“I knew something was wrong,” said Ayotte, a retired college professor in Oceanview, New Jersey. “The airline said our luggage was on the bus from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, but I could tell it wasn’t.”
Thanks to new technologies, pinpointing the location of your belongings is now affordable and practical for many travelers.
Apple introduced AirTags ($29) in early 2021. It’s not the first baggage tracking system, but it’s probably the easiest to use.
But as Ayotte’s story shows, using a tracker doesn’t necessarily save the suitcase. Knowing where your bag is can turn into a comedic fallacy where you wonder why airlines don’t lose anymore.
Last summer, when airlines separated hundreds of thousands of bags from their owners, some travel blogs suggested that AirTags would end lost baggage. However, in the months since, it has become clear that the matter is a bit more complex. First of all, AirTags only work on iPhone. It was then rumored that several airlines had banned tracking devices.
And when you buy a tracker, other questions may arise. Where exactly do you put your tracker? How many trackers do you need? And do you still need to label your bags?
Where do lost bags go?
After purchasing and activating AirTags, Ayotte started following luggage on departing flights and cruises. On her way back, when American Airlines claimed her luggage was on the bus to Atlantic City, she told her that her iPhone was not on her.
“I found two pieces of tags in Philadelphia,” she says.
Ayotte called Americans. The representative claimed the bag was in Miami, where her flight originated. After her long wait, the airline delivered her husband’s luggage. But the AirTag still showed her pack in Philadelphia. Her airline claimed it was in Austin.
“This went on for days,” she says. “Finally Jim started moving again. Stopped at a private home near Philadelphia Airport.”
Ayotte thought someone had stolen her bag, but a quick online search revealed that the house belonged to a luggage delivery service. A day later, someone showed up on her doorstep with a long-lost package.
Ayotte’s case is typical for traced baggage. Thanks to her AirTag, she could keep an eye on the airline as they tried to find and retrieve her bag. And she could have given the location if the airline had reported the luggage missing.
If the airline declares your baggage lost, it will stop searching for your property and compensate you for the value of your property. Bags tend to end up in Unclaimed Baggage stores when there is no way to identify the owner.
Did AirTags reduce lost luggage?
According to the Department of Transportation, in 2021, the first year that tracking devices will be available, domestic airlines lost an average of 5.07 bags per 1,000 passengers, a 23% increase from 2020. Bags increased by 20% to 6.1 bags per 1,000 rides.
There are no reliable studies on the effectiveness of passenger baggage tracking. But change takes time. Some luggage, like the new Un-Carrier On introduced late last year by T-Mobile and Samsara, comes with a special case for the AirTag. This could encourage more adoption, potentially reducing lost luggage.
Disappointed Southwest passengers wait weeks for lost luggage
What if you don’t have an iPhone?
There are two practical options. Our most recommended AirTag replacement is the Tile Tracker (starting at $24.99), which works on iOS and Android. Tile requires a premium service ($2.99 per month or $29.99 per year) for services like notifications or 30-day location history.
Barry Graham, a sales manager and frequent traveler based in Silver Spring, Maryland, used Tile to track luggage via his Android phone. “Fortunately, we haven’t lost anything since we started using it,” he says. “But it helped us find things we had at home and we didn’t want to waste time looking for them. I think it’s a great device.”
The second option is to use AirTags on your Android phone using a free app called Tracker Detect (this article explains how Tracker Detect works).
However, AirTag functionality is limited on Android phones, so if you don’t have an iPhone, we recommend using Tile.
Have AirTags and other tracking devices been banned by airlines?
Last fall, German airline Lufthansa gave some passengers the impression that it had banned tracking devices when it said on Twitter that it thought activated AirTags were dangerous. However, it quickly clarified that they were allowed.
Air New Zealand reportedly banned the baggage tracker in November, but according to the site, the tracker can be used as long as the battery does not exceed 0.3g of lithium metal. AirTag contains only 0.1g of lithium.
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Where should I put the AirTag in my luggage?
Michael Xavier, founder of tech site Insider Techie, advises, “It’s generally best to put your device in a pocket or pouch that’s easily accessible and out of sight.” “You need to make sure that your device is secured in your bag, as it may fall out during transit.”
Most luggage has side pouches that can be closed with a zipper. The less obtrusive the better. If someone tries to steal your luggage, they will find a tracker so no one follows them.
How many trackers do I need to properly track my luggage?
1 per bag. According to Apple, AirTag batteries should last about a year. You can always add a second AirTag to your bag for redundancy if you’re concerned about your AirTag running out of power or failing.
Do I still need to label my luggage?
Yes. Most airlines have sophisticated tracking systems. Baggage tags have a barcode linking the bag to the airline reservation, so that it can be relinked to the bag if it is lost. But the system isn’t perfect.
Sometimes airlines mislabel luggage. And sometimes both luggage tags with extra barcodes and smaller stickers fall off the bag, rendering the tracking system useless.
When that happens, the airline looks for a regular luggage tag with your name and phone number on it. Security experts say you should avoid entering your address because criminals stealing your luggage can show up at your house and steal it when you’re not home.
Best option: For safety reasons, attach a label on the outside and attach a business card or second luggage tag to the inside of the bag. Airlines don’t have an incentive to track your luggage more closely if it has a luggage tag attached, but it helps to identify your property if it goes missing.
Do AirTags work everywhere?
no. AirTags are not always accurate when on the move. AirTags use the Bluetooth-enabled networks of your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac to register your location. Therefore, the absence of other Apple devices may affect functionality.
One of my readers checked her luggage on the high-speed ferry from Mykonos to Santorini last summer. The AirTag erroneously indicated that her luggage was still on the beach.