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How to track your luggage with Apple AirTags

Aug. 08, 2022
11 min read
Apple Releases New AirTag In Australia
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In a summer when airlines have literally dropped the bag in terms of lost luggage, with mountains of suitcases stacked in London's Heathrow Airport (LHR) and some airlines leaving behind checked bags altogether, many travelers have decided to use Apple's AirTag tracking device to find their bags, even when the airlines can't.

The AirTag, a silver disc slightly larger than a quarter, uses the global network of Apple iPhones to track its location. The device sends a signal via short-range Bluetooth communications to iPhones in its vicinity and triangulates a location from them which it then sends back to your iPhone.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Airlines like Alaska are experimenting with putting electronic tracking devices of their own design on luggage, a process that will perhaps become standard at some time in the future (and certainly could cause more airline baggage fee surcharges).

For now, though, the most popular option to electronically track a bag (or your keys or via an off-label use, your pet) for iPhone users is the AirTag.

AirTags are available individually or in a set of four. Prices generally range from $27.50 - $29 for a single AirTag or $99 to purchase a four-pack, though occasionally deals come along that can reduce the cost and maximize the value of your credit card points.

Here we'll go through the basics of setting one up for yourself and how best to use it.

With the free TPG app, you can track your progress toward your next trip and get spending recommendations to help you reach your travel goals.

How to set up an Apple AirTag

An AirTag pairing with an iPhone. (Photo by Bill Fink/The Points Guy)

Before purchasing an AirTag, it's important to know the tracking device only works with iPhones and other Apple devices. If you have an Android-based mobile phone, you'll need to purchase a non-iPhone tracker like Tile or Chipolo (stay tuned for the TPG guide to Android trackers).

To get the most out of an AirTag, your iPhone should ideally be a model 11 or higher (to enable precision tracking). The operating system should be iOS 14.5 or higher. You'll be fine if you bought your iPhone in the past few years.

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To operate the AirTag, enable your phone's Bluetooth (accessible through the top pulldown menu). It's helpful to have "precise location" turned on in your settings, particularly if you're trying to track the AirTag to a location near you.

Connecting your AirTag

Connecting your AirTag to your iPhone is about as easy as it gets. Remove the silver disc from the sleeve it came in, remove the plastic insert and place it next to your phone. Within about 20 seconds, the phone will pair with the AirTag, without any action required.

An AirTag in original packaging. (Photo by Bill Fink/The Points Guy)

Next, the phone will request that you share your location (very helpful to do so), then prompt you to create a name and icon for your AirTag. I named the tag "TPG test" for this exercise and used an airplane icon. If you have a set of four AirTags, add a little variety in the naming and icons so you can remember which bag is which. For example, you could name one your luggage and choose the bag icon.

Once you name your AirTag, your phone will start you off with a screen showing tracking options. You can see where the AirTag is on a map and view directions to get there.

You can also select "Play Sound," which is helpful if you're looking for lost keys or if your bag is buried under a luggage mountain in Heathrow. You can also use verbal commands with Siri to ask the phone to locate the AirTag for you.

Setting up an AirTag. (Photo by Bill Fink/The Points Guy)

Familiarize yourself with the Find My app

Tracking the AirTag is usually done through the iPhone's "Find My" app. All iPhones come installed with the app, which tracks the location of other Apple devices like laptops and iPads.

Just click on the "Find My" app icon on your phone's main screen, hit the "Items" button, and you should see your chosen AirTag icon (in this case, an airplane). If you have multiple Apple devices, you'll also see them on the screen by touching the "Devices" button.

You can zoom in and out on the map within the "Find My" app. Zoom out if you don't know what city, state or continent your airline might have dropped your luggage in. If you zoom in as far as about a 100-foot-wide map area, you'll be able to track the precise location.

The official iPhone Bluetooth range is 800 feet (which means if you or anyone with an iPhone passes within 800 feet of an AirTag, you can track it). However, the effective Bluetooth range varies based on surrounding conditions and obstructions like buildings and electronic interference.

In the below photo of the "Find My" app, the AirTag correctly registers as "With You" when the item is with you.

AirTag location within the Find My app. (Photo by Bill Fink/The Points Guy)

When you leave an AirTag behind or are not near it, you'll get a different notification.

Screenshot courtesy of Find My

How to use the Apple AirTag

Now that you're set up with the AirTag, it's time to release it into the wild. Just place one safely inside your luggage or you can attach it with a keychain or luggage tag accessory, though that comes with more risks.

Among some of the more popular AirTag accessories are the Belkin AirTag case with key ring (I use this with my AirTag), a four-pack of Eusty keychains and the Hawanik wallet with AirTag holder.

You can even buy dog collars that you can put the AirTags into to keep watch over your pooch.

Note that several TPG staff have lost AirTags that they attached to the outside of their luggage. If you put it there, be sure to fasten it securely. Alternatively, just skip that idea and place it in an outside pocket of the bag. You may lose some Bluetooth range since it's inside a bag, but this is better than losing the AirTag completely.

I tested my AirTag by sending it via car and foot around the Portland, Oregon, metro area. The region is fairly densely populated but has substantial undeveloped areas, combining connectivity with gaps in coverage.

Using the "Find My" app within the confines of an outdoor mall (which included an Apple store) and my phone's precise tracking turned on, the AirTag tracked very well, particularly within Bluetooth range.

But I was a little surprised that there were some gaps in coverage. even in this crowded tech-using area. The AirTag icon changed from a specific location to a more general blue circle covering a large section of the mall.

In other words, don't expect your AirTag to deliver exact real-time tracking of your bag as it moves around within an airport, for example. It's common for it to not display real-time updates as it moves through the bowels of the luggage handling section of the airport. However, it would be reasonable to use the AirTag to try to find your luggage within a specific baggage claim area.

Tracking an AirTag in a mall with an Apple store. (Screenshot from Apple's "Find My" app)

Once I sent my AirTag out on a highway trip around Portland, the tracking became less precise and more intermittent. The looser tracking makes sense because the AirTag needs to be within contact distance of an iPhone, which will not always take place while driving at full speed on a highway.

Unfortunately, the location will not update or get more specific if there are no iPhones or other Apple devices nearby. Your AirTag can go "off the grid" if no devices are within its Bluetooth range. The "Find My" app will show you a "last updated" figure in minutes or hours to let you know how long it's been since it was detected by the network.

In the screenshot below, the "Find My" app correctly tells me my AirTag is on the highway near downtown Portland. It even registers that the AirTag is in the southbound lanes of Interstate 5.

Note the "last updated" feature, which tells me this location was accurate as of 14 minutes ago and that the AirTag is currently "Not Reachable." So in real-time, my bag could be on the opposite side of town at this point.

(Screenshot from Apple's "Find My" app)

Getting directions

If you hit the directions button within the "Find My" app, the phone will take you into the mapping function. It will provide driving, walking or biking directions you can use to reunite with your AirTag, as well as an estimated time to get there.

(Screenshot from Apple's "Find My" app)

AirTag's Lost and Notification functions

The AirTag works with the "Find My" app to help you if your item is lost or you just want to keep an eye on where it is. You can turn on Lost Mode by selecting "enable" for that icon for a specific AirTag. You can also add your phone or email address to the AirTag with a notification for any other iPhone user who might find it.

For someone to contact you, you must allow notifications from the "Find My" app.

You can help other AirTag users if you find a piece of luggage or a keychain with an AirTag attached. Just hold your phone near the AirTag. A notification should appear sharing either basic AirTag data or full contact information should the AirTag have been marked as lost.

Related: What it's like to use AirTags to track your luggage

What the AirTag can't do

An AirTag can't really help you if you don't use an iPhone. Stay tuned for TPG's guide to Android alternatives to AirTags (which include Tile and Chipolo).

Also, an AirTag cannot track items out of the range of iPhones. If your bag falls off a delivery truck in the remote countryside, you may be out of luck unless an iPhone-toting pedestrian happens upon it. Likewise, if you're using it to track your pet and Spot wanders off into the woods, you likely won't get a signal if they end up away from civilization.

The lack of updates can be frustrating if you're trying to track the delivery of a lost bag or if your AirTag suddenly loses contact just as you're getting close to it.

Additionally, an AirTag doesn't track historical data. While it may be interesting to see your missing bag's entire journey — and possibly useful in contradicting airline claims they had sent it for delivery — you'll have to make do with screenshots along the way done in real-time as you can't go backwards in time with where the AirTag has been.

Bottom line

The Apple AirTag can be quite useful for knowing at least the general location of your luggage during this summer of baggage chaos and for all your future travels. While it can't always provide a real-time location, it can absolutely help narrow down the location of your luggage.

So while AirTags aren't perfect in terms of supplying precise locations and real-time tracking information, they can work as an added tool to locate your bags, keys and more.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.