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This Is What Happens When You Accidentally Switch Bags With Another Passenger

With travelers a bit rusty these days, mix-ups are common.

I decided to take my teenage daughter from Baltimore to Chicago during her spring break this year for a mini vacation to see the sights and catch up with friends. Everything was going great. The flight was half-empty, so we got our own row, the weather was unexpectedly warm, and the hotel let us check in early and gave us a beautiful room with a river view.

We dropped our stuff and headed out to a cafe for lunch. Then, Southwest Airlines called. We assumed it was a customer satisfaction survey and let it go to voicemail. The next thing I knew, my husband (our emergency contact) called to say Southwest had my bag—in San Antonio, Texas!

Me: I didn’t check a bag. I only had a carry-on.

Him: I know. Apparently, some other guy brought your stuff to San Antonio.

Me: No, my bag is in my hotel room.

Him: No, this other guy’s bag is in your room. Go check and call Southwest back.

My daughter and I finished lunch and headed back to the hotel to discover that the gray rolling bag I toted all the way to Chicago was indeed not mine. Although it was the same exact color, up close, we could see the style was different—and it had a man’s plaid sport coat, neckties, and manila work folders inside. Oops.

What Happens When You Take Someone Else’s Carry-On

So what happened? I called Southwest back and discovered I needed to bring this bag back to one of the Chicago airports. When they checked it in, they would release mine. But because this was deemed “customer error” and not the airline’s fault (true), we each would have to pay FedEx to overnight our respective belongings to the correct destinations. The Southwest agent was finishing her shift within a couple of hours of my call and wanted my bag to make the next FedEx pickup. How soon could I get to the airport? she asked.

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I told my daughter to sit tight or explore some nearby shops while I jumped back into an Uber and hightailed it to Midway Airport. There, a baggage services agent called the San Antonio office, unzipped a couple of compartments to ensure I hadn’t tampered with the other person’s belongings, and put me on the phone with the San Antonio office staff to work out the exchange.

“It does happen sometimes,” the agent told me. “But usually, you’re both still in the airport when you notice.” The only time I didn’t have full possession of my bag was at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport’s security checkpoint, where the switch must have occurred.

Then I caught another Uber from the airport back uptown to my daughter. “That’s so cute!” the driver exclaimed when I told her what happened. “It’s like something from a movie!” Trying to salvage our day, I used my phone to book my daughter and me on an architecture boat tour shortly after my return to the hotel. We made sure to hit a department store and drug store before dinner so I could pick up a nightshirt, spare pair of underwear, and toothbrush to get me through until my bag arrived the next morning.

Rusty Travelers = Easy Mix-Ups

It’s not surprising that items would be switched or lost at the security checkpoint these days, says Lisa Farbstein, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “Keep in mind a lot of people are rusty,” she says. “They haven’t traveled in a while, so they’re a little more forgetful perhaps. It’s just not something they have been doing with any level of frequency over the last few years.”

That could explain what happened to my daughter and me. We took an early morning flight (although neither of us are morning people). The carry-on bag I took is one I hadn’t used in a while. We also got distracted because my daughter had her cell phone in her sweatshirt pocket during the security screening and then had to retrieve another bin to put it through the scanner. Some 21,088 passengers were screened at TSA checkpoints that day in Baltimore, according to airport statistics.

None of the multiple airlines I contacted kept tabs on the number of accidentally switched bags. However, if you notice you have switched luggage or another item with someone else by accident, alert the airline as soon as possible.

“The first instinct a lot of people have is to track down the owner of the bag using the information that may be attached to or inside the bag. But some people can get really aggressive about this,” Mark Ramsay, a lead baggage agent at Swissport, wrote in an online forum on Quora. “The best thing to do is to take the bag back to the airline’s baggage counter as soon as possible…Let the airline agents take the responsibility of getting your actual bag back to you, and dealing with the person the bag belongs to…It’s the safest way of handling these things.”

How to Not Lose Your Carry-On Bag

Southwest and United Airlines spokespersons recommended having luggage tags with your contact information on all bags, whether you check them or carry them on. Because external luggage tags can come off, also keep something with your name and contact information inside the bag, such as a business card.

“A black bag with no identifying features is very difficult to locate if you are separated from it,” said a United spokesperson. “Consider purchasing a carry-on bag that stands out, or at least has easy identification such as brand, stickers, tags, colorful ties, etc.”  

Other tips include: Tape a business card or put contact information onto laptops, tablets, and other electronic devices that could get left in bins during TSA screening, adds Farbstein, or add some colorful stickers. “So many people have laptops that look alike…and very few people do anything to it to make it look like theirs.” Consolidate items. Place your keys, cell phone, sunglasses, hats, gloves, and other items all together in one bag to send through the security scanner so you don’t have to gather them all individually afterward. Double-check that the items you are taking from TSA screening bins or the luggage carousels in baggage claim are yours.

If you lose an item, reach out to the airport, airline, or TSA, which maintains its own lost and found office at multiple airports nationwide—as soon as you notice it’s missing. TSA’s lost and found office in Baltimore on a recent weekday had a wide variety of items collected from screening checkpoints, including keys, glasses, driver’s licenses, other identification cards, COVID-19 vaccine cards, electronic devices, water bottles, roller bags, car seats, canes, and a stroller, all organized and tagged with the date and screening checkpoint where the item was left.

The agency can only contact people whose items are clearly labeled, Farbstein says. To search for a lost item, contact one of the TSA officers and clearly describe the item, the date you traveled, and the security checkpoint you used (if you know) so an agent can try to locate it. Then you can make an appointment to pick up the item or arrange to have it sent to you.

As for me, the silver lining is that because FedEx delivered my bag a little later than was promised, they refunded my money. And I’m pleased to report that I have taken four business trips and a family vacation since then and held onto my bag each time.

CyndeM July 17, 2023

This happened to us years ago in Puerto Rico - someone took the wrong back from the cruise ship! We found it. But then we bought straps that have our last name on them. They are stretchy. Google luggage straps with names. They lock but stretch so that TSA can still open your bag without forgetting to put the strap back on. 

MsJonesy July 15, 2023

I can't believe the Uber driver said, "That's so cute." What a nitwit. That's not cute at all especially when the bag contains prescription drugs. No tip for you!

davidgrossman0875 October 7, 2022

In the mid-1980s, I was an attorney with Department of Justice in DC. I flew frequently to Detroit, sometimes from Dulles International in Virginia. I had a generic, brown Samsonite briefcase that held my files for a court appearance later that morning.  Get done with screening and pick up a brown Samsonite briefcase.  No other similar briefcase in sight. I get to my gate and try to open the case. Locked.  Then I notice the ID tag is not mine.  It said the owner was with the Drug Enforcement Administration.  I started going to every gate in the main airport terminal.  Finally saw a guy waiting for a flight who had a similar case. Approached him and said, "I think you took my case by mistake at the security checkpoint." He opened my (unlocked) case, and there were my files.  He grabbed his case, dialed the combination and opened it.  Acted like he thought I may have removed something.  I could not see all the contents but there were two bags of what appeared to be marijuana.  Did he thank me for identifying the mixup and then making the effort to find him?  No.  And no apology for having grabbed my briefcase at the security checkpoint.