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Luggage Buying Tips from a Baggage Handler
So you’ve decided to take the BIG LEAP and travel the world! Orrr you’re already a frequent flyer and you can’t, for the life of you, figure out why you keep receiving your bags with damaged contents. The truth is, you might be more to blame for the condition of your bags than you realize. Here are a few tips to ensure you get your things the way you gave them to the airline.
So let’s cut to the chase and talk about the best type of bag to check...
Bags with a hard plastic (or aluminum), rectangular design, nylon handles on the top, bottom, and side of the bag, that are equipped with universal wheels, are ideal when it comes to baggage handling.
There it is, folks! No suspense required. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way for all of you “instant gratification-junkies,” here’s the part of the article for those of you who realize that actually having examples of the information you're reading helps you to retain it better and develops new perspectives to go along with those you gain while traveling. Not to mention, if you travel often, you realize that being aware of all that goes into making sure your items arrive with you, will help you to make it easier for those responsible for doing so. And if you’ve ever arrived anywhere without your stuff or with banged up items, we all know how unsettling that is.
And let's be honest, many travelers imagine THIS when they hand their valuables over to the airline agent.
Though this is a pretty extreme case of mishandling, it is still a possibility. You can avoid having your things knocked around by following the tips of this article.
So, are you ready to become a baggage buying expert? Cool! Here are some luggage selection tips that show what it takes to protect your bags (and/or its contents) from getting destroyed:
1. Stack-Friendly Bags
Loading bags is only one aspect of the fast-paced and rapidly changing duties of a ramp agent, but it is probably the one that you are most concerned with—right next to a safe flight, of course. Because of this, we try and load bags into the cargo bin in a way that is quick, sturdy, and utilizes as much of the space available in these awkwardly shaped areas. So doing your part to make this as quick and easy as possible for us benefits you more than you probably realize.
Contrary to popular belief, cargo bins are not symmetrical in shape like shipping containers. They have little curves and randomly mounted metal coverings that protrude throughout them and sometimes these compartments don’t even allow the ramp agent to stand upright, forcing them to throw bags while on hands and knees. These various designs make loading difficult. So we appreciate the bags that improve the process. Therefore, the luggage that is sure to get the “VIP” treatment (when it comes to how they are loaded) are those perfectly rectangular pieces with a hard plastic case, because they’re easy to stack, and gripping them isn’t difficult, which means they can be quickly stacked.
Think of the loading process as a live game of Tetris; bags are being pushed by a conveyor belt into the bin, with about two feet between them, and we have to quickly pick them up and decide where to place them. If your bag is made of material that is soft, flimsy, and hard to grip, it may be thrown out of the way quickly and even smashed in between those harder heavier bags so that the agent can continue loading without interruption.
But hey, if this isn’t enough to make you consider getting a set of hard-case luggage, you should be aware of the fact that, during lightning storms, the airport operations tower may implement what’s called a “ground hold.” This is when all activity on the ramp must cease and personnel return indoors for safety. So your unloaded baggage may get stuck outside in the rain for hours. If you’ve packed your things in the type of bag described as being ideal, your items are protected from the elements. But who knows the condition of your valuables inside of a soft nylon suitcase?
2. Let's get even.
Okay, face it, if you're having a hard time getting your bag around, how do you think it affects someone with 50 more just like it? In all honesty, bags that are loaded badly get handled badly. This is especially the case if it’s heavy and loaded so that one end of it is heavier than the other. When your unevenly loaded bag slides around and falls, it forces the agent to stop the belt, get up and find a place for it and then get reset to continue the loading process. Now I’m not going to say that they’re intentionally trying to throw your luggage into the first place they see—which usually means it being crammed in a tight spot—but imagine if you had bags coming at you back-to-back and there was one that was inhibiting your ability to efficiently organize them. How much consideration would you give to the person who owns it if in your mind, they gave you none when packing it?
3. Got mad handles?
Yes, more handles are better, but what about the type? Don’t stop at just getting a hard plastic or aluminum bag. Make sure that it is equipped with loose, nylon or rubber handles connected to at least the top and one of the sides, but preferably the bottoms too. Rubber, NOT PLASTIC! Here’s why; remember that “conveyor belt” from our Tetris game reference? Well it’s called a “belt loader,” and it’s meant to rapidly feed everything from baggage, large metal cargo crates, to even caskets, into the cargo bin. So there are lots of metal bars and other objects on them that may push your bag into a position different from how it was initially facing (with the handles toward the person loading it) when it was placed onto the belt. If this happens, and there are no other handles for the agent to grip in order to pull it into the bin, the bags behind it can push your bag off of the belt loader from a height of as much as 15 feet! This would definitely cause your fragile items to break, and since FAA regulations require you to check any liquids over 3.5 ounces into your luggage, large falls could result in plastic breaking and liquid spills all over your personal contents like clothing, shoes and other stuff that you wouldn’t want it on. So definitely keep this in mind when purchasing.
4. It’s All About the Wheels
How annoying is it to carry a bag behind you that can only be leaned backward to move? Pretty lame right? Now imagine having to handle as many as 100 at a time, back-to-back. They have to be pulled from several different conveyor belts, scanned and carried over to baggage carts so that the process can repeat itself until they’re back in the hands of their owners. You wouldn’t believe how many serious injuries are caused by unevenly loaded bags with one-direction facing wheels, that topple over and cause the agent trying to handle it to trip and fall over other bags or large metal equipment. Bags with universal wheels however, can be easily moved around and other smaller bags can be placed on top of them and moved as well, making the process of getting your bags to you much more efficient.
5. Hulk no smash?
Avoid putting bendable, fragile items in duffle-bags as they usually get smashed in between other bags due to their malleability. Though they’re great for packing large amounts of clothing and shoes, they are bound to get wedged in between heavier bags. If you are a duffle-bag kinda guy or gal, here’s a video from an army pro that teaches you how to pack your bag to optimize its space.
6. I bet you thought you were cool.
Though they’re pretty cool, duffle-roller-bag combos are a pain to load and may get stuffed in any nook or cranny available. They are usually placed upside down on the bottoms of bins so that they can provide a base for conventional luggage. If you don't mind your things being stuffed under 200 or more pounds of luggage, no worries. But if you're uneasy about that idea, it may be time to look into something else to travel with.
7. Nice bag decor...now take it OFF!
Refrain from too much handle decoration on the handles as it makes it hard to grab and will rip off ONLY USE thick/covered bag tags (Swiss, Tümi, etc.). This can also lead to your bag being knocked off of the belt loader if the agent can't grip your handles and other bags are coming in behind it. Furthermore, your things can simply be ripped off of the handle and lost somewhere on the tarmac, so if you must add them to your luggage, make sure your level of attachment to them is low.
8. That’s a badly placed tag.
When you first check your bags in at the front ticket counter, the agent places a white tracking bag tag on the handle that’s facing upward. If you place your bag on its side, then he or she places the bag on the side handle. These tags are best to be put on the top handle because it makes your bag easier to scan, which avoids it being stacked in the bin in an awkward position so that agents can get to it. Always remember to have the agent stick the tag on the top handle.
9. Ditch broken bags.
Discard bags with broken carry handles and retractable handles that are stuck in the up position. They are hard to fit into cargo bins, and will get bent or broken, even worst. It can also be irritating to baggage handlers to have to place themselves in danger because of your bag. Furthermore, depending on how the bag is broken, your things could bust out of it all over the cargo bin and or tarmac. There are no regulations that require us to gather your belongings from your broken luggage, so if it's lost in transit, it's lost for good.
10. Duct tape fixes everything!
If you're concerned about identifying your bags, place duct tape around the actual hard case. This is great on hard case luggage! Make sure to stick one long piece on one front and another on the back of the bag and write your name in large lettering.
11. Checked backpacks are a waste of money!
A book bag is considered a personal item that can be brought onto the plane in addition to a carry-on/small roller board bag, and placed under your seat. Why pay $25 or more to put it in the cargo bin of a plane when you can carry it with you? If there are instances where you need a backpack, but don't want to carry it with you, consider packing it and its contents in your regular luggage.
12. We know the planes we work better than you do!
Listen, we get it, you're tired, anxious from being around so many people, and just want to get to your destination, but stop arguing with the crew about putting your carry-on bag under the plane! What you don't realize is that aircraft change sizes based on destination and whether or not you're flying with a subsidiary of the airline you bought a ticket with. Some planes are too small for you to put your bag in the overhead compartment and must be placed in the cargo bin. If the gate agent gives you a cardstock tag marked "valet" and tells you it cannot go into the cabin with you, this does not mean you have to go to baggage claim to get it! You will get your bag as soon as you deplane at your next location, hence the reason that the tag you're given says "valet." Avoid arguments with the staff! They have other passengers, aircraft and many other moving parts. So if they’re having a bad day, this is a sure way to get your bags thrown around or the gate claim tag removed – which means you WILL have to go to baggage claim to retrieve it- even if you have a connecting flight. Talk about an inconvenience!
13. Quality Bags at Affordable Prices
A common excuse I often hear when suggesting that passengers get better luggage is that good luggage is too expensive. I would say it depends on where you're shopping. Some of the places I recommend for affordable and quality luggage are Burlington and other discount stores like it, Walmart, Amazon, and even the Wish App (if you can wait an extremely long time for it to arrive). All of these places have the types of luggage recommended in this article.
Grab a few extra gate claim tags from the gate agent before your next departure flight, then laminate one or two, punch a hole in the top, and use a piece of sturdy string to strap it to the fixed handle of your bag. You’re going to need one from each airline you fly with, so remember to change it based who’s operating the flight (American, Delta, Lufthansa, etc.). You can place them in a pocket on your favorite carry-on bag so that you’ll always remember them. Having these handy makes it quicker and easier for you to board, and avoids you having to frantically add and re-add it to your bag before each flight. It also keeps you from having to go to baggage claim to get your carry-on bag, should the flimsy elastic attached to gate claim tag snap off.
Ultimately, the best advice I can give you is to avoid checking your bag altogether by traveling with a small roller board bag as your carry-on. I know, counter-intuitive right? But you usually don’t have to wait to receive these bags and since they’re with you at all times, you don’t have to fear that they’ll be lost. Your local super store has most of the toiletries you’ll need in small sizes that can pass through security check points.
Safe travels, and happy flying!