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Stranded at Sea with Just the Shirt on My Back: A Lost Luggage Saga

I dodged the bullet for ten years as a professional travel writer, but it had to happen eventually: I was about to board a ship for several days at sea, and my luggage was nowhere to be found. What's a boy to do?
I dodged the bullet for ten years as a professional travel writer, but it had to happen eventually: I was in Miami, about to board a ship for several days at sea, and my luggage was nowhere to be found. What's a boy to do?

It happened like this: I was flying from Portland to Miami on an airline that I won't name except to say that it was United. In Portland, the Homeland Security baggage examiners were so backed up that I immediately got lost-luggage worries. But I'd be OK, I thought, since I was staying at a hotel that night and boarding ship the next day. Sure enough, I arrived in Miami a few hours later to find that my luggage had never made it aboard the plane. The attendant at baggage claim found my bag in his computer system; took my ship name, cabin number, sailing time, and the pier we were sailing from; and promised my bag would be delivered right to the ship the next morning. OK, fine. Can't blame the airline, after all. It was obviously a Homeland Security delay.

So I went to my hotel, and that's where "Advice That I Didn't Follow but You Should, Pt. 1" comes in: Always pack at least one change of clothes in your carry-on bag. I had only the clothes on my back, and they were definitely not Miami-wear. This is when I learned that you can, if necessary, wash an entire outfit in a hotel sink, hang it up to dry, then finish the job in the morning with the judicious application of a hairdryer -- for about an hour.

I departed for the cruise pier around noon, where I was told that when an airline delivers delayed luggage, it's taken right to my cabin. No worries.

So I got aboard. And waited.

Around 3pm, with no luggage in sight, I began calling the airline's lost-luggage hotline. Several climbs through the automated telephone tree got me to one disheartening recorded message: that the system didn't have a clue where my bag was. When eventually I was able to get through to a human -- in India -- I was told that my bag had in fact arrived at Miami International Airport, but that they would not be able to deliver it to the ship before we sailed. Why, I asked, since our sailing time was still more than two hours off? The answer, such as it was, was essentially "because." I demanded the number of someone at Miami International, but that number just rang and rang and rang, and after twenty minutes I gave up.

I was beginning to blame the airline.

This is where "Advice That I Didn't Follow but You Should, Pt. 2" comes in: Get the cruise line involved early on. When I decided to visit the passenger services desk, a helpful staffer immediately took all my information and transmitted it to their airport agent, who started looking into the situation. I was sent on my way with a promise that they'd call my cabin as soon as they knew anything.

So that's where I went, changing into the fluffy complimentary bathrobe to preserve my one set of clothes for as long as possible.

And I waited. And waited. And then the ship started to pull away from the pier. And my heart sank, but still I waited -- because, y'know, what else was I going to do?

We can skip the play-by-play from here, but suffice it to say that when the front desk finally did call, they told me why my bag had not arrived: It was because the airline, in its great wisdom, had checked it in in Miami, then put it on a new plane bound for Tampa.

Well of course. Why not? We were, after all, sailing in the exact opposite direction. But at least now I could be extra-sure: It was the airline's fault. They'd had more than twenty hours to deliver one little bag to its rightful destination, and they'd blown it.

Oddly, it was at this point that things began to get a little easier. For one, the cruise line (NCL, while we're naming names) had delivered several emergency overnight kits to my cabin, each containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, a razor, shaving cream, deodorant, and a sewing kit. And soon after we sailed, the ship's onboard shops opened, giving me access to all manner of tropical-print shirts, T-shirts, shorts, and other cruise ship survival gear. I was not happy to be without the nice suits that I'd brought for dinner, but since it was Freestyle NCL -- all casual, all the time -- that didn't really matter. The Hawaiian shirts I bought fit right in.

What to Do if This Happens to You

First, get really, really pissed off. Then, when that gets old, turn the matter to your advantage and use it as a conversational icebreaker. Everybody likes to hear a good lost-luggage story.

In general, airlines will coordinate with your ship's passenger-service staff to forward your luggage on to the next logical port of call. Depending on your ship's itinerary and available air service, your luggage may be delivered the next day or sometimes several days into your cruise.

If you have to do without for several days, cruise lines will generally help out. At NCL, for example, guests who still haven't received their luggage 24 hours after sailing are entitled to $100 onboard credit to purchase clothing from the shop. Some other lines provides overnight kits and free overnight laundry, but only issue onboard credit if the passenger booked air or purchased travel insurance through the line. At luxe line Crystal Cruises, for example, guests who've bought the line's travel insurance are given $500 to cover the expenses of purchasing necessary personal effects once they've been without their luggage for 24 hours. The line's ships also stock tuxedos and dresses that can be used by passengers whose luggage has gone AWOL.

Most travel insurance policies, whether bought through a cruise line or through a third party, will cover the cost of gearing up in the event of lost luggage.

If your cruise line does not provide a credit, seriously consider putting off any clothing purchases until you reach your first port of call, where items will likely cost much less than in the onboard shops -- though you can usually get a good deal on cruise logo T-shirts. Fashionable they're not, but it beats spending all week trying to blow-dry the clothes you arrived in.

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