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The case of the missing cool: David Whitley

When your luggage goes missing after a flight, do you remain calm and unflappable or does all hell break loose?

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It was an uncharacteristic degree of cool. Short of donning a shiny white suit and sauntering through a beach full of beautiful dancers while getting drinks to appear at the click of my fingers, I don’t think I could have pulled it off any better. Fellow passengers had reacted to the absence of their cases on the LAX carousel with rage and bitterness. I just smiled sweetly, asked nicely when the case was likely to turn up — on the flight arriving in a couple of hours’ time, as it happened — and gave them the name of my hotel. “Yep, just send it there,” I said to the harangued woman on the desk, only narrowly resisting the urge to break out a wink and double finger-pistols.

I’d been waiting for this moment. For years, I’ve been smugly evangelical about always packing at least two changes of clothing in hand luggage — as well as valuables and electronic chargers. That way, if your checked-in case goes missing, it’s no big disaster — you’ve got the key stuff you’ll need until it turns up. Unfortunately, up until landing in LA, my case had never gone missing before. Finally, I could revel in the opportunity to be insufferably, punchably smug.

Still swaggering like Cristiano Ronaldo through a pub team’s defence, I asked the hotel receptionist to store it when it arrived — I’d pick it up the next morning. The next morning, however, there was no case. And my cockiness had worn off a little too. Erm, are you sure? Has someone put it somewhere safe? Can you check again, maybe?

Uh-uh. No joy.

It’s amazing how effortless cool can so quickly descend into whimpering, panicky fretting. I asked them to call me as I headed off into LA’s brutal sprawl. By 11am, there was no news. I called the hotel to check. Then did the same again at 12.30. And 1.30. And 2.30 — possibly sounding like an amorous drunk calling his ex with a wildly misplaced sense of hope and desperation.

By this stage, my nerves were in shreds. I couldn’t travel for the next five weeks using just the contents of my hand luggage. I’d also packed a bunch of my wife’s stuff in the case — due to leave-wrangling at work, she was flying out a couple of days later. The plan was to meet her at the airport, stay in a motel a couple of hours up the highway, then plough on to Las Vegas the next morning. Taking the big case and filling it out with her clothes had been a gentlemanly move that now looked like it was backfiring.

Welling up with feeble, defeatist tears, I abandoned all plans for the day and headed back to the hotel. “Not seen it,” said the bell desk. “Not in the luggage storage area,” said the concierge. “Have you tried the bell desk?” asked reception.

I trudged back to the room, ready to pick up the phone and play merry hell. Yet by the phone was something special: my case. Hallelujah! How is it possible to love an inanimate object so much?

There were three key lessons to take out of this. One: the time the airline says the delivery company will receive the case bears no relation to the time you’ll get it. Two: that company is not a special courier solely charged with your bag — it’s a man with a van who has dozens of other missing cases, and he’ll go round the city dropping them all off before he finally gets to your hotel. And three? Hotel staff really don’t talk to each other.

This sort of relief lends itself to the sort of drinking that doesn’t mix with phone calls at 6am the next morning. Yet at six on the dot, it’s ringing like Hades’ wake-up call. It’s my wife. She’s missed her connection and is being rerouted to Vegas. Could I sort another hotel, get the car early and drive to meet her at Vegas airport?

The punishment for that smugness was being laid on thick and heavy: impromptu rebookings, a hideous hangover and a parched five-hour solo drive through the desert.

Just as the airport’s arrivals screen showed my wife’s flight had landed, my phone buzzed. It wasn’t her saying she’d landed safely, however — it was British Airways. ‘BA regret to inform you that a bag has not travelled with you today. Please contact the Baggage Service desk upon arrival to arrange delivery’. That blood-curling, anguished howl unleashed in front of the startled arrivals hall? Probably not quite as cool.

Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)