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At many airports you can wrap your luggage with sheets of sticky plastic. Why on earth would you do that? I only see disadvantages. I can imagine the mess when customs ask you to open your luggage. So what benefits am I missing?


Wrapping luggage in plastic at JFK airport, USA

Photo by Reuben Strayer, license: CC BY-SA 2.0

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here is one: flickr.com/photos/jeppestown/3027622187 –  froderik Nov 3 '11 at 7:41
    
Just reading this question is making my skin crawl. –  dpatchery Nov 3 '11 at 14:05
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bing.com/images/… has several good hits –  Kate Gregory Nov 3 '11 at 16:16
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I had to do it once when my suitcase zipper broke about 10 minutes before leaving for the airport. It was worth every penny! –  SigueSigueBen May 30 '12 at 13:08
    
During a local flight, the airline would refuse to check in a wheelchair unless it was wrapped and protected; so it has its use. –  Burhan Khalid Jun 4 at 15:22

16 Answers 16

up vote 60 down vote accepted
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It's quite simple:

  • You can spot more easily whether someone has opened it
  • It can not open by accident
  • The luggage doesn't get dirty
  • You don't want your expensive luggage to be scratched!
  • It looks really sexy
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Why would you ever not wrap your luggage in plastic?? –  fredley Nov 2 '11 at 22:24
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@fredley because you have to pay for it? –  yms Nov 3 '11 at 3:11
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"It looks really sexy". Yeah, if plastic-wrapped stuff is your fetish -- by all means, go ahead and knock yourself out. –  mindcorrosive Nov 3 '11 at 12:43
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Regarding protection against scratches and scuffs, etc - The purpose of luggage is to protect the contents. I understand people liking their luggage, but isn't protecting the protection device a little much? –  neilfein Feb 14 '12 at 22:57
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@neilfein: Not at all! See, you need to have a luggage in a luggage in your luggage (which is then wrapped) for the optimal level of protection ;) –  Piskvor Mar 4 '12 at 22:53

I assume people do that because they are afraid someone could easily hide some illegal substances in unattended, non-wrapped baggage and try to steal it back on the other side, after the victim passed the luggage inspection.

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It's used widely in South Africa to try to minimize pilfering by baggage handlers, security, etc. –  mkennedy Nov 3 '11 at 8:49
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Assumptions, in my opinion, do not make the type of great, canonical answer that SE sites strive for. (I agree with the general principle behind your answer - preventing unauthorized/unwanted tampering with luggage - but don't like that it's an assumption, and it doesn't cover the multitude of reasons for this behavior.) –  Laura Nov 3 '11 at 19:27

It could also be for space saving. Put your clothes in it, stick in a vacuum cleaner, and seal the opening to the vacuum with your hand. Turn it on, and watch your clothes compress to a much smaller size! (Make sure to knot the end of the bag when you pull the vacuum out)

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I think they mean the entire bag, rather than things inside the case/pack. –  Mark Mayo Nov 3 '11 at 3:49

Shrinkwrapping your luggage also protects anything protruding or attached such as handles, straps, fittings, padlocks, wheels, etc.

Apparntly it's also used to keep things of odd shapes and sizes together as in this photo from Bangkok airport:

airport shrinkwrap luggage

(Thanks to WikiMedia Commons for the photo)

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Yes, to hold rucksack straps in place - that's where I usually see it. –  Paul Spangle Nov 3 '11 at 13:20
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I work in tourism and have seen many many "rolly suitcases" with their handles and/or wheels broken off too. I also lost a strap from a shoulder bag once years ago in my naivety. –  hippietrail Nov 3 '11 at 13:22
    
That's a really good idea to wrap small items that way. –  mithy May 30 '12 at 13:09
    
That explanation doesn't quite work out; I have seen the employees at those plastic wrapping station cut holes into the wrapping specifically to allow wheels and handles to stick out. For otherwise, the suitcases would be very cumbersome to transport through the airport. –  O. R. Mapper Jun 29 at 8:56

It prevents anyone in the airport from stealing anything from your bag. Not a problem in many European/USA airports, but when travelling through, say, Africa, you have to be careful.

I remember a friend of mine, after transferring through Johannesburg, picking up her laptop case from the luggage carousel and remarking that it felt very light.

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Very good point! –  hippietrail Nov 3 '11 at 11:47
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if you ship your laptop in checked luggage you're asking for it to be stolen. And most likely it was stolen at her original port of departure, not in Jo'Burg. –  jwenting Dec 14 '11 at 7:36
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In USA, doesn't TSA have right to open any bag anyway? And then steal all they want‌​? –  vartec Feb 8 '13 at 9:55
    
I really doubt the TSA is legally allowed to steal any and all property that is checked in. Sure it happens, but it's not legal. –  Rory Feb 8 '13 at 13:00
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I meant they are legally allowed to check any bag (in theory for security threats, in practice for valuables). And they have legal right to open it without your supervision. Stealing part obviously isn't legal. –  vartec Feb 9 '13 at 19:58

I remember seeing this at an airport once before. They didn't have this at my local international airport so I thought it was some crazy thing for paranoid fliers. But in hindsight it has a purpose.

The companies that provide these services claim a lot, but it is definitely going to provide the protection from the following things:

  • Tampering (or at least make it clearly evident)
  • Unauthorized items
  • Theft
  • Accidental openings
  • Stains
  • Weather (rain, snow, etc)

The companies go on to suggest that you can also prevent scratches, wear and tear, and other such things. I find it hard to believe a thin layer of plastic could do that, but it probably does provide some degree of protection from those too.

The most convincing however, is the protection from Weather. The tarmac where the plane is loaded isn't protected from these things. If I have fabric luggage, I can use these wrapping services to prevent rain, mud, or frozen winter gunk from getting into or on my luggage. Possibly damaging it permanently.

An interesting note. When they wrap the luggage, they often times cut out the wheels, if a pull/push/rolling set, and also some of the handles, so even though it is wrapped up you can still use it like you had.

Also the device they use, for anyone who hasn't seen this, is an interesting combination of a kiosk and warehouse skid wrapping machine.

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Actually this kind of plastic can be pretty thick and tough and they often wrap it round and round and round. So it should prevent scratches but not dents. –  hippietrail Nov 3 '11 at 14:43
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you forgot dogs saliva, almost all airports have dogs that sniff luggage behind the scene. Trust me they have a lot of saliva.... personally I hate that. –  MeNoTalk May 8 '12 at 7:35

Some airlines now enforce plastic wrapping your luggage themselves. I flew out of Johannesburg with Emirates and they took it upon themselves to plastic wrap my luggage. I assumed it was for 2 reasons:

  1. to help prevent theft from luggage because OR Tambo International is known for pilfering
  2. to make the luggage as compact as possible.
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Plastic wrap, or some sort of net, is also a common technique for people traveling with backpacking packs. The number of protruding straps, handles, etc. are irresistible bait for baggage handlers or machines to grab your bag by the wrong strap and rip it apart. Bundling it until it reaches your destination prevents backpack disabling misadventure.

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Yes I think JAL used to put my backpack in a big plastic bag closed with plastic ties, but not shrinkwrapped - they just did it right on the luggage conveyor platform at the checkin desk. –  hippietrail Nov 7 '11 at 8:27
    
yes, for backpacks it could be useful. But I'd rather not travel with luggage that is that easily damaged by careless handling or mishap. And of course for backpacks there are specially designed covers you can buy, which are sturdy and reusable. –  jwenting Dec 14 '11 at 7:38

I agree with most of the answers, but don't think that if your luggage is wrapped in plastic it can't be "opened by accident".

I have a friend who traveled from the US to Venezuela with his luggage wrapped in plastic, and some things "dissapeared" from his luggage, aparently someone opened it got some stuff and wrapped it again in plastic so my friend didn't notice at the airport.

I don't mean to scare you with this, what I mean is that if wrapping lugagge in plastic doesn't give you that much security.

Besides, if the security guards at the airport ask you to open your luggage for a security check you'll lose more time and money.

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At least at the Mumbai airport, the people who do shrink wrapping have a policy of re-wrapping it for free if the customs makes you open it. –  Mostlyharmless Jan 12 '12 at 17:14

Briefly:

  • For safety reasons, to protect your bag from scratches and liquid that could come out of other bags.
  • For safety reasons again, if you travel in not-so-safe destinations, airport staff might open your luggage before delivery and steal stuff.
  • For safety reasons, so that people can't put drugs in.
  • For safety reasons, backpack straps could get stuck in the luggage management system.
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I live in Venezuela. It prevents anyone in the airport from stealing anything from your bag, but in airports like there are in Venezuela, it's not a warranty that method works, because workers inside the airport have this kind of machine too. And security personnel, it means National Guard are corrupts and know this situation but are paid by these kind of workers.

Besides, if the National Guard ask you to open your luggage for a security check, you'll lose your money.

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No you don't lose or waste anything when asked to open your luggage. All the customs I went through that asked me to open my luggage had very heavy-duty sticky tape with which they put it back again. No problem!

I am from South Africa. The wrapping is not expensive and I do it for two reasons. Protection and protection.

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Australian baggage handlers and customs officers are currently (December 2012) being charged with smuggling drugs and guns into Australia through other people's luggage. They slip items in and they come out, as organized at the other end of the journey, and the owner of the luggage has no idea it has happened - until they get told their luggage has come out on a swab as being tainted with a drug that they've hardly even heard of.

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This post does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this post by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.

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Welcome to Travel.SE! Any chance of some clarification? Presumably not all of them are being charged. A link or two would be useful :) –  Mark Mayo Dec 22 '12 at 3:43

Here in Colombia, drug dealers often put cocaine in people's luggage when is handled by baggage handlers. When they arrive to destination in Europe or USA, the local baggage handlers remove the cocaine. However sometimes the police discover the drug, so the innocent luggage owner goes to jail for drug dealing.

So wrapping your luggage in plastic may prevent it. Also if your luggage arrives without plastic, but with cocaine inside. you might try to persuade the police that you are indeed innocent.

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This post does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this post by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.

    
Advice for Australian travelers going into countries where convictions of drug smuggling is a death sentence, as the stories about Schapelle Corby indicates, should be enough of a deterrent for people not doing this. –  Michael Lai Jul 29 at 0:39

A lot of people answered, but here is another reason. Its to make sure your item isn't damaged or opened while loading/unloading.

Some airlines will refuse to check your luggage if its not wrapped correctly.

During a recent trip, I was told to wrap a wheelchair in this plastic cocoon before the agent would accept it.

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If you arrive at the airport to find your luggage slightly broken, the luggage wrapping service will be a good solution. It is a better solution that buying a new suitcase in the airport.

Reference: How to dispose of a broken suitcase at an airport?

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