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TRAVEL SAFE: Dial down your luggage

Don’t let vanity turn your luggage into a red flag for would-be thieves. That and tips to avoid getting your luggage looted during the holiday travel season — or any other time of year.

The Christmas travel season is upon us. Now, it’s time to be your own self-Santa and get your hands on some of that exquisitely beautiful — and exquisitely expensive — high-end luggage.

Meanwhile, down in the bowels of the baggage handling areas of the world’s airports, there’s a baggage handler who’s looking forward to getting his hands on your nice, new upscale cases. Because loading suitcases and backpacks aboard airliners is just his day job.

He’s moonlighting as a thief. And he loves expensive luggage even more than you do.

Tumi. Louis Vuitton. Ralph Lauren. Victorinox. Valextra. Globe-Trotter. Rimowa. All of them virtually radiate class, style, attitude. They make a statement. They say you’re making it, you’re someone to notice, someone who can afford nice things.

Unfortunately, they also act as neon signs to baggage thieves, for essentially the same reasons. So think carefully before you plunk down the equivalent of a cross-country airfare for a suitcase.

If pride goeth before a fall, vanity may goeth before a theft.

Overall, the actual number of travelers whose luggage is raided is actually pretty small when you think of the millions of people who travel daily by air around the country, but it’s still scary.

It’s also ironic, for reasons we’ll get into momentarily.

Baggage handlers have been caught on surveillance videos rifling bags inside airport baggage areas, on the conveyers belts on the tarmac, even inside the freight compartments of airplanes.

Nor is it just airport workers you have to watch out for. In Phoenix, police are looking for a crew of four guys suspected of stealing people’s luggage right off the baggage carousel at Sky Harbor International Airport at a rate of about ten bags a month.

That’s chump change compared to a Phoenix couple caught back in 2009 with more than 1,000 pieces of luggage stolen from the same airport.

One airline service representative and his fianceé were busted in San Francisco earlier this year for allegedly stealing luggage recovered from the crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco.

But perhaps the greatest threat to your possessions comes from some of the very people tasked with keeping them and you safe in US airports. Yes, I’m talking about the Transportation Safety Administration.

In the TSA’s first decade of existence, nearly 400 of its inspectors were fired after being caught stealing travelers’ belongings, including one who told ABC News last year that he stole about $800,000 in cash and goods before getting caught and doing three years in prison.

The words that Pythias Brown used to describe pilferage of travelers’ luggage by light-fingered TSA inspectors were “commonplace” and “massive.” (SOURCE: ABC News)

Think you’re safe because you don’t check luggage? If your carry-on bags aren’t locked, you’d better think again. That’s especially true on very long transoceanic flights, when almost everyone in the cabin, including the cabin crew, is asleep for hours at a time.

So what can you do about all this? Actually, quite a bit. And as with many other aspects of travel, it starts before you leave home.

  1. Don’t stop.
    Whenever possible, opt for nonstop flights. The hewer stops there are, the fewer opportunities for thieves to get at your bags.
  2. Pack less.
    The less you pack, the few bags you have. The fewer bags, the less vulnerable you are.
  3. Stay alert.
    Airport thieves who steal bags look for distracted travelers. Don’t be one. Get your packing done early, get a good night’s sleep the day before and arrive early at the airport. You’ll be better able to keep your focus…and your bags
  4. Carry what matters most.
    You wouldn’t believe the things some folks put in checked bags. Expensive jewelry. Cameras. Passports. One crooked baggage handler was videotaped taking a wallet out of a bag, from down inside the freight hold of an airliner. If it’s critical to you, for whatever reason, carry it on board with you.
  5. Watch the watchers.
    Items have been stolen while going through the X-ray conveyor belt while going through airport security. Keep an eye on your belongings. When your bag emerges from the X-ray machine, make sure that everything you packed is still there. And if the TSA decides to take you off to the side for secondary screening, insist that your belonging be brought with you (that bit of advice comes fro the TSA itself, by the way).
  6. Lock everything.
    That means lock every bag you travel with. And yes, ladies, that includes your purses. Use the TSA-approved luggage locks. If an inspector has to open your bag and it doesn’t have a TSA lock on it, he will cut it off, leaving your suitcase unprotected for the rest of your journey.
  7. Can’t touch this.
    If you’re worried about someone making off with your bag or backpack while you’re momentarily distracted, there are luggage alarms that give off an ear-splitting noise if somebody tries to make off with it. For backpackers, there also are lockable steel mesh nets that can secure your pack to a post or some other immovable object.
  8. Record what you pack.
    Take photographs of what you pack, as you pack. Make sure the pics are date-stamped and time-stamped. Yes, it sounds a little anal-retentive — but if you’re robbed, you’ll have less trouble convincing the police, or your insurance company, that you were ripped of.
  9. Send your luggage on ahead.
    You can ship your luggage separately, either using regular shippers such as FedEx and UPS, or specialized luggage shipping services like LuggageFree or Lugless. It’s not cheap, but the extra money buys several advantages, especially if you pack heavy. Some include insurance in the shipping cost.
  10. Let’s wrap this up.
    On international flights, consider using airport services that wrap your bag completely in plastic. In some cases, the TSA might want to open your bag, and will cut off all that plastic. Check beforehand if the wrapping service will re-wrap your bag without charge. Some will.
    An alternative is sealable luggage bags you can buy and use yourself. One example is U-Wrap.

Once you’ve made it through the airport/airline gauntlet and you’ve arrived at your destination with all your belongings, don’t automatically presume you can let your guard down. Thieves also look for targets of opportunity where you sleep. Keep your bags locked in your hotel or on your cruise ship and don’t leave valuables out in plain sight.

This from IBIT reader Kim McCarty:
“People have had not only money, credit cards or electronics stolen from their hotel rooms, even coats and nice clothes that still had the tags on them. My large suitcase doesn’t have a lock, but I’m going to buy one.”

It’s not just sticky-fingered staff you have to worry about. Whoever cleans your room while you’re gone is likely to prop the door open while they work. If they’re cleaning the bathroom, it’s easy for a passerby to come in, grab something out of an open case or off a desk and walk away.

So don’t just lock your bags. Stash them out of sight — or at least out of a passerby’s field of view — while you’re away from the room.

LUGGAGE: Delivering the goods
TRAVEL SAFE: Securing your luggage, Part 1
TRAVEL SAFE: Securing your luggage, Part 2
Leave the bling at home

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