How to Pack Valuables for Your Next Flight
Points & Miles

How to Pack Valuables for Your Next Flight

Simple tricks to ensure your irreplaceable items aren't lost, stolen, or broken while in transit.

Traveling back from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport after a funeral in February, Keyonne Brooks lost track of his carry-on bag somewhere in the terminal. The lost and found report he filed didn’t turn anything up, so he put in a request for security footage from his airport gate. That’s when he saw Spirit Airlines agents going through his bag, putting some of his precious items in their pockets, and then carelessly tossing the rest. Among the items he lost: essential medicine, jewelry, and family heirlooms.

The shocking footage is, no doubt, a worse case scenario. (The employees were suspended from their positions.) But it also serves as a reminder of just how essential it is to carefully guard your most valuable items while you’re in transit. 

“Never pack valuables in your checked bag,” packing expert Anne McAlpin of Pack It Up says definitively. “Always keep any valuables in your small personal bag that can fit under the seat in front of you, and never away from you in overhead compartments.”

While it can seem obvious, when we’re in the midst of juggling bags and settling into our seats, our natural instinct can quickly go awry—and all it takes is one quick moment for those items dearest to us to go missing. 

When it comes to what is exactly considered valuable, it’s not only about the price tag. “I consider ‘valuable’ to be anything I cannot travel without or will cause great difficulty for my travels,” McAlpin says. She notes that can include everything from travel documents like passports, credit cards, and large sums of cash to prescription medication and necessary travel equipment, as well as tech items like phones and laptops and “any additional item that’s emotionally valuable to the traveler.” While she admits her own makeup kit is essential since she depends on it daily, she also says that a child’s favorite stuffed animal is often an invaluable item that easily gets lost, recommending bringing a second favorite on the road.

The emotional value of a lost item can never be replaced, but airlines also have written policies waiving them of responsibility if they’re in checked bags. 

For instance, United lists valuables as part of its fragile items policy, stating “If you check valuable or fragile items for travel within the U.S., we’re not liable for any loss, damage, or delay of your items.” (There are some “limited” protections for international travel.)  Among the items specified are antiques, heirlooms, art, cameras, ceramics, collectibles, computer hardware and software, electronics, flowers and plants, glasses and contacts, jewelry, keys, liquids like perfume, money, perishable items, precious metals and stones, real fur, religious items, tools, silverware, sleeping bags, backpacks, and watches. It also has a catch-all category simply called “irreplaceable items.” 

Delta has a similar list of items on its site, saying: “These items may not be transported in checked baggage. We suggest that you carry all precious or other highly valuable items.” American precedes its list by saying, “A good rule of thumb is never to check anything you can't live without. If it's irreplaceable, sentimental, or you depend on it for your well-being, keep it on you or leave it at home.”

Even so, all three major U.S. carriers have forms to fill out for missing items (here they are for AmericanDelta, and United). While these policies may seem harsh, the airlines are required by the U.S. Department of Transportation to cover up to $3,800 for liability for loss, delay, or damage to baggage on domestic travel, with the items listed in their policies exempt from that amount. 

Inevitably, we’re all bound to travel with some of these valuable items, and it may be helpful to check the TSA’s guidance before packing them. For instance, while jewelry can technically be packed in both carry-on and check-in bags, the agency suggests: “If you are traveling with valuable items such as jewelry, please keep those items with you at all times (do not put them in checked baggage). You can ask the TSA officer to screen you and your valuables in private to maintain your security.”

While there may be an instinct to carefully pack away these items in your baggage—perhaps even stashing them in everyday items so they don’t get identified as valuable, McAlpin advises against it since TSA could move it around during searches. She also recommends using security wallets for passports and cash.

“Never travel with anything you cannot replace or live without or would be totally devastated to lose,” McAlpin says. “With jet lag, long travel days, and the like, it’s easy to forget something.”