Missing-luggage strategies

By Philip Wagenaar

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was the company indeed offering unclaimed luggage for sale? Its website brazenly proclaimed, “Why not stop in at Unclaimed Baggage Center (509 West Willow St., Scottsboro, AL 35768; phone 256-259-1525, www.unclaimedbaggage.com), where you’ll find thousands of lost treasures from around the world. From winter clothes and shoes for the family to electronics, jewelry and luggage, you never know what you’ll discover!”

“Among the strangest finds have been a case containing a full suit of armor, a rattle snake, a trunk of Egyptian artifacts including a mummified eagle, a rare 1770 violin, a sparkling 5.8-carat solitaire diamond ring, a guidance system for an F-16 fighter jet valued at a quarter of a million dollars and a complete, neatly packed parachute.”

A few travelers have reported that they bought their own “unclaimed” luggage back at the center.

Our belongings had their own misfortunes, during an era when we had no qualms about handing our suitcases to the airlines.

I can still picture our bags, partly covered by a blue curtain, behind the check-in counter at Heathrow, waiting to be loaded on our flight to Teheran. Unfortunately, the personnel forgot to dispatch them onto the plane. When they arrived on the next flight, we had to return to the airport so that the bags could clear Customs.

On another occasion, after a 14-hour flight from L.A., as we looked for our luggage we found only our hiking sticks, which were blissfully going around and around in the carousel at the airport in Sydney, Australia. Lucky for us, the carrier found the rest of our belongings the next day.

On yet another trip, we were waiting in the tiny baggage claim area at the Colombo airport in Sri Lanka where the flight from Delhi to Johannesburg had made an intermediate stop. When all the luggage had been collected by its owners and ours had not shown up, I suggested to the agent that we check the hold together, since, most likely, the personnel had forgotten to offload our suitcases.

We both literally ran to the plane (at that time, you could still do that), which was still parked on the tarmac, only to find that the cargo space had just been closed. “No go,” the baggage handler said. After a round trip to Johannesburg, our bags were reunited with us in Colombo.

I still have a leftover from this trip in my closet, in the form of a pair of ill-fitting undershorts which I bought in a Colombo market with the small amount of money the airline had advanced us.

What can you do to prevent your luggage from getting damaged, misplaced or lost?

Before departing

1. Take only carry-ons (see my article “Carry-on Luggage,” May ’07, pg. 87).

2. Before packing any bag, ensure that it is not broken or torn and, very important, verify that the zippers work well.

3. Put straps around suitcases and don’t overstuff them.

4. Don’t take along expensive or hard-to-replace items.

5. Ship the luggage ahead to your destination with door-to-door services, such as Luggage Concierge (800/288-9818, www.luggageconcierge.com), Virtual Bellhop (877/235-5467, www.virtualbellhop.com), LuggageForward (phone, in U.S. and Canada, 866/416-7447; phone, international, 1-617-482-1100, or visit www.luggageforward.com) and many others (HDL, FedEx, UPS).

6. Make sure your carry-on does not exceed the legal limit (by size or weight), lest it be relegated to checked baggage, something that could happen either upon check-in or at the gate.

7. Put medications, keys, cameras, film, electronic equipment, computers, jewelry, itineraries, eyeglasses and other fragile articles as well as contact information, travel documents, tour vouchers and irreplaceable articles in your hand luggage.

Also carry on board items needed during the first few days after arrival, such as toiletries, a change of underwear, business attire (if necessary) and clothing appropriate to the destination climate. (We customarily travel on the plane in an outfit suitable for the expected weather.)

Place vital documents, cash and passports inside your money belt.

8. Call the TSA (Transport Security Administration) at 866/289-9673 or go to www.tsa.gov for details about TSA-approved locks, which security personnel can open and relock.

9. Place up-to-date identification tags stating your current destination and contact information both outside and inside your bags. On the outside, use a label that conceals this data from passersby. On the inside, include a clearly visible copy of your itinerary.

10. Carry a detailed inventory of each bag as well as invoices of expensive articles you took from home (include receipts of new purchases) — a prerequisite for reimbursement if something gets lost.

11. For easy recognition at the carousel, attach 12 distinctive yellow or orange self-adhesive ½-inch cloth strips to the outside of each piece of luggage.

12. Think twice about insuring your bags against loss, damage or delay. You may already be covered through one of the following (though compensation frequently is on a secondary basis and subject to many exclusions. Read the fine print!):

a. The credit card to which you charged your ticket.

b. Your home owner’s policy.

c. Your trip-cancellation insurance. The companies listed below offer lost baggage insurance as part of a trip-cancellation policy (if needed, look for an annual policy):

If none of those suit you, buy excess-valuation insurance from the airline, which provides up to $5,000 additional coverage at a premium of approximately $1 per $100 in value. It is best to do this upon check-in, where typically you will find the only agents that are familiar with this offering.

At the departure airport

1. Avoid late check-ins and close connections, the most common causes of lost and delayed bags.

2. Verify that the agent to whom you hand your bags tags each luggage item with the correct 3-letter code for your destination airport. (Before leaving home, find out what this three-letter I.D. is by going to Infoledge at www.infoledge.com/city_codes_list.asp or by calling the airline.)

3. Make sure you receive and save your claim stubs — which may be stapled to either the back of your ticket(s) or to the ticket jacket — since they are the only proof that your bags were checked.

At the destination airport

1. Double-check that you didn’t leave anything behind when deplaning.

2. Immediately after disembarking, go to the baggage carousel. After reclaiming your luggage, examine it for damage and for missing articles. (Before calling for help, make sure that you have not left items at home or at a previous location.)

If you do find that some of your belongings have gone astray, call the lost-and-found department at the airport, which may be operated by the TSA, the airline or the airport authority.

If you believe that the TSA is responsible, file a claim online (the fastest option) at www.tsaclaims.org, the TSA’s Claims Management website.

If you don’t have Internet access, call the TSA Customer Contact Center at 866/289-9673 for help.

Note that six airports (San Francisco, CA; Kansas City, MO; Sioux Falls, SD; Rochester, NY; Tupelo, MS, and Jackson Hole, WY) utilize private screening services. Contact the company that provides these services at the applicable airport.

3. If your belongings do not arrive on the conveyor belt, go to the luggage office before leaving the airport. On occasion, you may be happily surprised when you find that your baggage already has arrived and has been kept under lock and key.

However, if it is not there, take three deep breaths, relax and put a smile on your face. Next, discuss your problem in a friendly fashion with the baggage agent (after all, she is not responsible for your bad luck). You will find that you get more done with an affable attitude.

Make sure that the representative gives you a copy of the “missing luggage” form. If you leave the airport without filing a claim, you risk giving up your right to future reimbursement.

Note the agent’s name and obtain the appropriate telephone number (which is different from the reservation number) for follow-up.

Keep in mind that carriers have a way to track misplaced items — which may take up to one week — and that approximately 98% of all “lost” baggage is ultimately recovered.

Once your belongings are found, the carrier usually will deliver them to you without charge. In addition, many airlines will reimburse you for any unforeseen expenses as a result of the loss or delay. Most carriers also will supply basic necessities, such as a toothbrush, toothpaste and a razor. If there are other articles you need, request a cash advance.

Since employees may not be familiar with the exact settlement guidelines, ask to see the company’s written policy.

The carrier’s liability

What should you do when you find out that your luggage has really gone astray? Keep in mind that the airlines consider articles “permanently lost” only after they have been missing for 90 days.

To get reimbursed, you typically must fill out a form on which you record the missing items and their value. (Enclose copies of your receipts.)

How much money can you expect to collect? According to the Office of Aviation Enforcement & Proceedings, the maximum amount that an airline must pay if it loses a passenger’s belongings has been increased, as of Feb. 28, 2007, to $3,000 for domestic flights.

However, on international flights, your baggage is governed by the Montreal Convention, in effect since November 2003, which limits luggage compensation at around $1,500 per passenger, depending on exchange rates. Montreal rules apply to round-trip flights (including domestic portions of international journeys) originating in the U.S. The E.U. countries ratified the Montreal Convention in 2004.

On the other hand, if you travel on airlines to or from nations that haven’t fully ratified the 1999 Montreal Convention, the antiquated 1929 Warsaw Convention rules may apply. These allow carriers to compensate passengers for missing checked bags according to their recorded weight — not the actual value of its contents — at $20 per kilo, not to exceed two bags, with a maximum of approximately $600 per suitcase. To receive reimbursement under this convention, the weight and the number of bags must be noted on your luggage check.

Think you are home free? Not really, since the government lets the carriers determine the maximum payment.

The claims process is burdensome, with policies varying by carrier. Many items, including jewelry, photos, artwork and electronics, are not refundable, and other articles are reimbursed at a greatly depreciated value. (However, documentation of the actual prices that you paid for the items may increase the amount you receive.)

To be aware of your rights, read the baggage liability section of each airline (often called “Conditions of Carriage” or “Contract of Carriage”), which you find either on its website or on your boarding pass or ticket jacket.

If you want to file a complaint, call or write the airline’s consumer office at its corporate headquarters or contact the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Aviation Enforcement & Proceedings C-75 (400 Seventh St. SW, Ste. 4107, Washington, D.C. 20590; phone 202/366-2220 [available 24 hours a day], www.airconsumer.ost.dot.gov).

It is comforting to know that if your luggage ever goes astray, you can use the reimbursement you receive to pay for a trip to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, where, hopefully, you will be able to buy back your own missing gear.