Baggage Basics for Checked
and Carry-on Items
Only the rare passenger flies without carrying at least one piece of carry-on baggage, and many have to check one or more pieces of luggage as well. While there is always the risk of having items lost, misplaced, stolen, or damaged, many of the common risks can be reduced, avoided, or eliminated with a little bit of planning. The following pieces of advice provide some basic information on how to deal with many of the more common baggage related issues.
In the box below are links to other baggage related pages. Below the box is advice on general baggage limits, reducing both checked and carry-on baggage risks, traveling with computers and other electronics; and dealing with lost, damaged, or stolen baggage.
General Baggage Advice
There are only a few basic things to always avoid when it comes to either carry-on bags or checked luggage, mostly having to do with items you are not allowed to carry.
There are the obvious items that you should never pack such as illegal drugs or explosive devices.
However, most other items that you should not pack are not so obvious, especially items that may be allowed in checked bags but not in carry-on bags.
In general, airlines allow you to bring without additional charge up to two pieces of carry-on baggage (one of which can fit under your seat), plus some additional items such as umbrellas, and baby strollers. Additional baggage may cost you extra. AirSafe.com advises that passengers check in at least 30 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights in order to ensure that your checked luggage ends up on your airplane. Your airline may have more restrictive rules on check in time, especially for international flights. When in doubt, contact your airline for its specific baggage policies. Other basic baggage advice include not putting heavy items in the overhead storage bins, to immediately report lost luggage to your airline, and to be aware of your airline's carry-on luggage limits.
Reducing Carry-on Baggage Risks
If you are traveling with carry-on baggage, especially if you have no checked baggage, there are a few things you should do to avoid most of the problems you may have.
- Prepare to have it searched - Before you get to the airplane, you have to go through airport security, and that means putting your bag through the x-ray machine, and having the bag opened up and inspected by airport security.
- Know what's allowed in the cabin - There are many rules about what is allowed in the aircraft in your carry-on baggage. Check with AirSafe.com's guide to hazardous and prohibited items, and with the rules your particular airline may have.
- Keep track of your bags - In the terminal, especially in the areas beyond the security screener checkpoints, unattended baggage may be confiscated or even destroyed by airport security.
- Prepare to have it checked - If your airplane runs out of room in the overhead storage compartment, your airline may check your bag at the last minute. Keep critical items like medicine and eyeglasses and valuable items like jewelry and cash in a separate small bag or pouch. If you are forced to check your carry-on, take out this small pouch and keep it with you.
- Don't overpack the bag - Make sure your bag is light enough for you or someone else to easily lift it and put it in the overhead bin. Also, be extra careful if there is a heavy carry-on bag in a bin over your head. The doors on these bins may come open in flight, and heavy carry-ons can cause a serious head injury if one falls on your head.
Reducing Checked Luggage Risks
Any time that you fly with checked luggage, you run the risk of having individual items or even the entire bag stolen, lost, damaged, or delayed. Statistics supplied by the US Department of Transportation imply that a passenger who checks luggage has about a 2% chance of having this problem on a typical round trip. For the average traveler, this means that having a checked bag lost, delayed, stolen, or damaged will be more than a once in a lifetime experience.
In order to reduce or eliminate many checked luggage risks, you should consider doing the following:
- Only use carry-on bags - Avoiding checked luggage reduces the time spent at the airport and also reduces the chance that your belongings are lost, stolen, or damaged.
- Eliminate potential luggage snags - Since checked luggage usually goes though some kind of mechanical conveyor system, you should also remove straps or other protrusions that could get caught in the system.
- Make your checked bags easy to inspect - In the US, the TSA has to be able to inspect a checked bag, so your bag should remain unlocked. There are exceptions to this rule. The TSA works with some lock manufacturers to provide screeners with keys for some models of locks. Check with the TSA at www.TSA.gov for details.
- Make sure that your checked is bag easy to identify - To reduce the chance of someone accidentally taking your bag from the baggage claim area, place an identification tag of some kind on each piece of checked luggage. Make sure that your contact information is also on each one of these tags. You may also want to use small ribbons, stickers, or other identifying marks on the bag to make it easier to spot.
- Check the airline luggage tags - At check in, make sure that tags that the gate agent attaches to each piece of checked luggage matches your baggage claim tickets. Also, ensure that you and your bag are going to the same destination airport.
- Put valuables and critical items in your carry-on bags - Cash, financial documents, jewelry, cameras, cell phones, portable electronic devices, and other valuables should be kept on your person or in your carry-on bags. Other kinds of critical or difficult to replace items that should be in your carry-ons include things like prescription drugs, other medical items, eyeglasses, keys, passports, travel vouchers, business papers, manuscripts, heirlooms, or favorite toys. While the airline may compensate you for the loss of some items, they will not compensate you for the loss of some kinds of valuables such as money and jewelry.
- Keep fragile items out of checked luggage - Such items should be in your carry-on bags. Even a properly packed fragile item may be at risk in your checked luggage if that item has to be unwrapped in order to be inspected.
- Keep camera film out of checked bags - In the US, the equipment used to scan checked bags may damage unexposed film. According to the TSA, film that goes through the x-ray screening device for carry-on items should be safe. However, you may want to request a hand inspection of any bag carrying film since multiple passes through even these x-ray machines may damage undeveloped film.
- Prepare for a lost, stolen, damaged, or delayed checked bag - Pack your carry-on bags so that you will be able to survive for 48 hours at your destination without your checked bags. If you are checking more than one piece of luggage, distribute items so that the loss of one bag will not cause undue hardship. Checked bags that are delayed usually arrive within a day or so. Be prepared to keep a record of any costs related to your delayed or missing bag, or to any damage to the bag or contents so that you can later submit a claim to the airline or to the TSA.
- Check your bags after arrival - Go through your checked luggage after arrival to see if anything is damaged or missing, or if extra items were placed in the bag. If there is a problem, make sure you contact your airline as soon as possible.
Laptop security is of particular concern to travelers because in the US you are required to remove the laptop from its carrying case for inspection. This exposes the laptop to increased risks from damage and especially from theft. In order to reduce the risks that you face, you should consider doing the following:
- Keep the laptop with your carry-on baggage - Laptops are relatively fragile, as well as being an attractive target for theft. Keeping it with you on the plane is preferable to packing it in your checked luggage.
- Be prepared to take it out for inspection - In the US and in some other countries, your laptop must be taken out of its bag or carrying case before it is passed through an x-ray scanner.
- Separate the data from the laptop - For most users, the information on a laptop is far more valuable than the laptop itself. One easy way to protect against the loss of data is to keep any key data separate from the laptop in a device such as a flash drive, CD-ROM, or DVD-ROM.
- Secure the laptop with passwords - If you are unwilling or unable to separate the data from the laptop, at least put some kind of password protection on the laptop or on individual files or directories within the laptop.
- Use alternative electronic devices - PDAs, smart phones, and many other data related devices are not required to be taken out of your carry-on bag. Smaller laptops may not have to be taken out of your carry-on bags for additional screening. TSA allows passengers to keep smaller computers such as notebook computers and iPads in your bag. However, you may still must remove these smaller devices for screening if asked.
- Keep the laptop in sight - You may be delayed getting through the metal detector or you may be pulled aside for additional screening. If this happens, make sure you keep your laptop in sight. If you are traveling in a group, one thing that you can do is to have the first person through security be the person who takes care of all the laptops.
- Store it in you laptop bag - With smaller laptops, you may be tempted to put it in the seatback pocket or an adjacent empty seat when you are not using it. If you do, you may forget it, so if you are not using it, keep it in your laptop bag or other carry on bag.
Advice for small electronics
In addition to using your personal electronic devices or other small electronics responsibly, you should also take same precautions you would use for your laptop to keep from using it. If you are not using your ebook reader, smartphone, iPod, or portable gaming system, don't leave it in the seat next to you or in the seatback pocket, put it in an appropriate protective case like an iPhone protector, and then put it in your backpack, briefcase, or other carry on luggage.
Lost, Stolen or Damaged Baggage
If your bag is lost, stolen, or damaged, whether on a domestic or international flight, your first step is to gather all the information you have about what happened, and be prepared to take steps to file a complaint with the appropriate company or agency.
When your luggage be lost, delayed, stolen, or damaged, you may be eligible for some kind of compensation from either the airline or from the TSA.For example, on US domestic flights, there is a $3,300 compensation limit per passenger. Updated compensation limits and related information about lost and damaged baggage is available from the DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov. Compensation for domestic flights in other countries will depend on the laws and the civil aviation regulations in that country.
On international flights, compensation limits are set in most cases by the Montreal Convention, an international agreement that has been signed by the US, Canada, and many other countries. Compensation varies as the value of world currencies change, and on a formula based on what the agreement calls Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). Baggage compensation is limited to 1,000 SDRs. The value of an SDR changes regularly, but you can estimate the maximum value of a claim by checking the latest SDR value. This limit is associated with baggage that is destroyed as well as baggage that has been lost or damaged, or where the return of baggage has been delayed.
Things You Should Not Bring on Board
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Cartoon by Andy Singer