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Frequent flyers often take pride in traveling light but our carry-on bags actually contain thousands of dollars worth of stuff — high-end, noise-canceling headphones, flashy mobile phones, ultra-slim laptops, expensive tablets — all potentially there for the taking.

“I’m surprised at how so many passengers feel that on a plane, they are somehow immune from criminal activity,” said aviation security expert Jeff Price in an email. Price, also a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. We spend our flights reading a book, watching a movie, working or sleeping, and we may not be keeping as close an eye on our valuables as we should.

While there are no official US stats about the frequency of inflight theft, recent incidents overseas have made headlines. “Most of these are crimes of opportunity,” Price said, “when something of value is easily available and there is a low risk of getting caught.”

The good news is that inflight theft is relatively rare. One airline told TPG their general advice is that passengers use common sense when securing their valuables. Another airline, Southwest, said in an email, “Our best advice is for Customers to keep personal items and valuables in their line of sight, either in-hand, under their seat, or in an overhead bin where they can see them.”

Here are some other ways you can protect your carry-on items, especially if you plan to sleep during your flight.

1. Lock it up

After you pass through security but before you board the plane, put a small luggage lock on your carry-on — especially when you know you won’t be needing anything from that bag during your flight. “People who commit crimes on an airplane are looking for the quick and easy score,” said Price. “They don’t want to get caught mid-act with a paper clip jammed into the lock on your bag.”

2. Get an overhead bin close to your seat 

Ideally, you find a bin across the aisle from your seat so you can keep an eye on your stuff. Of course, that’s easier said than done on full flights, where overhead bins quickly fill up and you’re forced to scrounge for one 10 rows away.

But the added security, not to mention the convenience, makes getting a nearby bin worth it. Be at the gate when your boarding group is called, so you can board as soon as possible and get first crack at those bins (early boarding privileges are yet one more reason to get and maintain elite status with your airline of choice).

3. Place your bag in the overhead bin upside down

Canadian transportation officials tell passengers to place overhead baggage face-down. That way, thieves won’t be able to rummage through your bag without turning it around or conspicuously taking it all the way out of the bin.

4. Bury your treasures

Another suggestion from Canada: If you’re putting items in a carry-on bag, don’t put them in the exterior pockets or compartments. Instead, put them well inside, beneath your clothes and other items, to discourage bin pirates.

If you’re putting your bag or personal item under the seat in front of you, make sure you have the pockets facing back toward you. If the pockets are facing the front of the plane, the person in the seat ahead of you might be able to reach your bag’s contents with you unaware.

5. Maintain close contact with your stuff

Be it a small bag, a purse, or a piece of electronic equipment, hold onto it while you sleep so that no one can take it or look in it without waking you. Better yet, wrap your bag’s strap around your hand or, if the bag’s under the seat in front of you, loosely around your foot. Just make sure you unwrap it before getting up so that you don’t trip!

6. Don’t flash your stash

Don’t take valuables out of your carry-on and then put them back in full view of your fellow passengers. That just signals to thieves exactly what they should target once you fall asleep. And definitely don’t leave your gear unattended if you go to the bathroom or walk around. “Tuck them back into your carry-on bag,” said Price. “If you have something you really don’t want to lose, just take it with you. Just don’t forget and leave it there!”

7. Street rules apply

An airplane is still a public place. So just like you would on the street, keep your purse zipped and your wallet in your front pocket. Those are good rules to follow once your flight’s over and you begin your trip.

If, despite your caution, you’re the victim of an inflight theft, your avenues for recourse are limited. While most major airlines do assume liability for checked baggage that’s lost or damaged, that coverage usually does not extend to items you carry on the plane. United Airlines’ contract of carriage, for instance, states that the airline “assumes no responsibility or liability for Baggage or other items carried in the Passenger compartment of the aircraft.”

That said, if you think you’ve been robbed, tell a flight attendant. One airline told us that, in certain circumstances when a theft’s been reported, they’ll have law enforcement waiting for the plane when it lands.

You might have some added protection in your wallet. Some credit cards cover theft of carry-on items. American Express offers a Baggage Insurance Plan on some of its cards (provided you used an eligible Amex to buy your ticket in full). The Platinum Card® from American Express, for instance, covers the replacement cost of lost, damaged or stolen carry-on baggage up to $3,000 per person, per trip. Plus, it pays a maximum benefit for $1,000 for loss of “high risk” items, such as jewelry, sporting equipment, electronic and photography gear and other valuables.

Bottom Line

Getting robbed while you sleep during a flight isn’t something that happens often. Only the most brazen of thieves will strike in front of a couple of hundred potential witnesses, especially when the thieves don’t know what they’re looking for. (“It’s not worth the risk of getting charged with felony theft when all they get is someone’s dirty laundry,” said Price). But it’s not unheard of. With a little pre-planning and common sense, you’ll leave the plane with everything you brought on board.

Featured image by Rubberball

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