DALLAS (AP) — Travel is often hectic — rushing to make a plane, keeping an eye on young children, maybe schlepping too much baggage.
Distractions can create opportunity for thieves looking for an easy target in a crowded terminal or airplane cabin.
Thefts from airline luggage are rare, according to government figures, but that doesn’t ease the sting if it’s your vacation that’s ruined because of a stolen passport or jewelry.
Experts say most of the thefts that do occur could easily be prevented if travelers followed a few basic rules, starting with the most obvious one.
“Never pack valuables in luggage that you’re going to check,” said Bryan Saltzburg of travel website TripAdvisor.com. “Carry it on the plane with you, or ship it insured.”
Sometimes airline employees force travelers to check a carry-on bag, especially during peak travel periods such as holidays, when planes are crowded and overhead bins fill up quickly. That’s what happened to a New York filmmaker who is suing American Airlines. He says the airline lost his carry-on bag that held irreplaceable footage for documentaries. American asked to have the case dismissed, saying the passenger signed a waiver that limited its liability for lost valuables, but a federal judge in New York is letting the case go ahead.
Saltzburg advises travelers to pack valuables in a smaller bag that fits inside your carry-on suitcase. If a gate agent tells you to check the suitcase, remove the smaller bag and keep it with you — most airlines always allow a personal item such as a small bag or purse that fits under a seat.
You’ll also want to get to the gate early and board before the overhead bins fill up.
“People who get their carry-on stolen usually board late,” said Kevin Coffey, a police detective and travel-security consultant in Los Angeles. “They’re sitting in Row 44, their bag is above Row 19, and when the plane lands, a crook grabs the bag and he’s gone.”
— Put your bag in the bin across the aisle from your seat, not directly above you, so you can see if someone tries to reach into it during flight.
— Turn the bag and flip it so that zippers are in the back and facing down, making it harder to get into.
— If you go to the bathroom, take your passport, wallet or purse with you.
— Make sure you’ve got all your belongings before you get off the plane. If something is missing, tell a flight attendant and file reports with the airline and police before you leave the airport.
— Transportation Security Administration-approved locks, which allow you to lock your bag yet still provide access to TSA inspectors who have a master key, may deter opportunistic thieves. TSA locks cost less than $20.
Last year, 2 million travelers complained to the U.S. Department of Transportation about mishandled baggage, which includes stolen, lost or delayed bags. That’s a big number, but it’s only 3.6 incidents for every 1,000 passengers, and it’s half the rate of complaints lodged just three years earlier.
The TSA, which hires screeners at most airports, has paid $14.1 million to settle claims of property loss and damage since it was created in 2002. Last year, TSA settled 7,775 claims for lost property and 4,138 for damaged, paying a total of $552,524. That was down from $592,686 in settlements for 2009.
Airlines will reimburse you up to a government-set limit of $3,300 if they lose your luggage, but they exclude jewelry, laptops, electronics, cameras and many other valuables.
Celece Seegmiller, owner of The Travel Connection in St. George, Utah, suggests buying travel insurance that covers valuables, and don’t flash your money or jewelry.
“When you go on a trip,” she said, “the first thing to pack is your common sense.”
David Koenig can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/airlinewriter .