5 rules for packing checked luggage defensively

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Many air travelers think there’s nothing worse than having arrived at their destination airport, waiting at the baggage carousel while everyone else picks up their luggage, only to find their bag was lost, ripped or torn; or, when they open their baggage in their hotel, find broken or missing items.

It can get worse. Paltry reimbursement for their lost, broken or missing luggage and its contents outrages travelers, if they get any reimbursement at all.

For US domestic air travel, the airlines’ maximum liability for luggage and its contents, as set by the US Department of Transportation (USDOT), is $3,400 per traveler. For international travelers, to most countries, the liability limit is approximately $1,807 per passenger, as set by the Montreal Convention, a multilateral treaty. (The amount is approximate, as the Montreal Convention sets liability in special drawing rights). For international travel to countries not recognizing the Montreal Convention, the Warsaw Convention (treaty) applies, with a liability limit based on each bag’s checked weight, up to a maximum of about $635 per bag.

Some items in luggage are exempt from any airline liability on domestic flights. Basically, if it’s valuable, perishable or breakable, the airlines accept no liability for it on domestic flights. Cash, irreplaceable business documents, valuable books, photographic, computer and other electronic equipment, jewelry, musical instruments, perishable foods, furs, antiques, works of art, lifesaving medication, and just about anything else considered valuable, perishable or breakable are not covered by the airlines’ liability for checked-luggage contents.

Sometimes, as happens on US domestic travel on regional jets or propeller driven aircraft, some carry-on items, too large to fit under the plane’s small seats and overhead bins, are required to be “gate checked.” For liability purposes, “gate checked” luggage is treated as any checked luggage; along with passengers’ regular checked luggage it is part of the aggregate maximum baggage liability.

On international flights, airlines cannot make such disclaimers. They are responsible for all checked baggage and its contents up to the amount noted in the Montreal Convention.

Airlines generally permit passengers to purchase excess valuation protection for their luggage and contents which has a value higher than the airlines’ standard liability. Typically, this protection will not cover fragile or perishable items not “suitably” packaged.

USDOT set its current $3,400 limit of liability as of June 6, 2013, raising the limit set in November, 2008, by $100. USDOT stated they took into account changes in the US Consumer Price Index to set the higher limit. According to the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, from November, 2008 through May, 2013, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose by about 9.7 percent, yet USDOT raised the maximum liability for lost or damaged baggage by just 3.0 percent.

The Montreal Convention liability limit was first set in 1999, then raised to its current $1,807 level in December 2009. Since then, in the US, the Consumer Price Index has increased by 9.4 percent. Presumably, the Montreal Convention won’t update its liability limits until 2019, five years from now.

For US domestic air travelers, the recent increase in required liability for air travel baggage and contents by USDOT was less than a third of the corresponding increase in the US CPI. For international air travelers, it’s been five years, and a CPI increase of more than 9 poercent since the Montreal Convention liability limit was increased.

The liability limits set by USDOT, and the Montreal Convention are woefully low, by any standard. The liability limit set for the airlines should at least equal the cost of quality luggage, plus minimally the typical contents of a vacationer or business person flying for a trip of at least two weeks duration. This limit should be updated annually, tied to a reasonable index which takes into consideration changes in the cost of living, which account for changes in the costs of travel gear and clothing.

Air travelers shouldn’t have to wait for the Montreal Convention to have a once every ten year review before their liability limits are raised, nor have the “real” increases in the cost of their travel clothing and gear ignored, as was done by USDOT when calculating its recent increase.

We know governments are very slow to move, even when a chorus of journalists, experts and consumers are complaining. So, for now, air travelers must “pack defensively.”

Rule No. 1: If you can’t afford to lose it forever, leave it at home.

Rule No. 2: Know the liability limit for your flight and which of the items you’re packing are covered by your airlines and which are exempt. Internationally — everything is covered to a lower liability limit. Domestically — check the airline contract of carriage.

Rule No. 3: Don’t pack exempted items in your checked luggage. I put all my photographic gear, electronics, breakables, valuables and medications, solely in my carry-on bag and personal item.

Rule No. 4: If you will have to “gate check” a carry-on bag, don’t pack exempted items in your “gate checked” bag. Put them in the personal item you can carry into the cabin of your plane. I wear a photographer’s vest when I fly and put exempt items in it, if necessary.

Rule No. 5: Consider purchasing excess valuation protection from your airlines, unless you purchase general travel insurance covering the total value of your luggage and contents.

  • TJ

    Rule No. 6: Seal liquids in “Ziploc” type plastic bags and Include polite notes to TSA staff to carefully reseal any bottles or other containers they open for inspection, and then to remember to also reseal them in their Ziploc bags.
    In my experience the TSA is often careless with resealing containers they open, resulting in shampoo, toothpaste and other miscellaneous ‘liquids and gels’ leaking into one’s luggage … with predicatble and often ugly results.
    The reminder notes do seem to help with the level of care shown.

  • Whidby Ferguson

    Given that the TSA often steals from people’s luggage — checked and carry-on — I doubt a note will do much good.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    You can say that again.

    Not to mention they’ve been known to leave notes of their own in people’s luggage, commenting on personal items that are none of their business.

    They shouldn’t be allowed to root through luggage anyway, especially without the owners being present. But what the hell — the 4th Amendment is just a vague memory anymore.

  • bodega3

    Rule #2 often does not apply to return trips home, only your outbound flight. Check with your carrier on these rules.

  • dcta

    So….was coming home from Budapest last month with husband. We had between us, one medium sized roller bag that we checked going to Europe, a small roller bag that we carried on, and a smaller over-the-shoulder carry-on bag. Going home I decided to check the smaller roller bag. BUT I didn’t have a lock for it, so I got it wrapped in that icky lime green saran wrap stuff. Now, nobody is going to open that bag, right? BUT you what did happen? The bag didn’t make it from the connection in Brussels to Dulles. I suspect that wrapping it that way caused the Brussels version of TSA to consider that it needed a closer screening when it came off the plane from Budapest. And so, it didn’t to the right plane in time to get home. It was the ONLY bag – according to the Brussels Air people at Dulles – that didn’t get to Dulles. Arrived home Saturday night, got the bag 1am Monday. Lesson learned – I need to find my other lock.

    In years and years and years of traveling – it appears that my bag has only been opened once by TSA. This was about 10 years ago and while I don’t remember why it was opened, I do remember that there was a pre-printed note in the re-locked bag when I opened it, informing me that it had been opened and there was a fill in space on the form where they wrote why. Again, I don’t remember why…. it seemed almost as thought they had not even moved anything around in the bag. I do remember that it was on my way out of the US.

    Believe me, clients complain about absolutely anything they can find – and I’ve never even had one client (out of thousands of trips booked) tell me his/her bag had been opened.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Lucky streak. My husband, in-laws, neighbors, and colleagues have all had bags opened.

  • Pocahontas

    Seattle Sports, among others, sells resealable ‘dry bags’ to boaters and scuba divers. I bought five or so of them – they also work great to carry shampoo and leak-prone items.


  • Pocahontas

    One more thing (can’t edit for some reason) – love the photography vest idea. Works much better than cargo pants b/c you can easily take it off and run it through the X-ray. I carried probably 25 pounds of stuff in one on transcon not long ago.