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If you think having a luggage tracker will prevent your bags from getting lost, think again.
Domestic airlines mishandled over 300,000 bags in the first half of 2023, roughly the same number as the same period a year ago. The Unclaimed Baggage Store is still in business. And admit it: Despite assurances from your airline that your bag will be returned to you at the end of your flight, you still hesitate when you check your luggage.
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“Even the most advanced technologies are not foolproof,” said Mike Millerson, a survival expert who follows tracking technology closely. He said there’s no substitute for smart planning and common sense when you’re trying to prevent luggage loss.
Luggage thieves are smart and can remove or disable the trackers while they’re pilfering your bags. Airlines are also unimpressed with your AirTags and Tiles and don’t really care if you can tell them where to find your lost bag. There are only a few proven methods for ensuring that your bag never gets lost – and I’ll share them with you below.
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Why luggage tracking doesn’t always work
Luggage trackers are useful when your bags are misplaced. But they are not anti-theft devices. So when you entrust an airline with your luggage, and it falls into the wrong hands, an AirTag will probably be useless.
That was the lesson learned last year when a Florida airport worker was arrested and charged with two counts of grand theft. Sheriff’s deputies found stolen luggage in his home and he admitted to removing an AirTag from the luggage, which authorities never recovered.
Stripping an AirTag from luggage is almost too easy. An AirTag that isn’t with its owner for a period of time makes a sound when you move it. You can also go to “Find My” to see if there’s an unknown AirTag nearby. Smart luggage thieves know they have to get rid of the trackers – unless they want police to show up at the front door.
Truth is, a determined luggage thief can still find a way to disable or simply discard your tracker and make off with your valuables. Luggage trackers give travelers a false sense of security that their luggage is unlosable, but in the hands of a capable luggage thief, you could be the one left standing as the luggage carousel screeches to a halt and your bag is nowhere to be found.
Airlines don’t care about your tracking devices
Time and again, airlines have shown their indifference to your AirTags and Tiles.
“Having a luggage tracking device doesn’t guarantee anything,” said Philip Ballards, a manager for a hotel booking website.
He’s been hearing more stories like this from his customers: Airline loses their luggage. Traveler calls and says, “I know where it is,” and gives an exact location.
“And the airline responds, ‘Sorry, but we can’t find your bag at this time, and you can’t come to retrieve it. You’ll have to wait until we find it and deliver it. Give us a few more days,’ ” he said.
Why don’t airlines care about your tracking device? They have their own tracking technology. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue recently introduced baggage tracking tools, which let passengers see their free checked bags from check-in until they’re unloaded. It joins the other legacy carriers, American, Delta and United, in having such tools.
It took them long enough. Tracking technology, which has the potential to all but eliminate lost luggage, has been available since FedEx introduced tracking systems for its packages in the late 1970s. Airlines likely didn’t adopt it because it was cheaper to lose your luggage and pay the minimum compensation under the law than to invest in the technology. That was a smart business move but an incredibly customer-unfriendly decision.
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What should you do? Track your luggage – but don’t be overconfident
Even with smart thieves and indifferent airlines, you should still track your checked luggage. That’s because there’s a bigger picture. Most travel in the U.S. takes place by car, and luggage can disappear from anywhere – your hotel room, your vacation rental, and even the trunk of your rental vehicle. Having an AirTag or Tile can help you find it unless you have a very determined luggage thief who separates your luggage from your tracker, of course.
“You should put an AirTag or Tile in anything that you can’t afford to lose,” said corporate travel skills trainer and former LAPD detective Kevin Coffey.
He’s right: There’s no downside to tracking your bag. Coffey recommends tracking carry-on bags, too, just in case you have to gate-check the bag.
The system often works well when the airline screws up. Just ask Nick Valentino, who couldn’t find his luggage when he flew to Miami recently. His airline claimed the bag had never been checked in, but then he remembered he had bought an AirTag recently and forgotten about it.
“I activated the AirTag and quickly found my luggage still sitting at the baggage check-in counter of my home airport,” recalled Valentino, who runs a moving site in New York.
Tracking devices can help you even when your bags aren’t lost. Margie Jordan recently thought she misplaced her checked bag on a flight from Jacksonville, Florida, to Charlotte, North Carolina. She checked her iPhone, which revealed the bag was with her.
“I glanced around the area,” said Jordan, a travel advisor from Jacksonville. “Then I noticed it sitting right behind me in the corner. It came in on an earlier flight.”
Of course, there’s still one way to ensure your baggage won’t get lost: Never let it out of your sight. Stow your luggage somewhere you can keep an eye on it. Because in the war against lost luggage, a tracker is just one weapon in your arsenal. The most effective one is still common sense.
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Here’s how to use a tracker to follow your luggage wherever it goes.
- Check your battery. The batteries for a Tile and AirTag last about a year. It helps to check if your tracker works before leaving. For example, on a Tile, you can double-press the button to check the battery. For an AirTag, open the “Find My” app, push the “Items” tab and then tap the AirTag whose battery charge you want to check. Pro tip: Set a calendar reminder on your phone or computer to check the battery after a year – and before you use it.
- Don’t show off your luggage tracker. Some luggage has a dedicated pouch on the outside where you can slide a luggage tracker like an AirTag. But that’s an open invitation for a luggage thief to remove the tracker and take off with your luggage. Instead, hide the tag inside your bag. Coffey, the security expert, hides his tracker by unzipping the inner lining and taping it under a flap of fabric.
- Use a redundant tracking system. If you buy an AirTag or Tile, consider a redundant system, like the Ekster tracker, a solar-powered tracking card. The bad guys will not know what it is, allowing you to recover your lost luggage if it’s stolen. For a higher level of security, consider upgrading to a GPS tracker like Pebblebee or Gego. “Invest in reliable tracking technology,” advised Miller, the security expert. “It offers an extra layer of security.”
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.