6 rules for luggage security

Halliburtons for luggage security
Our usual set of old, beat-up Halliburtons.

Another ring of airport luggage thieves has been arrested, this time at Los Angeles International Airport. So? Big deal. I’m not impressed. Not relieved. They’re everywhere, as far as I’m concerned.

Wait—I’m not saying that all baggage handlers are thieves—of course not. But when you put low-paid workers alone with the belongings of the privileged (those who can afford to fly), things are gonna go missing—sometimes.

We’ve all read the frequent reports of luggage theft at airports: by TSA, by airport baggage handlers, by airline employees, by outsiders entering baggage claim areas. When our luggage is out of our personal control it’s at risk. When we check it, when we send it through TSA checkpoints, when we put it in the overhead storage bins on planes, the risk of theft is there in some degree. There’s little we can do about it—but not nothing.

6 luggage security rules

I travel a lot* so I will use myself as a model from which you can modify to suit your style and habit. I travel with three bags: a large one which I check; a roll-on which I expect to take on the plane with me, and a shoulder bag which is always with me, no matter what.

1. The more valuable the item, the smaller the bag it travels in. Cash, jewelry, laptop, smartphone, passports, and keys go into my shoulder bag. I don’t leave this bag anywhere or entrust it to anyone. I alone am responsible for its safety and security.

2. Other valuable and necessary items go into the roll-on. The airlines have trained us: do not put valuables into your checked luggage. Their responsibility is limited. Checked bags do not always show up when and where they should, so the minimal things I must have in order to do my job (and enjoy my trip) go into the roll-on, along with valuables too bulky, heavy or secondary for my shoulder bag. Examples: paperwork, camera, backup hard drive, appropriate work clothes and shoes, computer power cord and plug adapters, and the minimal items necessary for a hotel overnight.

3. Be prepared to hand over your roll-on. Every once in a while I have to part with the roll-on, for example on a small plane where it must be checked or given up at the jetway. Therefore, I also keep a lightweight folded nylon tote in my roll-on. That way I can remove and hand carry some items I may want or need; my computer power cord, hard drive, papers I’m working with. I also carry a small supply of plastic cable locks in case I want to secure the roll-on’s zippers. Not that locking zippers is foolproof, but it’s a deterrent. Better than nothing.

Luggage security. On the left: Bob's rig. A strip of white tape is just a spare piece, used to secure checked bags. On the right: Bambi's set-up. Not aluminum, but still like new after five years of hard use.
On the left: Bob’s rig. A strip of white tape is just a spare piece, used to secure checked bags. On the right: Bambi’s set-up. Not aluminum, but still like new after five years of hard use.

4. Roll-on with security OR convenience. My roll-on is full of outside pockets for convenience, and big enough to fold in a suit or dress on a hanger. Bob’s is a lockable aluminum hardshell—very secure but sacrificing convenience. See He Packs, She Packs. I appreciate the convenience of my bag much more often than I miss the security of one like Bob’s. However, one single theft from my roll-on would probably turn that preference upside-down. Security and convenience are always a trade-off.

5. Choose your checked luggage with security in mind. At least think about the security of your checked bag. On its route through the airport, through security screening, onto luggage cars, as it’s loaded onto the plane and packed into the cargo hold, as it changes planes, and finally reverses these steps, it will be handled by dozens of employees. Most of these people are trustworthy; much of this time your bag will be in view of many workers, supervisors, and surveillance cameras. But sometimes your bag will be handled by a rotten egg—perhaps in a dark space without witnesses.

If that rotten egg—that thief—has a free moment to poach from a bag, which bag will it be? Firstly, it will be a bag that happens to be near him (or her) at the opportune moment—happenstance. Secondly, it will be the easiest to get into. Zip, plunge in the hand, grapple, grab, stash, and on to the next bag. Fast-fishing-treasure-hunt.

So, how does your bag fasten? Latches? Zipper? TSA locks? Luggage belt? Cable ties? Plastic wrap? As with pickpocketing, longer access time means more security (and less convenience—there’s that compromise again). I’m concerned enough to affix duct tape to the entire seam of my hard sided case—always. It’s ugly, for sure. But it doesn’t take long to put on and seems to be a good deterrent. So far, so good.

We’ve all seen those videos showing how to open a zipper with a ballpoint pen (here’s one, below). How often is that method used by luggage thieves? I don’t know… but I’ve seen enough exploded bags on the carousel to be afraid of zippers anyway, at least without an added bag strap or luggage belt. Addressing both those zipper threats, Delsey makes luggage with a supposedly secure zipper that has two rows of teeth. I haven’t tried it.

Luggage security
Sure you want to trust luggage with zippers?
Luggage security: Delsey makes luggage with a double zipper.
Delsey makes luggage with a double zipper.

Locking the zipper tabs together with a padlock or ziptie may be of some help, but it’s nothing for a determined thief to twist off a zipper tab. (Or to plunge a blade right through the canvas. But we can’t be that paranoid.) Put the lock or ties through the zipper loops, if they exist, instead of through the pull-tabs.

As my readers know, Bob and I prefer hard-sided luggage. We use aluminum bags. They’re heavy and expensive but, as I’ve said, we travel a lot. Honestly, they’re not for everyone. We do recommend hard-sided luggage though; if not aluminum, one of the new polycarbonate materials.

The airport baggage handlers exposed in this week’s ring did not require secret spaces or privacy. Apparently, they were opening and searching bags at large sorting platforms, presumably in full view of other workers. This concerns me, but is nothing new. When TSA security officer Pythias Brown was arrested a few years ago for stealing from passengers’ luggage, he described the airports’ culture of theft. “It was very convenient to steal,” he said, “It became so easy, I got complacent.”

The airport baggage handlers exposed in this week’s ring are not alone. Individuals and groups continue to pilfer at LAX and other airports. The world will always have thieves. Luggage security is nonexistent. Therefore:

6. Pack as if your bag will be rifled. Conventional Wisdom tells us to leave at home whatever we can’t bear to lose. I don’t know if Conventional Wisdom has ever lived a life. For the most part, this is impractical advice. Many situations call for travel with precious and/or valuable things, and sometimes we have to check those things and hope for the best.

There’s an argument for using the best luggage available, despite it being pricey and conspicuous. There’s an argument for using unremarkable low-end luggage, even if it means replacing the bags frequently. In terms of luggage security, both theories have their merits. Do luggage thieves prefer to plunder Louis Vuitton and Tumi bags? Do they loot whatever bag presents an opportunity at the right moment, regardless of brand and condition? Since I believe both situations exist, I prefer to make mine just a little harder to open, crossing my fingers that the thieves will loot a more accessible suitcase.

*Bob Arno and I have been on the road around the world approximately 250 days per year for the past twenty years without respite.

More on theft from luggage:
TSA thieves
Traveling with luggage
Bag tag sabotage

And more on bag theft at airports:
Why thieves prefer black bags when stealing luggage at airports
More airport luggage theft
Bag theft epidemic at Atlanta Airport carousel

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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  • Thanks for this information. My friend recently had a new pair of boots stolen from a carry on — the likely culprit is US Immigration Homeland Security. Know that this department also is full of thieves.
    They will give you a receipt for money which one may give a friend being deported, but NOT the contents of the bag. BEWARE- BE AWARE. Any bag that is given to US IMMIGRATION HOMELAND SECURITY on behalf of a friend/family member being deported is SUBJECT TO THEFT BY THE OFFICERS SWORN TO PROTECT AND SERVE!!!!

  • Hi Bambi, I am glad to be able to give back even just a little!

    Luckily I have not had any nightmare experiences – even after 30 years of steady international travel (for business and pleasure). I attribute this largely to my purchase of hard-sided, non zippered luggage early in my traveling career.

    I work in the airport industry and I see what goes on behind the scenes in airports so I know what really happens to our luggage once we entrust it to the airlines. You’d be surprised by what really damages our luggage. There are machines aptly named “kickers” that move (kick) our bags around the baggage system. If you’d like to see them in action, I have placed some videos on my website. I do not want to link-drop but it is important that people are aware of this hidden danger so I have linked my name in this comment to the site. (safesuitcases dot com)

    Thanks again for the great post – more people need to hear about this issue.

  • Hi Bambi,

    Great article on a subject near and dear to my heart. I really love the pictures of your road-worn Zero Halliburton cases!

    I noticed that your video link has expired – may I suggest this one: https://youtu.be/9JvmAktLvFg I think it may be the same one that was removed.

    Keep up the great work!


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