(CNN) – Most of us know the travel fear of a bag not appearing on the belt after a flight. Some of us – even more, thanks to the aviation chaos this year -- know the gut punch of it not appearing. But an increasing number of travelers know what it's like to lose a bag and get it back – not because of airlines’ diligence, but because they knew their bag’s location thanks to a tracking device they’d packed with their clothes.
Valerie Szybala is the latest with a story to tell. The disinformation researcher from Washington D.C. received her lost luggage after nearly six days, during which she tracked it as it went walkabouts to local malls and McDonald’s while the airline told her that the bag was safely at its distribution center.
In fact, it appeared to be at someone’s home – an apartment complex where Szybala says she found other emptied and discarded suitcases out by the trash.
The story she has to tell of how her bag was lost and found, and how United Airlines dealt with her case, is enough to make you never check a bag again.
Szybala had taken her first international trip in several years – a month abroad – and was flying back to D.C.'s Reagan Airport on December 28. She had bought an Airtag – Apple's tracking device – especially for the trip.
“I’d heard that it was a thing,” she says of 2022’s travel trend of putting tracking devices in luggage to find bags in the event that they get lost. “I had a layover scheduled, so I knew the potential for the bag to get lost was high.”
What she hadn't bargained on was the “crazy weather” and “implosion” of Southwest Airlines. Although she was flying United, her layover was via a Southwest hub. So it wasn't a huge surprise when she arrived in D.C. to be informed by her United app that her bag hadn't made it. Not that she could see any staff to talk to: “The airport was a madhouse,” she says.
Instead, Szybala trusted the app which said that the airline knew where her bag was and would return it to her the following day.
In fact, the bag did arrive in D.C. the next day, December 29. But it would not be until January 2 when she got her hands on it. She took up United's offer to have the bag delivered direct to her home, rather than return to the airport to pick it up in person. “That's where I made a big mistake, letting them hand it to a third party,” she says.
Days of waiting and false reassurance
December 29 came and went, and Szybala didn't have her bag back. Then December 30, 31, January 1 – still no bag.
“I was trying to contact them every day but the hold time on the phone was incredible, I never made it, and through the chat on the app the wait time was two to four hours,” she says.
“But I did it every day and they were reassuring me that the bag is coming, it’s in our system, it’s safe in our service center, it’ll be delivered tonight. But that was never true.”
In fact, Szybala already knew there was something wrong, because she could see exactly where the bag was, thanks to the Airtag. “As of Friday 30 at 8 p.m. it had gone to rest in an apartment complex a couple of miles away from me,” she says.
Initially she assumed it'd be delivered to her the next day, but instead, she says, “I watched it go to McDonald’s.”
After that? “To a nearby shopping center in the suburbs, twice.”
Even on Tuesday, the day she got the bag back, she watched it visit a mall.
“Every time it would go back to the apartment complex [afterward],” she says.
United representatives were still telling her that the bag was in their distribution center, despite her proof to the contrary. One even told her to “calm down,” according to the screenshot of a chat she posted on Twitter.
Suitcases by the dumpster
So, Szybala decided to simply go to the apartment complex where her Airtag was located. Her first trip on Friday night didn’t turn up her bag – but she says she did find two other suitcases with luggage labels, opened and emptied beside the trash cans. One still had its owner’s details on it. Szybala emailed them to ask if their case was missing but has yet to hear back.
“When I found the empty suitcases out by the dumpsters is when I got worried,” she says. “And United was lying to me so I took it to Twitter.” Her January 1 picture of the suitcases by the dumpsters has been seen over 21 million times. She also called the police when she found the cases by the trash, but says they “weren’t able to help much” since she couldn’t pinpoint the exact apartment it was in.
While Szybala says that United’s Twitter team was suggesting she file a reimbursement claim, she just wanted her bag back. So she kept tweeting, kept logging the location of the bag as it ‘visited’ places including a “European Wax Center” and a McDonald’s, and kept visiting that apartment complex as it returned ‘home.’ On her fourth visit, having gone viral by now, she was accompanied by a local TV crew – and everything changed.
“We wandered round the garage again, this time with a local resident who’d seen my Twitter thread,” she told CNN.
“The other bags [by the dumpsters] were gone. The resident who came to help said they’d seen someone taking them inside.”
“We were peeking in trunks trying to find [my case]. Then when I went outside I had a text from a courier saying he had my bag and was just around the corner. He met me in front of the building and brought my bag with him.”
She said that the bag – which still carried her luggage label and extra ID tag – was still locked, with the contents appearing to be intact.
Szybala said that the courier – who was in an unmarked car, not an official van, and wasn't wearing any kind of uniform – told her that her bag had been misdelivered to the Virginia suburbs, then collected again and delivered to the apartment complex in question.
“But I watched my bag stay in this apartment complex and go on errands since Friday,” she said. “My bag is still locked – it must have been in a vehicle. But I was just too excited to have my bag to ask whether he'd had it all weekend.”
Szybala had recovered her bag only an hour before speaking with CNN, and hadn’t gone through the case fully, but said that “everything looks in order.”
United Airlines told CNN in a statement: “The service our baggage delivery vendor provided does not meet our standards and we are investigating what happened to lead to this service failure.” They didn’t address the behavior of their own staff who repeatedly told Szybala that the suitcase was in United’s distribution center when in fact it was ambling around the D.C. suburbs.
For Szybala, the story isn’t over. “I think United needs to answer for these practices,” she told CNN. “Is it standard practice that people can take passengers’ bags home with them? I feel like they owe me an explanation. I don’t think I’d have got it back if I didn’t have the Airtag, if I didn’t post a viral tweet or get media attention.”
Her advice to travelers?
“A tracking device is super helpful if you have any sort of connection. Take a photo of the contents – I wish I’d had a list of things in my bag. And if they say they’ll deliver, don’t accept – just say you’ll pick it up, even if the airport is two hours away.”
She’s not the only one to use a tracking device to confront airlines who’ve lost passengers’ bags. In April, Elliot Sharod prepared a Powerpoint presentation for Aer Lingus after the airline lost a suitcase belonging to Sharod and his new wife, on their return from their South African wedding.
Apple isn’t the only company to make luggage trackers, of course – although CNN’s sister website, Underscored, called Airtags the “ultimate travel companion” last year.