This Is Where Your Lost Luggage Ends Up (and How It Got There)

Losing your luggage is an absolute nightmare. Even if you’ve done everything imaginable to prevent it, things happen, and mistakes are made. So, we’re just going to blame the airlines on this one, because we know you’re a pro at taking all the necessary precautions before handing your bag over.

But have you ever wondered where that lost luggage actually ends up? If so, we’re about to let you in on the journey that lost bags take, along with everything you need to know about the entire process.

1. About 1% of airline luggage is lost each year

passenger waiting at conveyor belt to pick his luggage

Most people get their luggage back, but not everyone is as fortunate. | iStock.com/Fizkes

Lost luggage is a recreational hazard of air travel. If you’re a person who prefers, or needs, to check bags, you know there’s a very, very small chance you’ll never see it again. It rarely happens, but for about 1% of folks who travel annually, luggage lost is an unfortunate reality.

Next: The number is low, but we still need an explanation for lost luggage. 

2. Possible causes of lost luggage

passengers checking bags at airport

Human error often plays a role in lost luggage. | iStock.com

As much as we hate to admit it, people make mistakes, and even multi-billion dollar airlines aren’t 100% perfect — though they should be. When owners get separated from their bags, it’s usually due to human error. The routing label gets damaged or is misprinted. Or perhaps a luggage handler placed it on the wrong plane. (In this case, you’ll probably get it back eventually). Things happen; we’re just hoping they don’t happen to you.

Next: Here’s what you need to do if your luggage gets lost. 

3. First, you need to file a claim

Passenger Complaining To Staff At Airport

The first step is filing a claim. | iStock.com/Monkeybusinessimages

Before you leave baggage claim, make sure you stop by the airline’s baggage service area. There will likely be someone available to discuss what your next steps should be if they can’t track down your bag before you leave the airport. Most airlines require customers to fill out forms detailing their lost luggage, trip itinerary, and potential value of items missing. After that, all you can do is pray that they eventually find your luggage.

Next: How much time do airlines have to find your bag? 

4. Airlines have three months to reunite a bag with its owner

man with suitcase on beach

There’s no feeling like getting reunited with your lost luggage. | iStock.com

Airlines will do their best to reunite a suitcase with its rightful owner. After all, doing so is much easier than having to reimburse the customer (more on that in a minute). Airlines give it about three months before calling it quits. So, what happens when the airline is unsuccessful in their tracing process? Let’s find out.

Next: Here’s what you can make off a piece of lost luggage. 

5. If it’s truly lost, the airline will pay you a claim up to $3,500

Businessman Hands Giving Cheque To Other Person In Office

If it’s gone forever, the money’s yours. | iStock.com/AndreyPopov

Naturally, different airlines have different policies and protocol when it comes to handling cases of lost luggage. But one thing remains the same across all airlines: The maximum amount they will pay to the traveler. According to The Department of Transportation, there’s no chance your goods are worth more than $3,500 — because that’s all you’re allowed to try to claim.

However, we found one airline that seems to have a rather impressive policy, and that’s United. We were shocked, too. But perhaps this is just one more effort the airline is making to combat years of terrible customer service and negative media coverage. United’s website reads, “For bags checked June 1, 2017, or later, if we’re unable to find your bag after three days, we’ll pay you $1,500 for the value of the bag and its contents without requiring any documentation.” After that, customers can also document and claim amounts up to $3,500.

Next: Sayonara, suitcase.

6. After that, it belongs to the airline

Two suitcases on the luggage belt in the airport

The airline now has the right to sell it. | iStock.com/Nomadsoul1

When the airline has no luck matching a piece of luggage to its long lost owner, it becomes the property of the airline (after they’ve reimbursed the customer, of course.) That piece of unclaimed baggage is now theirs to sell, and sell it they will.

Next: Spoiler alert: You probably could have guessed this name on your own.

7. It ends up at Unclaimed Baggage Center

Unclaimed Baggage Center

This is the place where lost luggage goes to find a new home. | Unclaimed Baggage Center

There are certainly no curve balls in this name. Once the airline has paid out the claim to the person missing his luggage, they sell it to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, “the only store in America that buys and sells Unclaimed Baggage from airlines.” The mega-store a popular stop for second-hand shoppers. In fact, it sees almost a million visitors each year.

Next: How does the unclaimed baggage get there in the first place?

8. The store has contracts with all domestic airlines

United airlines airplane in the newark airport.

It’s the only store in the U.S. with this kind of contract with airlines. | iStock.com/Muratani

We were curious whether all airlines sent their luggage here, so we wanted to find out more. During a phone interview with the store’s brand ambassador, Brenda Cantrell, she told The Cheat Sheet a little more about the business behind it all. According to Cantrell, Unclaimed Baggage Center has contracts with all domestic airlines. So, if you’re still missing that pair of jeans from your trip a few months back, you might want to check the store.

Next: Don’t worry, the airline isn’t making money off of your loss. 

9. The airlines do not profit from the sale of your lost luggage

An airport worker walks through the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport

Luckily, the airline doesn’t profit off of this sale. | Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

While the store has a policy not to discuss any financial or contract information, Cantrell did confirm that the airlines are not profiting from lost luggage sales. In fact, airlines have entire departments dedicated to trying to reconnect bags with their owners. “What we pay does not profit the airline,” Cantrell said.

Next: What’s inside the suitcase is anyone’s best guess. 

10. The store doesn’t know what they’re going to get

suitcases for sale at Unclaimed Baggage Center

The store has no idea what they’re going to get. | Unclaimed Baggage Center

If you’ve ever seen the show Storage Wars, you know that paying money for something before knowing what’s inside is a risky move. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. And similar to the show’s premise, buying before trying is the name of the game at Unclaimed Baggage Center, too.

Cantrell told us that the store purchases each piece of luggage for a lump sum. And while the airline has already gone through each bag in an attempt to match people with distinguishable items, the store has no idea what they’re going to get.

Next: Here’s what happens next. 

11. Items are sorted, and only the best make it to the retail floor

retail floor at Unclaimed Baggage Center

The retail floor has something for everyone. | Unclaimed Baggage Center

Of course, not everything is suitable for resale. (Just think about all the stuff you pack in your suitcase that would make you blush if a TSA agent inspected your bag.) That pair of old underwear and that ratty T-shirt with cartoons on it? Don’t worry, no shopper will have to suffer through seeing those hanging on retail racks.

Additionally, the store donates about half of the remaining items. And of course, items not suitable for retail or donation are thrown away.

Next: Trust us, the clothes are clean.

12. Clothes are dry-cleaned and laundered

suit jackets at Unclaimed Baggage Center

The clean each piece of clothing before selling it. | Unclaimed Baggage Center

Just like any responsible second-hand store, Unclaimed Baggage Center launders each piece of clothing that arrives before they place it on the retail floor. As Cantrell pointed out, “Things have been sitting in bags for at least 90 days,” so yes, they clean everything. Clothing items are laundered at the store’s in-house facility, which is the largest in Alabama. In fact, they launder 50,000 pieces there every month!

Next: Before you can buy any bling, here’s what happens. 

13. Fine jewelry is cleaned and appraised

jewelry department at Unclaimed Baggage Center

You never know what you could find at the jewelry counter. | Unclaimed Baggage Center

Don’t worry about wasting your money on items that aren’t worth their price tag. Anyone looking to do some jewelry shopping can rest assured knowing each piece of jewelry has been professionally appraised, and, of course, thoroughly cleaned.

Next: The same goes for electronics. 

14. Electronics are tested and cleaned of personal info

musical instruments and electronics at Unclaimed Baggage Center

The store cleans and tests unclaimed electronics and instruments. | Unclaimed Baggage Center

If you never reconnected with that work laptop of yours, don’t worry. At Unclaimed Baggage Center, it was thoroughly cleaned of all your personal information before being sold. You can rest easy knowing that none of your information is out on display for all second-hand shoppers to see.

Next: You will not believe what some people travel with. 

15. Bizarre items that have been found and sold

moose antlers at Unclaimed Baggage Center

How do people even pack this kind of stuff? | Unclaimed Baggage Center

Aside from your typical tennis shoes, hairdryer, and pair of jeans, some people pack some pretty unique items when traveling. In fact, Cantrell recommends packing an out-of-the-ordinary item in your suitcase — like a troll doll with purple hair, for instance — just in case. This strategy, she told us, could be of help should the airline have to match you to your bag.

That said, let’s get back to the wacky contents the staff have found in suitcases. Among some of the most bizarre findings include animal trophies, like skins and antlers, national treasures, such as a camera from a space shuttle (which was swiftly returned to NASA), and items from beyond the grave, like an ancient Egyptian burial mask and mummified hawk dating back 4,000 years.

However, based on the prior strategy of using unique items to match passengers with their lost luggage, we find it surprising that these items were never successfully reunited to their original owners.

Next: Some shoppers get really, really lucky. 

16. Serious scores

One person’s loss is another person’s gain. | Unclaimed Baggage Center

You’re probably wondering just how valuable some of the stuff at Unclaimed Baggage Center is. As it turns out, shoppers have snagged some major deals. In addition to high-cost items the store has sold, such as a 40.95-carat natural emerald and a Platinum Rolex valued at over $60,000, some folks have managed to get much more than they bargained for.

According to the store’s website, “A Limoges vase was sold for $80, but later valued at $18,000.” Additionally, there was a painting tagged at $60, but later proved to be worth $25,000!

Next: Unclaimed Baggage center really is worth the trip. 

17. It’s a top tourist destination

Unclaimed Baggage Center exterior sign

People come from near and far to get an inside look at this place. | Unclaimed Baggage Center

Touted as one of Alabama’s top tourist destinations, Unclaimed Baggage Center draws folks from near and far who are eager to see what people pack in their luggage. Cantrell told us that people visit the store from all over the world, and the store really prides itself on delivering visitors and locals alike that classic dose of southern hospitality.

Because the store doesn’t offer online shopping, you have the perfect excuse to hit the open road and make a trip out of it. It’s well worth the adventure, and there’s no telling what you will find.

Read more: 15 Secrets Airlines Don’t Want You to Know