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Travel Tips

Where Did My Luggage Go?

It seems our bags aren’t slipping through a Narnia-esque portal or going on their own timeshare vacation...Chelsea Stuart has the real scoop on what happens when your luggage doesn't make its way back.

A Brooklyn-based writer and editor, Chelsea's work has appeared in Matador Network, The Huffington Post, the TripAdvisor blog, and more. When not planning her next trip, you'll usually find her drinking way too much iced coffee (always iced—she’s from New England) or bingeing a Netflix original series.

See recent posts by Chelsea Stuart

Why it Happens

We’ve all been there – waiting at the baggage claim, growing more anxious with each passing bag that isn’t ours. While most of the time we’re reunited with our belongings, what exactly prevents the chosen few from rounding that carousel?

According to a recent DOT report, most luggage snafus in 2015 were the result of conflicting airline schedules, and not mishandling by airline workers. In fact, 99.68 percent of bags made it to their destinations on time, and the ones that didn’t were primarily the result of delayed connection times.

To get an idea of scale here, in its Air Travel Consumer Report (released in January 2016), the DOT revealed that about 51 million people flew on US airline carriers in November 2015. Out of those 51 million, 131,041 people filed mishandled baggage reports. So for every 1000 passengers, only 2 or 3 had to deal with a missing bag.

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OK, But Where’s My Stuff?

This is simple.

"It’s the transfer of baggage from one flight to another, or from one carrier to another that represents the majority of delayed luggage, around 49% last year," says Melanie Hinton, Managing Director of Airline Industry PR and Communications at Airlines for America.

Let’s say you’re on a connecting flight from NYC to Cabo, Mexico, making a pit stop in Dallas. While you’re buckling into that god-awful middle seat, chances are that your suitcase has yet to be unloaded from your previous flight. It’s likely chilling on the other airplane, waiting to be dropped off in a holding room before hopping on the last leg to Mexico – and sometimes it just doesn’t make it on.

The airline has a couple of options for getting your luggage back to you, says Hinton: This might involve sending the bag on the next direct flight on the same carrier to that destination, sending the bag through a connecting city if no further direct service will operate on that day, or sending the bag on another carrier that flies to your locations. Obviously, the first one is most desirable.

So what if you’re flying direct and your bag is MIA? More than likely, it’s because of missing or damaged tags. You know that long sticker they slap on the handle of your bag when you check in? That sucker holds all of the routing info necessary to sort it after going through TSA. If it goes missing prior to reaching the distribution point, then your bag is sitting pretty in the holding area until you file a report that helps identify it from the other 100 nondescript, black suitcases. This is where personal luggage tags come in handy, or in a pinch, fill out the paper ones provided by the airlines.

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What to Do in the Meantime

If you’re one of the unlucky, immediately file a missing baggage claim with an airline agent. He’ll ask for relevant flight info and a detailed description of your item, which will be put into their computer system (save for some tiny lo-tech airports who still fill out forms by hand).

You’re entitled to a refund on baggage fees you paid, and the DOT insists airlines pony up for any necessities you purchase while waiting for your bag to reappear. (When I flew from NYC to Kuching, Malaysia, with a layover in Changi, Singapore, my stuff didn’t make it. I signed a missing bag form and was given roughly $50 USD to hold me over during the two days it took them to track down my bag.) Caveat: Airlines differ in the amount they give you and when they give it to you. Delta, for example, promises $50 for every day your bag is missing, but doesn’t pay until it’s found. We recommend you hold onto those receipts and your original flight ticket. If your bag is declared truly lost, the airline must compensate you for its contents, up to a maximum of $3,300. If you file a claim overseas, the Montreal Convention regulations apply; these stipulate that airlines provide up to $1,750 in compensation.

So, What if I Never Get it Back? Where is it?

Let me preface this with the fact that it’s highly, highly unlikely you’ll never get your bag back. But, if it does miraculously escape airport confines, it could be in Alabama.

That’s right, your things could be gracing the shelves of the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, AL. The monolithic thrift store/island of misfit baggage takes in orphaned bags and sorts everything out before determining if it’ll be sold, donated or trashed. The center has sold wedding dresses, ski boots, taxidermy, and suits of armor – all at a 30 to 50 percent discount.

The business also has a pretty admirable donation program. Every year, Reclaimed for Good donates millions of dollars of clothing, electronics, books, and eyeglasses to charities around the world.

Do Your Part to Prevent Problems

A little can go a long way in terms of pre-flight preparation. Hinton encourages all travelers to 1. Make sure your luggage is labeled (inside and out, people!), 2. Take a picture of your bag – no matter how many ribbons you put on it, there’s bound to be a doppelgänger, and 3. Always, always, always keep your valuables on you or in your carry on.

If you’re a frequent traveler, you might even consider investing in a high tech Bluesmart bag. The luggage uses GPS and 3G technology (compatible with iOS and Android) to track your bag anywhere in the world. Extra perk: Bluesmart can power any device with a USB port, and it has enough juice to charge the average phone about six times.

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Good Things Are on the Horizon

Airlines have long heard our impassioned (ok, sometimes melodramatic) cries and are starting to implement smart technology in an effort to modernize their tracking methods. Forthcoming baggage enhancements will provide more transparent data, often in real time, on the exact location of checked bags. Advanced luggage tags are also looking to drive the number of mishandled bags down by incorporating technology such as RFID chips and tracking capability into a functional, scannable tag.

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