for the duration of the trip. Make sure your name, cell phone and email are also on the sheet.
- Use a luggage strap as extra security. It will not only be helpful if the bag pops open, but it can keep loose straps and handles from snagging in the luggage processing machinery. I also stuff my zipper tags under it.
- Take a picture of your packed luggage inside and out. If it does get misplaced, there’s no easier way to identify it than with a picture.
- If you’re traveling with someone else, cross pack your bags. Put half your stuff the other bag and vice versa. That way, if one bag is misplaced, you arrive with enough stuff to do you until your luggage is found.
- Do not pack valuables or prescription medication. No jewelry, electronics or money. Not only do you risk having the items stolen, but having the bag re-routed to Mongolia so that the theft isn’t noticed.
- Do not pack lithium batteries. Improperly stored batteries can cause a fire so you not only risk losing your luggage, you risk bringing down the plane. Pack them in your carry-on with each battery in its own ziplock.
- Consider a luggage tracking device. I see no need for one for myself but it’s certainly a consideration for some.
AT THE AIRPORT
- Arrive early. This gives you time to deal with any problems and ensures your luggage has time to make it to your plane. I aim to be at my local airport between two and three hours prior to departure. For my flight home, I like three hours, especially in unfamiliar airports.
- When the luggage tags are printed, check to make sure your bags are going where you expect them to go. Always familiarize yourself with the three letter IATA Codes for the airports you’ll be traveling through. In one case, I had a counter agent only check my bags to Toronto, not to Zurich where I expected to find them. If I hadn’t noticed, I would have been over the Atlantic while my bags were doing circles on a Toronto Pearson conveyor. My flights were all under the one booking number so having my bags go all the way to my final destination in Europe is normal.
- Make sure the counter agent puts your tags on your luggage. In Lima, the LAN agent was having a problem finding my booking, and he laid my bags behind him. A few minutes later, I watched the agent at the next counter pick up my bags and proceed to tag them for New York. Luckily, I was keeping an eye on them and stopped him.
- The counter agent will stick a piece of the tag to your boarding pass. Don’t lose it. This contains the information necessary to track your luggage. Keep it handy as well. Sometimes the gate attendant will ask for it to confirm your luggage made a connection.
AT THE DESTINATION
- Once you are off the plane, don’t loiter at the shops along the way. The sooner you can be at the luggage carousel, the better. That way, you lessen the risk of someone mistaking your luggage for theirs and walking off with it. And in some airports, the carousel is accessible to the public, raising the risk of a local waiting until most of the bags have been claimed and picking up a stray bag for themselves.
- If your luggage is missing, see the appropriate counter as soon as possible and keep your cool. The employee is not responsible for the lost luggage and taking your frustrations out on them won’t help the situation. In fact, it could make it worse. Once at your hotel, make sure they know that your luggage may show up and ask them to hold it or place it in your room if you’re out.
While these points relate to checked bags, some can be applied to carry-ons if there’s a risk that the bag might be checked at the gate. This applies not only on the first leg, but on subsequent legs as well. Once on the plane, one also runs the risk of having larger carry-ons checked if there’s no space in the overhead bins. One way to ensure your bag is not the one selected is to board the plane as soon as your row is called.
Happy Travels! 🙂