Whenever I’m asked, I recommend checking luggage when flying, especially flying on longer trips that require suitcases that just barely/don’t really qualify as “carry-on sized.” Travelers with pain often cannot lug their luggage across airports comfortably, or easily, or (in my case) at all. My choice is check a suitcase or buy all new stuff every place I go.
“But But But,” checked-bag detractors shriek, “What if my bag GETS LOST???”
Contrary to popular belief, there is no grand conspiracy amongst the airlines to steal their customers’ suitcases and sell off their priceless piles of dirty socks, used toothbrushes, and sweaty-at-the-armpits souvenir T-shirts. Really truly for sure, the airline wants to get all that back to you as quickly as they can.
Yes, there is some incompetence involved on their side on occasion. There’s also a set of logistical challenges that sometimes just can’t be overcome. Here’s how to beat the part of the system that you’ve got some minor control over:
1. Get to the airport 90 minutes ahead of time for domestic flights, and 2 1/2 hours ahead for international flights
2. Fly nonstop whenever you can. Failing that, go with the smallest number of connections possible.
3. If you must connect, schedule long connections. 2+ hours is best for mid-sized airports and domestic destinations. 3+ hours for major airports OR intercontinental flights & 4+ hours for both. Yup, you’ll be bored. But you’ll probably have your stuff at your destination later. Your choice.
4. Realize that often your suitcase is not irretrievably lost–it’s probably delayed because it missed a connection and it will be on the very next flight by that airline to your destination.
I used to hate getting to the airport early/having long connections–it’s boring and it’s uncomfortable. Now that I know how to travel better, and I’ve become One with the ways of airlines, I’ve basically gotten over it. I bring things along that make the airport waits less miserable. And I repeat my Airport Mantra over and over in my head: better bored than panicked.
Now, just for fun, here’s WHY you can cope with the boredom in transit, or you can cope without your bag after transit:
When you check your bag onto a modern airline, it’s given a bar code and its very own tracking number in the airline’s computer system. The agent also tags your bag with that big sticker with your destination airport’s code in big, easily visible letters. If there’s anything special about your bag, it may get additional stickers. The airline uses all of these things to track your bag, doing their very level best to get it to your destination intact and on time.
While you make your way through security, your bag goes through something similar. It exits the passenger-visible portion of the airport and goes through checked-bag security. That may be just an x-ray, or your bag may be opened by security agents who rifle through your underwear looking for contraband. Once declared “safe,” your bag gets loaded onto a big cart with a couple hundred other bags. That cart then gets driven out onto the tarmac, where it’s loaded onto your plane (most of the time).
All this takes time. That’s part of why you’ve got to arrive at the airport early–if you get there half an hour before your flight departs and you check a bag, it’s likely that the cart with most of the luggage for your flight has already left the baggage area. Which means that your bag may not make it onto the flight with you.
Every connection you make increases the chances that your suitcase will be misplaced in transit. When you change planes, your bag has to change planes too. At the gate, your bag must be found inside the cargo hold, routed to its next destination, unloaded, transported to the next plane, and reloaded. The bigger and more complex the airport, the longer all this takes. At a major international airport, your bag may need to travel more than a mile from one plane to the next.
The shorter your connection, the less likely it is that your bag will have enough time to get into the hold of your connecting flight before they have to secure the cargo doors. And of course, the shorter your connection, the more likely it is that one flight being late will completely screw up luggage transfer. There’s no Baggage Fairy out there who magically zaps your suitcase from your late-arriving first flight to your on-time-departing second flight in the 22 minutes between the one plane landing and the next one taking off.
Multiple connections raise your chances of luggage failure even more. Not only can your bag be left lonely and lost on the tarmac of one airport (no not literally!), now there may be no direct way to get that suitcase to you at your final destination.
The airlines do the best they can to get luggage that’s been the victim of late flights and too-short connections back to its owner ASAP. Usually, the bag goes on the very next flight out to your destination, and you receive it anywhere from an hour to a couple of days late. But not always–horror stories have bags following their owners all the way around the world, always about a week behind.
Which is why certain key items always need to go into the carry-on–medication, money, ID, computer, phone, undies, socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a hairbrush. I also keep enough money and enough mental flexibility on hand to be ready to buy a couple of articles of clothing, just in case it takes my suitcase is more than 24 hours to catch up with me. Worst case–I have to buy new stuff to use while I’m on travel, then either ship it home or abandon it. Which is what I would have needed to do *for sure* if I hadn’t checked my bag in the first place.