There are a variety of suitcases and luggage hardware on the market to suit all budgets and size requirements. This article looks at each variety available from the perspective of which is the most secure type of luggage for travel.
Of all the items we take away when traveling it’s the contents of our checked luggage that is at the most risk. There are a number of scenarios that can occur with checked baggage once it’s left out possession. None of which are favorable for the traveler. Consider the following scenarios:
Theft From Checked Baggage
This can be a real hassle, let alone the inconvenience caused when items you’ve packed specifically for your trip are gone. Whether you have taken out travel insurance or otherwise before departing, it won’t be of much help in the short term once you’ve arrived at your destination hotel opened up the suitcase and found it’s been raided by thieves.
Items taken can be of sentimental value or include jewelery, laptops, tablets or anything else considered to be of value in the eyes of the thief. If you have taken out travel insurance you are likely to pay an excess and there may well be limitations or specific policy exclusions, so it’s always wise to check your policy and select the right inclusions or exclusions specifically for each trip.
Its always the wiser choice to carry all valuables on board rather than storing them in your checked baggage however this is not always possible, due to weight restrictions to carry-on bags implemented by most airlines around the world. Of concern is a recent call for laptop computers to be banned from carry-on luggage due to emerging threats by those who wish to cause harm.
It’s a terrible feeling when you reach the baggage carousel to find your luggage lock has been compromised, broken, or if the eyes of the zipper are separated. As you investigate the tampering further, feelings of anger disappointment and dread overcome you as the bag is opened and you discover the Nikon camera, telephoto lens and/or portable hard drive is missing.
Sometimes, the first sign there is trouble ahead is when you reach the carousel before your luggage does. It’s a golden rule, to never pack valuables into checked baggage however complacency coupled with a rough calculation that it’s a numbers game and a 'it won’t happen to me' attitude, is sadly now not going to bring back your possessions.
Once you’ve checked in at the counter and your bag is weighed, it heads off in sled like fashion down the conveyor belt. During its travel along a network of belt systems under the terminal building the suitcase will make contact with many pairs of hands. There are a myriad of opportunities to ransack and compromise any piece luggage, up to and including when it arrives at the carousel at the destination airport.
Not least to say another opportunity for thieves presents itself, when your luggage first arrives at the hotel, remaining out of your possession until they are delivered to your room. Airports and airlines around the world are well aware of staggering number of thefts occurring each and every year, however they choose to not address the issue, avoiding damage to their 'brand' and reputation.
Thefts at airports and terminals are usually only exposed when gangs or systematic bag theft is unmasked. Insurers too have the capacity to provide insight into the number of thefts occurring at airports, through the statistical information acquired during the claims process. Every now and again we hear about undercover sting operations conducted by law enforcement reporting on the arrest of a gang, or team of thieves in the terminal. Even those tasked with ensuring the security of our property are sometimes involved in the pillaging of property from luggage.
Some examples of this include:
The TSA recently fired 29 employees at Miami International Airport and 27 at New York’s JFK International Airport with a further 24 at Los Angeles International Airport, all of which were accused to stealing the personal effects of travelers. One screener at LA International Airport was accused to stealing from Paris Hilton’s bag, a watch valued at USD$10,000
In 2013, a number of El Al passengers reported valuables including jewelery, iPad’s, laptops and mobile phones were disappearing from their checked baggage at New York’s JFK International Airport. In response to the allegations the airline set up a covert camera in the luggage hold of a 747, catching a total of seven baggage handlers stealing from passenger luggage.
By no means is the US an isolated case, in fact many airports around the world are experiencing theft including Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport where inside the lockers of six baggage handlers, was a booty of stolen items including jewelery, watches, laptops, and even a quantity of TSA approved locks and keys.
Anderson Cooper of CNN filed a story on the theft in 2015, showing covert video footage of thieves in action on board a plane rifling through baggage and in the luggage hold and also in the baggage handling area of the airport.
Ways In Which Luggage Can Be Compromised
TSA Approved Locks
There are a couple of ways in which a suitcase can be compromised. One of course is by including a TSA approved lock on luggage. These locks were originally designed to allow authorities easy access for inspection, however in the wrong hands those in possession of these sequenced key systems are able to easily unlock your baggage without damaging a suitcase, which would otherwise provide you with a visual indicator that your luggage has been compromised.
3 Or 4 Numbered Combination Locks
This option can be a little fiddly, however with practice thieves can become extremely fast at this. Access is achieved by aligning the internal wheels to the slot where the depression can be seen between the cut out, just below each number. Once this is completed they start with the top number closest to the lock hinge, then turn the number to the next sequential one. This process is repeated for each number spinner, until the lock is released.
Compromising The Luggage Zipper
This technique is probably the most common way of compromising your luggage without you having any idea it’s occurred. There a many videos on YouTube demonstrating the way it’s achieved. It only takes seconds, however there are ways you can eliminate this risk totally which I will examine below in further detail. The zipper on luggage is of course easily accessible, as it is sewn around the edges of the suitcase to enable it to be fully opened or closed.
By placing the point (nib) or any ballpoint pen between the teeth of the suitcase and sliding it around the closed zipper, the bag is easily opened. It is then re-sealed by sliding the lock, which is clipped to both the pull tabs of the zipper all the way around the suitcase, re-sealing the zipper teeth, all the way around.
There are a couple of ways to prevent this from occurring, by either using a couple of cable ties to secure the lock to the suitcase handle, thus preventing the movement of the pull tabs and lock all together, or to restrict the movement completely. Some suitcases also have an additional component which is fixed to the body of the suitcase where the lock can be affixed directly to the body of the suitcase preventing movement of the lock.
Lost Or Stolen Luggage
This can be a travelers worst nightmare - to be greeted at the luggage carousel will nothing, absolutely nothing. There are a multitude of reasons why luggage may disappear including being stolen, however we are able to gain an insight into the reasons why baggage may become lost by SITA, one of the worlds leading air transport IT and communications specialists, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
One of their offerings World Tracer, is in use at 2,800 airport locations globally. SITA’s Baggage Report 2016 states that in 2015 a new low was reached with only 23.1 million bags mishandled. When broken down, this figure represents 6.5 bags lost for every 1,000 passengers. While this statistic doesn’t sound like something to shout about, consider the number of bags mishandled has dropped by 50% across all international airlines since 2007.
Taking into consideration also are passenger numbers which have increased by a staggering 200%. In 2015 alone, mishandled bags cost the airline industry in excess of $2.3 billion. Conversely, a total of $22 billion has been saved in airline costs for mishandled baggage. When it comes to lost or delayed baggage, the reasons include:
- Transfer mishandling – 45%,
- Failure to load – 19%
- Ticketing error/bag switch/security/other – 16%
- Airport/Customer/Weather/Space-weight restriction – 8%
- Loading error – 4%
- Arrival mishandling – 4%
- Tagging error – 4%
However, things are set to improve in the near future in the arena of baggage tracking. The International Air Transport Association's Resolution 753 is due to come into effect in June 2018, requiring airlines to have both the technology and processes to track luggage from check-in, onto the plane, and into arrivals or the transfer area. This information is to be made available to share with the next airline or airport. This will require a universal system of sharing information between airlines and airports.
There are a couple of of ways in which airline passengers can minimize the risk of exposure to 'lost bag syndrome', including:
- Avoiding multi-ticket journeys, as airlines are only obliged to deliver bags to the destination indicated on the ticket consequently, bags will not be following you to your final destination if they are misplaced or delayed for any reason.
Research the track record of the airline (United States) by viewing the Air Travel Consumer Reports to check the governments baggage statistics which provides the traveler with enough information to conduct their own risk assessment. For example, American Airlines mishandles more than twice as many bags as JetBlue.
Prohibited Substances Planted In Luggage
Around the world breaking news headlines announce an overseas passenger has been caught in possession of drugs or other banned substances in their luggage without their knowledge. While many question the truthfulness in statements of innocence on the part of the traveler, the fact is it happens.
Not only are illegal drugs trafficked in this way, items or substances may be placed inside passengers checked luggage to obtain financial gain through bribery by airport officials. One example of this is the so-called bullet scam, where staff at the Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippines planted bullets into the luggage of unsuspecting passengers.
The media was awash with reports from passengers being accosted and fined for possessing ammunition. Airport security personnel were behind the scam, to acquire money through extortion. Several passengers were detained while others were taken to court for refusing to pay the ‘fine’.
One popular method for passengers use to have peace of mind when traveling, is to have their luggage wrapped with plastic at the airport, which is said to form a secure seal of protection against objects being inserted or removed from luggage. Companies like ‘protectabag’ may charge upwards of $16 per suitcase to wrap layers of thin plastic film around items of luggage.
However, having witnessed video footage from covert cameras placed in baggage handling areas, which show, the first few layers of wrap being peeled away, the remaining plastic is sliced open with a knife. Once the bag has been raided, the bag is resealed using the wrap. Visually it can be difficult to identify if this has occurred with your suitcase.
Theft From Aircraft Overhead Locker
Unfortunately the number of occurrences of theft from overhead lockers on board is a growing trend. Considering you’ve done everything you can to mitigate your risk by carrying valuables on board - one cannot afford to be blasé about their valuable possessions once on board.
Fellow passengers and even airline flight attendants are amongst the people that will attempt to steal from you once on board. It’s been going on for years and although it doesn’t frequently occur it does happen more than you think. Most of these types of thefts occur on international flights, particularly throughout Asia.
CNN recently reported one incident where a man flying to Hong Kong claimed to be a victim of on board theft with loses equating to $260,000 after two watches and foreign currency were stolen from his carry-on luggage stowed in the overhead compartment.
An airline steward on board a China bound flight from Cebu was caught red handed stealing up to 8,000 yuan from his Chinese passengers. Three passengers have alleged the man with the support of his fellow crew members, emptied the wallets of unsuspecting passengers mid-flight by accessing their wallets and purses.
Once the plane landed authorities were alerted and after conducting a search of the plane recovered the stolen money. The steward had made attempts to hide the evidence by flushing most of the bills down the toilet. Several other bills were located in the trash can in the lavatory.
Business class passengers are not immune to such incidences either - during one event, an Air France flight was struck by a pickpocket. The thief emptied the wallets of business class passengers during the flight. French police later arrested and charged a flight attendant on board. Hong Kong police have recorded a 25% rise in the number of cabin thefts in 2015 with over 60 incidents reported. It’s thought sophisticated gangs are now identifying likely targets prior to boarding.
Sometimes even celebrities get caught up in thieving incidents, but not in the way you might expect. In 2010 the then 22-year-old son of actress Cybill Shepherd was arrested at Philadelphia’s airport after he allegedly attempted to rob sleeping passengers on the overnight domestic flight.
Cyrus Zachariah Shepherd-Oppenheim was accused at the time of stealing a digital camera, currency, a leather cosmetics bag and another small piece of luggage according to reports. He was subsequently charged with two counts of theft for unlawfully receiving stolen goods after he allegedly was caught rifling through the suitcases of passengers while they were sleeping. Upon arrival at the airport, he was taken into custody.
It's important to be vigilant while on board any aircraft and be aware at all times of those around you. There are a number of ways thieves on board operate to acquire your booty, so here’s a few things to look out for.
Suspects are most likely to sit in the rear rows of the aircraft in order to observe the activity of passengers and their baggage at a greater distance.
When most passengers on overseas flights are sleeping, or watching movies, this is the most likely period when thefts occur.
Bags are frequently removed, and taken into the bathroom or to the rear of the plane to be looted.
Don’t assume if traveling in business class that you are any safer than those traveling in economy class.
Place your bag in the overhead locker directly opposite to you, in order to maintain visual contact when the locker is opened by any person.
Never place your bag directly overhead, it’s impossible to see what’s going on as passengers are less likely to pay attention to someone accessing the locker directly overhead as they do not wish to appear intrusive or rude. Thieves are aware of this and prey on human nature.
Which Suitcase Suits?
Once passengers have a greater awareness of traveling in the skies and the incidences in which their travel plans can be ruined, it’s worth now considering which types of luggage and suitcases are available - what’s best for your needs, and the pro’s and cons of each.
Firstly, when considering the selection of the type of luggage for your needs think about the following types which are readily available. Before choosing any type of luggage to meet your needs there are a few things to first consider:
1. What is the intended use?
Consider the ways your luggage will be used for example, if you travel by air frequently, for driving, for cruising or for short breaks. It’s important to think about the average duration of travel, and to familiarize yourself with the rules and restrictions for luggage, particularly if traveling by air.
If traveling by road, a soft sided bag may suit as its pliable enough to make the most of the space in the trunk or for sitting on the back seat. Cruise ships for example have a tendency to stack luggage below deck after loading so consider a hard-sided case. Perhaps you require a set of luggage to meet your needs if traveling for long periods, or maybe a small carry-on bag would better suit.
2. Know your size
Depending upon the average length of your trips and the types of trips you intend to take in the future - for example if you are a backpacker a suitcase is probably not really a practical item for your needs. Conversely if you like to travel light, packing only the bare essentials, then a backpack on wheels may suit.
3. Where will you store the luggage when not in use?
Most don’t consider this as a potential issue however we never seem to have enough room for our ‘stuff’. Suitcases being no exception. While the footprint of a hard-sided case may be hard to live with, a soft sided case or duffel bag can be rolled up and stored away taking up little space.
Hard Sided Luggage
Hard sided or hard shell luggage as its sometimes referred to is generally manufactured using a range of high-tech plastics including polycarbonate and ABS – Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. They are a popular choice for those looking for a durable and generally light weight product – be mindful, as some hard cases can be heavy.
Sometimes selected as an alternative in the hard-sided luggage category is aluminium, which is favored by businessmen for its sleek professional look, however these cases are most often heavier than their plastic cousins. Hard sided cases most often are designed with a 50/50 split opening which is connected by a zipper. Inside the case is a lining and a center divider and/or a cross strap.
These cases don’t provide much flexibility when opened, generally taking up a large footprint, doubling the surface area required to lay the case down to open it. There are in fact two types of hard sided ABS or polycarbonate suitcases – namely hard sided and hard case.
Hard-sided luggage describes the exterior of the case being that it’s more of a shell type configuration. This shell is not manufactured to be completely solid as much as it has been designed to ‘flex’.
Hard-case suitcases on the other hand are inflexible and solid in construction which are unlikely to bend when placed under pressure.
This style of luggage is a popular choice for those wishing to protect any breakable contents, although I’m not sure what that would be really. A hard-sided case is also secure against any slashing by a knife wielding thief who would like to access the cases contents by slashing the side of the bag. Smaller carry on styles of hard-case luggage, make them a popular choice because of their fixed dimensions and ability to easily place and remove them from the overhead locker.
One common issue with hard-sided or hard case style luggage is that they don’t hold up well under normal wear and tear conditions. The fact that many of these cases are manufactured with a high gloss finish for appeal, they tend to scuff easily, leaving a rather beaten up product. Some hard-sided cases also have a tendency to dent, as a consequence of their flexibility.
The zipper of the suitcase is vulnerable to compromise whereas, an aluminium style case tends to be designed with metal draw bolt style latches. Due to the fixed design of hard sided luggage the cases are very unforgiving if you tend to overpack, whereas a flexible sided case allows you to squeeze just that little bit extra inside.
Soft Sided Luggage
Soft sided luggage is that which is defined as an item constructed using fabrics such as woven nylon, cordura or ballistic nylon, giving the luggage an ability to be flexible and yielding to its constrained environments. Another popular material is rip stop – the lightweight nylon used in the construction of parachutes.
Soft sided luggage is the preferred choice for travelers due to its flexibility and price point compared with a hard-sided option. Since the 1980’s a range of composite fabrics have been utilized to create a light-weight, strong, pliable suitcase, in a range of colors and styles to suit all tastes.
Most manufactures detail the denier count of the fabric, it should be listed on the tag allowing consumers to determine the overall strength of the fabric. Most soft sided products come with a number of pockets or compartments on the exterior of varying sizes, most are closed using a zipper or an integrated style locking system.
Flexible and easily manipulated to fit into tight areas. Handy external pockets and compartments allowing you to easily access items without opening the suitcase where items such as your passport, airline ticket and phone charger are at hand. Most soft sided luggage is lightweight using modern materials to provide strength coupled with aesthetic appeal.
Higher quality suitcases use close knit stitching to ensure the fabric is secured to the case frame. Many soft sided cases are fitted with an expansion joint, providing additional space when needed. Most international travelers on holiday tend to bring back souvenirs they had not considered they would before leaving, so the flexibility of having additional space is certainly a handy one.
Most soft sided luggage is not resistant to water, as a consequence the contents may become wet, damaged and smelly. If not attended to promptly mold can grow on the surface rendering the purchase to the rubbish dump. One way to minimize this is to purchase a can of spray such as 3M, which can be applied to the exterior of the case to make the luggage water resistant.
Don’t forget to apply it regularly as you may find your bag sitting on the tarmac waiting to be loaded in the pouring rain. Sometimes, soft sided luggage on casters or wheels can be difficult to maneuver when compared with the hard-sided option.
This is my personal favorite for traveling. It’s an easily traveled companion piece that a traveler can toss just about anything into. There are models with or without wheels, so depending on the size and capacity of the bag, you may prefer a model with wheels.
While you won’t win any fashion awards carrying this piece, they are practical, lightweight and easily manipulated to fit into small spaces. Most are made with high quality materials including an internal mesh layer bonded to the underside of the surface fabric.
Depending upon the size some duffel bags come with a number of internal compartments for those who like to separate their clean clothes from dirty, or personal care products from their socks. They have the capacity to hold large amounts of clothing if you know how to pack them the correct way.
Some duffel bags feature external pockets, providing easy access to documents when needed. When not in use for traveling, these bags provide a practical item which can be utilized for any number of needs including as a gym bag, or overnight bag, or for camping.
Duffel bags without wheels can prove to be quite heavy to carry around, especially if you are moving around the airport or walking to a distant terminal building. Clothing you’ve spent time to properly iron and fold, will be all for naught when you reach your destination. This type of bag is suitable for those who prefer to roll their clothing before packing. Duffel bags are much a preferred option for men for this very reason.
You may consider having any type of luggage wrapped including those mentioned above. But is it really worth the time, cost and inconvenience? Bag wrapping services can be found at most international airports around the world and cost between $10 - $20 per bag, depending on its size.
The bag or suitcase is placed on a turntable while the attendant guides the plastic wrap around the suitcase. The primary motivation for having a suitcase wrapped is to provide an additional ‘layer’ of security. Does suitcase wrapping send a message to would be thieves, that there are goods worth stealing inside?
Wrapping can protect luggage from wear and tear while traveling through the conveyor belt at the airport. Rough handling by baggage handlers, wet weather when loading and/or liquid spills caused by the contents of other’s bags – including perfume.
Sometimes straps can become caught up in the mechanisms the luggage racks or conveyor belts rendering baggage to lost and found, or worse still finding its way on board another flight, after its released from its captor.
It may be perceived by those who are on the lookout for opportunities to steal, that you have valuables inside the suitcase which may cause you to become a target for theft.
Consider for a moment, when you arrive at your destination how do you manage to remove the plastic layers, as most hotels don’t provide sharp knives or scissors in the hotel room to remove it. Luggage wrapping is an additional cost that you may not have considered previously.