How to Prevent Theft From Checked Luggage (Full Guide)

Travelling with checked luggage can be really stressful. I’ve lived through the airport drama more times than I’d like to remember. Luckily, two out of three times that a person took my luggage I was able to retrieve it fast (because it was an accidental slip-up).

So many luggage thefts occur nowadays that it’s become a real gamble to travel, with some larger airports like JFK New York claiming up to 200 items-stolen-from-luggage complaints EVERY DAY!

So it’s no wonder that travelers are looking for better ways to protect their stuff from getting snatched by a stranger, accidentally or on purpose.

Over the years I’ve developed some very practical luggage security methods that don’t require much time or effort to implement.

On top of my own way of doing things, for this article I’ve also added the best tips from other travelers. So here are 10 very easy AND LOGICAL ways to keep your luggage safe without having to lock it to your ankle!

Problems with checked luggage:

Before I bestow you with luggage safety wisdom, first you should know the reasons WHY checked luggage is so vulnerable to theft or being take by accident in the first place. These are the 4 most common reasons:

  • YOUR BAG IS TOO SIMILAR TO OTHERS – Most bags are either black or dark blue. Which means that it’s very easy for other travelers to mistake your bag with theirs, only to realize it when they’ve left the airport. This can also be used as an excuse by a thief who can later claim that they took your bag by mistake.
  • YOUR BAG IS TOO FANCY OR EXPENSIVE – This is a no-brainer. A more expensive looking bag will draw unwanted attention from thieves.
  • THE LUGGAGE CAROUSEL AREA IS NOT SECURED – Yep, as weird as that sounds, very few security measures are taken by airports to protect the area where the luggage arrives. That’s in part because it would take too much time to check every person’s ID before they enter. On some airports, any person can walk in from the street or a different part of the airport and snatch a bag without having to worry too much about being noticed.
  • BAGGAGE HANDLERS – Unfortunately airport staff can become greedy as well, and sometimes on a grand scale. In 2014, CNN reported a “ring” of 25 baggage handlers were accused of theft at LAX. It’s safe to say that this can, and does happen at many other airports to a more or less obvious degree.

Now you know the common issues that predispose you to losing your checked luggage. But what can you do about it? Here are 15 easy solutions:

1. Make your luggage distinctive

Yes, make it look very special, but not in an expensive way! What I mean is that you should make it easily distinguishable from other bags. This will help you:

  • notice it more easily when you land and are trying to find it
  • it will much harder for someone else to take it by mistake or PRETEND that they took it by mistake

Since most luggage theft happens under the pretense that the thief took the bag because it looked similar to their own, by making your bag very different, this argument cannot be used as an excuse. So it’s very likely that a thief will rather choose to steal someone else’s bags instead of yours.

Here are some ways to make your bag unique:

  • sew a sign or a piece of cloth on the outside if the bag is made from soft material
  • use a marker and write something on it in a bright color
  • place a Smart Luggage ID Tag on your luggage. If someone takes your bag by mistake or happens to find it, they can dial the ReturnMe global service number. By following the procedure they will receive an award from ReturnMe after your luggage has been safely retrieved to you, so they actually have a good incentive to do it. This is a pretty good service with over 80% of returns happening within 24 hours.
  • hang something from the handle or another part of the bag, like a plush toy or a key chain
  • use a colorful luggage strap cross with a combination lock (link to Amazon) – this is an excellent solution for making your luggage distinctive in appearance and also for locking it so that no one can access your valuables.

2. Go carry-on if possible

The less luggage you have the less chance there is of something bad happening to it! Carrying less can speed your trip and reduce stress levels at the same time.

It can also save you some money because of checked-luggage fees. Usually the price for one bag is about $25, but the price increases for more bags. So one bag might be $25, but the second bag could already cost you $35, the third $50 etc.

So overall, traveling with only the essentials is the best solution. This George Carlin piece is pretty inspirational when it comes to that:

3. Use luggage locks

To prevent people from actually taking stuff out of your luggage bags, there is a wide range of bag locks you can use. These are used by many smart travelers and the high ratings speak volumes about their efficacy:

Travel luggage strap

This is an awesome solution for not only keeping your luggage locked but also making it unique and easy to spot.

This strap from Amazon is the most popular one on the market and it’s available in black and rainbow version. It’s main features include:

  • TSA approved – Allows American security to examine luggage without damaging case or strap
  • 3-dial combination lock – Secure buckle closure ensures security, setting password is very easy in the pictures or instructions
  • Great Fit for 18″-32″ Luggages – Maximum length: 165 inch, width: 2 inch, (it’s very easy to tighten down on the bag)
  • Very Easy to Spot Your Luggage – Strong rainbow color makes it quick and easy to find at the collection point. Don’t waste any more time at baggage claim than you need to
  • High Quality Material – Durable Sturdy Nylon Webbing Strap + Polypropylene Plastic Buckle + PVC ID Tag Slot

Pick proof seals

These are TSA approved locks, but unlike other locks these cannot be opened with a ‘Master Lock’.

With other locks some agent or a person who has a copy of the ‘Master Key’ can unlock them, tamper with your stuff and then re-lock them without you even knowing.

Since these seals cannot be reattached in that way you will definitely know if someone snooped through your stuff. They also have a unique ID so no one can break one and then replace it with a similar one. They seals are opened by hand, so there are no keys or combos or clippers required.

These features are really useful because without them someone could place illegal stuff into your bag without you noticing until it’s too late. These seals come in 3 packs (60 total) and cost around $25. You can use them to lock all kinds of stuff such as:

Counter checked luggage, Gate Checked luggage (secure your bag before the luggage handler takes it from the jetway), Checked bags at hotel concierge desk, Bags left unattended in hotel room, Cruise line Bags, Hospital Crash Carts, Medicine Cabinets to Secure Prescription Drugs, Backpacks, Band Instrument Cases, Gun Cases, Purses, Sports Bags, Lunch Boxes.

Backpack & Bag Steel Protector

This is an awesome security net that can be used to cover and lock the entire bag or backpack. It can also be used to then easily lock the bag to an immovable object or another piece of luggage so that it’s difficult or impossible to steal.

This is a great addition to any travelers security kit, but especially for lone travelers since it can be used on virtually any part of your journey.

Let’s say that you have to use the restroom, but it’s difficult to carry the bag inside or the floor is really dirty. You can tie the bag with this device without worrying that someone will steal either the bag or its contents.

Having said that, these steel protectors by Pacsafe are available in 3 sizes so I recommend checking the link for current price, size and other features if it’s peaked your interest!

4. Carry the most important items with you

If you can, always carry jewelry, cash, small electronics, credit cards and similar items with you instead of storing it in the checked luggage.

Because if your luggage goes missing at least you’ll preserve your most essential belongings. I personally always carry my cash, credit cards, mobile phone and my laptop with me when I’m on the road.

It can be difficult to carry these items and keep them safe, especially if you don’t have a large anti-theft backpack and a reliable travel wallet or pouch, so consider getting one of these if you’re not using them already.

What separates them from regular backpacks and wallets is more storage space, waterproof and slash-proof design, secret pockets and many other features that can come in handy while travelling.

5. Take pictures and receipts of your belongings

If your luggage gets stolen, having pictures and receipts can help in finding them and proving that they actually belong to you.

If you don’t have any proof, it’s basically your word against their’s, and there isn’t much you can do unless you have additional eye witnesses who can back up your story.

Also, if you have photos and receipts you might be able to receive compensation for your stolen luggage through travel insurance, homeowner insurance or credit cards.

You can take pictures with your phone, but also make sure to back them up in case your phone or camera gets stolen as well.

You can backup your photos by sending them to your own e-mail address, uploading to Google Drive, or uploading them to your Facebook account (set your uploads to “full privacy” so that only you can see them). There are other backup methods available but I find these three to be the easiest and they’re completely free.

6. Report any missing luggage properly

If you can’t find your bag make sure to report this to the airline before you leave the luggage area. Once you’ve filed a report, you will receive 5-7 weeks, depending on the airline, to file an itemized claim.

I recommend also filing a police report. If your bag reappears but with other items missing, you should also use a TSA claim form. TSA settles more than a third of claims for stolen or damaged items so it’s definitely worth a try.

For all of this to work you’ll need some proof of the items, such as photos and receipts so definitely have those backed up and available.

7. Get off the plane quickly

Instead of taking a bathroom break when the plane lands, go straight to the luggage area to pick up your back. By doing so, you can pick up your bag as soon as it rolls of the belt and before a thief is able to snatch it without you noticing.

The “call of nature” is sometimes unavoidable, but it really helps to go to the bathroom 30 minutes or so before landing just in case.

This rule is obviously applicable to bus or train travel – getting to the bag claiming area immediately will always reduce the risks of luggage theft.

8. Use this genius social hack!

This is such a genius trick that I just have to share it with others. As you know already, many thefts happen by TSA workers themselves who really work for pennies.

If they suspect you have some valuable possessions in your luggage you just never know if they’ll try to steal it or not, IF THEY THINK YOU’RE A REGULAR CITIZEN.

But what if they think you’re some powerful bureaucrat that could get them fired or put in jail?

Well you can make them think that you are a powerful state attorney or an FBI agent or a regular cop. Here is a very unique tip that a traveler shared on Quora:

When I pack my bags, I lay on top of my checked luggage a jacket emblazoned with the crest from the US Attorney’s Office/Department of Justice/Department of Homeland Security/FBI. Upon cursory examination (which is all they have time for), I look like an off-duty FBI Agent/DOJ lawyer/Secret Service officer. For added effect, I usually also pack a set of handcuffs with a belt holster (a not-too-subtle reminder of the fate that awaits thieves who are caught by law enforcement).

This is perfectly legal unless you’re actually wearing these clothes and actively presenting yourself as a law officer or some sort.

Any citizen can buy these clothes in a store, for things like a Halloween costume, for shooting a movie or whatever else. It really doesn’t matter since no one has the right to question why you have some type of clothes in your bag, but an FBI costume will sure as hell prevent any petty TSA thieves from messing with your belongings. You can an FBI costume on Amazon for an affordable price.

9. Pack your bags properly

Tidy up your bag so that it doesn’t look like a huge mess when observed through X-Ray. This will give the TSA workers less reasons to open your bag.

Avoid forcing stuff inside that can’t fit properly and protrudes, because this can also justify them opening your luggage.

I use these affordable packing cubes which come in different sizes and allow you to separate different items inside the bag so that they’re not all meshed together.

10. Don’t panic immediately

If you don’t see your bag on the roller belt immediately, don’t panic. On some airports the staff will place luggage in a separate area if it hasn’t been picked up quickly. So look for your bag in other spots of the luggage area before filing a report.

Final Thoughts on Luggage Security

To prevent theft from checked luggage you need three things:

  • good organization of the interior of your luggage, so that the TSA are not encouraged to open it
  • some distinct, eye-catching item or colors that make your luggage easy to spot
  • good locks like the ones that I mentioned previously

On top of that, carrying your most valuable items with you and having photos and receipts of the items in the checked luggage can also reduce the risk of theft and your stress levels as well.

I definitely encourage you to reread these 10 tips and actually use them for your next trip. Your safe luggage and stress-free mind will be happy you did. Hope this helps!

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