Let’s talk about baggage.
Baggage can be a real nightmare when you’re travelling. For 14 years, I’ve been working for a major airline, and most of that time has been spent in baggage services. The fact that there is an entire department dedicated entirely to delayed (rarely lost, to be fair) and damaged baggage should be the first indicator that all does not always go smoothly.
Airlines, their contracted ground handlers, airports, and everyone else involved in the complex process of transporting your bag are successful almost every time. When bags are delayed it is most often due to circumstances nobody could reasonably have controlled, and it will continue to happen as long as bad weather, malfunctioning equipment, and delayed flights continue to happen. There are things you can do, though, to help prevent delayed or damaged bags or help to reunite you with yours more quickly if the unfortunate does happen.
The following list is my opinion, but most people working with delayed and damaged bags would agree with all of these things. So, here is my list of things you can do as a traveller to avoid baggage drama:
1) Don’t check a bag. This is the one way to be certain that you’ll have everything at the other end. I realise that this isn’t practical for everyone, but whenever possible, avoid checking a bag. Bear in mind, too, that most items that would prevent you from carrying your bag on board, such as toiletries, are available on arrival in most countries. That said, also recognise that space is not infinite on you flight, and you may be forced to check your bag if it doesn’t meet your airline’s carry-on baggage regulations. Nearly every airline has become far stricter about adhering to the rules.
2) Keep valuable or important items in your carry-on bag. Keys, travel documents, medication, expensive electronics, and anything else you could need during a flight or within about 48 hours of arrival should be kept with you. In the case of medication, in Canada, the USA, the EU, and many other areas, if prescription medication is in its original container and labelled properly, you will be permitted to carry it through security screening, even if it is in excess of the 100 millilitre rule. Medical or mobility devices, such as wheelchairs and walkers, are likewise exempt from most airlines’ checked baggage fees.
3) Have a name, an email address, and telephone number on a piece of paper inside your checked bag. Addresses aren’t always recommended, as someone with ulterior motives may find your bag and, knowing you’re not home, take advantage of that situation. It’s unfortunate, but it can happen. The airline’s baggage services agent will contact you and make arrangements to get the bag where it needs to go. Also, notice I said inside. Tags come off of bags frequently for numerous reasons, so having a name inside the bag will speed up the reunification process!
4) Ensure your bag is self-contained. A lot of backpacks can be zipped up to hide any straps or belts, and I strongly recommend that you do so. Conveyor belt systems have lots of gaps and places where a clip or a strap could snag. A snagged bag will, at minimum, be damaged, is likely to be delayed, and could easily be destroyed. Belt systems in airports are ruthless. If your bag can’t be zipped closed, put it in a plastic bag, ideally a clear one. Leave a handle free for the airline’s tag, or avoid tying the bag shut until a tag is affixed. Use any provided tubs or bins on baggage systems, as these help prevent damage.
5) Avoid hard shell bags like the plague, especially for travel in cold climates. A well-made hard shell bag will withstand just about anything, however a poorly made bag (i.e. nearly all of them built after about 1980) just gives you a false sense of security. As soon as temperatures fall below freezing, the cheap plastic becomes brittle, and damage becomes much more likely. Working in baggage services in Canada, I can tell you, this is an exceptionally common problem!
6) I know this sounds patronising, but if you are in a place where you are expected to tag your own bags, ensure you’re reading the instructions and doing it correctly. Poorly affixed baggage tags coming off are an extremely common reason for delayed baggage incidents. Airline staff are (mostly, as with anything, some people are just jerks) happy when you check that you’re doing it right. Self-tagging is becoming an industry norm, and there really isn’t a single standard tag, so how to do it will vary between airlines and airports.
7) Keep your bag within the airlines’ weight restrictions. This is for at least two reasons. First, bags with more weight inside than they’re designed to handle can be damaged. Handles, seams, and other structure will not withstand both the rough ride the baggage belt systems give them and significant weight. Also, many countries’ health and safety laws require that two people complete lifts on items heavier than a particular value. This means that your bag could sit unmoved while a baggage handler waits for a colleague to help them. That time may have been the time required for your bag to make its connection.
8) Keep your bag within the airlines’ size restrictions. The main reason for this, besides avoiding oversized fees, is what airlines call bulk-out situations. Bulk-outs occur when there are too many items for an aircraft’s cargo pits. When this happens, bags are left behind and sent on the next flight. Typically, the largest bags are the first to be left behind, as the goal is to get as many bags flying as possible. If it is unavoidable that you’ll be travelling with bulky items, allow extra time for those to be transported, particularly during peak travel periods. In Canada, this tends to be around the Christmas holiday period (mid-December until mid-January), though this varies from place to place.
9) Be on time. In a large airport, your bag’s journey from the baggage drop station to the aircraft is often more than an hour. It has to traverse a sorting system, be cleared by that country’s security agency, be sorted to the correct area, then loaded onto your flight. If any of those things is slowed at all, your bag will not make the flight. Giving your bag a minimum of 90 minutes is strongly recommended, even in medium-sized airports. I know that hanging out in airports is boring, but it really will help ensure you get your bags on time.
Delayed baggage can happen, and there is often nothing you can do beyond the above to prevent it. Following the above advice won’t guarantee that your bag won’t be mishandled by a baggage system, that it won’t get loaded to a wrong area through human error, or that the tag won’t get torn off somehow. You will know, though, that you tried and that because your name is in the bag, you’ll likely get it back quite quickly!