SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli
Ship, Don't Schlep
Alternatives to the airlines' mishandling your luggage -- and increasingly, charging for it.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008; 12:00 AM
My father, a shoe retailer who never took an out-of-town business trip, nevertheless taught me a practical lesson about life on the road: You get what you pay for-and anything a supplier throws in for free probably isn't worth buying when it charges for it.
The old man pretty much nailed the airlines on their current strategy of checked luggage.
As we discussed last fall, the government says that airlines are "mishandling" checked bags at a record clip. That's bad enough when they throw in the service for free. But along with their luggage-handing inefficiency comes a barrage of niggling new rules and fees: They have reduced the free allowance to two bags from three; slashed the maximum weight of the bags to 50 pounds from 70; begun charging for curbside check-in; and have imposed hefty surcharges of as much as $100 whenever you check an extra (or extra-heavy) bag. On Monday, United Airlines went even further: Most travelers on the nation's second-largest airline will now be permitted only one free checked bag, not two. And some carriers (most notably, Spirit and Skybus) have reached the final frontier: They have unbundled luggage handling from the ticket price and charge for any bag you deign to transport inside the bellies of their aircraft.
Is there an alternative to paying the airlines to do a lousy job of handing checked bags? Sure. You can pay a third party to do it. They will charge more-okay, a lot more-but they also are a lot more reliable and offer a lot more service.
The new-wave, boutique-style luggage shippers-and old reliables like FedEx and U.P.S.-also offer something that the airlines never could: freedom from the schlep. They'll come to your home or office, gather your bags, and make them appear at your final destination. You go to the airport without having to maneuver your gear into a car or a cab. You bypass the long lines at baggage check-in. You skip the even longer wait at the baggage carousel. And you arrive at your hotel or resort like a visiting head of state, blissfully free of physical encumbrance.
It's the best thing I've ever experienced on the road. Moving from place to place without checked bags or even a carry-on stuffed with clothes is sybaritic. And once you run through airports and hotel lobbies without bags, you'll never want to go back to carrying those leaden weights.
Who Does It
You have two stark choices when you want to free yourself from your bags: Give them to U.P.S., FedEx, and other traditional shippers, or put yourself in the hands of the new generation of specialty services such as Luggage Forward, Sports Express, Luggage Concierge, and the Luggage Club.
The traditional courier services have the benefit of familiarity. We all know them, we have their paperwork around our offices, and their pick-up and delivery people visit several times a day. And we trust them because they have a better track record than the airlines.
The drawback: They really don't want to be in the luggage-shipping business. "We prefer people ship their bags through the luggage firms," a U.P.S. spokesman told me recently. And the luggage-shipping components of their businesses are so small-U.P.S. is a $47 billion company, for example-that the courier firms don't offer any special services or tracking facilities for travelers who are sending bags, not boxes.
By contrast, the luggage specialists have built businesses around shipping baggage, golf clubs, skis, and other accoutrements of a traveler's life. They have concierges to hold your hand telephonically throughout the entire process. They are big on personal service, advice, and guidance. Their websites are specifically designed to explain and expedite the baggage-shipping process. And the luggage specialists are as reliable as the courier services-because they use U.P.S. and FedEx to ship your bags.
What It Costs
Here's where you'll have to swallow hard and remember my father's advice, because shipping bags ain't cheap. Let's consider a 40-pound piece of luggage traveling between Los Angeles and New York. The larger airlines will still carry that bag for free on your flight. But depending on the shipper you use and the speed of delivery requested, you'll pay as much as $260 to have it picked up at your home or office and shipped to your hotel.
Using FedEx's cheapest published rate for five-day service, the 40-pound bag will cost about $33. Luggage Forward, probably the largest and best-known of the boutique shippers, will charge $123 for the same 5-day service. The spread narrows considerably for three-day service. FedEx quotes $114, and Luggage Forward charges $162. Standard overnight service will set you back $188 via FedEx and $262 with Luggage Forward. (Many of us get corporate discounts with U.P.S. and FedEx, and that gives the courier firms an added price advantage.)
How to Choose
If you've committed to shipping bags instead of trusting them to the airlines, the obvious question arises: Should you go "naked" and ship directly with the couriers or pay more for the extra services offered by the luggage shippers? There's no consensus among business travelers.
Doug Jensen, a Boston-based computer specialist, is convinced that FedEx or U.P.S. is the logical choice. He cites the price advantage and prefers handing his luggage over to his normal package-delivery person. He also likes the fact that U.P.S. and FedEx do not require any special notice, whereas you have to make advance arrangements for a pick-up when you use a luggage shipper.
But Andy Abramson, the chief executive of Communicano, a communications agency based in Southern California, is a Luggage Forward fan. He cites a recent on-the-fly international itinerary change that was simplified by having a Luggage Forward staffer involved. "With one call, they changed the pick-up details, sent new paperwork, worked with the hotel concierge, and coordinated everything. There were no hassles with customs, and they made it effortless and easy," he told me.
The Fine Print . . .
What's a nascent industry-luggage shippers mostly began appearing after 9/11-without a juicy scandal? An early player called Universal Express, which owned the Virtual Bellhop and Luggage Express services, collapsed last year after its founder drained the company of assets. A court-appointed receiver reported that Richard Altomare spent more than $500,000 of company funds on jewelry, then hocked it and pocketed the money. The Securities and Exchange Commission claims he sold billions of unregistered Universal Express shares on the penny market, and a judge characterizes him as a "repeated and remorseless" violator of securities regulations.
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To contact Joe, visit his Contributor's page on Portfolio.com.