The morning before her trip to Aruba in July, Jacquelyn Bucelot-Mills woke up early, got dressed and added a few things to her leather carry-on bag. She drove from her home in Beacon, N.Y., to her mother's house in New City, where a limo picked her and her mother up hours before their 9 a.m. flight to Kennedy International Airport.
But there was one thing missing: the luggage.
Bucelot-Mills didn't forget the suitcases at home. Instead, she shipped it nearly nine days ahead of time through Luggage Forward, a luggage shipping company, so that she and her 89-year-old mother could travel through the airport with ease and peace of mind. The night before her flight, Bucelot-Mills received confirmation that her luggage had already arrived safely at the hotel.
"It was a much easier departure morning," she said. "There was no carrying the luggage to the car, the luggage needing to be dealt with at the airport. It was just so much easier."
Like Bucelot-Mills, many Americans are turning to shipping companies to relieve the stress of lugging bags to the airports.
"It seemed very inefficient that people hauled their bags to and from the airport when they could have them picked up at their home and have them waiting for them at the destination when they arrive," explained Aaron Kirley, who co-founded Luggage Forward in 2004.
Many luggage shipping companies were created after Sept. 11, 2001, in reaction to new security measures and precautions that made going to the airport a long and stressful experience.
"It's really sort of a black hole as far as travelers go," according to Jeff Boyd, president of Luggage Free in New York. "You can't carry it on any longer; you have to check it. But you can only check a certain amount of luggage. It was — it still is — very restricting, very confusing. A lot of people saw, after that, great value in our service, if they didn't before."
Schlep no More!
Now, six years after Sept. 11, business is thriving for many luggage forwarding companies. Shipments — including golf clubs, skis, bicycles, surfboards, garment bags, duffel bags and even car seats — can be booked in just minutes online. Prices start from less than $100 domestically to hundreds of dollars for international destinations.
"We've actually seen tremendous growth," said Kirley. "In fact, our bookings are up over 300 percent over the same time last year."
According to Richard Altomare, who created the luggage shipping company Luggage Express in the late 1990s: "We now do more business in one minute than we used to do in one month when we first started."
But does the actual service work?
Yes, he declared. In its nearly 10 years in business, Luggage Express claims that it has not lost one suitcase out of the 30 million suitcases the company has shipped. And companies like Luggage Express and Luggage Free have a more than 70 percent "repeat customer rate," according to Altomare and Boyd.
One of those repeat customers is Robert Pierson, 43, who began using Luggage Express about two years ago, and has had luggage shipped to Chicago, Las Vegas and New York from his home in Port St. Lucie, Fla. At an average price of $80 per suitcase, Pierson said the price was worth not having to drag three large suitcases around the airport.
"We get to go about an hour later now because you don't have to wait in line to check in your luggage," he said. "It's definitely worth it."
While the industry is still relatively new, the long-term implications are numerous, stated Altomare. Not only would airports become more manageable, but safety would also improve, he said.
"From a safety point of view, there's no question that we should separate passengers from luggage," he said. "From an economic point of view, for the airline industry, if we separate passengers from luggage, every airline is profitable and, most importantly, the United States of America doesn't have to give any more loans to bankrupt airlines, which we all pay for anyway."
And if shipping luggage becomes increasingly popular, Kirley noted that airlines will save money, which could lead to a reduction in ticket prices. Airlines could sell cargo space previously occupied by suitcases.
"The extra weight requires them to carry more fuel, and the actual extra weight of the fuel requires more fuel, so it's kind of a multiplying problem," he explained. "So if you're able to actually generate revenue off of that cargo space in a predictable fashion, I think that airline travel costs could go down if everything else stayed equal."
Future collaboration with airlines could also be a possibility, added Boyd.
"There has been to a limited degree, in the past, and I think that will only get better and more broad in scope as years go on," he said about working with the airlines. "We're in talks with a number of them now and have been for a while, and I think that that's really the next progression."
Nevertheless, prevalent use of luggage shipping services won't happen any time soon. In time, however, steep luggage fees mandated by airlines could pressure travelers to find luggage alternatives elsewhere.
"Right now, it's a very small number of people that take advantage of services like luggage forwarding service," said Kirley. "But I think it's going to be a more widespread thing in the future."
But for those who ship their luggage, freedom from bulky, bothersome suitcases and bags is enough of a reason to use the service.
"For me, it was like, free at last!" proclaimed Bucelot-Mills. "There were no regrets, no hesitations, nothing. I can't emphasize enough how easy it made the trip."