In the digital age, are luggage tags still necessary on airlines? And do you need luggage tags for carry on bags? YES! Here are all the rules you need to know about travel, airlines, and luggage tags.
Not once, not twice, but FOUR times this month readers have asked me about luggage tags. Do you really need to use them? What kind of luggage tags should you get? Where should you put them? And who, exactly, cares about this stuff? Um, that would be me - and you!
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So why do luggage tags matter? I believe that it's often the little things that can make a big difference in travel. And while I wouldn't go so far to say that good luggage tags can make or break a trip, having reliable gear that makes your journey easier goes a long way in guaranteeing a great vacation.
As always, I'm happy to do my very best and try to get to the bottom of things. Any info that makes your air travel smoother is good in my books! So let's dig deep into luggage tag rules, what to do about luggage tags at the airport, and more.
Know your airline identifiers: Checking luggage tag codes
First of all, you are rarely - if ever - required to put personal luggage tags on your bags. The airline does that for you when you check in. They print off a giant sticky loop of paper that goes around the handle of every checked bag. They also tear off a small part of this sticky paper and adhere it to the back of your boarding pass. It is, essentially, your receipt. This ties your bag to you, your flight, and your airline. (Fun fact: The Warsaw Convention of 1929 established the criteria for passengers to receive luggage receipts). But are these paper loops enough?
Back in olden times (ie: The 1980s and 1990s), luggage tags contained basic information - your flight number, your baggage tag number, and your destination airport code. Today, this information is supplemented by bar codes and even, in some cases, RFID technology. However, an estimated 15% of bar codes are misread or not read at all. Usually the culprit is a minor backup or pile up behind the scenes when many bags are checked in at the same time. These unscanned bags are manually sorted and scanned and then sent on their way - most of the time!
Mistakes can happen, so take a quick second to double check the information on the tag. Knowing the three letter airport code of your destination can make the difference between having your luggage end up in Sydney, Nova Scotia instead of Sydney, Australia!
I also highly recommend you take a photo of your boarding pass (front and back). That way, if you lose your boarding pass, you have a record of your luggage receipt.
Free airline luggage tags - a sticky situation?
Sure, it's great that your airline sticks a comprehensive and high tech temporary luggage tag to your suitcase. But that's not enough. Just because you aren't required to use personal luggage tags doesn't mean you shouldn't use them. The sticky airline tags can easily be ripped off or they could be printed with a mistake. And a sticky tag on a black suitcase in no way distinguishes your bag at the luggage carousel. It would be an easy target for mix ups and even theft.
Therefore, no matter what size your bag, how far your destination, or even whether or not you are checking your bag, it should always carry some identification - identification that is all your own! It's just one of several, simple ways to keep your luggage safe. If all this talk about travel motivates you to hit the road, then grab your bags and make note of the following suggestions for what you should look for in a tag.
Know your luggage tag strength.
I want a luggage tag that can stand up to anything and everything and never get ripped off. Free tags, like those that come with your luggage or are compliments of an airline or frequent flyer program, will not stand up to the abuse a suitcase endures in the bowels of an airport. Invest in something strong and secure.
Avoid long loops and tag holders - they will only get snagged in the conveyor belt mechanisms and tear off. Choose short, strong loops that will hold the tag close to the bag. Metal luggage tags, complete with a metal loop like this one, are a strong, sturdy option. So where's the best place to put luggage tags on your suitcase or backpack? Place the tag someplace where it can be tucked out of harms way (like under a handle).
Far less strong and sturdy are the paper and elastic freebies you'll see at the airline check in counter. While these flimsy tags will be the first to be destroyed, I often add a few to my bag all the same. They serve as a quick and easy visual identifier to staff as to which airline you are flying with and potentially might help avoid minor mix-ups.
Luggage tag design: it matters.
You want a sturdy tag made from a tear resistance material that will hold up well to abuse and snags. Are the stitches small, tight, and even? Can you easily pull at loose treads? If it is held together by glue instead of stitches, can you pry a nail file between the layers? That's a sign that things are already starting to dry out and fall apart.
Pay careful attention to the item's stress points - its buckle and its leash. Can you lift your bag by the luggage tag alone and not have it strain or tear? That's a good sign! A high quality leather tag, like this one, will only get more beautiful as it weathers and ages, but you'll want to make sure your choice is a well constructed on.
Choosing a luggage tag in a bright color or unusual design should help mitigate the potential for mixups - or at least in theory. But these colorful and cute tags are often poorly made and are sold on the basis on their visual appeal and not quality. Select your tag for quality first, and then get the most colorful one that's available.
Don't write your life story: luggage tag information.
Large luggage tags include an insert with enough information to start writing a biography! For safety's sake, I never fill them out - I don't want my personal information to be seen by noisy neighbours or sneaky lurkers (even though, in fairness, reports of people robbing your house or stalking you to your hotel room are tremendously exaggerated.)
Instead, I write out my first initial and last name, where the bag is travelling to, how it's supposed to get there, and the best way to reach me at the local destination (example: V. Chiasson, travelling to Tatamagouch on AC #1234 on May 1 2014 - email email@example.com).
When I'm on a multi-step trip and moving around quickly, I'll leave out the destination bit and provide a second method of communication - like my cell phone or that of a trusted friend back home. This is plenty of information to connect you to your bag.
Plus, if your flight is delayed ( -- if so, here's what to do --) or you miss your connection and you and your bag are separated, you will be filling out long and detailed airline forms. You'll be giving them your life story - you don't need it on the luggage tag! Trust me, airlines will figure out a way to get in touch with you! (And don't worry about multi-lingual tags - this is one industry where English is universal).
Do carry on bags need luggage tags? Do you really need a luggage tag on a personal item? Yep, even your carry on bag needs luggage tags.
How well do you think your bag would fare if, just before your next flight, your airline decided to get serious about weighing and measuring carry on bags? Yep, I might be in trouble too! The inconsistency in how airlines do and don't enforce carry on rules drives me nuts. But it's a reality of travel. I think it's better to be safe than sorry and to pack for each trip as if even the smallest bag might get checked. So you don't technically need them - but you absolutely don't want to be caught out without one in case the worst happens and you're the unlucky passenger to be caught out that day.
Another reason savvy travelers put luggage tags on their carry on bags? Just in case you forget a bag in the overhead bin or it is accidentally innocently taken by another traveler, you might just be reunited with your stuff if your bag is clearly labeled. And the benefits don't stop there. If you check into your hotel early and leave your bags - large and small - in the storage room, sturdy luggage tags are just one extra bit of insurance to keep your bag from getting lost.
While I've got you fine people here... I have to make a case for traveling with just carry on luggage - and nothing else! I promise you it is possible! We both travel with a single carry on size backpack (You can read our review here). And, with our second incredible round the world flight coming up (booked entirely on points - 5 continents, 15 flights, less than $500 in taxes and that's it!) - we're still committed to carry on luggage, even in these challenging circumstances.
An inside job: putting luggage tags inside your suitcase
Despite your best efforts, inevitably tags will get torn, luggage gets damaged, and things get mixed up. Even high quality tags can be lost or destroyed. So what happens if you're unlucky enough to lose your luggage AND that luggage also loses its tag?
One of the leading causes of delays in returning lost luggage is that airlines can't find identifying information when they open up the suitcase. I always write my information down in bright marker on a sheet of white paper and place it on the top of inside my bag on top of my clothing. I also take a quick photo of the complete project - that way, if the worse does happen and everything gets lost, I can show airline staff exactly what my bag looks like, with its contents documented. It is the cheapest insurance you'll ever have!
Good tags + safe luggage = happy travels.
You never know when a bag will require checking. A spontaneous duty free purchase, an over zealous employee yielding a measuring tape, and a jam packed cabin requiring a gate check are common scenarios. And even if you keep your suitcase as carry on, you still should have a basic tag to avoid mix ups with taxis, hotel lobbies, luggage storage facilities at a museum, and more. With a little luck and a strong tag, you and your luggage shall never be parted!
I'm always happy to help with all your travel questions! Keep them coming!
PS: Yep, "smart" electronic luggage trackers is a thing. I've never used one, but I found this nifty list reviewing different brands. They start at about $70, which is a reasonable investment for frequent flyers.
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