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 like Luggage Forward and Luggage Free have emerged as ways to bypass the hassles of checking bags. While typically seen as a luxury, more Americans are using such options for run-of-the-mill trips. Others are simply mailing bags themselves, using the Postal Service, FedEx or UPS.
The idea behind the 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 the delivery. For example, sending a large bag (65 pounds) from New York City to San Francisco with a pickup date in five days would cost $149 through Luggage Forward.
To expand its services among everyday travelers, Luggage Forward 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 the company’s domestic shipments.
Since Luggage Forward was established three years ago, sales have grown 300 percent each year, said Zeke Adkins, co-founder of the Boston-based company.
Luggage Free, based in New York City, is seeing similar growth. The number of bags the company shipped has doubled each year since 2004, with shipments reaching around 40,000 last year.
It’s no surprise the companies sprang up in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when tightened restrictions triggered delays and confusion at airports across the country.
“Checking in became a whole different ball game. 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, which was founded in 2003.
And the growing piles of lost and damaged baggage are only fueling frustration.
Last year, airlines lost 7 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 employees and contractors touch the same bag once it’s out of the passenger’s sight, increasing the chances of loss or theft.
Adding to the confusion, some airlines are planning to boost revenues by charging to check additional baggage. Earlier this year, United Airlines and US Airways said they will charge a $25 fee starting in May to check a second bag.
British Airways last year implemented a similar scheme, with a fixed rate of about $150 per extra bag for long-haul flights, with bags to be no more than 70 pounds, according to the airline’s Web site.
For many seasoned travelers, shipping clothes and toiletries is nothing new. There’s no way to tell whether their ranks have grown, however, since FedEx and UPS do not track how much of their business is generated by such individuals. The companies typically recommend packaging luggage in boxes, and shipping baggage overseas isn’t always recommended since snags at customs can delay deliveries.
The new luggage delivery services promise to iron out those kinks by taking on the onus of clearing customs, tracking packages and picking up luggage at your home.
“It’s very seamless. A real concierge-level service,” Adkins said.
The companies put a fine point on making service pleasant and easy. Callers to Luggage Free are greeted on the first or second ring by another human, rather than an automated system. A 24-hour service lets travelers connect with a representative if they run into any hiccups.
Chandler Blake, of Boston, uses Luggage Forward when he travels for work. On a recent trip to Germany, he decided to have his bag sent ahead of him so he could fly hassle free.
He’s considered shipping the bags himself through UPS, but said Luggage Forward just made the process much easier.
Still, the price can add up for a big order. When Adam Kolodny took his wife and four children on a ski trip to Colorado, it cost him $1,200 to ship eight large bags of ski equipment and baggage round trip through Luggage Forward. But compared with the mess it would’ve caused at the airport, the price was worth it, said Kolodny, of Great Neck, N.Y.
“Between the overhead compartments being so full, stuff getting lost, the restrictions, it’s starting to work out that we may start shipping all our stuff all the time,” he said.