When your belongings get lost in translation

What a lost stroller taught us about finding missing items

Although most of our belongings are currently in storage, Cathlin and I can easily think of any number of items that conjure memories of our travels together. We held onto the stub of the airline ticket for Eliza’s first international flight (from Newark to Dublin). We’re still savoring a bag of peppercorns from a friend’s farm in India, and we’re eager to break into a jar of jalapeño jelly picked up at a farmer’s market in Lowell, Massachusetts. We can recount stories associated with small pieces of art and various knick-knacks, and of course we ended 2018 with a post about the essentials (often things) that made traveling with a baby easier. But what about what we’ve lost too?

No, I’m not referring to our inhibitions or fears. Those can be for another day. I’m thinking about physical objects that have gotten misplaced along the way. Most recently, this would be our favorite stroller: the Britax Holiday model. Purchased in Ireland, this lightweight and foldable chariot for Eliza made an all-too-brief but unforgettable appearance in our lives—a salvation throughout Spain and at a handful of U.S. airports. This was the only stroller we’ve ever known to fold up perfectly under our seats, to be strung so easily over our shoulders, and to be so compact that we didn’t even see it on the curbside as we packed up the car at Boston’s Logan Airport one blustery afternoon in January. O beautiful stroller, we hardly knew ye!

I was traveling solo for work when Cathlin told me about the mishap, but did my best to spring into action in hopes of recovering our loss. So what you should do if you lose something?

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Our collapsible stroller even made its way to Gibraltar before its loss

Of course, try not to lose something

Obviously this starting point doesn’t help even the slightest once you’ve already lost whatever you’ve lost. But if you haven’t yet lost something, may this serve as a reminder: Take those extra few seconds to survey your surroundings. Did you really put your cell phone in your pocket or was it in your bag? Did you get your credit card back from the bartender? Did you fold up your stroller and actually put it in the trunk of the car? Cathlin likes to count the main items we travel with and do a quick ‘count-off’ every time we move with them to make sure we don’t leave anything behind. (Cathlin started doing this after a time she traveled alone with Eliza and walked off without her suitcase after going through security because she was focused on the baby instead! Someone quickly reminded her about the suitcase before she got too far.)

Attempt to recover what you’ve lost before you leave the area where you lost it

Once we left a mobile phone on an airplane. It was a mistake, of course, that resulted from trying to pack up a few of Eliza’s strewn-about items and carrying all of our carry-on luggage back off the plane. It would have been much easier to return to our seats and check this if we’d realized our mistake before disembarking from the aircraft (we were already the last ones off), but at least we realized the phone was missing before we exited airport security.

I sprinted back to the gate, but it was already closed for the night. Luckily, an airline agent working at an adjacent gate listened as I rather breathlessly explained what had happened. Even though she didn’t need to assist, she said she’d help after everybody was off the plane she was supporting. Sure enough, she walked back to our seats and found the phone there waiting.

After thanking her profusely, I asked what we would’ve had to do if she hadn’t helped. She said she didn’t think anybody ever got their lost items back, that they often “go missing” or if they’re found and turned in, they’re sent to a warehouse in Alabama and all you can could do is file claims online that make it unlikely you’ll ever get your item back.

The same is true if you’re at a restaurant or a bar or in a taxi or in a museum: if you can act as quickly as possible, you increase the likelihood that somebody who was working that shift and actually saw your lost item will be there to help recover it, rather than somebody else passing along the message or reviewing your request instead.

Take down names and ask for reference numbers

Everybody you engage with: ask their name and note the date and time you spoke or wrote. If you’re in touch by phone, ask for a reference number. If it’s in person, ask for a receipt, tracking number, or paperwork confirming evidence of your request. This may seem over the top when people say they’ll do their part, but it gives you more specificity if you need to file a complaint, follow up with insurance, or wish to submit a note of appreciation.

I can’t help but wonder if your request will be treated more seriously if you ask for these details, either because it’s more evident that the lost item truly matters to you or that you may follow up again with either a compliment or a complaint. Unfortunately, unless your request is trackable, you may find your worry over the lost item treated as if it’s little more than a traveler’s gripe.

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Don’t leave without getting the necessary details if you ever want to see your lost item again

No matter what happens, keep your cool

Yes, you may feel frustrated or defensive, especially if the whole situation may have been avoidable and ridiculous and somebody else’s fault. But usually, the person you’re talking to is not the person responsible for the issue.

And even if they are the person responsible, what good will come from taking your anger out on them? They won’t be more likely to help you, that’s for sure. And remember they deal with variations of the same grumbles day after day, so being grounded will only help you. Honest but respectful acknowledgements like “I’m feeling so upset at myself right now,” or “I’m worried about having lost this” will be a much better way of expressing yourself than throwing an expletive at the airline or the weather or whatever you know is deserving of the blame. A genuine “I really appreciate your help” also doesn’t hurt.

This brings me back to an earlier case of a lost stroller: We once spent an unnecessary 90 minutes at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris carrying our luggage and carseat without the base of our stroller, which we assumed had gotten lost somewhere on-site after our flight landed at such a busy international airport. We later found out that our stroller actually never made the original flight, even though we had checked it at the gate.

The fault was certainly not with the kind desk agent who had no luck finding our stroller base because it was a thousand miles away in a system that wasn’t his. He was hamstrung with what he could do, and we were left with the difficult task of transporting everything into the city without the part of our stroller with all of the wheels. Still, the airport agent said he was thankful for us treating him with respect and gave us travel kits with sleep masks and toothpaste that at least made our arrival easier.

Contact each possible avenue (but don’t expect too much)

For our Boston stroller, I called JetBlue. A representative answered, but unfortunately said I had to submit an online claim. I did so immediately. Then I also contacted Massport, the entity that owns Logan Airport. JetBlue said by phone that they would liaise with the airport directly, but seeing how few problems get resolved and how most reporting systems are interoperable even within organizations, it’s best to be comprehensive even if redundant.

Put your missing item on the radar of all relevant contacts to increase your odds of getting it back. Alas, JetBlue closed our case after “30 days of searching,” and Massport hasn’t replied after nearly three weeks. If we had been able to get back to the airport within a few hours or even a couple of days, we might have had better luck in person.

Label or track anything important, but do so in a way that doesn’t threaten your privacy

Have you ever sat on a subway or bus only to see somebody with a suitcase label facing outward, clearly exposing their country, city, state, and even home address? This may date back to a time when airlines would automatically deliver luggage to your doorstep, but I’ve only seen that happen recently after plenty of back and forth by phone or email. So perhaps you’d prefer feel more comfortable with including only the first initial of your name, your last name, a phone number, and email address instead. And more important than that tag is the one given by the airline agent when you check your luggage. Don’t lose that sticker with your luggage identifier.

As for your mobile phone, it’s relatively easy to make an addition to the home screen: “If found, please call [insert somebody else’s name and phone number].” I’ve read about people using tracking beacons to recover lost and stolen devices—and must admit to daydreaming about having had one for our favorite stroller. Is it still at Logan somewhere? Or has it gone on greater adventures alone?

And of course, it’s entirely reasonable not to want your phone number or email address visible on your luggage or even on your phone. If that’s the case, you can get a free phone number via Google Voice that syncs with your main number but without revealing it. Likewise, it’s always smart to have a non-essential email address you only use for travel and mind less if it gets spammed or hacked—or if you just forget to log out of your browser session at an Internet cafe or in your hotel lobby.

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The less you bring, the less you can lose.

Include all relevant information in each communication

It may seem obvious or excessive, but it’s important to be precise about the exact location where you were—which hall at the museum, what flight you were on, etc— and the specific characteristics of your lost item. At the Louvre, I lost a scarf and spent far longer than I’d hoped waiting for scarves that weren’t mine to come up from the lost-items archive. If I could have only shared a photo or given the specific colors, that would have saved time for everybody involved. As for our lost stroller, we made a point of specifying the exact brand. Imagine reporting to baggage claim, “I’ve lost my suitcase.” Or to an airline, “I’ve lost my iPhone.” Without any distinguishing characteristics, these are only more difficult to identify and return.

Check your insurance or credit card coverage policies

It may not feel worthwhile to file a claim, and you should think twice before doing so with your personal insurance if it could risk driving up the premium. But a lot of credit card companies have lesser-known perks, including reimbursement of the lost item itself or reimbursement of incurred costs due to the item going missing. It doesn’t hurt to call the number on the back of the credit card you used to book your travel and ask to speak to their travel benefits team.

We hadn’t realized this was a possibility when the lower half of our stroller went missing after our flight into Paris. The airline was finally able to track the missing part to Cork Airport, though we still needed to wait a few days until it arrived in Paris and made its way to where we were staying. After reading the European Union’s guidelines on air passenger rights, which covers compensation for lost items, I followed up with the airline directly to file a claim. Because we had to take a car service into the city due to our inability to carry our luggage and our daughter on public transit with only half of our stroller, the airline accepted responsibility for reimbursing us the cost.

Be clear and reasonable with what you need or expect, and keep following up

Depending on the importance of what you’ve lost, keep nudging and considering other options for who might be able to help. If you’re back in the area, stop by and ask in person. And just because you’re told you’ll get something—the item itself, reimbursement, points, etc.—until it happens, words aren’t actions. For instance, the reimbursement I mentioned above for the car service in Paris still hasn’t arrived despite being nearly a year since the incident. I guess this is a good reminder to myself that I’ll simply need to follow up with the airline yet again.

As for the foldable travel stroller lost in Boston, I’m afraid to report that after a month it hasn’t yet surfaced. In this case, it was nobody’s fault but our own; still, it’s disappointing that our attempts to find it have proven entirely fruitless. Even if you follow all of the steps above, sometimes you’ll end up having spent your time without anything to show for it. But other times you’ll luck out and recover what you’re looking for. In those cases, don’t forget to say thanks. And if anybody was particularly helpful, use your reference number to submit a formal compliment.

To look on the bright side, Cathlin found that her biceps are stronger than ever after we took turns carrying Eliza around while without a stroller. And Eliza in turn has taken full advantage of the additional mobility she’s been given when our arms get weary.

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