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Too much luggage? Ship it before you take off

March 26, 2008|Candice Choi | The Associated Press

NEW YORK — On a recent trip to Egypt, the coffee table books, pottery and other gifts Lorna Gladstone collected might have turned into a nightmare at the airport baggage check-in.

So she packed her belongings into four suitcases and left them with the hotel concierge to ship home through a service called Luggage Free.

"I can go through security with my handbag and my book," said Gladstone, a retired resident of McLean, Va., who uses the service whenever she travels.

As struggling airlines add extra-luggage fees and travelers worry about growing security restrictions, services such as Luggage Forward and Luggage Free have emerged as ways to bypass the hassles of checking bags.

Though these options may be seen as a luxury, more Americans than ever are using them for run-of-the-mill trips. Others simply mail bags themselves, using the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx Corp. or UPS Inc.

The idea behind luggage delivery services is to make traveling as headache-free as possible.

Customers load up their suitcases as usual, with no special packaging needed. Shipping slips for luggage are mailed to them (return slips are included if needed). A pickup time is scheduled, usually for a two-hour window. If the bags are being sent to a hotel, the concierge will typically call customers to let them know their belongings have arrived.

Rates vary depending on the weight, distance and speed of delivery. For example, sending a large bag (65 pounds) from New York to San Francisco with a pickup date in five days would cost $149 at Luggage Forward.

To expand its services among everyday travelers, the company last year introduced a seven-day "economy" option that typically costs less than $100 for a bag one way.

Such bookings now account for about half of the company's domestic shipments.

Since Luggage Forward was established three years ago, sales have grown 300% each year, said Zeke Adkins, a co-founder of the Boston firm.

Luggage Free, headquartered in New York, is seeing similar growth. The number of bags the company shipped has doubled each year since 2004, for a total of about 40,000 last year.

It's no surprise that the companies sprang up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when tightened restrictions triggered delays and confusion at airports across the country.

"Checking in became a whole different ballgame. And it's only gotten worse. There's this constant confusion over what you can carry on. People are realizing it's just easier to send it ahead," said Jeff Boyd, president of Luggage Free, founded in 2003.

And growing piles of lost and damaged baggage only fuel frustration.

Last year, airlines lost seven bags for every 1,000 passengers, according to the Department of Transportation. That's up steadily each year from 2002, when the industry lost 3.84 bags for every 1,000 fliers.

The Transportation Security Administration estimates that for each of its employees who touches a bag, six to 10 airline or airport workers and contractors touch the same bag after it's out of the passenger's sight -- increasing the chance of loss or theft.

Adding to the confusion, some struggling airlines plan to boost revenue by charging to check additional baggage. Earlier this year, United Airlines and US Airways said they would charge a $25 fee starting in May to check a second bag.

British Airways last year implemented a similar program, with a fixed rate of about $150 per extra bag for long-haul flights, with bags to weigh no more than 70 pounds, according to the airline's website.

For many seasoned travelers, shipping clothes and toiletries is nothing new. There's no way to tell whether their ranks have grown, however, because FedEx and UPS do not track how much of their business is generated by such people.

The companies typically recommend packaging luggage in boxes, and shipping baggage overseas isn't always recommended because snags at customs can delay deliveries.

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