As luggage fees rise, so do ways to ship ahead

NEW YORK - On a recent trip to Egypt, the coffee-table books, pottery and other gifts Lorna Gladstone collected might have turned into a nightmare at the airport baggage check-in.

So she packed her belongings into four suitcases and left them with the hotel concierge to ship home through a service called Luggage Free.

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Luggage of Chandler Blake of Charlestown, Mass., is picked up by a courier service for Luggage Forward. The firm delivers bags to hotels or back to homes. Costs vary.

"I can go through security with my handbag and my book," said Gladstone, a retired resident of McLean, Va., who uses the service whenever she travels.

As struggling airlines add extra-luggage fees and as travelers worry about growing security restrictions, services such as Luggage Forward and Luggage Free have emerged as ways to bypass the hassles of checking bags. While such options typically are seen as a luxury, more Americans are using them for run-of-the-mill trips. Others are mailing bags themselves, using the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx Corp. or UPS Inc.

The idea behind the luggage-delivery services is to make traveling as headache-free as possible.

Customers load up their suitcases as usual, with no special packaging needed. Shipping slips for luggage are mailed to them (return slips are included if needed). A pickup time is scheduled, usually for a two-hour window. If the bags are being sent to a hotel, the concierge will typically call customers to let them know their belongings have arrived.

Rates vary depending on the weight, distance and speed of the delivery. For example, sending a large bag (65 pounds) from New York City to San Francisco with a pickup date in five days would cost $149 through Luggage Forward.

To expand its services, Luggage Forward last year introduced a seven-day "economy" option that typically costs less than $100 for a bag one way. Such bookings now account for about half the company's domestic shipments.

Since Luggage Forward was established three years ago, sales have grown 300 percent each year, said Zeke Adkins, co-founder of the Boston-based company.

Luggage Free, based in New York City, is seeing similar growth. The number of bags the company shipped has doubled each year since 2004, with shipments reaching around 40,000 last year.

The companies sprang up after the Sept. 11 attacks, when tightened restrictions triggered delays and confusion at airports across the country.

And the growing piles of lost and damaged baggage are only fueling frustration.

Last year, airlines lost 7 bags for every 1,000 passengers, according to the Department of Transportation. That has risen steadily each year from 2002, when the industry lost 3.84 bags for every 1,000 fliers.

For many seasoned travelers, shipping clothes and toiletries is nothing new. There is no way to tell whether their ranks have grown, however, since FedEx and UPS do not track how much of their business is generated by such individuals. The companies typically recommend packaging luggage in boxes, and shipping baggage overseas is not always recommended, since snags at customs can delay deliveries.

The new luggage-delivery services promise to iron out those kinks by taking on the onus of clearing customs, tracking packages, and picking up luggage at your home.

Chandler Blake, a Boston-based IT consultant, uses Luggage Forward when he travels for work. On a recent trip to Munich, Germany, he decided to have his bag sent ahead of him so he could fly hassle-free.

He has considered shipping the bags himself through UPS, but said Luggage Forward made the process much easier.