How to Buy Lost Luggage Bargains

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Mark Orwoll

1 of 19

You might be
surprised by what the airlines do with your misplaced baggage—and even more
surprised by some of the items people lose on their flights.

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.

How to Buy Lost Luggage Bargains

You might be
surprised by what the airlines do with your misplaced baggage—and even more
surprised by some of the items people lose on their flights.

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.

Mark Orwoll

How to Buy Lost Luggage Bargains

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