I gate-checked my passport — reader mistake story

Sep 6, 2019

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Sherrill, who missed an international flight after her carry-on wasn’t allowed aboard her connection:

Several years ago, I spent a long, nightmarish day wandering the terminals of Dulles International Airport because of a mistake I hope I can help your readers avoid. It began when I packed for my flight from Cleveland to London (with a connection at Dulles) and dutifully placed my passport in my carry-on luggage, believing the bag would stay with me throughout my travels.

When I arrived at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, I discovered that since my connecting flight to Dulles was on a small regional jet, I had to gate-check my carry-on. I did so without thinking twice that I was leaving my passport and other travel documents in this bag. Other times I had flown on one of these smaller planes, I had still disembarked via a jetway, where gate-checked bags were deposited outside the aircraft door. This turned out not to be the case at Dulles, where we instead deplaned down a stairway to the tarmac. 

At that point, I was confused as to where I would find my carry-on luggage, and in an effort to find out, I walked through the nearest door and into the terminal. I immediately realized my error and tried to return to the tarmac, which turned out to be impossible. I then desperately tried to get the attention of a gate agent to help me gain access to the tarmac, and after approximately 15 minutes, finally did so only to find the luggage was gone and the exact location of my bag was uncertain.

I tried to find out where the bag was going to be taken and when it would get there, but the various personnel I asked were less than helpful, and since the bag had been gate-checked, there was no way to track its location electronically. Realizing that I couldn’t continue on to London without my passport, I missed my flight. I spent the next 12 hours trying to find my bag, which was never where I was told it would be. I finally concluded my only recourse was to go into Washington, D.C. the next day and obtain an emergency passport.

Just before leaving the airport for a hotel in the city, I swung by the luggage area one more time and, to my amazement and profound relief, found my carry-on in a row of other unclaimed luggage with all of its contents (including my passport) intact! It had a tag stating it was to be returned to Cleveland. I reclaimed it, rebooked my flight to London, arranged for a hotel near Dulles and, after one of the worst days of my life, carried on with my vacation.

The moral of the story is to ALWAYS keep your passport and other necessary IDs, travel information and at least some cash and a credit card on your person when traveling. Don’t assume that a carry-on bag (or any bag for that matter) will stay with you!

I agree with Sherrill’s list, and I would add a few items to it. First, “travel information” should include not only documents like boarding passes and baggage claim receipts, but also an outline of your itinerary with details of hotel, rental car and other reservations. This is handy for your own reference, but it’s critical when traveling internationally, since immigration officials will frequently ask where you’re staying — I can say from personal experience that they’re not keen on “I don’t know” as an answer.

In addition to your passport, be sure to carry other documentation pertaining to entry requirements, such as travel visas or proof of vaccination. That way you’ll at least be able to get into the country if your bag is lost; if the documents are lost with it, you could be turned away entirely. I also recommend keeping a smartphone or tablet on hand both as a means of communication and as a way to keep yourself occupied during long flights or delays. Finally, bring any medication you need for the duration of the flight and a bit beyond. Keep prescription medicines in their original packaging and bring a letter from your doctor when traveling abroad.

If you’re up against stringent carry-on requirements, you’ll need a way to tote the essentials onboard. One solution is to get a backpack that comes with a breakout bag you can easily separate from the rest of your belongings. I like this option since the smaller bag functions as a day pack once you’re on the ground, but if you prefer rolling luggage, any small backpack, handbag or even a collapsible grocery bag can serve the same purpose. In a pinch, stuffing your pockets or simply holding vital items in your hand is preferable to letting them out of your sight.

Related: 8 Tips for Traveling With Only a Carry-On

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing us to post it online), I’m sending Sherrill a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to info@thepointsguy.com, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured photo by thomas barwick/Getty Images. Edit by The Points Guy.

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