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The completely correct guide to the rules of baggage claim

Don’t crowd the opening and please, keep your kids off the conveyor belt

(Drew Lytle for The Washington Post)

It’s the end of your long journey. You’ve survived being packed in a metal tube with strangers at 30,000 feet, and the song and dance of boarding and deplaning. All you have to do is grab your stuff at baggage claim.

While this can be a totally unremarkable experience much of the time, it can also be a madhouse. Hordes of panicked travelers rush the carousel like it’s about to disappear. Civility goes out the window as pushy strangers vie to get their bag first in a contest that doesn’t exist.

“I do spend a lot of time observing bag claims that we designed and it is ... a unique animal,” said Ty Osbaugh, an architect and leader of the aviation practice at the architecture firm Gensler. One of his recent projects is JFK’s new Terminal 1.

Osbaugh’s take is that because most professional travelers, like business dads, baseball scouts, political reporters and others doing this on the reg — forgo checked luggage, so you’re stuck with amateurs at baggage claim.

An illustrated guide to people at the airport

“What you’re getting is the people who are not used to traveling a lot,” Osbaugh said. “They’re the people who are, in some ways, the most stressed and the most sensitive to anything that doesn’t go quite according to plan.”

So relax, take a breather. The hardest part of the airport experience is behind you. And while you’re waiting, here’s a refresher on the do’s and don’ts of navigating baggage claim.

Do: Make your bag stand out

Luggage has become homogenized in the last few decades, which can be a problem at the baggage carousel.

“The old black roller bag — everyone’s got one,” said Brett Snyder, who runs the Cranky Flier consumer air travel blog and Cranky Concierge air travel assistance.

If you have one such bag, save yourself some anxiety by adding a personal touch, like an ornate luggage tag or a ribbon around the handle, “just something to make it distinguishable,” Snyder said.

You can also make your bag stand out by finagling a priority tag from your airline.

“Most domestic air carriers offer priority luggage tags for those flying in premium cabins or frequent flyers who have earned elite status,” Nina Herold, executive vice president of TripActions said in an email. “These priority tags help direct baggage handlers to unload those bags first, though the winds of irregular operations don’t always guarantee this.”

Herold added that some carriers like French Bee allow you to pay for priority baggage.

Do: Ask questions if you have connections

If you’re not lucky enough to have a direct flight, ask at check in whether your bag is tagged for your final destination or if you need to recheck it along the way. Most of the time you don’t.

But if you’re traveling internationally, for example, or are flying a domestic leg of an international trip, flying different airlines or an overnight layover, you’ll likely have to grab your stuff and go through it all over again.

So ask about the protocol at check in, and if you forgot, ask a flight attendant.

Don’t: Rush to wait

It takes time to get your suitcase from the plane to the baggage carousel. Ground handlers have to offload the aircraft, put luggage into carts, then drive over to the conveyor belt where they’re unloaded from the cart onto the belt.

With this in mind, know that you have time to kill between deplaning and grabbing your stuff. What you choose to do with that time is up to you, but most things are better than hovering over the conveyor belt willing your bag to appear faster. Figure out your transportation from the airport. Listen to a podcast. Invest in crypto. Call your mom.

Do: Hang back in the wings

You’ve sauntered to the baggage claim, and hope that luggage should appear at any minute now. People are inching closer to the mouth of the conveyor belt, like cats slinking toward unsuspecting prey. Does that mean you should join in? No.

Herold says “it’s important to remember that you’re not the only traveler in a hurry to exit the airport — it’s not going to serve anyone to crowd the main opening of the carousel.”

Besides, there’s no rush. Osbaugh reminds us that the belts are doughnuts. Your bag is going to circle around, so “you don’t necessarily need to be right in front of the throat,” he said. “I know you’re going to save 30 seconds, but at the end of day, you might get the same experience, if not better, by just spreading out a little bit.”

Herold’s advice is to determine which way the carousel is turning and choose a spot to stand (away from the crowd) that allows you to keep an eye on the luggage as it drops and wait for yours to come to you.

“It’s definitely not good etiquette to push your way to the front to claim your bag when it will come to you in less than a minute anyway,” Herold said.

Do: Be a good Samaritan

If you must plant yourself at the edge of the carousel, at least make yourself useful.

“Think about people behind you and offer to help get their bags off or ask them what they’re looking for,” Snyder said. “But ... once you have your bag get out of there.”

This isn’t a mandatory requirement, and some people won’t have the ability to help, but if you can, consider it good travel karma.

Let By The Way help you navigate travel dilemmas

Don’t: Lose track of your kids

As a parent or caregiver traveling with young children, your day has been stressful enough getting to this point. But don’t let your guard down at baggage claim. Do your best to keep your kids away from the carousel so they don’t end up disappearing like Houdini into the abyss of whatever’s behind the conveyor belt flap, like this kid in Atlanta in 2019.

Surveillance video shows a toddler's ride on a baggage conveyor belt at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on July 22. (Video: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport)

“Too often, they want to climb onto it or put their hands on it, which can potentially create a safety incident — and cause the carousel to stop as a precaution or to treat an injury,” Herold said. “And that affects all the travelers on your plane and creates a chain reaction, backing up the unloading of other planes.”

Do: Confirm your bag is lost before you freak out

You’ve been watching fellow travelers claiming their bags, but your bag hasn’t appeared.

“Some people are just like, ‘It’s not here. It must be lost,’” Snyder said. Before you jump to that conclusion, Snyder says to see if you’re sharing a carousel with another flight — there’s a chance they haven’t offloaded your plane yet. Or your bag could have been on a cart that’s lagging behind.

Some airline apps will give you a heads up on the location of your checked luggage, like once it’s been loaded on the plane or once it’s at baggage claim. Or you can keep track your bag yourself using an AirTag or similar luggage-tracking device.

“Just drop one into each piece of luggage that leaves your sight and Apple will track them,” Herold said. “Android users haven’t got a similarly clean solution but Tile trackers work similarly.”

Spending hours on hold with airlines? Here’s why and what you can do.

Don’t: Yell at employees if you don’t find your bag

If you’ve waited and waited, and your luggage still hasn’t appeared. Now it’s time to jump into action. Perhaps someone took your luggage by mistake, or the airline lost it. No matter the case, make a lost luggage claim and follow these next steps — and stay calm.

“If your bag is misplaced, be nice to the agents,” Herold said. “It’s not their fault, and while losing your bags is frustrating and inconvenient, most luggage is eventually found.”

We can’t stress this enough: Don’t lash out at airport employees. They’re dealing with pandemic-induced labor shortages.

“You are requesting help from the only person that’s likely to be able to help you, and if you’re yelling at them, they’re not going to feel very motivated to help you,” Snyder said.

There is no conspiracy to ruin your day, or interrupt your travel. “They want to get you out of there,” Snyder said. “The last thing they want is to have to deal with the issues.”

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