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October 2006
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Special Report on Luggage
Text by Linda Burbank    Photo by Mark Thiessan/NGS
Photo: Luggage
Airlines—and travelers— are paying more attention to luggage than ever before.

Taking it with you isn't what it used to be. What you need to know to get your bags to their destination and back.

hen Ben Moore and his wife planned their once-in-a-lifetime Mediterranean cruise, they couldn't imagine that they'd spend the weeklong trip in gift-shop T-shirts—even at black-tie dinners—after the airline lost their luggage. "Our time was spent combing European port cities for a pair of shorts wide enough to cover an American waistline," says Moore. 

Luggage woes are on the rise, and not only in the U.S. Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported a mishandled bag rate of 6.04 per 1,000 passengers, a 23 percent jump over the previous year. That's nearly 10,000 bags a day "lost, damaged, delayed, or pilfered." In Europe, the numbers are even worse, with 14.1 suitcases lost per 1,000 fliers, says the Association of European Airlines. And that was before emergency restrictions were imposed on carry-ons in response to a terrorism plot this summer, further taxing airline baggage systems. Here's what you need to know to improve the odds of your bags making the trip with you. 

Surcharges on Weight and Size

Facing high fuel costs, U.S. airlines last year trimmed baggage weight limits for international flights. Coach passengers can check two 50-pound maximum bags to most destinations. Some airlines have a higher allowance for business- and first-class passengers. In what may be a sign of limits to come, starting this month British Airways will allow coach passengers only one checked suitcase on its intra-European flights; an extra bag will cost $113.

If your bag tips the scale, you'll pay an extra $25 to $50, providing it's less than 20 pounds over the limit. Heavier suitcases could cost $100 or more. Oversize luggage (more than 62 linear inches) will cost you $80 to $100, and if your bag is both overweight and oversize, you'll pay both penalties. Bottom line: Buy a lightweight suitcase, so you don't sacrifice 35 percent of your allotment on the bag alone. And don't overpack: Overstuffed luggage is more likely to burst open en route. 

To Lock, or Not?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) advises travelers not to lock bags so screeners can efficiently open them for additional screening,
if necessary. But you're actually not prohibited from doing so. Travelers can use TSA-approved locks that screeners can open without damage, or any lock for that matter, with the understanding that it will be cut off if their luggage needs a closer look. "If a bag doesn't require TSA inspection, then we won't break the lock just to break it," says spokesman Christopher White.

Security screeners are required to put a note inside your luggage if they've opened it. If you think your bag has been opened but there's no note, it may not have been the work of the TSA; inventory your possessions. There's another, less sinister possibility: Automated luggage-handling machinery can also snap off luggage locks (as well as zipper pulls, wheels, and handles).

Bottom line: Don't use built-in luggage locks unless they're TSA-approved; they could be costly to fix if broken. Use approved locks to minimize hassles or, for a disposable option, use plastic zip ties, available at hardware stores.

Where Valuables Go

Dr. Nam K. Hyong knew better: He rarely put his camera in his suitcase. But he had too many carry-ons and at the last minute decided to tuck his camera bag into his checked luggage. When he got to Hawaii, his camera bag was empty. The airline refused to compensate him for the $2,300 theft. 

That's because airlines won't accept liability for many items, including photographic equipment, computers, electronics, jewelry, cash, artwork, furs, silverware, musical instruments, medicine, and more. Carriers also refuse responsibility for anything that could be interpreted as a "fragile item," "irreplaceable object," or "family heirloom." 

Check your carrier's restrictions on its website. What airlines won't pay, homeowner's insurance or travel insurance might. Bottom line: At press time, it is unclear whether new carry-on restrictions limiting hand luggage on certain flights will become permanent. But if carry-on rules change, airline compensation for lost valuables won't, at least not in the near future. If you must pack valuables, buy extra insurance. Better yet, leave them at home.

Delayed Luggage

Airlines normally reimburse travelers for expenses if their luggage is delayed. But reimbursement is typically limited to $25 a day (some carriers allow $50 the first day), up to a maximum of $125 to $150, and travelers must present receipts. Airlines consider the so-called residual value of purchases such as clothing, usually giving you just half of what you spent, with the idea that you'll get years of use out of those tacky T-shirts you had to buy when your luggage didn't make it. Also, if your bag ends up lost for good, anything the airline gives you up front will be deducted from your final settlement. 

Bottom line: You won't get enough from the airline to buy more than the basics. Don't rely on vague assurances from baggage-office agents, who are not the final arbiters on settlements. If you're offered a special deal, get it in writing.

Reporting a Lost Bag

Most "lost" luggage isn't truly lost: It turns up in a few days or even hours. Here's how the system works. When you're left empty-handed at the luggage carousel and file a lost-luggage report, you'll start with the basics: What kind of suitcase is missing, the bag's contents, your name and contact information. You'll get a claim number and telephone number to call for updates. 

On the other side, airlines collect errant bags and enter their tag numbers, suitcase type, and owner's name (if it's on the outside) into WorldTracer, the baggage-tracing system. Found suitcases are called "on-hand bags" and stay where they're found for around 72 hours, to allow enough time for a match.

Unidentified bags are forwarded to the airline's central baggage services; this is also where lost-and-found items end up. If you're imagining an Indiana Jones-like warehouse filled with identical black roller bags, it's not far from reality. There, employees open each suitcase and inventory everything they contain, right down to the number, size, color, and brand names of socks, all the while searching for some clue to the owner's identity. Each item has a corresponding code, and it's all entered into the system; this helps minimize language barriers and speeds up searching.

Passengers whose luggage hasn't turned up after 72 hours are asked to provide a detailed list of what they packed, which is likewise converted into codes. The system searches through coded inventories and comes up with weighted probabilities of a match, so baggage center workers can compare lost-luggage reports with what's actually there and, hopefully, reunite passengers with their bags. If no match is found after 45 days, the airline closes the file and compensates travelers.

Bottom line: Securely tape your name and contact information for both home and destination (or your itinerary, if you are traveling extensively) to the inside cover of your suitcase. 

Compensation for Pilfered or Lost Bags

If something was stolen from your suitcase, and you have a TSA note showing it was opened, you may have to file a claim with both the airline and the TSA. The TSA has logged almost 80,000 claims for lost, stolen, or damaged property, and has so far paid 22,123 in full and denied 23,010; the rest were partially paid or are still pending.
U.S. airlines increased their per-person lost-luggage compensation to $2,800 in 2004. International travelers flying to or from the U.S. can receive up to $1,491 (depending on exchange rate) under the Montreal Convention; some foreign itineraries will still fall under the old Warsaw Convention rules, which cap losses at $640 per lost bag.
Bottom line: If your suitcase and its contents are worth more than the cap, you can buy excess-valuation coverage from the airline when you check in. It's usually priced around $10 to $20 per $1,000 of coverage, to a maximum of $5,000. Alternatively, travel insurance may pay. Depending on the insurer and policy type, baggage coverage can range from $500 to $2,500. Check the website to compare policies. 

Cruise Luggage Blues

If an airline loses your luggage, even temporarily, it can cause big problems for cruise-bound passengers. "A bag that doesn't make it from the airline to the ship is more common than people think," says Holland America spokesman Erik Elvejord, though he says most are forwarded by airlines to the ship's first port of call. Sometimes, though, travelers are reunited with their luggage only when the cruise is done. 

Cruise lines lose luggage too, when transferring passenger baggage from hotels or at the dock. They may offer some relief if they misplace your bag, such as toiletry kits, free dry cleaning, and shipboard credits. But that's not much consolation for travelers who don't have so much as a bathing suit for tropical ports of call. 

Cruisers whose luggage is lost for good are in for a rude surprise. Cruise lines limit their liability to as little as $50 to $100, even if they're at fault. Seth Bruckner learned this the hard way. His luggage disappeared at the end of his Royal Caribbean cruise. The company stuck to its $300 liability clause when his bags never turned up. "The fact that cruise lines can implement these policies with no oversight is appalling," he says. Bruckner pursued his case in court, but ultimately was awarded only a nominal settlement for his $3,000 claim. 
Tip: Buy travel insurance that includes lost-luggage reimbursement. Cruisers can also buy extra luggage coverage from cruise lines for a fee of one to five percent of its value, but some items (such as jewelry) aren't covered. 

Schlep It or Ship It?

If you'd rather pay someone else to hassle with all this, you're not alone: Private luggage-shipping companies report that business is booming, with millions of suitcases sent door-to-door last year. Companies such as Luggage Forward, Skycap International, the Luggage Club, Sports Express, and Luggage Express will pick up your suitcases (or golf clubs, surfboard, skis, or scuba gear) at your home or office and deliver them to your hotel, condo, or even cruise ship. They work with big names in shipping such as FedEx and UPS, but they handle all the paperwork, do not require you to box your baggage, and will even clear customs for you.

Take note, though, that luggage shipping companies' liability for lost or stolen luggage is just $500 to $1,000 unless you buy extra insurance, which  typically costs $10 per $1,000. And they won't be held responsible if your bag disappears after delivery. If your bags are destined for a remote spot, ask if price quotes include all charges such as taxes and fuel.

Bottom line: Shipping is a convenient option and prices can be comparable in certain situations.

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