When Even Hand Luggage Only Fails You — A Mess Of A Travel Day

Filed Under: Travel

Hello from Turks and Caicos. I’m continuing to island hop through the Caribbean.

It is just as beautiful as I had hoped, and we haven’t even been to Grace Bay yet, which is voted by some as the best beach in the world.

Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos (Source: Visit TCI)

We arrived yesterday, and boy was it a rough day of travel.

When I was booking this part of the trip I quickly realised that it was affordable and efficient to fly from one island to another within the same ‘territory’ – for example, from one French overseas territory to another, and to take short flights from islands close to each other, such as from St. Kitts to Antigua.

But we wanted each island experience to be different, so were looking to fly from one island to a completely different one.

And this wasn’t cheap, or easy!

We managed to get a reasonably affordable flight from one Dutch territory to another (Aruba to Sint Maarten), and then stay on the French side of the island (Saint Martin).

But getting from Sint Maarten to Turks and Caicos (which is a British overseas territory) was a challenge.

The most affordable options were flying via the US (Miami or Fort Lauderdale). However:

  • They provided either a two hour transit, which I thought was foolish to attempt (given the US does not have air side transfers)
  • Or overnight transfers, which would have been a safer bet but the entire journey was over 24 hours, meaning we would miss an entire day traveling

So, I paid through the nose to fly InterCaribbean Airways from Sint Maarten to Providenciales (Turks and Caicos). The itinerary routed via Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, with a transfer time of around one hour and 40 minutes.

This was booked as a single ticket.

Sint Maarten (SXM)

We arrived at SXM airport around 90 minutes before our flight to Santo Domingo departed. As I’ve discussed before, we are traveling Hand Luggage Only.

InterCaribbean Airways operates Embraer E120 aircraft on this flight, which are 1-2 configuration propeller planes with tiny overhead bins. Understandably, the airline is very strict on what hand luggage can be taken on board the flight.

Our cabin bags, which are the largest allowable size for most airlines, would simply not fit either in the overhead bins or under the seats in front of us.

The airline also has a strict weight limit for hand luggage of 10lbs, which is less than 5kgs. They weighed our main hand luggage bags and they were both around 19lbs. While these were an appropriate size and weight for a jet plane, they were understandably overweight and size for the flights we were about to take.

So we were forced to check them in.

The check in agent confidently told us:

‘They will be tagged all the way through to your final destination in Providenciales’

We headed to the gate.

There was an announcement our flight would be delayed around 90 minutes.

This would mean we would probably miss our connection, so we headed to the gate agent to explain the situation. She assured us the plane would wait for us at Santo Domingo, and that that flight may be delayed as well.

It’s about this time that I thought that delays at this airline may be the norm, not the exception.

Our flight was finally announced for boarding, and as the airport is still being rebuilt following last year’s devastating Hurricane Irma, they attempted to board two flights to two destinations through the same gate at the same time.

The other flight was to Puerto Rico, and each passenger was required to answer additional security questions, so their boarding was very slow.

Despite plenty of gate staff it was a complete mess.

It took ages for us to actually board, despite only about 30 people being on the flight. We then sat on the tarmac for quite some time despite no planes arriving or taking off from the single runway. We did see our bags being loaded in to the cargo hold of our plane.

The delay was explained to us by the crew member as simply being because of ‘paperwork.’

We made up a little time in the air but still arrived at Santo Domingo, which is their main hub, about the same time as our next flight was due to depart.

Santo Domingo (SDQ)

Fortunately there were plenty of ground staff. We notified them of the issue and they rushed us through to the next gate. Fortunately there was no transfer security so its was only a few minutes between walking off one plane and on to another.

I did think as we rushed from one plane to another ‘I wonder if our luggage will make it.’

It turns out the cabin crew member from our first flight was crewing the second flight too (different plane) so there was no way we would miss the second flight. She seemed a bit stressed out running from one plane to the next, but had a good chuckle with us when she saw us boarding her next flight, and again I got the impression that delays like this were the norm, not the exception.

We arrived at Providenciales around 45 minutes late. Every single passenger except us was continuing onto Nassau, Bahamas on the same plane.

Providenciales (PLS)

Providenciales is a really small airport, and only has two luggage belts. We made it through immigration fairly quickly and went to the luggage belt to wait for out bags.

The luggage belt never actually started up.

A ground staff member eventually saw the two of us waiting and asked us what we were waiting for. We told him our situation and he had a confused look on his face that to me said ‘but all the bags from your flight are here.’

He promised to find out what had happened, disappeared, and we never saw him again.

After waiting an hour for the bags that never came, we checked the few boxes that had been placed by hand in the arrivals area. They had bag tags from our flight so we realised whatever luggage came off our flight was already there.

We made our way to the InterCaribbean ticket desk, explained our situation and they asked us to fill out a missing baggage report.

They have promised to call and/or email us as soon as our bags arrive. They could be in Santo Domingo, or even have gone on to Nassau.

My guess is they are still in Santo Domingo.

They only have one flight a day between the cities, and as I write this, today’s flight is delayed about four hours so I’m not confident we will see our bags today/tonight.

At least our flight yesterday wasn’t delayed that long, although at least we would have had a better chance of our bags arriving with us!

Bottom line

I recognise that baggage gets delayed — it’s just part of traveling. I guess the moral of this story is that no matter how carefully you plan to avoid checking luggage, you may occasionally be forced to and there are risks associated with that.

I know I must sound like a broken record but it once again reinforces to me the benefits of avoiding checking luggage wherever possible.

The airline hasn’t been very helpful so far which doesn’t fill me with confidence for the speedy return of our bags. They did not even apologise for their their error, and while I would normally not mind, this was by far the most expensive short haul ticket of the trip.

There was no global tracking number or contact telephone number given to us.

I did see some passengers gate check their bags as they boarded — I’m guessing these were within the allowable size, but not weight perhaps.

If I took these flights again I would insist on doing the same — while it would have been a bit of a pain to lug our bags all the way to and from the plane, at least we would have also had complete control over ensuring they were loaded onto each flight.

We could have also insisted we would not board until we saw that our bags did.

Oh well, hopefully we will see our bags tomorrow. At least I managed to take my laptop on board with me so I could continue to write!

This isn’t my worst delayed baggage story (I went five days in Iceland without any baggage), but what is yours?

  1. 9 days in Sicily with no luggage…..between a baggage strike and our bags following us around the island with some highly inefficient courier service. Eventually we had to backtrack 4 hours to get the bags since our prior hotel had kindly signed for them. We were traveling in September so all the stores were selling fall clothing even though it was still hot as hades in Sicily so we wound up with the sale rack cast offs for most of our trip. Thankfully we were eventually able to get compensation for the purchases but it was quite an ordeal. Highly recommend hand luggage to Sicily as we had delayed bags on our next trip there as well (only one day thankfully).

  2. Might want to check your island names….St. John doesn’t have an airport and isn’t close to St Kitts. Maybe you’re referring to Antigua?

  3. Your story illustrates exactly why you SHOULD check luggage and rely on a much smaller piece of carry-on with only 1-2 days of essentials physically with you.

  4. I’m 100% carry on even for 6 week trip, but I also always have a smaller backpack with a change of clothes and essentials.

  5. A few days without luggage in Siberia, mid-winter, -40 degrees.
    I had some pretty warm clothes on, but man, I did miss my snowboots.

  6. Three days in northern Scotland (near the Isle of Skye) missing my teen daughter’s bag, thanks to KLM leaving it in AMS for two days. Eventually they drove it from INV down to the ferry to Raasay where a local worker brought it to us on the ferry. Kind, gracious local people, but KLM was utterly incapable of telling us where the bag was or how it would be delivered.

    As for the Caribbean, I lived there some years back. This is often par for the course. Always bring stuff to wear in your carry-on.

  7. Not a that horrible, but certainly inconvenient:
    Flying from North Dakota to Toronto via MSP, December 23rd, years ago around the time Northwest became Delta.
    Bad weather to the east grounded the arriving plane that would become our departure, & we were unfortunately booked on the last departure of the day.
    Luckily we rebooked on the crack of dawn flight the next morning. (We overheard some other passengers say that they went to retrieve their bags before calling & could not get a flight until 2 or 3 days after Christmas)
    Upon checking in, we were told that in the few hours that had passed they had changed our connecting flight so a 2 hour layover at MSP became 8 hours.
    Since our itinerary had been changed twice in less than 12 hours, we made sure to have them double check things like that our bags were tagged properly.
    But of course, we arrived at YYZ and our bags did not! They assured us the bags were not lost, they were simply left at MSP. We were given amenity kits & told our bags would be sent to YYZ on the next flight then delivered to us.
    We were skeptical, but sure enough the delivery man showed up at my parent’s house 30 minutes away from the airport on Christmas morning!

  8. Last month I was traveling in Norwegian from Tromso to Alesund via Oslo in 2 seperate PNR’s. I was not allowed to thru check in my bags at Tromso because of this. So I had to pick up my bag at Oslo and recheck in again. Transit time at Oslo was 70 mins. It took 30 mins for the bags to roll out at OSL. I literally ran to bag drop. The scanner rejected to print out the bag tag. I had to request an agent to accept the bag manually. He did that. I barely made the Alesund flight but my bag did not. The next flight from OSL-AES was after 5 hours. The agent at AES wasn’t much helpful. Just informed me my bag would come in the next flight and they would drop it at my apartment. I was asked to leave my contact number.

    I did not get any update even after 2 hours of the arrival time of next flight. I got anxious there was no answer from the number the agent had given me to call. So I drove to the airport to check. Once at the airport the agent informed my bag arrived and the delivery agency has picked up. Eventually I got my bag delivered to my apartment.

    PS my anxiety was more as I was on a low cost airline and my bag was a $700 Rimowa bag

  9. @ Bob – we weren’t anywhere near Antigua. BA don’t fly to SXM unfortunately which we went for the famous Maho beach.

    If I could have used miles I certainly would have!

  10. I think this is an argument for traveling only with a small backpack. I said it!

    Also what did you pay for the flight? Lucky always tells us what he pays even when it’s embarrassing

  11. I lived in the West Indies on St. Croix and St. Thomas, both of which are in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most people think island-hopping across the West Indies — I prefer this as a descriptor since some of the islands people call “Caribbean” are not in the Caribbean Sea — is cheap. It isn’t, as this blogger found it. It can be very, very expensive to get between some islands. And then there’s the fact that flying to somewhere like Jamaica isn’t as straight-forward as it sounds, either. Basically, you have to get used to gate-checking bags on seaplanes and turbo-props.

  12. I’ve had luggage delayed forever, never, ever to be seen again (by me). The worst for baggage that actually showed up eventually was three days from ATL to JFK on DL about 8 years ago with no apparent reason, just gross incompetence. These days, it’s carryon bags only for me.

  13. Yes, James, you should tell us what you paid so we understand where you’re coming from.

    Also, I agree with Sean. Your trip is extremely long for carry-on only, I happily don’t check bags (and have a few blacklist airports for checked suitcases) but for the duration you are staying in each place (i.e. not one night each) I think you overdid it.

  14. The exactly same happened to us last summer. We took InterCaribbean from the Bahamas to Turks and Caicos, and the bags did not make it to Providenciales. The truth is that they cannot take all checked luggage due to weight issues (when the plane is fully occupied they cannot bring all bags – at least that’s what the CEO told us.

    We contacted the CEO of Intercaribbean (Trevor Sadler) who then arranged a pick up by car in the hotel next day to bring us to the airport since you have to declare them through customs.

    It is a pain and considering the high prices absolutely annoying. Good Luck with the Caribbean airline nightmare.

  15. Ah… the bliss of inter Caribbean travel in propeller aircraft and tiny airpirts.
    My job makes me a fortunate person as I have to do it 2-3 times per month.

  16. The moral of the story is avoid third world airlines at all costs. It’s not worth whatever savings you think you are getting when things go fubar as is often the case.

  17. Last summer, we experienced not one but two baggage misadventures on the same vacation. We went for 3 days in Stockholm without bags, due to a 1 day airport strike in Brussels. We got the bags just before leaving for Bologna, Italy.

    Our flight to FRA was delayed, so we were put on a later flight to Bologna. Sure enough, our bags were not on that flight. That evening, Lufthansa’s online system indicated that the bags arrived on the last flight. Great! We’ll have our bags by next morning!

    HA. The pathetic excuse for a courier service that LH uses in Bologna simply refuses to work on weekends. Of course, we arrived on Friday evening, and took the train as planned to Florence. So we couldn’t just go back to the airport to pick up our bags. We ended up getting the bags on Tuesday, 4 days after we arrived, due to the laziness of the courier and LH’s incompetence in retaining that company’s service.

    We made the best of it. And although we would have preferred not to have to spend hours in various Stockholm H+Ms, at least the clothes we bought were refunded by the Citi baggage delay insurance.

  18. Sorry to hear about your ordeal. Interestingly enough, my worst baggage experience was also with Icelandair. Well, I’m still not sure who messed it up but here’s what happened: I had booked a oneway SFO-BOS-KEF ticket (this was before FI flew to SFO and I wasn’t about to fly with WOW) with the SFO-BOS segment on Virgin America (which still existed back then). I booked this with a third party booking engine, and I had haggled with the VX agent at SFO to through-check my bags, which she somehow figured out how to do. Yet, they didn’t show up in Reykjavik — where the weather was a balmy 40 Fahrenheit in summer. To this day, no one quite knows who dropped the ball, but however it happened, the bags were left behind in Boston. Off I went to the Icelandic department stores, with the lost baggage “amenity” kit in hand. Eventually, the bags showed up, but moral of the story: Icelandic clothes are expensive!

  19. Yes, HBO doesn’t quite work on those smaller planes. You can do the ninja thing and get some travelpro 737 flight crew bags, which got just about everywhere, or you can go hybrid, carrying a day or two with you and checking the rest.

    I’ve done both. And I’ve had plenty of baggage issues, including the obligatory wandering around Italy events. There’s no one best solution. But if you find yourself being forced to check at the gate for a carousel delivery, well you screwed up.

  20. Does the CC you used to book the flight have travel insurance? If so, you’ll be untitled to Baggage Delay compensation. (Hopefully you won’t have to collect for Baggage Loss, but that protection is there too).

  21. Wheres the part about you using you Citi Prestige or Chase whatever card to let you purchase clothing and get it reimbursed?

  22. Use to go to Puerto Rico for work, and in the days of two free bags, one would be clothes for a week, the other would be tools, paper work and equipment we would need. About half the time one or more of the bags with work stuff wouldn’t make it with us. (usually got special TSA screening). We arrive Sunday and were promised our bags would get to the hotel by Monday morning, it was Tuesday afternoon. Hence the term “Island time”. PR was more efficient than other islands

  23. I agree with @Sean M. You will NEVER be allowed to bring bags of your size on a puddle jumper aircraft, so better to check it and get proper tagging to your destination. I check bags 99% of the time as I have trouble putting heavy bags in the overhead and just find it easier to get through airports unencumbered. In over 30 years of long-haul travel (100k plus pa), my only loss of bags for more than 24 hours was AA/CX taking 5 and 7 days respectively for bags coming on a flight to HKG via LAX. CX indicated AA was sitting on them for whatever reason, but I did eventually get them. As I was living in HKG at the time, I had clothes to wear.

  24. @ Joe – I wasn’t given that option. My bag was both oversize and weight for this airline though would have been fine for a jet.

  25. James, Thank you for this and all your posts. You have been a great addition to the OMAAT team – from day one. I truly hope that when Ben, as he has suggested in the past, decides to significantly reduce his traveling so that he can raise kids, he turns OMAAT over to you so that we can continue to enjoy your reviews and commentary (and, rest assured, Ben’s snark and sarcasm won’t be missed).

  26. A hiccup in the Great HLO Experiment. At the time your HL became check-in you should have removed some of the essentials into a small bag for the cabin. It wouldn’t matter if it was a durable enough shopping bag or the like; it’s simply an unanticipated emergency measure. As things unfolded, did provisions of TI kick in for you?

  27. “I know I must sound like a broken record but it once again reinforces to me the benefits of avoiding checking luggage wherever possible.”

    But something like this would never happen on a large mainline airline hell it wouldn’t even happen on most low cost carriers. So flying some tiny disorganized airline on a turboprop out of a regional airport in the Caribbean you must have realized something was going to go wrong and something like this would never (or very rarely) happen on say Emirates or even Air Asia who would at least give you a contact number and try find your bag

  28. Two days in MNL awaiting my bag and praying it showed up before I left for Boracay…
    I had to physically go to the airport and find it with staff because at the time (Dec 1999) there were no bag tracking or internet crutches to fall back on.
    After my last trip to MNL a couple years ago I swore off ever going to that airport again. It’s as if Kafka and Escher teamed up with the Dante Aligheri to create an airport that gets steadily worse the further in you go…

  29. 6 days in Germany. I was supposed to fly BOS-JFK-DUS, the first segment was on AA, the second segment was on AirBerlin. The ground stop was announced in New York, no way to make the AirBerlin flight. So, I had the flight changed to BA through LHR. However, my bag was already loaded to the AA plane. The BA flight arrived in DUS just slightly later than the ticketed flight — that was late morning Saturday. Obviously, without my bag. I drove to Berlin, then Munich, where eventually my bag reconnected with me–on Thursday afternoon. Monday morning I was already flying back to the US. Another flight was canceled–so the same bag was delayed for another 3 days–but I was at home, so I didn’t care.

  30. This situation is why I went from HLO all the time to mostly checking bags while in CONUS. Flying from a midwest market, many jets are of the smaller commuter variety. I’d rather have proper tagging (which, with airline apps these days, usually means you can track your bag via your phone) than risk having to gate check or otherwise.

  31. In october I took the SCL/MEL flight.
    Arrived in SCL from GRU at midnight and my next flight was 12:45pm.
    However, they forgot to load my bag on the plane.
    Result: 2 days in MEL without my clothes.
    I did buy a pair of pants and a t-shirt and the airline refunded me even more than I paid.
    So, not that bad.

  32. @James – another lesson to be learnt. Luckily I have never been victim to a baggage problem with my hand-luggage (a 28 liter Osprey). The again, the only objects of value which I possess are my wallet and passport. Happy Trekking!

  33. @ Frank – we got our bags back after 2 days. They didn’t bother to contact us but we went to the airport anyway to see if they were there.

    I didn’t think the update was interesting enough to warrant a separate post.

  34. just returned from Turks and Caicos..not impressed with it..not really any different from other islands..like GCM etc..More $$$ than other islands and we rented a villa from a so called luxury site but it was anything but!! they charged xxtra for electric in bedrooms/very little amenities like housekeeping/trash take out etc we were on our own… will not return…

  35. As mentioned earlier, this is more a problem of a small airline than checking luggage.

    I’m a religious checker, and I’ve only had one thing even close to a lost bag in the past five years (with over 100k qualifying miles each year). I had flown CA from SFO-MEL, but needed to return a day early. That day, there was no departure from MEL, but there was from SYD, so I changed it and bought a VA ticket from MEL-SYD to make that flight, but my bag couldn’t be inter-lined because they were separate tickets. It didn’t arrive with me on my flight, but it did come on the next VA flight about 15 minutes later.

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