Tips for Reclaiming “Lost in Space” Baggage

If you take flight with checked bags, chances are good at some point you will experience what we will call an “incident.”

In an article from 2014, Wall Street Journal reported that each year 21.8 million bags, or 6.96 per 1,000 passengers go temporarily or permanently missing or are damaged through baggage handling. Those numbers are said to be decreasing today, but still, that leaves a bevy of bags lost in space.

We recently experienced our own incident and learned a few lessons along the way.

How does a bicycle vanish into thin air?

That’s the question we turned around for days regarding this rather large and heavy box, containing a custom bike disassembled for a cycling trip in France and Italy.

It may not look like much, but it’s this cyclist’s dream bike: a custom-built Moots. With custom-specs and a clear need for assembly, it’s basically useless to anyone else.

The box was checked at JFK for nonstop service on our overnight flight to Paris. Yet when we arrived at CDG, the bag was nowhere to be found.

We spent the following days in a constant state of stress over my husband’s “baby,” and rightly so. His dream bike, a reward for years spent working in the grind, took three months to build and every measurement was customized for his body.

For him, this bike was a Ferrari, Harley, and spaceship, all rolled into one. Did I mention, it was brand new?

Hour after hour, we were on hold or transferred from person to person with the airline, XL Airways, and the baggage services for both JFK and CDG. We called every number we could find, sent dozens of emails, tweeted and posted on Facebook – no one could tell us what happened or where the bag might have “landed.”

We had planned to be in Paris for only two nights then travel South to Nice for cycling, but changed plans. Although the airline promised if /when the box was found, it would be delivered to us wherever we were, it felt like adding another layer and taking another risk.

On day 4, we received an email, complete with tracking numbers, stating the bike WAS shipped on our original flight. Yet for reasons no one seemed to know, the item was not at CDG airport. We were asked to be patient. It would turn up.

(For the record, everyone we spoke with – once we found the correct channels – was exceedingly polite. They wanted to be helpful, just simply couldn’t offer an explanation or assurances.)

Then we made a decision that would alter the momentum. Even though it would take up our entire day and cost nearly $100 in transport, we decided to return to the airport to visit baggage claim again, file a police report, and appear in person (unannounced) to XL’s headquarters down the street. Not getting where we needed via phone, a new tactic seemed necessary.

The last step turned out to be a smart move. Matt met with a very helpful and professional airline manager who gave every assurance he was on the case and wouldn’t rest until he found the bike. We left the airport once again with no answers, yet this time with more peace of mind knowing that someone was eager to help.

Six days after the disappearance, we received a call from that manager saying the bike had been located. All along, it had been at JFK. Why it passed through the airline’s system as loaded on the plane without being placed onboard, we may never know. One theory is the unusual box and gear got lost TSA’s security check. Who knows, really.

Airline manager who tracked down and returned the "baby."
Airline manager who tracked down and returned the “baby.”

Our new friend with the airline said the bag would be in Paris by 2 p.m. and it was. Even though we were wrecked for a week and our trip wasn’t exactly spent how we planned, we are happy and realize how fortunate we are to have resolution.

We share this information in case it can help you, our travel and sport-loving friends, down the road.

Protecting Precious Gear While Traveling
Have you ever seen a happier face? This is Matt returning from CDG for the 3rd time this week, this time with his bike!

If you are considering taking your own sporting gear such as bicycles, skis, golf clubs, or other expensive and/or custom items, on vacation, let this serve as a cautionary tale.

7 tips for protecting your precious:
  1. Have the gear insured (ours was,) before leaving home.
  2. Take photos of  item(s) inside the luggage as well as the luggage itself. Having photos provided invaluable for us.
  3. Make sure you have an up-to-date bag tag that is not easily removed.
  4. Know your airlines lost baggage policy and reimbursement limits.
  5. Keep receipts for all gear electronically. Giving an airline an idea of how much it may cost them to replace your lost luggage is a good way to light a fire.
  6. In the event things go wrong and your luggage is lost, try to keep it in perspective and don’t let it wreck you. Easier said than done, we know.
  7. Do plan to be vigilant about follow up and be your own best advocate. Here’s more on this step…
Getting Your Voice Heard

That special feeling of getting nowhere with requests or complaints to a big company isn’t a treat reserved solely for dealing with lost baggage. From cellular services to insurance brokers, today’s call-center-specialist, talk-to-another-department world often leaves customers frustrated.

Lost, like a piece of luggage, you might say.

During our experience , a friend shared this helpful article about being a “customer service ninja.” We took this idea and ran, sliced, and diced with it.

8 Tips for Being Your Own Best Advocate:
  1. Make it clear you aren’t going away. Not in a threatening way, of course, but in a matter-of-fact tone. “This is important to me and I plan to see it through.” Let them know what methodical steps you plan to take until the issue is resolved.
  2. Chase every lead and call every number. You never know where you might find a sympathetic ear. Plus, it’s good to document inconsistent information given by different departments. (Maddening for sure, but good info to gather.)
  3. Research for corporate and officer contact information, then call and email everyone in the company.
  4. If possible, show up in person to company HQ. You may not get past the front desk, but you may. This step worked wonders for us. (We know it’s a stretch in most cases.)
  5. Use your social leverage. Tweet and post to Facebook constantly, and provide updates. Ask friends to help spread the word.In our case, once we were face-to-face with a company official, it was clear he knew our name. He indicated the stream of posts and tweets had already made his desk.
  6. Document everything. Each time you get new information from someone via phone, request they email the information.
  7. Cultivate humanity. I know this sounds like a strange one, but I’ve never thought my husband so brilliant as when I heard him plead with a guy in baggage claim, “Man, what would you do if you were me?”  They had a real conversation about possible next steps. When we left there, we knew that guy would be help us in any way he could.
  8. As difficult as it is at times, always be polite. No one wants to help an asshole.

For us, it took almost a week of doing these things ^^^ to get resolution. I’m convinced that being aggressive, yet as polite as possible, is the only way our story had a happy ending.

Ever wonder what happens to “lost” bags in the U.S? Check out Unclaimed Baggage Center (located in our home state of Alabama.) It’s nothing if not fascinating!

Have a lost baggage story to share? Comment here and share your experience with others – you never know how it may help a fellow traveler down the road. 

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