Luggage etiquette: Do’s and don’ts for claiming your bags

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By Christopher Elliott

What is it about the luggage carousel that brings out the worst in air travelers?

Marcia Sherrill almost asked that question out loud when she landed in New York recently and watched a spectacle unfold.

“They were climbing over people and knocking into the folks in front of them when they spotted their bag,” remembers Sherrill, a clothing designer from New York.

By contrast, the scene was more civil when she arrived in London a few days earlier. 

“They stood back, giving all travelers access to their bags, with great courtesy,” she recalls.

Let’s talk about luggage claim etiquette. According to numerous subject matter experts, there was a complete breakdown of decorum this summer. Remember the guy who crawled through the luggage carousel in Cleveland? And this year hasn’t been much better. Too often, it’s a rush to the claim area, followed by something close to a riot as the luggage comes off the conveyor belt.

“If air travel is a pain, then luggage is an even bigger pain,” says Kathy Palmer, a frequent air traveler and nurse from Baltimore.

Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, an etiquette and civility expert, says she’s baffled by our behavior at the luggage carousel.

“When it comes to baggage claim, there are always a few passengers who firmly position themselves directly in front of the delivery chute, ready to grab their luggage as though it’s their only chance,” she says.

Should you crowd around the conveyor belt? If not, how far back should you stand? When is it OK to touch or move someone else’s bag? Is it acceptable to ask someone else to help you with your luggage — and if so, when? What are some do’s and don’ts when one of your bags goes missing? (Before I forget, here’s my ultimate guide to luggage.)

In a word, no. 

“Everyone should stand in such a way that everyone has a direct view of the belt and direct access to the belt without needing to push anyone aside,” says Nick Leighton, etiquette expert and host of the weekly etiquette podcast, Were You Raised By Wolves? “To achieve this, this means that everyone needs to space out around the entire circumference of the carousel as well as stand at least three feet away from the belt itself.”

Some airports even have lines on the floor at the luggage carousels to keep people back from the belt. But in Japan, there are generally no marked luggage exclusion zones; Japanese passengers give each other space. Only foreign air travelers cross the invisible line and crowd the carousel. (Related: ITA Airways lost luggage problem: Why won’t it cover my expenses?)

There’s no agreement on the exact amount of space. Karen Villano, a ticket agent for a major airline, says the minimum clearance is two feet. “That allows travelers to step forward to grab their bag as it comes out onto the carousel,” she says. But I’ve seen the “stand back” line as far away as five feet. A minimum safe distance is at least two feet, but you should give yourself a little extra room.

Is it acceptable to ask someone else to help you with your luggage?

Your fellow passengers are not luggage porters. But some exceptions apply.

“If you need help to pull your luggage off the ramp, you can ask,” says Adeodata Czink, an etiquette consultant with Business of Manners

Czink can’t always lift her luggage at the airport. She finds a younger passenger and then says, “That blue bag is mine — could you please help pull it down?” she says. “I have done so several times, and nobody had a problem with helping me.”

But, say Czink and other etiquette professionals, do not treat your fellow passengers as if they are your private luggage valets. That could push your fellow travelers over the edge.

Is it OK to touch someone else’s bag? 

It depends, say etiquette experts.

“Generally, it is expected that other people will occasionally be touching your luggage when you’re at the carousel,” says Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette expert with Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “Clearly, they should not be taking it home with them.”

But she says many bags look alike. Other passengers may need to touch the bag in order to see the name tag.

“I have seen polite people rotate bags as they slide down the chute to make sure the handles are facing outwards and that there are no piggybacking bags — one bag on top of the other, making the bottom bag difficult to reach,” she says.

What’s everyone missing about luggage etiquette?

So now you know not to crowd the conveyor belt, handle others’ bags only when absolutely necessary, and don’t ask other passengers to be your personal porter. But there’s more to luggage etiquette than that. 

The question no one is asking is: Why is this happening? Why do people rush to the carousel as if they only have one chance to claim their luggage? Do they think that if once is disappears into the chute, it’s gone forever? Why do they act so uncivilized in the luggage claim area?

The answer is clear. Airlines not only charge extra for luggage, they still haven’t figured out a way to stop losing it. Passengers are anxious when they arrive at the carousel because they don’t know if their checked luggage made it. This uncertainty makes them crowd the luggage carousel and engage in other antisocial behavior. (Here’s our guide with the best travel advice.)

We shouldn’t blame passengers for the breakdown of civility at the luggage carousel, at least not entirely. No, this is also an airline problem. And as long as airlines keep losing your bags, the carousel craziness will continue. 

(My advice? Don’t check your luggage — carry it on the plane.)

Luggage etiquette tips at the conveyor belt

Track your bag

“I use an AirTag so I always know where my bag is,” says Mike Sweat, a retired geophysicist and frequent air traveler from Lansing, Mich. Knowing the location of your luggage will also reduce stress when you’re at the carousel, allowing you to wait patiently with the crowd until your bag shows up. 

Double-check your luggage before you leave

“Check the tag before walking away,” says Diane Gottsman, who runs the Protocol School of Texas. Most black bags look the same. The only distinguishing feature is often your tag. You can avoid such a mix-up by buying a bag that is not black. Any color other than black will do. And mark it with a unique name tag to help distinguish it from all the others.

Remain calm

Be patient. If your bag doesn’t show up, keep your composure (as in, don’t climb on the conveyor belt looking for it). “Do not panic,” says Pallavi Sadekar, head of operations at travel insurance company Visitorguard.com. Instead, report your missing bag to the airline.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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