Baggage Carousel

Photo by Robert S. Donovan.

How’s this for a shocking statistic – in 2010, more than 29 million pieces of checked baggage were mishandled, meaning the bags were delayed, had items stolen out of them or were lost (sometimes forever). That’s 3,360 bags going missing or being tampered with every hour of every day. The worst part is that even though more and more people are going the carry-on route in a bid to avoid checked baggage fees, the rate of mishandlings actually went up over prior years.

With so many incidences of things going wrong, not to mention crazy stories like this one, in which a Delta airlines passenger finally received his delayed suitcase only to find it had been used as a toilet, it makes sense to take some measures to protect your bags.

So what can you do?

Essentially, there are two steps to keeping your checked baggage safe – preparing the contents for travel and firmly securing your bag. Here’s how I suggest going about it.

STEP ONE: Preparation

Carry on all valuables. You shouldn’t, for example, be putting fine jewelry into a checked bag. If some reason you absolutely must, at least make sure the items are well concealed. Wrap the object in a sock, shove it down your gym shoe or place it in your bag in such a way that it won’t attract attention.

If you did put important or valuable items in your checked luggage, make sure you examine the contents of your bag, either at the airport upon collecting it, or as soon as you check-in at your hotel. If something is missing and you didn’t check straight away, you won’t know if it was lost in transit, at the hotel or somewhere else.

Finally, know the abbreviated airport code for your destination (e.g. LAX for Los Angeles International). When you are checking in at the airport, make sure the agent correctly tags your bag with this code, otherwise your bag won’t be arriving at the same place as you! Also, you’ll notice the check-in agent will put a matching sticker on the back of your boarding pass – hang on to this, as it will make it a lot easier for the airline to track your bag should it go missing.

STEP TWO: Securing your bag

Regardless of what you have in your bag, it’s important to prevent others from being able to access it. As bad as it is to have something stolen from your luggage, it’s far worse to have someone put illicit items into your bags. You are generally held responsible for the contents of your bags, and it can be difficult to show your luggage was tampered with.

How can you get around this? Avoid zippered luggage. Yes, I know, the vast majority of suitcases out there are closed using zippers, and yes you can buy TSA-approved locks and slap them on. But no matter what locks you put on your zipper tabs, a thief can open zipped luggage in seconds using nothing but a standard office pen. They can also reseal your bag in such a way that you’d never know that it was opened. Want to see how it’s done? Here’s a video demonstrating just how easy it is.




Scared? Well here’s what to do. If you do still have to use your zippered luggage, you can protect it using tell-tags. It will still be possible to open your bags using the pen trick, but your bag can’t be resealed without destroying the tell-tag, providing evidence that your luggage was tampered with. Another tamper-evident luggage seal option is available here. Of course, don’t forget to seal any secondary compartments or pockets on your suitcase in addition to the main zippered section.

Ultimately the best way to keep your luggage secure is to use hard-sided zipper-less luggage that seals with a built-in lock. A determined thief might still be able to pick the lock, but more than likely, they’ll simply move on to an easier target. Security agents still need to be able to open your bag, so you should check that the bag’s built-in lock is TSA-friendly – which will generally be the case if the suitcase was manufactured within the last few years.

What do you think? Do you have any other tips for keeping your checked luggage safe?