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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.