If you're gearing up for a holiday visit to Aunt Martha in Pittsburgh, a Vail ski trip or a Caribbean vacation, better take some precautions to protect your bags. Although you can't prevent the airlines from losing them, you can do simple things to make it less likely that they'll totally vanish into Lost Luggage Land.
In modern air travel, "the No. 1 problem is lost baggage," said Dave Jeffrey, public affairs director for the Airline Passengers of America, a Washington-based nonprofit consumer lobbying group. "The airlines have gotten better with their on-time standings, (but) they're still losing baggage. There's no indication that they're getting better at handling it."
But, Jeffrey conceded, the return rate is better than one might expect: "Ninety-nine percent of all lost baggage is returned within 24 hours. So only 1% of 450 million passengers a year traveling domestically actually lose their baggage. And the airlines usually go out of their way to bring it to you, often to your doorstep."
To protect themselves, passengers should ensure their luggage is locked and use care in packing valuables in suitcases they plan to check, Jeffrey advised.
That's because if the lost luggage cannot be found, airlines normally pay up to $1,250 per passenger for bags lost on domestic flights, depending on the value of the suitcase and its contents. On international flights, under Warsaw Convention rules, airlines must pay compensation of $9.07 per pound of the suitcase, with a maximum limit of $634.90 per piece of luggage. This maximum can be lower for second and third suitcases.
"I would advise buying extra insurance on valuables," Jeffrey said. "It's not expensive, about $1 for $100 coverage. Some airlines offer that themselves or (passengers) can go to Mutual of Omaha counters in airports."
It's also smart to ask what items an airline will insure in case of loss. Some carriers will not pay for lost photographic equipment, musical instruments, jewelry or computers.
Jeffrey also recommends that skiers buy extra insurance for their pricey gear; ditto surfers for a board. Most airlines will provide bags for your skis at no extra charge but they do charge to handle some sports equipment.
United Airlines, for example, offers ticketed passengers free transport of ski gear, golf clubs, fishing and bowling equipment and sporting firearms. But it charges $30 more for bicycles, surfboards and scuba tanks; sail boards are $75 extra.
Which type of luggage is best for travelers, the soft- or hard-sided models? That's a matter of customer preference, but Joe Hopkins of United in Chicago does note, "soft-sided is not as durable; hard-sided provides more protection."
An American Airlines representative agreed, adding: "The soft-sided luggage will get damaged easier. But whatever kind they have, they should have a durable name tag on each bag, with name and address. It's not a bad idea, either, to have your name and address on the inside of the bag, just in case the outer tag is lost or destroyed."
Passengers also should remove destination tags from previous trips, because they can confuse baggage checkers.
There are other common-sense precautions that can help prevent airline woes. Dave Shipley, a USAir spokesman in Arlington, Va., urged passengers to check in early, especially during the holidays: "Don't show up five minutes before your flight and expect your bag to make the same flight." He also suggested that travelers examine the claim tags they're handed, just to double-check their bags are heading where they're supposed to.
For carry-on luggage, all airline representatives advised passengers against wrapping Christmas gifts before traveling, unless they're something innocuous like a rubber doll or books. And if you do wrap those presents before boarding a plane, it's better to use paper, not metallic foils.
Electronic games, especially, should remain unwrapped, airline officials said, citing the recent destruction of a Nintendo game at Los Angeles International Airport by Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad, which feared the game was an explosive device.
"If you're carrying gifts as part of your hand luggage, you just have to use good judgment in what you wrap," said United's Hopkins. "I'd recommend they wrap it after they get there. Say you're giving your grandchild a toy gun or electronic games, when that is screened (X-rayed) by security, they're going to want to see it."
Adds Shipley of USAir: "All carry-ons must be X-rayed, and passengers must unwrap presents if the security agent requests them to. My best advice is to put wrapped Christmas presents in your checked luggage, not carry them on the plane. It happens every year. Someone spends an hour putting a beautiful wrapping on a present and then they can't understand why we have to open it."
The Federal Aviation Administration recommends that airlines allow per passenger not more than two carry-on bags, which must fit in the overhead bins or beneath the seat.
Handbags or purses do not count as carry-on items; briefcases do. Musical instruments may be carried on if they will fit under the seat.
The two-bag carry-on allowance can vary with airlines, and it can depend on the flight load. On a busy flight, an airline can, if it wishes, limit passengers to one or none. An American Airlines spokeswoman suggested that passengers call ahead to check the carry-on rules for a particular flight. If it's sold-out, chances are the airline will limit carry-ons.
Don't forget, too, to tag carry-on items, because they do get forgotten on planes and airlines say it's then tough to return them.
If you're traveling with pets, they should go in sturdy, well-labeled containers, which most likely will have to travel in the pressurized baggage cabin. FAA rules permit one small dog or cat per cabin on an aircraft, if it is in a small kennel box and fits under the seat. Reservations must be made in advance to take the pet with you in the cabin.
Once you arrive, if the airline has damaged or lost your luggage, report it at once to baggage representatives before leaving the terminal, advised Jeffrey of the airline passengers group. "Each airline," he said, "has a different policy on the statute of limitations concerning luggage. Some give you 90 days to report it; some give you two hours. And you should get copies of all the paper work about the baggage, names of people you spoke with and phone numbers so you can call them back."