As a source of travel drama, lost luggage ranks with food poisoning and bone-rattling overnight buses. Travelers love to swap war stories about the time their backpack went walkabout, but most stray luggage eventually finds its way back to its owner – albeit after an unintended stopover, or hours spent mournfully circling a conveyor belt. 

For those elusive suitcases that fall off the radar, however, a stranger journey lies ahead – perhaps a blind auction, or dissection at the hands of a thrift store deep in Alabama. We hope you didn’t pack anything weird in there...

A pair of airport employees check paperwork and labels related to unclaimed baggage at a Lost Property Office in Rome in 1964.
Since 1964, when this photo was taken at the Lost Property Office in Rome, the number of bags lost per year has dropped dramatically even as rates of travel have increased © Keystone / Stringer via Getty Images

One bag and its mysterious journey 

From labelling errors to mishandling during transfers, there are many unexpected fates that can befall your baggage. World traveler Diana Jarvis’ luggage went missing when her flight to Dakar via Casablanca was delayed due to a strike. Bags were stowed on the plane during the strike action, and passengers were told to return in the morning for take-off. But arriving in Dakar brought an unpromising sight.

"Hundreds and hundreds of unclaimed suitcases lined the floor of the baggage carousel area," says Jarvis. "I waited at the baggage carousel for some time but, as predicted, my suitcase wasn’t there. And then I saw the queue for the lost luggage reporting. It snaked all the way around the room. This is where I made my fatal mistake: I didn’t join the queue, I blithely thought I’d be able to do it all online later on. Oh how wrong I was."

The bag was never found but fortunately Jarvis, a writer and photographer, had kept her camera kit in her carry-on luggage. According to Jarvis, there was a silver lining: "The excuse to buy some locally created cotton trousers and dress also afforded me the opportunity to have a good chat with local stall holders that I otherwise wouldn’t have had."

Luggage losses and tracking technology

So how common are stories like Diana’s? Fortunately the overall trend is that less luggage is getting lost. Over the past decade, the number of mishandled pieces of luggage has decreased, according to 2019 figures from air transport IT and communications specialist SITA (Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques). Even with air passenger numbers rising to 4.36 billion in 2018, mishandled luggage – delayed, damaged, stolen or lost – was down 47% from 2007’s numbers (a whopping 46.9 million items). 

Many travelers are improving their odds even further by using technology like The Tile App. A lost bag with a small square or sticker attached can be chased down through the app’s community feature, whereby other Tile users within Bluetooth range of the mislaid item automatically send its owner updates. One success story includes a user alerting airport staff to the fact that their baggage was languishing in the Vancouver airport’s luggage facility, despite imminent takeoff. 

But when labels are missing and tracking isn’t in place, a bag can't find its way home. Most airports store stray suitcases for two to three months or more in the hope of reuniting them with their owners. If not, it’s time for the bag’s next destination: the auction house.

Greasby's has been operating as an auction house since 1919, and is famous now for giving bidders a chance on suitcases never claimed from Heathrow Airport © Bloomberg / Getty Images

Under the hammer: when auctioneers meet long-lost luggage

An unopened suitcase is an enigma. And especially an unopened suitcase of mysterious provenance, which has undergone a globe-trotting adventure – this is almost irresistible. At least, that’s the premise of the Travel Channel’s “Baggage Battles.” 

Across five seasons, the show’s twinkly-eyed bargain hunters have sized up lost suitcases and bid on them, hoping that the value of their contents will outweigh their final price. The show is awash in adrenaline and regret, as avid buyers bid $700 on a suitcase that turns out to be full of damp socks, or, incredibly, land a designer case stuffed with rare books. 

Though the stakes are usually lower, it’s a system that operates worldwide. At Germany’s Frankfurt Airport, where lost luggage is held for three months, bags are auctioned off along with items gathering dust in the airport’s lost and found. Over in the UK there are several venues for suitcase shoppers, including Greasby’s in south London and BCVA in Bristol, along with several operators who allow bargain-hunters to bid online. But a different fate awaits lost luggage in the USA: thrift-store paradise.

Two women stand by the Unclaimed Baggage Center sign which is brown and suitcase shaped. The woman on the left holds a green print dress on a hangar, a striped wicker bag, and a painting of the beach. On her head is a hat and around her neck is a mint green scarf. The woman on the right also wears a straw hat, and is holding a pink striped dress, a wicker bag, and a painting of a cityscape.
Unlike typical thrift stores, Unclaimed Baggage is full of clothing and other items people liked enough to take on an trip, from designer items to electronics ©

From unclaimed suitcase to thrift-store treasures

The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, began in 1970 as a small business buying and selling unclaimed luggage. Now it's reached its 50th anniversary, and Unclaimed Baggage is the size of an entire city block. 

This is a thrift store experience like few others. Every item is pulled from misplaced bags, including formalwear and electronics to lost movie props and ski gear. Everything is sorted, cleaned and, if deemed fit for sale, slotted into its orderly racks. Though 50,000 sq ft of retail space sounds huge, there’s a fringe feel to this trove of used goods. 

"We are the only one in America that is a store for unclaimed airline baggage," explains Brenda Cantrell, Unclaimed Baggage's brand ambassador, "which is really a testament to how well the airlines actually do. We’re in a town of 15,000 people in the northeast corner of Alabama and we bring in nearly a million visitors a year, but we don’t have enough product from the airlines and these other travel entities to do multiple locations."

These puppets were found in a suitcase auctioned off at Greasby's, while a muppet named Hoggle from the David Bowie movie Labyrinth was lost and now lives at Unclaimed Baggage © Bloomberg via Getty Images

If it’s startling to imagine your long-lost belongings being sold to new owners, know that by ending up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center airlines have already tried their hardest to get them back to you. When luggage arrives at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, it’s opened, sorted, and anything unsaleable is recycled, donated or trashed. The remainder finds a delighted audience, equally enchanted by the bargains as the odd journey they’ve made to arrive.

"The products have traveled the world, and the guests that come here are from across the world," says Cantrell. "And where else can those two worlds meet, they can only meet in Scottsboro!"

How to not lose your luggage

Not eager for your precious belongings to end up in the eager hands of shoppers in Scottsboro, Alabama? Here’s how to minimize the risk.

Clear labelling. You know the drill: label the bag with your name, flight and destination address. While you’re at it, tear off stickers from previous flights.
Personalization. Some luggage gets lost not because of airline error, but because bleary-eyed travelers grab the wrong item. Use a colorful tag or belt, or better yet buy something other than a black suitcase. 
Packing and tracking. Consider using a tracker. At the very least, slip a piece of paper including your name, phone number and email address inside, in case exterior labels get detached. 

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