Unfortunately, luggage theft can be quite common.
According to the Air Travel Consumer Report by the US Department of Transportation, a little over 2.2 million bags have been reported mishandled in 2021 alone.
This amounts to a little over 5 cases per 1,000 passengers.
Now, this number may seem excessive: it includes lost, damaged, or delayed luggage. However, it also includes stolen bags and stolen belongings.
On the other hand, 5 cases per 1,000 may not seem much. But it is 5 too many when you are one of them.
Luckily there are various strategies and products that travelers can use to protect their belongings.
Don’t Travel With Expensive Bags
It is best to keep the expensive and oftentimes branded bags at home.
These are a great way to advertise that you may be carrying valuable and expensive items in the bag.
And thieves do not only go for jewelry, cash, or electronics.
Many will not frown at the idea of stealing branded and expensive clothing and accessories.
This applies to all travel bags, backpacks, handbags, and camera bags.
The more ordinary and normal your bag looks, the less likely it is to catch an opportunistic thief’s attention.
Avoid Carrying Valuables with You
One of the best things you can do to protect your valuables is to not take them with you.
However, if you must bring something valuable with you, keep your expensive items in your carry-on bag or personal item. Those would include cameras, laptops, tablets, jewelry, important documents, medical prescriptions, designer clothes, and items with sentimental value.
In your checked bag, keep belongings and items that are not vital and you can afford to lose, such as clothes and toiletries.
As a general rule, always assume that somebody will open your checked bag and do not pack anything of significant value in it.
Do Not Pack Any Suspicious-Looking Items
Generally, you do not want to give anybody any excuse to open your bag.
Avoid dense items that airport x-rays may have trouble seeing through or the security may have trouble identifying.
This gives airport security the excuse to open your bag. On top of that, depending on how they handle your bag, the lock may end up being compromised, and other people may be able to open it with ease later on.
There are a lot of items that may raise suspicion.
A few examples would be:
- Heavy and dense metal objects.
- Stacks of books, magazines, or paper.
- Various types and large quantities of food, such as canned food, chocolate, jars with food, coffee, baking mixes, and powders.
- Electronics and appliances, especially with many or long cables.
- Large packs of soaps.
Do Not Bring Checked Luggage
One of the best ways to prevent luggage theft at airports is to travel with a carry-on bag and a personal item only and not bring a checked bag.
- The personal item is meant to be kept underneath the seat in front of you.
- The carry-on bag is meant to be kept in the overhead compartment above you.
The advantage of this is that you can keep both bags with you and not have to worry about somebody rummaging through them without your knowledge.
The same principles apply to traveling by bus or train, too.
The biggest disadvantage is, of course, the fact that you will not be able to bring a lot of stuff with you.
Traveling light may not always be the best option, but it certainly is doable.
Also, consider using a money belt (like this one from VENTURE 4TH or this one by Eagle Creek) or a hidden pocket (such as the Eagle Creek’s hidden pocket) where you can keep your cash, credit cards, passport, and other important documents.
Use Hard-Sided Bags
Hard-sided bags are usually better in terms of security and may prove trickier to open.
Some travelers prefer to use bags that do not have zippers but are kept closed with a lock.
And here’s the thing.
It is very easy to break into most zippable bags using a simple pen. It takes just a few seconds to do it and what’s worse is that the bag can be closed again, and there won’t be any signs that it has been forced open.
There are videos on the internet that demonstrate how easy that is, like this one:
This is even more important if you are traveling with a weapon (even if it is a starter gun) because it has to be reported to the security at the airport. Guns have to be kept in secure travel cases such as the well-known pelican cases or small hard-sided gun cases and are usually monitored more closely.
This is why some people would recommend traveling with a starter gun, for example, to ensure your bag is receiving more special attention, thus significantly lowering the odds of it getting lost, stolen, or tampered with.
However, unless you need said gun, this can often make matters a little more complicated.
Use Quality Locks
A decent padlock or travel lock is an excellent deterrent against opportunistic thieves.
Even zip ties can be super useful in many cases.
However, this is a complicated topic.
For one, the authorities recommend using a TSA-approved lock because it can be opened by the TSA when inspecting your luggage as part of the standard screening process and then lock it after they are finished.
However, TSA master keys can be purchased online or even 3d printed.
This means that if somebody is willing to go the extra step, a TSA lock is not a good deterrent.
What is more, most TSA locks are very simple to pick, as we can see from the video demonstration below:
As a result, many people prefer to use standard locks or padlocks that are not TSA-approved.
However, in these cases, the TSA has reserved the right to cut off the lock if they decide they want to inspect the bag.
Usually, they try not to damage the bag, but in certain cases, that may not be possible. Moreover, there have been reports of people having their bags sliced open during the screening process as a result of this.
Be Smart About Locking Your Luggage
If you are using a TSA lock, make sure to pick one that has a Search Alert indicator (like this one by Forge). These locks have a small indicator that you can use to find out if the lock has been opened.
In this case, you can immediately open your bag and inspect your belongings, ensuring nothing is missing right there at the airport.
Even a bunch of colorful zip ties can help because they can be hard to replace.
You can take things one extra step by securing your lock and zippers to the bag’s handle with your zip ties.
That way, if somebody uses the pen trick to open the bag, they will also have to cut the zip ties in order to close your bag. When you see that the zip ties are missing, you will immediately know somebody has tampered with the bag.
You cannot completely prevent anyone from opening your bag if they really want to.
However, letting them know that you will know your bag has been tampered with as soon as you see it and that you can immediately report that at the airport can be a subtle deterrent.
In theory, this can also work against you. Somebody may decide that you have valuable stuff in your bag if you are going out of your way to protect it.
Keep Your Bag Neat and Organized
The more well-organized you are, the lower the odds of something happening to your luggage.
On top of that, certain practices and products can even serve as a good deterrent for thieves.
- Use packing cubes: If you are traveling with a checked bag, keep your belongings in packing cubes. This helps keep things organized and prevents people from easily stealing your stuff if they try to slice your bag open. Even the most basic ones, such as these packing cubes from Amazon, can do a good job.
- Consider using compression bags. Similarly to packing cubes, compression bags can keep everything together and make things a little harder for thieves.
- Use a saran wrap or fabric sleeve: This is a good way to keep your bag a little tighter and potentially deter thieves, as this adds just another layer of protection that they need to deal with. However, these can always be sliced and removed. Those are also good on hard-sided bags because they can hold everything together if the bag breaks.
Use a Luggage Mesh Protector
A backpack protector (like the Pacsafe mesh protector) can make getting into your bag or outright stealing it a little more difficult.
Those mesh protectors can also be used for anchoring your bag to something sturdy such as the luggage rack on trains or buses, or even when you are staying at dorms, hostels, or hotels.
What’s interesting is that there are people who have been using such protectors for decades while others have never even heard such a product exists.
Check out this video for a better look at how those products work.
Make Your Bag Stand Out
It is always better to make your bag stand out from the rest.
A colorful bag may be a good deterrent sometimes, as it makes your bag stand out, and some thieves may prefer to pick more inconspicuous bags that do not attract attention.
Some travelers even go as far as to tie pink ribbons, colorful stickers and tapes, or even paint their bags in various bright colors to make them more obnoxious and unappealing.
Lastly, add a large easy-to-spot nameplate to decrease the odds of somebody grabbing your luggage at the baggage claim carousel by mistake.
Stay Alert and Vigilant
As a general rule, do not let your bag out of sight unless it is locked or stored someplace safe. Better yet, keep it at arm’s length.
Remember not to leave your stuff lying around in the open, and keep everything locked, zipped, and closed.
While traveling, consider keeping your backpack in front of you. This can be particularly helpful when using the public transport where there may be a lot of commotion.
Things can be a little trickier when traveling overnight.
On overnight buses and trains, keep your bag next to you, between you and the wall, down at your feet, in your lap, or use it as a pillow.
If you are sitting at a cafe or resting on a bench, put your leg or arm through the straps just to be sure you will not forget your bag and prevent somebody from snatching it.
Don’t Fall Behind
When boarding off the plane, go straight to the luggage retrieval carousel.
There are still airports that allow outside people to access the luggage carousel, and bags get stolen occasionally, as we can see from this short video below:
So make sure to be among the first people at the carousel and pick a spot where you can have a good view of the bags that appear on the carousel.
The same applies to boarding the plane (or getting on a bus or train).
Try to board the plane as quickly as possible. That way, you will not have to worry whether the overhead compartment above you will be taken by somebody else. Thus your bags will be close to you, and you can keep an eye on them.
Use a GPS Tracker
There are luggage GPS trackers that you can put in your luggage and trace it if it gets stolen or lost. Those may not prevent the theft of your bag but may help in retrieving it.
There are two main types of luggage trackers that you will stumble upon.
- Luggage trackers that work with Bluetooth. Those are cheaper but are good for only alerting you when your bag is in close proximity to you.
- Trackers that use the cellular network. Those are more expensive but can be used to track your luggage. They will work if your whole bag gets stolen but usually come at a small monthly fee.
Another thing to remember is to install tracking apps on your devices because this can also help you retrieve your belongings.
A good example is this ABC video on how the crew purposefully lost their iPad at the airport and then tracked it using its Find My app.
Choose Direct Routes and Flights Whenever Possible
Regardless if you are flying or traveling by bus or train, direct flights and routes are always better.
This reduces the need for your luggage to be passed around and handled by many people.
Use a Bag Shipping Service
If you do not want to bring your valuables with you while traveling or are unwilling to deal with all the hassle of carrying and checking bags, consider shipping them to your travel destination ahead of time.
Using a bag delivery service can be a neat way to make things a little simpler and safer.
Generally, this may cost more, but that’s not always the case.
Purchase Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is worth looking into.
However, one of the problems is that good deals are hard to find.
Usually, there’s a limit to how much they will pay you, which also applies to airport liability.
For example, currently, according to the US Department of Transportation, for domestic flights within the USA, airports are liable for up to $3,800. And for international flights that are covered by the Montreal Convention, the maximum liability is about $1,780.
Make sure to check the fine print because most insurance policies have a lot of different limits, limitations, and rules that may prevent you from getting reimbursed.