Lugging around luggage tags - how to travel smarter

3 years ago
Not once, not twice, but four times this month readers have asked me about luggage tags. Do you really need to use them? What kind should you get? Where should you put them?  As always, I'm happy to do my very best and try to get to the bottom of things - any info that makes your air travel smoother is good in my books!
Airline identifiers
First of all, you are rarely - if ever - required to put personal luggage tags on your bags. The airline does that for you when you check in, as they print off a giant sticky loop of paper that goes around the handle of every checked bag. This ties your bag to you, your flight, and your airline. While rare, mistakes can happen, so take a quick second to double check the information on the tag. Knowing the three letter airport code of your destination can make the difference between having your luggage end up in Sydney, Nova Scotia instead of Sydney, Australia! 
Meet your official luggage tag - and know your airport codes! Photo courtesy of Wikipedia under creative commons licensing.
A sticky situation 
Just because you aren't required to use personal luggage tags doesn't mean you shouldn't use them. The airline sticky tags can easily be ripped off or they could be printed with a mistake. A sticky tag on a black suitcase in no way distinguishes your bag at the luggage carousel, making it an easy target for mix ups and even theft. Therefore, no matter what size your bag, how far your destination, or even whether or not you are checking your bag, it should always carry some identification. Here's what I look for in a tag: 
Luggage tag strength 
Cheap plastic tag on a loose strap - what I was I thinking?!
I want a luggage tag that can stand up to anything and everything and never get ripped off. Free tags, like those that come with your luggage or are compliments of an airline or frequent flyer program, will not stand up to the abuse a suitcase endures in the bowels of an airport. Invest in something strong and secure. 

Avoid long loops and tag holders - they will only get snagged in the conveyor belt mechanisms and tear off. Choose short, strong loops that will hold the tag close to the bag. Place the tag someplace where it can be tucked out of harms way (like under a handle). 

Airline check-in counters offer paper luggage tags with thin elastic bands. While these flimsy tags will be the first to be destroyed, I often add a few to my bag. They serve as a quick and easy visual identifier to staff as to which airline you are flying with and potentially might help avoid minor mix-ups. 

Luggage tag information
There's a better way to fill out your luggage tag information! Photo courtesy of WikiHow under creative commons licensing.
Large tags include an insert with enough information to start writing a biography.  For safety's sake, I never fill them out - I don't want my personal information to be seen by noisy neighbours or sneaky lurkers. Instead, I write out my first initial and last name, where the bag is travelling to, how it's supposed to get there, and the best way to reach me at the local destination (example: V. Chiasson, travelling to Tatamagouch on AC #1234 on May 1 2014 - email This is plenty of information to connect you to your bag. Plus, if your bag actually does get lost, you will be filling out long and detailed airline forms - they will figure out a way to get in touch with you!
Luggage tag design

Aeroplan luggage navy blue carryon suitcase. TurnipseedTravel.comI'm guilty of using basic bland luggage!

It's amazing how many people travel with basic black and navy suitcases!  If you stand at a luggage carousel for a few minutes, you'll see what I mean. Even 'unusual' bags in bright pink or leopard print always seem to have a few twins. And people have a habit of touching and looking at every single bag that bears even a slight resemblance to their own. How can you not remember what your own suitcase looks like!?

Choosing a luggage tag in a bright color or unusual design should help mitigate the potential for mixups - or at least in theory. But these colorful and cute tags are often poorly made and are sold on the basis on their visual appeal and not quality. Select your tag for quality first, and then get the most colorful one that's available. 

Wrap-around luggage straps also feature bright colors and designs, but for my money they only add weight and the opportunity for snags and tears. My best advice is to travel with an older bag and cover it with a big duct tape "X" on the back - neither thieves nor the chronically clueless will want to go near your hobo pack! If your luggage is too lovely to scruff up, I suggest tightly wrapping colorful yarn around the handle to make a second-skin style covering. Nothing will snag and ownership mistakes will be identified the minute the bag's picked up. 

An inside job
The luggage is about to be off-loaded... and it's about to pour! Another good reason to tuck a luggage tag INSIDE your bag.
Tags get torn, luggage gets damaged, things get mixed up. One of the leading causes of delays in returning lost luggage is that airlines can't find identifying information when they open up the suitcase. I always write my information down in bright marker on a sheet of white paper and place it on the top of inside my bag on top of my clothing. It is the cheapest insurance you'll ever have! 
Luggage tags for carryon? Yes, yes, yes!
You never know when a bag will require checking. A spontaneous duty free purchase, an over zealous employee yielding a measuring tape, and a jam packed cabin requiring a gate check are common scenarios. And even if you keep your suitcase as carry on, you still should have a basic tag to avoid mix ups with taxis, hotel lobbies, luggage storage facilities at a museum, and more.  With a little luck and a strong tag, you and your luggage shall never be parted! 
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