3 additional rules for packing checked luggage defensively

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Last week I wrote about “5 rules for packing checked luggage defensively.” The rules are necessitated by woeful liability limits, set by governments, for luggage lost or damaged by the airlines. The liability issue is further exacerbated on US domestic flights by the airlines eliminating their liability, as per their contracts of carriage, on breakables, valuables and perishables.

Unfortunately, there are other air travel luggage problems which require travelers to pack defensively to counter their effects.

Invariably, I’m behind one or two travelers who don’t pack their carry-on and personal item defensively. To my dismay, x-raying their carry-ons becomes a time wasting chore. I’ve watched too many Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Transportation Security Officers (TSO) operate the x-ray units for carry-ons at airport security, making everyone in line wait while they repeatedly re-x-rayed a carry-on bag before giving up and sending the bag for hand inspection.

What happens is the TSO can’t see the bag’s contents clearly on the x-ray unit’s screen. I’ve been permitted to see the problem on the screen for myself, by TSOs at a couple of airports. I couldn’t distinguish what was in a few of the bags being x-rayed either. This happens for checked luggage too.

It makes sense to me to x-ray all luggage, but it can cause some air travelers problems.

Much of the problem stems from air travelers carrying considerable electronic gear in their carry-ons. It’s unlikely electronic gear such as tablets or laptops would survive if packed in checked luggage, and for US domestic flights, the airlines accept no liability for their loss or damage.

Unfortunately, when x-rayed by TSA, the electronic gear, including cables and small accessories, may appear to be bomb making materials, but more often what triggers hand checking of luggage is gear packed too densely and disorganized, which makes it hard to figure out what’s in the bags.

If you want to avoid hand inspection of your luggage, pack defensively.

Have you ever watched your checked luggage been loaded into your plane while you watched from the terminal or your window seat once you’ve boarded your flight? Have you ever watched what I call the “Drop Game,” played by some baggage handlers loading gate checked bags, while you watched helplessly from your seat on your flight?

Luggage is routinely tossed and thrown on to conveyor belts by baggage handlers. Some get on the conveyors on the first try, others don’t and may be thrown again. While that may result in damaged luggage and contents, at times, I haven’t seen baggage handling worse than the “Drop Game.” It happens when baggage handlers are loading gate checked bags into the plane. On more than one occasion I’ve seen baggage handlers purposely drop or forcibly throw carry-ons to the tarmac, to then be picked up and loaded into the back of my plane.

While the airlines need far better baggage handler supervision, until that’s a reality it’s critical to pack to counter baggage handlers who play games or take liberties with your luggage, so pack defensively.

In 2013, the largest US airlines reported 1.9M instances of mishandled luggage, or 3.22 reports of missing, lost or damaged bags per 1,000 passengers. To some, that may not seem like a lot, but not if you’re one of those who’s actually had their luggage lost or damaged. Of the major US airlines in 2013, Southwest had the worst record of mishandling luggage.

Some of the most common reasons for lost or missing luggage are: damaged airline luggage routing tags, mistyped flight and destination information on airline luggage routing tags attached to your bags, and mishandling by baggage handlers. Even if the airlines all switch to RFID luggage tags from bar coded tags, which they should do immediately to make it much easier to accurately track luggage, you’ve got to pack defensively to counter the airlines’ baggage handling problems.

Here are 3 more rules for packing luggage defensively to add to last week’s rules:

Rule No 1. To lessen the chance of having your luggage hand inspected at TSA checkpoints, pack your checked luggage and carry-on bags in layers, with all loose gear such as cables and accessories, neatly packed in packing cubes, mesh pockets and folders. Don’t layer bags of cables atop each other. Instead spread them across your bags so they are easy to identify by TSA TSOs.

Rule No 2. Not only should you pack your valuables, breakables, and perishables in your carry-ons, make sure you pack them in a bag you’re certain won’t be gate checked, as too often gate checked bags are even more vulnerable to damage than standard checked luggage. If flying in a regional jet, put your valuables and breakables in a bag which will fit under the plane’s seat, as their overhead bins are typically extremely small.

Rule No 3. There are some items most air travelers can’t afford to have damaged and/or not arrive with them at their destination. Pack those items in your carry-ons. I always pack my electronics, including my laptop and tablet, plus photographic gear and other valuables in my carry-ons. Along with them, I take my toilet articles and all my medications in my carry-on. Those items must arrive with me, intact, at my destination.

In addition, I pack a complete change of clothes in my carry-on. I don’t want to waste a second of my first day at my destination shopping for clothes, medications, etc.

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    The “Drop Game” reminds me of one more tip I’d add. If you absolutely have to check a bag that contains something breakable – bottles of liquor or perfume are the main culprits here – make sure these are well insulated by something that can absorb the impact, like several layers of clothing, coats, towels, etc. My brother found this out the hard way. He bought a nice bottle of rum on a Caribbean cruise, but didn’t put enough stuff around it in his suitcase. He arrived back home with a shattered bottle of rum, glass shards in his suitcase – and a completely ruined, very expensive suit. That ended up being a really expensive $20 bottle of rum.

  • CommonSense

    @MeanMeosh: Good advice. I have probably packed full bottles of rum, wine, etc. in checked bags several times a year for over 20 years and have not had one break yet. However, I recently started using the padded liquid-tight bags made for this purpose as a secondary protection.

  • Pocahontas

    Get yourself a Pelican box and put it inside your carry on. They’re lined with foam, so even if some clown drops your gate-checked bag your gear will likely survive. I pack my camera, lenses etc in one any time I suspect I may have to gate check. I also carry a loose brass lock with mine so I can quickly secure anything in it prior to gate check. Usually I carry a small bike lock cable, too, so I can lock the Pelican to the hardware of my bag.


    Of course you can put Pelicans in your checked bags, too, but they’re heavy, so it’s a trade off. I have a hard sided case designed for hauling LP records that weighs less I usually use, personally.

  • ctporter

    check the luggage tags carefully, making sure they are being routed to the correct airport.