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How to Buy Lost Luggage Bargains

Unclaimed baggage

Mark Orwoll

How could an airline lose my suitcase—on a nonstop flight to Zurich for which I had arrived early? By the time my luggage was found, I had taken a train to Bern. And when the suitcase reached Bern, I was in St. Moritz. I finally got my bag a few days later, but it sure made a lousy start to my Swiss travels.

Lost-luggage reports have declined by almost 21 percent in the past year, but some airlines are better about keeping track of bags than others. So what happens to luggage that never finds its owner, at least in the U.S.? I recently decided to find out. So I went to Scottsboro, AL, to the privately run Unclaimed Baggage Center (unclaimedbaggage.com), which has exclusive contracts with all the major U.S. airlines to buy luggage declared lost after 90 days.

From the outside, the nondescript store looks not unlike a mail-sorting facility in a largish suburb. Inside, think Wal-Mart with slightly used merchandise. When lost luggage arrives, much of the contents are thrown away or donated to charities, but the rest is placed on the store’s retail shelves: diamond rings, designer shoes, surfboards, even wedding gowns. The center has been processing more than one million such pieces annually since it opened in 1970.

“We once had a metallic fire suit, like a firefighter would wear,” says Brenda Cantrell, director of marketing. “In our jewelry department we had a 40.95-carat emerald, a loose stone. We appraised it for $35,000 and sold it for $17,000. We also had a 5.8-carat diamond ring appraised for $46,000. We sold it to a couple in Tennessee. The man had cash on hand and bought it for $23,000.”

Occasionally travelers will phone the store in the hopes that a missing article has turned up, but Cantrell says the center can’t assist with such requests because of the sheer volume of lost luggage it receives. There is, however, at least one instance of someone finding a missing item on the shelves of the Unclaimed Baggage Center.

“In 1998 a man came in and picked out a pair of ski boots for his wife in the size and color she would like,” recalls Cantrell. “It turned out her name was written on the tongue of the boot, and they were hers. That’s the only documented case of someone finding their own lost luggage.”

Under Department of Transportation (DOT) rules, if your checked belongings are lost, damaged, or delayed, you may qualify for up to $3,300 in compensation on domestic flights. (At press time, it was about $1,700 for international flights, which operate under a global treaty.)

It’s far better, though, to avoid losing your luggage in the first place, or at least to be prepared for the eventuality. Here’s what you can do.

Before You Leave

  • Book a direct or nonstop flight, which will minimize the chance of losing a bag.
  • Choose an airline that has a good baggage record. Compare online at airconsumer.dot.gov.
  • Pack your carry-on wisely so that you can live out of it for a few days—toiletries, medications, a change of clothes—in the event that you have to.
  • Remove old luggage tags to avoid confusion.
  • Label your suitcase well (I always tuck a business card inside). Lack of ID tags is one reason that luggage ends up in Scottsboro.

At the Airport

  • Don’t check in late, or your bags might not make it onto the plane in time for takeoff.
  • Make sure the desk agent places a destination tag on your suitcase.
  • Hang on to your baggage claim ticket. It’s often attached to your boarding pass, which many people leave on the plane.

After Landing

  • Be at the carousel when bags are off-loaded.
  • If your bag is lost or delayed, file a report immediately at the airport and get a copy.
  • Ask at the lost-luggage counter for the airline’s contract of carriage, which spells out your rights.
  • The DOT recommends following up with a certified letter to the airline’s customer service department restating the details of the incident.

I’ve learned from experience: fly with carry-on luggage only, when possible. The airlines haven’t found a way to lose that. Yet.

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