What you shouldn’t pack in your checked luggage when flying

by Ned Levi on March 4, 2013

Boyt Mach 6.0 Large Expandable Glider, photo courtesy of Samsonite IP Holdings S.ar.l.

We’ve all heard horror stories from travelers about their delayed, lost, stolen, missing or damaged checked luggage. Maybe you have your own horror stories.

Unfortunately, too many travelers exacerbate their checked luggage loss by packing laptops, family jewelry, cash, prescription medications, breakables and valuables in them. When they try to obtain compensation from their airline, they’re told “Sorry, those items aren’t covered.”

When packing my checked and carry-on luggage for air travel, I keep in mind six main issues:
• air travel security agency regulations
• airline regulations
• checked baggage handling
• the value of my belongings for touring or work
• an item’s actual and intrinsic values
• whether or not an item is essential for my health or safety.
If you’re packing items of high actual or intrinsic value, which you can’t afford to lose or become damaged, leave them at home; but if you must take them, pack them in your carry-on.

• TSA regulations, and those of other countries’ air security agencies, govern what you are permitted to take in both your checked and carry-on luggage. These agencies have “Liquid Rules,” and “Prohibited Items Rules” which must be obeyed by air travelers. For example, while you might prefer to pack spare lithium batteries for electronic gear in your checked luggage, TSA requires them to be packed in your carry-on.

• The airlines influence your packing decisions by specifying in their “contracts of carriage” they have no liability whatsoever for specific damaged, missing, stolen or delayed belongings. If you pack cash, electronic gear, jewelry, prescription medication, computers, musical instruments, valuables and breakables, etc., in your checked luggage, which become damaged, lost, stolen or delayed, count on the airlines saying, “Sorry, we have no liability for those items.”

Moreover, on US domestic flights, for example, the airlines have a total limit of liability, per passenger, per flight, of $3,300, and on international flights of about $1,800. So, for example, even if the airlines accepted liability for jewelry, and you packed valuable jewelry in your checked luggage, you could only collect $3,300 at most, for the total loss — the jewelry, all your other belongings in the checked luggage, plus the luggage itself.

Don’t pack valuables, cash, breakables, electronics, laptop computers, tablets, prescription medications, etc. in your checked luggage.

• While all checked luggage is screened electronically, some checked bags are also examined by hand. Unfortunately, there have been reports of TSA and airline employees stealing from checked luggage, so keep valuable belongings in your carry-on.

The way luggage is handled by airport machinery and luggage handlers, the odds are significant that fragile items will be damaged. In addition, bottles of soda can explode in checked luggage, and even bubble wrapped drink containers can break open. Don’t pack breakable items in your checked luggage.

• My camera equipment, essential for my work, must arrive at my destination with me, in good working order. For hikers traveling to national parks, hard to get topographical maps are essential. A special gift for an important birthday could be impossible to replace. If you’ve got to arrive with particular items which are essential to your journey or difficult to replace, they shouldn’t be packed in your checked luggage.

• If you have to take valuables such as a work of art or a keepsake which has a high actual or intrinsic value, when you travel, don’t pack them in your checked luggage.

• Don’t pack all your clothes in your checked luggage. Keep at least one complete change of clothes in your carry-on. With a full change of clothes, you can get along for a couple of days, awaiting the delivery of your delayed luggage. A change of clothes can also come in handy in case of an accident on the plane. On two occasions, when a flight attendant was accidentally pushed from behind, a cup of soda spilled in my lap. I was very happy to have a change of clothes in my carry-on.

• Many travelers take prescription medications daily. Don’t pack your medications in your checked luggage in case the luggage is lost, stolen or delayed. If traveling domestically, it takes time to have new prescriptions written and filled; when traveling internationally, it’s harder to replace prescription medication.

Warning: Especially if a medication is “restricted,” pack it in its original container with the full prescription label on it, so that government officials won’t question whether or not the drug is illegal.

• Don’t pack your travel documents in your checked luggage. Fortunately today, few travel documents need to be printed. If you do have paper documents, you can’t afford to lose them, so keep them on your person or in your carry-on. For electronic documents, keep them in your smartphone, and/or tablet and a copy available via the Internet in “cloud storage” such as Google Drive, Dropbox or Sugarsync.

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  • mjhooper

    Hmmm….all sensible recommendations one would expect travelers would figure out on their own given the number of lost/damaged luggage stories in the news.
    As to printing few travel documents. It seems that the switch to electronic documents is narrowing the flying public to those who have smartphones and other new electronic products. Those of us with real lives, too busy for hours at the computer–and those with limited means– don’t want to spend more each month on electronics and their servers than we do on food. Cloud storage is for rainwater in my world. And why should the traveler/customer be expected to do all the work that once came in the price of the goods. Printing and filing receipts, boarding passes, bills, and so on. And they charge extra if they have to do the work.
    What’s wrong with this picture overall???? Or am I just a dinosaur better put out of my misery?

  • http://profiles.google.com/saucywench S E Tammela

    The only “safe” method (excluding valuables) is to buy all new clothes for your trip, save all the receipts, and take photos of everything before you pack them into the suitcase. Then, if your bag is lost, you can provide the evidence. Sadly, airlines couldn’t care less if your designer jeans and boots were in there, if you can’t show any receipts.

    Oh and by the way, don’t assume your medication is safe in its original packaging. In some countries, just carrying it is illegal, regardless of a pretty note from the doctor. It wouldn’t be a nice holiday if you got locked up. If you’re taking anything “heavy duty”, particularly painkillers, check first that it’s legal in your destination country, even by prescription. If it’s not, talk to your doctor well in advance so they can possibly arrange a change in treatment plan in plenty of time. It’s also a good idea to know the generic name of your medication in your destination country, just in case you need to renew it abroad (names can differ by country – acetaminophen is known as paracetamol in Europe, often can’t be bought in a supermarket, and many people won’t know what “Tylenol” is).

  • http://profiles.google.com/saucywench S E Tammela

    You’re 100% right in theory, but I have personally discovered to my disgust that I had no internet access in a world-class major western airport. It’s tough to fetch it from the cloud when there is no cloud – and sometimes technology lets us down. Paper is a boring, but useful, backup.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    In addition to the tip of ” Don’t pack all your clothes in your checked luggage…packed a change in your carry-on luggage” is to pack a “mixture” of your clothes (i.e. don’t put all footwear in one bag) among the your checked luggage. Also, I split our clothes among the checked luggage per traveler. I used to pack 50% of my clothes in my wife’s checked luggage and vice versa so if one of our checked bags was lost…we still have some clothes in addition to the change of clothing in our carry-on. After our son was born, I started to pack 1/3 of our checked luggage.

  • NedLevi

    Your idea is a great one about photographing everything you pack in your luggage. I arrange my belongings on my bed, with my luggage to take the photos with my smartphone, so I have it with me during the trip. If you need to put in a claim to the airline, many require the paperwork be initiated at the airport, before you leave it, or they won’t accept the claim. You can generally amend it with more detailed information later.

    I’ve put in claims to the airlines several times, one recently. and I’ve never had to provide receipts. They’ve accepted my list of belongings, even without my photo, with descriptions and approximate dates of purchase. I still take the photo, “just in case.” I doubt I have receipts, except for exceptional items.

    The airlines keep their claim costs down, mostly 2 ways.
    First they have that amazing low limit of liability, and second, you better have your baggage claim receipt, or at least a legible copy of it (I scan mine into my smartphone while waiting to board as a back up – see next Monday’s column.) or they will generally deny all claims, even for merely damaged bags. The only pay on the depreciated value of your belongings too.

    You’re advice concerning “heavy duty” medication is a good one, but, in my opinion, the problem of going to jail is a bit overstated.

    I take a heavy duty migraine medication occasionally, which is a “controlled substance.” For example, in France, that medication is illegal to purchase, but acceptable for foreign nationals to bring into France if prescribed for them. You need a copy of the prescription, in this case, and the medication must be in the original container. Most problems with restrictions on prescription medications for travelers, which I’ve run into are in Asia, and the Middle East and some African countries. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Korea are countries, for example, where I am sure to be careful. Generally there, if you contact the embassy of the country, you can get permission to take a limited amount of the medications with no problem.

    The discussion of medications, etc., would make a good future column. I’ll have to get to work on that soon. There certainly wasn’t enough room in this one to digress with this discussion, or one of claims for lost, stolen, delayed, or damaged luggage. That is a future column I’m already at work researching and writing.

    Thanks again for your readership and taking the time to comment. Your comment will be very helpful for other readers.

  • NedLevi

    mjh, I wouldn’t call you a dinosaur, and I understand your point of view, but nevertheless, the world is passing you by. Whether you or anyone else likes it or not, the world is going electronic, and printed travel documents and receipts are quickly going away. It’s cheaper for travel companies that way and they are going to all means to cut costs, whenever possible.

    I was in a store recently which asked me if they could send me my receipt of my purchase instead of printing it out. Among other explanations, they said it’s the “green” thing to do, and it is, in my opinion. I had it sent to my phone.

    As to travelers figuring out on their own what they should do about packing, well you’re right about the ideas being commonsense ones, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t know that the airlines have such a low liability for lost, or damaged luggage and contents, nor that they won’t take responsibility for valuable or breakable items.

    Did you ever look at the bin at TSA security and see how much stuff is there because travelers either ignored or didn’t know the rules? Did you ever look on the TSA blog to see how many guns, knives, and other banned items are confiscated every week at airports? It’s amazing!

    set, indeed you are often at airports and other locations without internet access. That’s why I don’t depend on the “cloud.” It’s only my backup. I keep my electronic travel documents, as stated in the column, in my smartphone and tablet. I need no cellular or WIFI service to retrieve them.

    I’ve got an upcoming trip. For that one, even my boarding pass will be in my smartphone. I’ll have no paper boarding pass. Personally I like that, as I will have a harder time loosing it, damaging it, or making it unreadable because it gets rumpled when carrying it.

  • http://profiles.google.com/saucywench S E Tammela

    You’re right about the intent differing to the law – you would generally be left alone as a tourist. But some countries can be surprising. I knew a girl who assumed she could take her fibromyalgia medication from the US into Turkey (not a “dark ages” country) and the medication was not just controlled there, but illegal. Even if she hadn’t been locked up, she would have suffered horrible agony once it was confiscated.

    As for the medications article in future, you might be interested to google “American man who took Dilacor XR”. It’s a great article.

  • NedLevi

    I whole heartedly agree about dividing your belongings among the various travelers. It’s helped me twice.

  • MeanMeosh

    All very good advice. However, this doesn’t address the very real possibility of having your carry-on confiscated from you at boarding, especially if you didn’t pay for or otherwise have access to priority boarding in the first one or two groups, or after about B-30 on Southwest. In cases like that, I’ve started ditching the rollaboard in favor of a backpack large enough to carry a change or two of clothes and my other valuables. It can be easily folded into a tight space in an overhead bin, or shoved under the seat even with my laptop bag (or in the case of an especially nasty gate agent, the laptop bag can go in the backpack).

    If taking a backpack isn’t an option, at least be prepared to shove medicines, jewelry, and electronics into your laptop bag or purse, or hold the laptop in your hand in the worst case, if the airline demands that you gate check your rollaboard. Never, EVER let a gate agent or FA, no matter how nasty they are, pressure you into gate checking a laptop or other valuable electronics or jewelry, because I can guarantee you’ll never see them again in one piece! Better to hold them in your hands, or even take a later flight, than put yourself on the hook for such a large non-reimburseable loss.

  • NedLevi

    I know the story about Dilacor XR. The American man who had his prescription filled incorrectly in Serbia was very lucky not to have died from the mistake.

    Turkey is certainly not a “dark ages” country. In fact, it’s one of my favorite countries in the world to visit. Turkey’s people are warm and giving. No too long ago, on my last visit to Turkey, I spent some wonderful time in Istanbul and several other locations along the coast.

    Turkey is one of the many countries in and around the Middle East region of the world, with serious drug laws. If they decide to check your luggage on entry (I’ve had it happen once.) they are quite punctilious about what drugs you’re bringing from home. That being said, according to the embassy person I spoke to, if you bring a signed printout by your physician for the prescription, and the prescription is in the original container, you shouldn’t have a problem. I was able to bring in my prescription controlled substance by showing them my documentation.

    When it comes to medications the old advice of, “Never assume,” comes to mind.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to comment and give up your advice.

  • bodega3

    We did this on our last trip and it saved us as one bag was delayed…it was not put on our plane so it took a day to get to us. Also, I pack items in my carryon that I don’t want to shop for if my bag was missing, especially something like a bathing suit.

  • bodega3

    I was surprised on how easy it was for me to get a needed prescription filled when I was in Europe this past summer. I had the bottle with the prsecription label with me and took it into a pharmacy and they gave me refills with no question and no calls from my doctor.

  • James Penrose

    “so keep valuable belongings in your carry-on.”

    Where there have been many reports of TSA “officers” stealing valuable items.

    Many of your suggestions simply won’t fly since anything in your carry-on is subject to the arbitrary whims of whoever is pawing you and your goods in the name of “security”.

    Prescription meds, no matter where they are can get you a long and interminable delay while the paleolithic members of the inspection staff try to decide if you’re worth holding until they can get DEA to come out and arrest you if they don’t think you really need what is in those bottles and jars or if they decide with their vast pharmacological experience that something isn’t what it claims to be.

    Extra batteries? Might be a bomb, better hold him for the locals while we pretend that the millions of dollars of “bomb detecting” equipment we have don’t exist and we demonstrate that even we don’t think they work.

  • NedLevi

    JP, while theft at TSA security does happen, and in some cases, TSA TSO’s have been the ones caught stealing, most of the thefts by TSA, according to news reports have occurred by TSA agents inspecting checked luggage.

    Moreover, you can generally keep an eye on your belongings at TSA security and pack your carry-on carefully to avoid theft there. For example, I refuse to go in the full body scanners. I get in line in front of the scanner just as my bin with my laptop enters x-ray, so I can see what’s going on. I then ask for a patdown, and am normally taken to the patdown area immediately.

    When taken for a patdown, all my belongings come with me and they are within my sight the entire time. Inside my carry-ons, nothing is loose. It’s all in pouches and small bags. That way it’s very hard to take individual items, and frankly, it’s been rare TSA has even looked into the bags. What they mostly do is swab it for explosives, then send me on my way.

    As to meds, and I do have a controlled medication with me. I’ve yet to have any trouble. The med is in the original prescription bottle. I have a copy of the prescription with me, with an original physician’s signature. I’ve flown hundreds of thousands of miles in the last decade and have yet to have anyone even open my toilet articles case with my medications, which are in my carry-on, not just in the US, but also in every continent I’ve visited, which is all of them, except for Oceania where I didn’t travel in the last 10 years.

    It would seem you have an “axe to grind” with TSA. While I think that most of what they do is show, and doesn’t make us safer, since the last 2 years of the Bush Administration, the TSO’s have acted more and more professionally. They have a few stinkers in there yet, but it’s getting better. That doesn’t mean I think they’re doing a good job, by the way, or that the job they are doing is worth the money TSA costs, but they’re better than they were.

    As to my suggestions flying, as you put it. I think the suggestions are an approach that works most of the time for most people. Are the suggestions, fool proof? Of course not. Nothing’s foolproof. That’s one of the reasons I’ve suggested for years, that if you really don’t need it, leave it at home.

    Of course you can skip TSA altogether by flying exclusively on private aircraft, if you’ve got the money, or take another mode of transportation. I know some who will drive up to a 1,000 miles before they’ll consider flying.

  • NedLevi

    MM, confiscated? I think that’s a bit harsh, but I know what you mean. When the plane is full, and the passengers put their personal items in the overhead bin instead of under the seat in front of them, as well as put their full carry-ons in the overhead bins too, coupled with oversized carry-ons which shouldn’t have been allowed on board at all, the overhead bins are full, so you’re forced to gate check your carry-on.

    My roller carry-on is sized to fit under the seat of standard narrow and wide-body aircraft. I am careful in choosing my seat (via SeatGuru.com typically) so that there are no obstructions under the seat in front of me so it will fit. That being said, I will admit with all the flying I do each year, I do have some status and normally board earlier than most passengers, but I am prepared for the worst.

    Also, as it turns out, I don’t like the Southwest business model for passengers and therefore don’t fly on that airline. I know many love them. I don’t. I also find I can usually fly cheaper on other airlines. Contrary to their advertisements, I don’t think they’re a low cost airline.

    Of course, on regional jets, my carry-on is gate checked. When I’m facing that, I pack it accordingly, as I’m not particularly worried about theft, in that case, or the bag not arriving, but I am concerned about breakage. I also have a 3rd carry-on of sorts which really helps. I always wear a photographer’s vest with lots of zippered pockets. It’s amazing how much stuff I can stuff in the pockets of the vest. When on board, I’ve found I can usually easily squeeze it into the overhead bin, even when they’re jam-packed.

    I agree that you should never gate check a laptop, tablet, or other electronic device. If it’s really valuable, I’ll not have it in a gate checked bag too.

  • NedLevi

    B., I strongly suggest to check in advance about being able to fill a prescription out of your home country, the US. Some can’t be filled. One I take for migraines is illegal to sell in France, for example. Some drugs we have available in the US, aren’t readily available in other parts of the world, even Europe. Some drugs easily obtained in Europe, for example, aren’t available in the US, according to friend’s families who reside in the UK and elsewhere across the pond.

    In other parts of the world, numerous drugs which both Europe and the US take for granted may not be available for us to purchase.

  • bodega3

    Ned, I have to comment on your last paragraph. You aren’t understanding what you are seeing when you search online for a flight. You don’t see what the lowest published fares are in that market, just what is available. Southwest usually sells out first because so many think they are the only carrier to offer a low fare, when in fact, most carriers match each other 99% of the time. So you are finding more availability on the other carriers due to that.

  • bodega3

    You should always check with each country you are traveling to. I was just surprise on how easy it was for me to get what I needed more than once on that trip. I have to jump through hoops here, but I found it very easy, as a tourist, to get what I needed with just my empty bottle that had the Rx on is from my hometown pharmacy. I usually travel with a good supply of what I need, this was suppose to be a short term Rx that turned out to be needed longer.

  • NedLevi

    That may be so, but when I’m purchasing a ticket is the only time I’m interested in the pricing. Typically when I’ve checked over at Southwest, there were plenty of seats left on the plane and they were all around where US Airways, for example, was.

    For international flights I’m probably purchasing tickets 6-8 months in advance, but Southwest doesn’t figure into that. I have all my international flights purchase for the remainder of 2013, unless an extra trip comes into play, which I doubt. I’ve got a tight schedule this year. For domestic flights, it’s more like 2-6 months in advance, sometimes only a few weeks in advance. It really doesn’t matter in the sense I’m not flying on Southwest. Once was more than enough for me.

    That being said, it’s the airline of choice for 5 of my closest friends. I’ve got no axe to grind against Southwest. They’re just not my cup of tea.

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