Frequently asked questions about luggage

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about luggage. You can find more FAQs here.

Before you leave

Do I need luggage?
When should I skip luggage?
Should I buy a black bag?
Should I check or carry?
What’s modular luggage? Should I bother with it?
What kind of luggage should I travel with?
What should I look for in a reliable bag?
Do warranties matter?
How do I pack smarter?

Lost luggage

How to prevent your luggage from getting lost
What happens when my bags are lost?
Can I track my luggage?
What should I do when my checked luggage is lost?
What do I need to know about the luggage claims process?


BEFORE YOU LEAVE

Do I need luggage?

It seems like a no-brainer. You travel — you bring luggage. Right? Probably. Bring luggage if:

✓ If you’re going somewhere where you will need a change of clothes and basic toiletries.

✓ If you need to carry anything larger than your pocket, either as a checked bag or as a carry-on. That includes a laptop computer, tablet, or other electronics, which should never be checked.

✓ If you need to bring food, beverages, medical supplies, or prescription drugs on your trip. Remember, medicine, car keys or house keys should not be placed in checked luggage.

When should I skip luggage?

✓ If it’s a short trip or day trip, and you will not need a change of clothes.

✓ If you’re going somewhere that luggage will slow you down. For example, you wouldn’t want to take a large bag into a theme park — many parks will send you to a long line for the bag to be searched.

✓ If you can easily buy the necessities at your destination, and need to get to your destination quickly. (A good example is if you’re fleeing a natural disaster or civil war, and need to leave town on the double.)

Should I buy a black bag?

No. For years, to paraphrase Henry Ford, you could buy luggage in any color, as long as it was black. At least that’s how many luggage manufacturers felt. Buying a black suitcase may not have been your first choice, but you can fix that by giving your luggage a unique tag or even pulling colorful duct tape around one of the handles — anything to set it apart. You’ll thank me at the luggage carousel.

Should I check or carry?

Airline. Checking a bag used to be a relatively easy decision. Most airlines included the cost of checking a first and second suitcase. The checked bags could still get lost, but at least you weren’t paying more for them. Now, with only one or two exceptions, you pay for the privilege. That’s left a lot of air travelers re-packing their bags, or packing less. For most vacations or business trips (those lasting a week or less), you can usually fit everything into a carry-on bag. Many air travelers try to do that, instead of giving the the airline an extra $25 per bag or more. (Note: Some “discount” airlines like Spirit also charge for carry-on bags, which makes this strategy more difficult to execute.)

Cruise line. Most cruise lines allow you to carry one bag on board when you embark, but ask that you check the rest of your luggage, allowing it to be brought to your quarters. There’s no extra charge for checking your bag, although you’ll be expected to tip your porter for the service. This usually works, although I would strongly recommend that you take all valuables with you. As you’ll see in a moment, your cruise line may not cover all your losses if the bags are pilfered.

Hotel. Bags can be left with a bellman, or checked at the front desk for safekeeping when you’re waiting for your room to become available or need to check out of your room but still have a few hours to kill in town. There’s usually no charge for this service, although you may be expected to leave a tip for bringing luggage to your room. Again, the hotel’s liability may be limited, so you should be wary of checking anything valuable.

Bus and train. Rail and motorcoach operators rarely charge for carry-on luggage in modest amounts, but their liability is limited by contract or federal law. It’s unusual for passengers to carry an excessive amount of luggage when traveling by bus or train, since it often involves walking longer distances within cities or between terminals. Again: Don’t leave anything valuable in your bags if you leave them out of your sight.

What’s modular luggage? Should I bother with it?

Modular luggage is luggage that’s built to fit together. One piece will hook on to another, allowing you to drag all of your belongings on wheels. Pretty nifty, huh?

The catch? They can’t always be used with other modular luggage. So if you’re thinking of buying this kind of luggage, make sure you buy it together. Mixing and matching may not work.

What kind of luggage should I travel with?

Luggage comes in all shapes and sizes, and deciding which set is right for you is a personal and practical decision. This isn’t a book about fashion, so I won’t be able to help you choose between leather and ballistic nylon, but let’s talk size.

Airline carry-on bags must fit in the overhead compartment, or under your seat. For most commercial aircraft (but not all), that means the maximum dimensions can’t exceed 22″ long x 14″ wide x 9″ tall. That’s the largest carry-on bag you can bring.

You may not be able to take that bag on a plane if:

✓ You’re on a smaller aircraft, such as a regional jet.
✓ All the overhead compartments are already full.
✓ You’ve overpacked the bag and it won’t squeeze in the overhead compartment.

I strongly recommend that your primary bag be no larger than the maximum carry-on for an aircraft. Otherwise, you’re taking a chance every time you check in, that your primary carry-on — and let me emphasize, this is the bag with all of your valuables and personal belongings — will be forcibly checked by the airline. It’s just not worth it.

Note: If you’re traveling by bus or train, you may experience limitations similar to those found on a small regional jet. You may need to quickly remove the valuables from your wheeled luggage and check it, which is not an ideal situation. Check the baggage limits for your motorcoach or train before you leave, so that you don’t have to quickly repack your bags.

What should I look for in a reliable bag?

Here are a few questions you should ask before you buy a new set of luggage:

Soft or hard luggage? Hard-sided luggage will protect your belongings, but it comes at a cost. The luggage tends to weigh more and it’s less flexible. So you won’t be able to wedge the bag into an overhead bin, and it’s more of a challenge to overpack a hard-sided bag (though not impossible). Where you’re going matters. In the tropics, where you might deplane onto the tarmac and pick up your luggage, softsided luggage can get soaked in a downpour before you get to it. Also, destinations with high humidity can cause clothes in soft sided luggage to get damp. It isn’t unusual for experienced travelers to own two sets of luggage, which they choose from, depending on the likely travel conditions.

Does the material matter? When you’re buying soft-sided luggage, pay close attention to the type of fabric and its denier, which is a trade term for the durability. Ballistic or Cordura nylon is more resilient than other polyester fabrics. Look for something strong, and a denier of 400 or higher.

How can I tell if the luggage is well-made? Typically, the more you pay the better the luggage, but not always. A solid look and feel will ensure the luggage lasts longer than a few trips. Look for covered exterior seams, lock stitches, and zippers with seams that are reinforced. Don’t be afraid to give the bag a pull (the equivalent of “kicking the tires” on a car) to make sure the stitches, zippers, and handles have a solid feel. If the handle seems like it could come off with another tug, try a different set.

Wheels or no wheels? Wheels add weight to your luggage but they can also make the carry-on so much more convenient. I’m a firm believer in wheels, but bear in mind that not every bag must have wheels. Some of your carry-ons can rest comfortably on the wheeled luggage when you’re in an airport terminal or checking into a hotel. Don’t go all wheel-crazy!

What about “wearable” luggage? Several clothing manufacturers offer pants, shirts and jackets that are advertised as wearable luggage. While these can carry some of your personal belongings when you travel, I don’t recommend using them as your primary luggage. First, they tend to be costly, novelty, products that cater to techies and gadget geeks, not mainstream travelers; and second, they generally have nowhere near the capacity of a standard carry-on bag. So, use it if you have one, but don’t leave your conventional luggage at home.

Two wheels or four? If your primary bag is wheeled, you have one more decision to make: two wheels or four? While the standard, two-wheel, wheeled luggage remains the most popular among frequent travelers, spinner luggage, featuring four wheels mounted on casters, is another option. Kids love it, because it moves easily in any direction. Four-wheelers also don’t fall over as often as the two-wheelers but they can roll away from you on their own.

Luggage security? Would you give a total stranger your name, address, and phone number? That’s what a luggage tag does unless it has a privacy cover. Certain luggage features electromagnetic shielding compartments to protect your laptop, tablet, cell phone and other digital devices from hacking and identity theft. You may not need this advanced protection, but if you’re the neurotic type, the added peace of mind can be a plus. New schemes by criminals and even some governments are developed all the time to access personal and financial data.

Do warranties matter?

Absolutely. Ideally, your bag will come with an unconditional lifetime warranty. Do manufacturers cover their product? You bet. I’ve dealt with many travelers who had their bags replaced, no questions asked. Note: read the fine print very carefully. Some warranties won’t cover all types of damage.

How do I pack smarter?

I could write a whole book on that topic. Here are a few tips:

Learn a system. There are various packing methods designed to fit more items into less space. Ever since I learned to fold the Navy way, I’ve been able to cram more into a bag, but rolling your clothes is another way to maximize room. Find a system that works for you, and use it.

Take only what you need. When in doubt, leave it out. Odds are, there’s a drug store or clothing store at your destination, and you can buy an item you need.

Plan ahead to pack less. Know the weather forecast at your destination and your activities and pack what works for both. Resist the temptation to add something “just in case”.

Don’t overpack. You’ll have trouble getting it into the car, or the overhead compartment, and it will stress you out. What’s more, you won’t be able to buy anything to take home with you. Your kids will be disappointed.

LOST LUGGAGE

How to prevent your luggage from getting lost?

Luggage likes to get lost, no question about it. Preventing it is relatively easy.

Buy a sturdy and colorful bag tag. Some of the flimsier paper tags are easily ripped off in transit.

Mark it up. Use tape, strings, spray paint — anything that’ll make it stand out.

Make sure it’s going to the right place. Those three-letter airport codes can be counterintuitive, so if you don’t recognize the one on your tag, ask the ticket agent.

Tell ’em where you’ll be. Store a copy of your itinerary inside the bag or outside pocket and make sure there’s a duplicate name tag inside the bag. In the unlikely event your outside tag goes missing, they’ll still be able to find you.

Take a picture. Use your cell phone camera to take a snapshot of your bag before you check it in. It’ll be easier to track down when you can show an airline or train employee a picture of the missing item.

Keep a packing list. That way, you know what you put in the bag that’s gone missing.

What happens when my bags are lost?

Airline. If your luggage is lost on a domestic flight, the rules are covered in your carrier’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline. If it’s an international flight, you’re covered under the Montreal Convention.

Domestic losses. Under most airline contracts, you have to file a claim within 24 hours of the loss, but you shouldn’t leave the airport before going to the luggage desk by baggage claim to let them know you bag hasn’t shown up. They have access to your reservation and see what comments might be noted about your bag. Sometimes it gets placed on another flight that’s arriving soon, and you can wait for it at the airport, or the airline can deliver it to your hotel. By the way, you can ask an airline to cover the costs of a change of clothes and toiletries while it searches for your bag. It’s better to ask for an allowance before you leave the airport instead of buying the needed items and then billing the airline. (It may or may not cover the replacements.)

The contract basically allows the airline to cover the cost of buying a new bag and some replacement clothes. You will be asked for receipts, and if you can’t provide them, the airline may pay a nominal amount, if anything. However, there’s a silver lining: Under federal regulations, it must refund your luggage fee if it loses the bag.

What’s excluded from liability? Almost everything. American Airlines’ domestic contract excludes antiques, artifacts, artwork, books and documents, china, computers, and other electronic equipment, computer software, fragile items (including child/infant restraint devices such as strollers and car seats), eyeglasses, prescription sunglasses, non-prescription sunglasses, and all other eyewear and eye/vision devices (whether lenses are glass, plastic, or some other material), furs, heirlooms, keys, liquids, medicines, money, orthotics, surgical supports, perishable items, photographic, video and optical equipment, precious metals, stones or jewelry, securities and negotiable papers, silverware, samples, unique or irreplaceable items, or any other similar valuable items. Whew! Moral of the story — never check these items!

International losses. Luggage losses internationally are governed by the Montreal Convention (the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air). When you’re dealing with a loss on an international flight, you’ll want to refer directly to the convention text if you think your airline isn’t compensating you appropriately. For example, Article 19 of the convention says a carrier is liable for damage occasioned by delay in the carriage by air of baggage, except to the extent that it proves that it took all reasonable measures to prevent the damage, or that it was impossible to take such measures.

Article 22 sets the liability limit for damages associated with delayed passenger baggage at about $1,700 (it’s calculated in something called Special Drawing Rights). Article 26 states that any provision tending to relieve a carrier of liability, or to fix a lower limit than that which is laid down in the Convention is null and void. By the way, violations of the Montreal Convention are forbidden under U.S. federal law, and would constitute unfair or deceptive business practices, and unfair methods of competition.

Under the Montreal Convention, an airline has 21 days before “misplaced” luggage is declared lost, but you shouldn’t wait 21 days before claiming the loss. The sooner you say something, the sooner the airline can start looking for your lost luggage. I strongly recommend making a claim within 24 hours of your loss, in order to comply with your airline’s own policy on lost luggage.

In the past, domestic airlines have shortchanged passengers on compensation under the Montreal Convention, so be wary of the first offer you get for a loss on an international flight.

Cruise. Your cruise line’s liability for your luggage is outlined in your ticket contract or cruise contract. Basically, you have to prove that the luggage was in the cruise line’s possession, custody, or control when it was lost. A typical contract will also have an exception for wear, tear, and normal usage. Items like perishable items, medicine, liquor, cash, securities, or other financial instruments are also exempt.

Carnival Cruise Lines’ contract, for example, stipulates that the aggregate value of your property, does not exceed $50 per guest or bag with a maximum value of $100 per stateroom regardless of the number of occupants or bags. You can get around that by declaring the value of your items in writing, and paying Carnival 5 percent of the declared value, but as a practical matter, that almost never happens. In other words, if your jewelry goes missing while you’re on a cruise, and you haven’t declared it in advance and in writing, the maximum your cruise line must pay is $100. Put differently, don’t bring your jewels on your cruise, or make sure your homeowner’s or renter’s policy covers your things. Some trip insurance policies and some credit cards also include baggage insurance.

Train. In the United States, Amtrak accepts limited liability for your luggage. You have 30 days from the date of your loss to file a claim. Its terms specifically exempt missing or stolen items inside unlocked or unsecured baggage, minor damages to baggage considered normal wear and tear (despite reasonable care when handling), baggage that was transported without travel of the owner of the items via Amtrak or payment of the applicable storage charges, loss or damage to prohibited baggage items, items packed with prohibited items, and baggage containing prohibited items.

If you check your luggage, Amtrak’s liability is limited to $50 per bag. If you check it as a parcel, it’s limited to $100 per bag. Amtrak also disclaims liability for any special items carried onboard, or any bicycles accepted in the baggage area not packed within a bicycle box.
Just like the cruise line, you can declare additional valuation, up to $2,500, upon payment of the applicable charge. As a practical matter, few passengers do.

Hotel. If you check your luggage with a bellman, and it’s lost, your hotel’s liability is spelled out in the State’s innkeeper laws. Those tend to favor the hotel, and limit the damages you can claim.

For example, California state laws say that in no case should a hotel owner’s liability exceed $1,000 in total. The amount of damages shouldn’t exceed $500 for each trunk, $250 for each valise or traveling bag and its contents, $250 for each box, bundle, or package and its
contents, and $250 for all other personal property of any kind, unless the innkeeper consents in writing to assume a greater liability. As a practical matter, your damage claim will probably be forwarded to the hotel’s insurance company for processing, and you may be asked for original receipts of all the items you’re claiming. This may make it difficult, if not impossible, to make a successful claim.

Can I track my luggage?

Yes. If your airline or cruise line is prone to losing your luggage, you can track it yourself. That’s the idea behind a service like Trakdot, a small device that accompanies your luggage and sends you a text message when it arrives at your destination. Another service called iTrak, billed as a “global lost and found,” will also call or email your bag’s location. No more asking the airline where your luggage is — now you’ll know.

What should I do when my checked luggage is lost?

Lost baggage is surprisingly common. For every flight, there’s usually one or two bags that are misplaced. Fortunately, most of those bags are eventually found. Luggage loss statistics for cruise lines or trains are not reported to the government, but they are generally not as common, and hopefully, they won’t happen to you.

Look around. If you’re at a luggage carousel, or at a train station, have a look around. Sometimes, luggage arrives early, and is placed next to the carousel or in a holding area. It’s possible the bag is not lost, after all.

File a claim. The sooner you let the airline, rail operator, cruise line, or hotel know of your loss, the sooner they can find it. Airlines have standard forms you’ll be asked to fill out. A hotel might not. Get something in writing that documents your loss. If necessary, call the police, and fill out a report.

Ask for an allowance. You should be able to get a stipend to buy toiletries and clothes while they look for your belongings. Although this isn’t written into any contracts, it is generally a policy to take care of passengers whose belongings have been lost. Note: You should always ask for specifics. Should you save receipts? Will they simply give you a gift card? Is there a limit to the stipend? (There almost always is.)

Be patient. It can take weeks, and sometimes months, to recover lost luggage. Sometimes it’s lost forever. Good thing you didn’t check anything valuable, otherwise you’d have a situation on your hands!

What do I need to know about the luggage claims process?

Unfortunately, the process of claiming lost luggage — indeed, of even trying to track down lost luggage — is as opaque as any I’ve ever seen in the travel industry. Once you’ve filed a claim, you may receive a receipt with a phone number for a “luggage services” department which either never picks up, or only offers automated information. You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares. If the bag is lost, the company may ask for receipts, which you probably don’t have.

✓ Unless your bag is found quickly, it can take weeks — even months — to process your claim. Be patient.

✓ The company will always pay the minimum it must under its rules or applicable law. Your appeal should be in writing, and it should follow the same steps as I outlined in the dispute resolution chapter.

✓ Don’t let the company leave you with the impression that it cares about your loss. For most travel companies, luggage loss, and the resulting claims, are a cost of doing business. The technology exists to almost completely eliminate lost luggage, but it’s cheaper to just keep losing your personal belongings, at least for now.

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