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Emotional Baggage

Reader's Digest / October 2013

They lost my luggage. I freaked out. Life in carousel hell.

After years of travel and what loved ones have labeled paranoia, it was bound to happen. Waiting anxiously by the whirring belt, I watched polka-dot suitcases make mocking rounds. My travel companions, exhausted after 16 hours in the air, were nonetheless sympathetic—and relieved. I could practically see their thought bubbles forming: At least it wasn’t me.

Still, I harboured hope. Any moment now, I told myself over and over, cursing the happy vacationers busy collecting their things. What about my things? (Necessities, all.) What would I do without my hair straightener? My evening pumps? My mascara?

And, a terrible thought for a clothes horse: what if my entire bag with all my favourite items of clothing had vanished?

For millions of travellers a year, it happens. Their missing bags stolen, or sold in blind auctions, or gone forever without any explanation at all. Today it was my turn, in a crowded Indian airport, as far from home (and my local shopping mall) as I’d ever been.

So while the airline hunted haphazardly for my belongings—and asked whether I would rather have $200 (an emphatic no)—I found myself wandering the sweltering streets of Delhi in an orange dress and a pair of blister-producing ballet flats. Equipped with my carry-on (contents: eyeglasses, a paperback, an ancient tube of Chapstick), I was forced against my very nature to “manage.”

The first night was the worst. Twice I awoke thinking I had heard the bellboy, suitcase in hand, but come the light of dawn I remained stuff-less. My breakfast companions—smug in their chic sundresses and comfy flip-flops—queried “still nothing?” over coffee. The orange dress said it all.

Day two, good news! Your suitcase, Ms. Counter, has been found! Bad news: it is still sitting in Toronto. Did it miss me as much as I missed it?

But then, a twist. I survived. By day three, I was secretly enjoying myself. What to wear? Hello, Orange. Makeup today? Not an option. With almost nothing, I found better things: a new understanding of necessity (a hair straightener isn’t one), respite from my obsession with stuff, stuff and more stuff, and a new appreciation for what does matter (the Taj Mahal), when my bag finally made its way back to me.

That’s right, my jam-packed blue suitcase resurfaced—on day four and a half—and I suddenly had a rainbow of 10 dresses to choose from. I decided to wear my orange dress once more, for good luck. It worked: not a thing went missing on my trek home.

Lost luggage, facts and figures

• According to the 2013 SITA Baggage Report, 26 million checked bags went missing last year on international flights—that’s nine unlucky flyers out of 1,000.

• A consolation: more than 99 per cent of lost bags are returned to their owners within five days.

• In Canada, if no claims are made within 90 days, suitcase contents are donated to charity.

• In the U.S., unclaimed luggage may be sold to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, where items are priced and peddled.

• The strangest sales at Scottsboro, a.k.a. the lost luggage capital of the world, include a suitcase full of cheese, a suit of armour and a live rattlesnake.

• Though the number of travellers is up, comparative rates of mishandled bags are down 56 per cent in North America and 43 per cent in Asia and Europe in the past six years. Thank better baggage-handling technology for that.

How to avoid the suitcase blues

• If fear of lost luggage affects your ability to enjoy a trip, invest in baggage insurance.

• Snap a picture of your suitcase’s contents, laid out on your bed and when packed, in case you need to prove its contents to insurers.

• Plan for the worst by packing essentials—everything you need for 24 hours—in your carry-on. Medications, ID and glasses are musts; a swimsuit, flip-flops and basic toiletries can’t hurt.

• On the plane, wear comfy layers that you might mix and match later, if necessary.

• Arrive at the airport early. If you barely make the flight, the same will go for your luggage—if you’re lucky.

• Pick brightly coloured suitcases with an identifier (ribbons work well) to stand out in a sea of black bags. Attach ID with contact info to the inside and out.

• Make sure to get a baggage claim sticker for all bags checked.

• Fly direct if you can.