The more often you travel by plane, the more likely your chances of having to deal with a delayed, lost, damaged or otherwise mishandled baggage incident. At its best, such an occurrence is inconvenient. At its worst—maybe you packed your all-time favorite outfit or your great grandmother’s prized silver—it’s downright heartbreaking.
Fortunately, every airline has procedures in place to maximize the probability of reuniting passengers with baggage and belongings that have gone astray. And thanks to the use of barcodes and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, far fewer checked bags are going missing in the first place these days. For the few that never make it home, however, Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC) in Scottsboro, Alabama, is the final destination.
RewardExpert recently spoke with Brenda Cantrell, UBC’s brand ambassador, about the inspiration behind the one-of-a-kind store, how they give lost luggage—and the belongings within it—a second chance, and her tips for avoiding a mishandled baggage incident on your next journey.
From a Two-Bedroom Home to a National Tourist Destination
Back in 1970, Doyle Owens was a part-time insurance salesman with a novel idea: buy unclaimed bags from bus companies and resell their contents to the public in a thrift store-type establishment.
“He borrowed $300 from one grandfather and a pick-up truck from the other,” Cantrell said. “Then he and his wife drove up to D.C. to buy their first load of unclaimed bags. She thought he was crazy but went along with it.”
Upon their return to Scottsboro, they rented a small two-bedroom house where they unpacked and displayed the contents of the bags for sale.
“It was only open one day a week, but word started quickly spreading about the unique little store,” Cantrell said. “Over the course of the next few years, they acquired airline contracts as well and expanded onto the property where we sit now. Mr. Owens left his insurance job and took on Unclaimed Baggage Center as a full-time venture. That was the simple beginning of what is now a national tourist destination.”
Everything from Clothing and Shoes to Collector’s Items
At 40,000 square feet, UBC occupies an entire city block and attracts over 1 million visitors a year from every state and more than 40 foreign countries. Store staff add 7,000 new items to the floor on a daily basis, and goods for sale are organized into departments including women’s, men’s, children’s, footwear, formal wear, sporting goods and books.
According to Cantrell, one of their biggest departments is electronics. She says airline passengers frequently leave mobile phones, tablets, laptops and digital cameras in seat pockets and overhead compartments. She also notes that jewelry is the store’s most exciting department for many visitors.
“We find exquisite jewelry,” she said. “I’m talking large diamonds and $10,000 or $20,000 rings, bracelets and necklaces. We also find watches. We discovered a men’s Presidential Platinum Rolex watch a couple years ago that was valued at $64,000. We sold it for $32,000.”In addition to the usual clothing and shoes, mishandled baggage that finds its way to UBC often contains travel keepsakes such as artwork, sculptures and other items that were unique to the owner’s vacation destination. “We also get a lot of historical objects and collector’s items such as old newspapers and photographs,” she added.
Some of the more ‘unique’ items that staff has discovered include a live rattlesnake, 50 vacuum-packaged frogs, a full suit of replica armor, a shrunken head, and an ancient Egyptian burial mask and mummified hawk.
Cantrell estimates that UBC sells about a third of what they find while donating another third—mainly eyeglasses, wheelchairs, other medical supplies and clothing to various local and international charities through their Reclaimed for Good program—before disposing of the remaining items that they cannot salvage or recycle.
Avoiding Mishandled Baggage Incidents
While many mishandled baggage incidents are the fault of the airline, Cantrell says there are precautions passengers can take to reduce their chances of a delayed, damaged or lost checked bag or carry-on item.
“The number one thing you have to do is remember to tag your items,” she said. “Don’t just use the paper tag you grab at the counter when you are checking in. Put something on there that is more permanent. This includes your carry-on items. Slap a mailing label on the back of your iPad or digital camera. It’s a simple thing that will save you a lot of heartache in the long run.”
Luggage that is in good working order is also a must. “If you think about a bag going through a conveyer system to get from Point A to Point B, anything that can get caught on something and result in the bag being thrown off the conveyer or being ripped open is going to create the potential for a mishandled bag,” she explained. “Make sure all of your suitcase’s zippers work and the wheels are not loose.”Finally, know your suitcase—and the belongings within it. “You should know the color, size and brand of your bag,” she concluded. “Snap a picture of it as well as the contents. The airline is looking for things that are uniquely identifiable to your bag, so try to find something unique you can throw in a pocket on the inside. For example, a blue-haired troll doll in a suitcase with suits and dress shoes is really going to stand out.”