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Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele delves into the world of luggage tracking technology, exploring options for keeping an eye on your bags even when your airline doesn’t.
There’s a sinking feeling you get when you’ve watched all the checked luggage emerge from the baggage carousel, and one of your bags is not among them. Your fellow passengers have already made their way to ground transportation, and you stand there in disbelief watching a few remaining bags bags run laps around the conveyor before it shuts down. Putting a temporary hold on your trip, you shuffle off to file a missing baggage report, and wonder if you’ll ever see you bag again.
If you travel often, it’s not a question of if this will ever happen to you, but when. Thankfully, there are some third party tools you can use to help reunite you with your bags, rather than having to place your hopes with the company that lost them in the first place.
Luggage tracking tools
We are constantly connected to each other by cellular networks, and in many cases, those networks have even penetrated the developing world to a greater degree than in industrialized countries. In the last year, two companies have begun offering small tracking devices that utilize these GSM cellular networks (not GPS) to alert travelers to the location of their luggage. Although the underlying technologies are the same, the devices and services offered are substantially different.
This is a slim device that sells for $59.99 each or slightly less when multiple units are purchased. Travelers first charge the device using a mini-USB port much like those found on many mobile phones. Customers then register their device online or through the company’s mobile app, and purchase individual traces at prices that range from $3 for a single trace to $30 for 30 traces. The idea is that travelers will only need to use a trace when their bag fails to arrive.
I charged up my LugLoc device and their app quickly located my bag in my neighborhood, although it placed it a few blocks from my house. So clearly, these services are of more use telling you where in the world your bag is, rather than finding it within an airport.
About 10 days after I charged it up, I received an automated email telling me that the device was down to a 10% charge, which is far less than the 40 days of battery life that the company estimates. Nevertheless, I had failed to turn it off at my destination, and it was easy enough to recharge the device using the chargers I had with me for my mobile devices. LugLoc says that battery life varies depending on many factors, much like it does with mobile phones that use the same technology. Furthermore, they’re also planning to revise their web site and mobile app in the next few weeks (at the moment, tracking requests are only available through their mobile apps, not their website).
The TracDot device is a bit smaller but thicker than LugLoc, and it takes two AA sized standard batteries. It also has just a single button and indicator light, which serves as its on/off switch. It sells for $49.99 and includes unlimited tracking for the first year, and $19.99 per year afterwards. Like LugLoc, you register the device and insert it in your luggage. In addition to their mobile apps, you can also see a history of the device’s location using their website.
The device worked for me at home, and registered its location at the Chicago O’Hare airport when I changed planes there, but it was never tracked at my final destination in Italy. When I returned, their support concluded my unit was defective and was sending me a new one, but not in time for me to test it further. Like the LugLoc unit, I also found that the TrakDot batteries were draining faster than estimated, but in this case, the company recommends only replacing them with disposable Duracell alkaline batteries, not rechargeable lithium.
Personally, I like the LugLoc device better than the TrakDot, due to its rechargeable battery, on/off switch, and multiple status lights. On the other hand, I prefer the TrakDot pricing plan (which includes unlimited tracking for a single price) as well as their website, although LugLoc will have a new site shortly.
The LugLoc pricing model seems to be designed around those who travel infrequently or just prefer to pay for the service only when their bag goes missing. On the other hand, TrakDot users have the advantage of always knowing if their luggage made it on the plane as soon as it lands, rather than paying a fee every time they want to know where their luggage is. Fortunately, the LugLoc representative I spoke with indicated that they may offer different pricing options in the future, and both companies seem to be trying to find the best pricing model for these new products.
At this time, I would recommend choosing the pricing model that best fits your travel needs, while I do give the LugLoc device an edge in usability.
Okoban luggage tags
Okoban was developed in Japan, and is now available worldwide to track lost items and return them to their owners. Companies sell tags and stickers with unique Okoban ID codes, which travelers register at the Okoban site. When lost bags are found, people can go to the Okoban site and report them found, which facilitates the items being returned to their owners. Okoban is also part of the SITA/IATA WorldTracer program, which is a global system that the airlines use for tracking lost luggage.
This system reminds me of the now defunct TrackItBack program, which some will remember fondly from when US Airways once offered enough miles for purchasing it that it was essentially a way to buy miles at a great price. Okoban differs from TrackItBack in that it is a standard clearinghouse system used by dozens of companies, rather than just a single proprietary program. In addition, the Okoban system does not feature any type of finder’s reward program, which was a feature of the old TrackItBack program.
Tips for avoiding lost luggage, and dealing with it when it happens.
Of course, rather than just helping you find your lost luggage, you would probably rather take some steps to avoid losing it in the first place. Here are a few proven techniques to help avoid lost luggage, and to minimize the hassle when it does happen:
1. Pack like your luggage will be lost. That means don’t pack anything that the airlines won’t reimburse you for (medications, keys, electronics, jewelry, etc), and carry on enough to ensure that you can carry on with your trip for a day or two if your bag goes missing.
2. Remove old tags. Despite the presence of bar codes, a lot of the baggage handling process relies on handlers visually reading your bag tags and routing your bags by hand. If you have your old tags on, your bag could easily be mis-routed.
3. Always tag your bags with multiple forms of ID. Identification tags have a way of being dislodged from your luggage, and it’s prudent to have at least one backup. I like to use a standard luggage tag along with an address label, and perhaps a business card inside the luggage as well.
4. Take pictures of your bags. The first thing you’ll be asked when you file a missing baggage report is for a description of your bags. Rather than work from memory, snap a picture with your smartphone before you leave. Finally, having pictures of your bag and its contents can help you to obtain compensation from the airlines and any credit cards you may have used to charge your flights, as most offer some form of lost luggage compensation.
5. Double check the airline baggage tag. Airline check-in agents have been known to add the wrong bag. For example, if you have a long layover en route to your final destination, an agent may accidentally tag it to your stop instead of your final destination. You have a moment to catch these mistakes before your bags are put on the belt, but only if you pay attention.
6. If your luggage is lost or damaged, immediately file a claim. A common problem is that travelers don’t file luggage claims in a timely manner. If there is a problem with your luggage, always get something in writing from the baggage service office before you leave the airport. If the office is closed, as it often is with late arriving flights, be sure to document that it was closed (take a picture), and call the airline for instructions before leaving the airport.
7. Demand any bag fees back. The only thing worse than having an airline lose your bag is paying for the privilege. If you checked in on time and your bag didn’t make the flight, make sure to request reimbursement for any bag fees you paid.
8. Get reimbursed from your credit card. Most reward credit cards include some kind of insurance for lost or delayed baggage, but you have to meet their terms. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred includes $3,000 of lost luggage coverage, per insured person, and must be filed within 20 days of the loss. Unfortunately, this type of coverage is only applicable when cardholders pay for their tickets with their cards, which excludes award travel.