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We asked: Will an AirTag save my lost luggage?

In this week’s By The Way Concierge, we look at the pros and cons of using tracking technology to find your bags

(Cynthia Kittler/Illustration for The Washington Post)

Traveling has always come with complications, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it more challenging than ever. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.

This week, we tackle one of this summer’s biggest travel issues: lost luggage. As we’ve reported, checking a bag has been a nightmare. Many travelers hoping to avoid such calamity have opted to skip doing so altogether, but not everyone can pare down for their trip. If you must check, is getting a tracking device — such as an Apple AirTag — a solution to the problem?

After a summer of watching so many travelers deal with the disaster of lost luggage, I warned my parents not to check a bag on their European vacation. They had dealt with the issue last year, and it nearly ruined their week-long trip to Florida. But this time, they had a plan. “Dad bought AirTags,” my mom told me on the phone.

My parents joined a growing wave of people fighting to take back some control in an unpredictable summer of travel. In 2022, U.S. travelers have had their luggage damaged or lost at a higher rate than last year, with more than 237,000 pieces of baggage mishandled in May alone. And it’s not just a U.S. issue; in Europe, luggage has piled up at airports.

Would Apple’s AirTags help my parents avoid ending up in that statistic? I talked to frequent users and travel experts to get their take.

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Kathy McCabe, host of the travel show “Dream of Italy” on PBS, bought eight Apple AirTags. She had seen Brian Kelly of the Points Guy raving about his and decided to buy them ahead of a trip abroad to shoot her show.

“It’s not just a vacation,” she said. “There’s a lot of money on the line.”

Packing an AirTag or other Bluetooth tracking device, such as a Tile, is a way to feel more in control of your travel. The technology allows travelers to see where their luggage (or other tagged items) are at any given time from their phone, tablet or computer.

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But an AirTag won’t stop your bag from ending up in bag limbo. Mistakes happen, systems malfunction and labor shortages continue. Or even worse, someone steals your bag. Jen Moyse, vice president of product for the travel app TripIt, says travelers should also remember that no tracking device is infallible. (I.e., they can run out of battery.)

Although they might not make it less likely for your bag to get lost, “the real benefit is that you can have more information on where your items are,” Moyse said in an email. “Which can be especially reassuring if the airline itself doesn’t have an exact location for your bag.”

Some big airlines will notify customers through their app where their bags are — in a general sense, at least.

“The American Airlines app is pretty good about saying it’s been checked in, it’s been loaded, it’s been unloaded, because their system is scanning stuff,” said Jon Daniel, a frequent flier who now swears by AirTags for luggage.

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As someone who works in consumer electronic sales, Daniel says he was an early adopter of the technology but hadn’t considered putting it in luggage until travel began to resume during the pandemic.

Although he generally trusts an airline’s app to see where his suitcases go, Daniel says all bets are off if there’s a glitch in the system or if someone accidentally takes his luggage home from baggage claim — which really has happened. (He eventually got the bag back.) That’s where AirTags can help at least find out where the bag ends up.

Even if you do have an AirTag on your bag, it still might not be seamless getting it back — as evidenced on social media time and time again. So you’ll still want to take some standard precautionary steps in case disaster strikes. (And if your bag does indeed go rogue, here’s how to get it back.)

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Suzanne Morrow, senior vice president for InsureMyTrip, recommends taking photos of your luggage as well as what’s packed inside. Read the wording of your travel insurance policy (if you have one) to make sure you know what’s covered and what’s not.

Even if you’re a carry-on-only kind of traveler, Moyse recommends putting an AirTag in your hand luggage in case overhead bin space runs out and you’re forced to check at the gate.

“Though, in that scenario, it is much less likely that your bag will be left behind, because it usually goes directly from the boarding ramp to the plane’s cargo,” Moyse added.

Daniel and McCabe follow that guidance already. Daniel uses AirTags in his luggage and backpack. McCabe, the travel show host, has one in her computer bag, her carry-on, her checked luggage, a pouch where she keeps valuables such as her passport — and “then there’s one on the dog,” she said of her wire fox terrier, Phineas.

Have a travel dilemma for By The Way Concierge? Submit it here.