No more lost luggage? It’s not science fiction

Lost luggage may soon become as rare as lost airline tickets — or, at least, you’d think so when you talk to someone like Randal Collins.

Collins, a flight attendant based in Chicago, left his iPad on a recent flight. He had tagged it with a $25 device called Tile that emits a wireless signal up to 100 feet. It also uses a network of other Tile users to help owners find missing objects.

The tablet proved to be elusive, first tracking at his arrival gate. By the time he showed up to claim it, the plane had been moved to a hangar. Collins reported the iPad missing, and a few weeks later, another Tile user picked up its trail, displaying its likely location in a terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

“After combing through the gates in the vicinity, I found it in the closet behind a gate, on the ledge above a door,” he remembers. “I’m not sure if it was placed there and forgotten by someone who found it. Tile led me directly to it.”

Tile is just one of several new ways travelers are finding lost belongings. They include devices that use such technology as Bluetooth and GPS and leverage the power of crowd-sourcing to find and retrieve your items. They’re worth considering for your next trip.

It’s hard to gauge the extent of the lost-baggage problem. Rail and bus companies don’t report statistics on lost luggage. Neither do hotels, which often store bags on behalf of their guests. Airlines are required to report a “mishandled” baggage rate, which includes lost and misplaced bags. For 2013, the most recent year for which numbers are available, that rate was 4.55 bags per 10,000 passenger enplanements, up from 4.15 bags the year before.

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What’s known, though, is that lost items are a top annoyance on the verge of being eliminated, according to technology experts.

“In the near future, every object will be smart and trackable,” says futurist Gray Scott. “The idea of lost luggage will disappear from our lexicon.”

Among the gadgets designed to make that happen is KiiTAG, a luggage tracker similar to Tile. The $20 device has a 200-foot range but, at six months, half the battery life of the Tile.

To extend your range farther, you can use something like the Vectu Max (available for pre-order at $100). It’s an emergency-response locator that can track your belongings — as well as people — around the world. The Max, which looks like a small cellphone, uses GPS and cellphone technology to track your property.

Trakdot ($50, plus $20 annual service fee) works the same way and is specifically marketed for air travelers. The Trakdot, which looks like a small computer hard drive, uses cellular technology to find your bag. It can send alerts to your smartphone whenever your luggage arrives at an airport.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before all this technology becomes integrated with the luggage itself. That’s the idea behind two new carry-on bags available later this year. The Bluesmart (starting at $300), which begins shipping in August, will feature tracking technology, a digital lock and the ability to weigh your property and track your trip via a smartphone app. And the Trunkster ($300 and up), which will be available in September, does almost the same thing, but also has an innovative “zipperless” entry design.

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On a smaller scale, the Royce Freedom Wallet ($99) offers the same wireless tracking ability as the tracking tags but folds directly into a leather wallet.

The renaissance of luggage-tracking presents an interesting problem for companies that lose your luggage, particularly airlines. Those companies had every opportunity to deploy tracking technology on a broad scale, but they decided it was too expensive. What will happen when passengers know more about the whereabouts of their missing luggage than the airline? We can only imagine some of the resulting arguments.

If travelers embrace this technology, it’s not too hard to envision a world in which everything of value is tracked and connected. In that world, lost luggage would be completely preventable.

Until then, you can spend a few extra dollars to tag your luggage, or you can use a tried-and-true method when your airline, hotel or rail operator loses your bag. That’s what Johanna Westerman did. She was flying from London to Los Angeles on Virgin Atlantic with her four children, and a bag with souvenirs went missing. Unfortunately, the gate agents in London had forgotten to tag it.

“It was of particular importance because my children had never been to Europe before, so it held one-of-a-kind treasures carefully gathered as souvenirs to commemorate their first trip to London and Paris,” says Westerman, a children’s book illustrator from Newport Beach, Calif.

Efforts to recover the luggage through the claims process were futile. Virgin would need to conduct a manual search using a computerized baggage-matching program. “They were not encouraging,” she says.

So Westerman resorted to the ultimate tracking device: She e-mailed Virgin’s chief executive, Richard Branson, directly. “I heard from his head assistant, Julie, the very next day,” she says. “They found the bag.”

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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