What really happens to suitcases left at baggage claim?

It’s a traveler’s worst nightmare to discover that the airline has lost your luggage—waiting at baggage claim for your bag to emerge, but it never does. And if that happens, here are 7 things you should do. But what if the opposite happens? You’ve probably seen it—the bags have come out onto the baggage carousel. Most of the travelers have found their respective bags and gone on their way. But, if you’re one of the last people lingering at the carousel, you’ve probably noticed one or two bags left, going around and around over and over with no one claiming them. What happens if no one does?

Why are there unclaimed bags at baggage claim?

Well, it might be misleading to call it the “opposite” of someone losing their luggage. Because for every unclaimed suitcase, there’s a customer it belongs to, usually in another airport, complaining about lost luggage. “If a piece of luggage is just spinning on the carousel, it’s usually something that was diverted onto the wrong plane or has otherwise been lost,” Kate Sullivan, creative director at Secret Fares, told Reader’s Digest. “So one suitcase might end up in Tucson when it was supposed to be in Tacoma.”

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36. YVR - Vancouver International

A traveler arrives at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. The number of international visitors to Canada plunged 20 per cent since 2000 even as global travel soars, according to a sobering report being released Thursday by Deloitte Canada. Photographer: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images

34. AUS - Austin-Bergstrom

Travelers walk the main concourse at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, on Friday, Sept. 14, 2007. Jim Smith, who oversees the city-owned airport in Austin, Texas, needed help fast. Mexico's no-frills airline, VivaAeroBus, wanted to make Austin its first U.S. destination, and Smith had no free gate space. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

33. YYC - Calgary International

The Air Canada Airbus A319 jet that was forced to land and unload injured passengers at Calgary International Airport after encountering trouble and making an unscheduled landing on Thursday Jan. 10, 2008. The Rocky Mountains are visible in the background. At least 14 people aboard were injured when the Airbus A319 hit turbulence during a cross-country flight, an official said.(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Larry MacDougal)

32. PHX - Phoenix Sky Harbor

The silhouettes of travelers are seen as a United Continental Holdings Inc. plane takes off from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Yields on benchmark securities climbed to almost two-year highs as consumers spent more on travel and tourism while manufacturing expanded modestly from early July through late August, according to the Federal Reserves Beige Book. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

30. SEA - Seattle-Tacoma International

Passengers in the C Terminal at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) head to their gates on June 2, 2013, in Seattle, Washington. Seattle, located in King County, is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, and has become a hub for many European and Asian global business destinations. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

29. YOW - Ottawa International

Travellers wait for baggage at Ottawa International Airport in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011. Canada's trade deficit widened more than forecast in June, signaling that the economy may have stalled or even contracted in the second quarter. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

28. MSP - Minneapolis-St. Paul International

Northwest Airlines jets wait at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport 30 May, 2006 in St.Paul, MN. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

27. SAN - San Diego International

A Southwest Airlines Co. airplane takes off at San Diego International Airport in San Diego, California, U.S. on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. Airlines must reconsider buying new or used aircraft as rising interest rates increase ownership costs, which could outweigh fuel savings at lower prices. Photographer: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

26. DTW - Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County

Vehicles sit at the curb outside the McNamara Terminal, serving Northwest Airlines among others, at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008. Delta Air Lines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp. pilots are working to find a compromise over union seniority, a hurdle to the merger that would create the world's biggest carrier, people familiar with the talks said. (Photo by Fabrizio Costantini/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

25. ATL - Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson

Delayed and stranded passengers waiting for flight information fill cubicles throughout Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after a snow storm on January 10, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency because of snowfall and ice across Atlanta and Georgia. A winter storm stretched across the Southeast as freezing rain and sleet followed on the heels of a heavy snow that blanketed the region. Airtran & Delta cancelled all flights out of Atlanta due to icy and snowy weather conditions. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

24. DCA - Ronald Reagan Washington National

Holiday travelers line up on Thanksgiving eve for a security screening before boarding their flights on November 27, 2013, at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

23. BOS - Boston Logan

The lines moved fast at TSA security checkpoints at Logan Airport's Terminal A. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

22. CLT - Charlotte Douglas International

A US Airways plane prepares for take-off at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport on January 16, 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina. US Airways flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River in New York City on January 15, 2009 shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport on its way to Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

21. DEN - Denver International

Security lines at Denver International Airport are long but moving fast, November 26, 2014. The airport was busy with thanksgiving travelers. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

20. SFO - San Francisco International

Passengers walk to the JetBlue Airways departure gate October 17, 2014 at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

18. BWI - Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall

Travelers walk in front of arrival and departure screens at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter on Wednesday, November 23, 2005 at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Chris Greenberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

17. YUL - Montreal Pierre-Elliot Trudeau

People gather to watch the Airbus A380 as it makes its first landing at the Pierre-Elliott Trudeau airport, 12 November, 2007 in Montreal, Quebec. Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Walid Bin Talal on Monday ordered an Airbus A380, making him the first private buyer of the next generation super jumbo aircraft. AFP PHOTO/David BOILY (Photo credit should read DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images)

15. MCI - Kansas City International

With no planes in sight, a lone passenger waits out the ice storm cancellations at Kansas City International Airport in Kansas City, Missouri, Tuesday, December 11, 2007. (Photo by Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images)

14. IAH - George Bush Intercontinental

Lines of passengers wait at a security checkpoint 22 September 2005 before flying out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, as people from south Texas evacuate in advance of Hurricane Rita. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

13. FLL - Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood

Jason Cohen of New York City, catches a few last-minutes of sun before he was to catch a scheduled flight home to LaGuardia Airport in New York, Wednesday, February 2, 2011, at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Almost 40 planes were parked at the airport Wednesday because of flight cancellations caused by the snow and ice storm in the Midwest and East Coast. Cohen said he was an 'optomistic,' traveler and thought he would get out today. (Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images)

8. DFW - Dallas-Ft. Worth International 

This 17 September, 2001, file photo shows an American Airlines jet taking off from Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas. American Airlines, the world's biggest carrier, announced 19 September, 2001, it was cutting least 20,000 jobs following the terrorist attacks against the US. No alternatives were being offered to fired employees because of the company's cash crunch after the 11 September attacks, in which two American Airlines jets were among the four lost, it added. 'This is, without a doubt, the most difficult thing I have had to do in my two decades at American,' chairman and chief executive Don Carty said in a letter to employees. AFP PHOTO/Paul BUCK (Photo credit should read PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)

7. YYZ - Toronto Pearson

Travellers scour the baggage claim at Toronto's Pearson airport for their luggage. Cold weather has caused a series of delayed or cancelled flights. January 7, 2014. (Randy Risling/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

1. LGA - New York LaGuardia

Travelers wait on line to check-in at the Central Terminal at LaGuardia Airport in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010. Passengers stranded when airlines canceled more than 6,000 flights amid a snow storm in the eastern U.S. may wait days for another flight as carriers move aircraft and search for seats on crowded planes. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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However, nowadays, this doesn’t happen nearly as much as it used to, now that computers are in charge of assigning luggage to its destination. But, of course, it does happen—usually due to overbooked flights or someone being “bumped” to another flight last-minute. So what do airport employees do with the lost bag? How do they find its owner?

So what happens to it?

If no one claims a bag on baggage claim, the airline will try to figure out who it belongs to—and oftentimes, that’s just as simple as looking at the bag tag. (Putting their name, contact info, and address onto luggage is one of the things smart travelers always do before a flight.) They’ll usually contact the owner and have someone deliver the luggage to them. “But if the worst happens,” Sullivan says, “and the airline ends up with a bag that it can’t identify or get to its rightful owner, they’ll hold onto it at the terminal where it was found.” They wait for someone to claim it, hanging onto it for an average of five days.

After five days…

Still no call or visit from the person the luggage belongs to after five days? It’s finally time for it to leave the airport. “It goes to a central warehouse operated by that [air] carrier,” Sullivan says. Then it’s another waiting game; this time, it stays in the warehouse for around 60 days. If that much time passes and still no one’s claimed it, well, the suitcase and whatever’s in it are now fair game for others.

Usually, one of two things will happen. The bag and all its contents will be donated to charity, or an auction will be held. Sullivan mentions the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, a behemoth company that is often a major buyer during these auctions, buying up lots of “homeless” baggage (from buses and trucks as well as airplanes). “[They] sort it into what can be resold to businesses [or] the public, donated, or tossed as trash,” Sullivan says. “There’s even an Unclaimed Freight discount shopping center in Alabama, where the public can go buy the contents of other people’s lost luggage at a steep discount!”

Sure, the airline gives you quite a long time to claim your lost luggage before it ends up in a secondhand shop. But if you never want your suitcase to become one of these bags, you should fly on one of the airlines least likely to damage or lose your bags.

Avoid these snacks at the airport:

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Soft pretzels

“A big old soft pretzel is not a meal,” says registered dietitian Marjorie Nolan Cohn, owner of MNC Nutrition in Philadelphia. Those fluffy carbs might smell enticing, but carbo-loading before a long flight will leave your tummy rumbling again by takeoff. Look for something with protein and fiber that will keep you satisfied until you land, or better yet, pack a meal from home. Nolan Cohn recommends making a sandwich at home to save money or packing leftovers like pasta salad or grilled chicken in an old, washed plastic container, such as a cottage cheese tub.

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Guilty pleasures

Try not to lump your waiting time at the airport in with the “treat mentality” of the rest of your vacation, says registered dietitian nutritionist Libby Mills, founder of Dig In Eat Up. “Even though it might be the kickoff to vacation, you want to save those calories for something unique when you arrive,” she says. Skip the specialty coffee drink and stick with plain coffee if you need a caffeine fix, or leave room for ice cream at the beach instead of gobbling a bag of cookies at the airport. Don’t miss these other 15 secrets to staying healthy on vacation.

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Parfaits

You’ve seen yogurt touted time and time again as one of the healthiest snacks you can get, thanks to its satiating protein. But that fruit and yogurt parfait isn’t the healthy and fresh choice that it seems. “Yogurt has its halo over it as a healthy food, and obviously it is, but in context of what additives are in it,” says Nolan Cohn. By the time you turn plain yogurt into a sugary flavored yogurt topped with granola and fruit (which, unlike fresh berries, is full of added sugar), it isn’t a healthy choice anymore, she says. Skip the parfait and choose a regular yogurt from the fridge, or try these 19 nutritionist-approved travel snacks you can buy anywhere.

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Sugary yogurts

Even yogurts that aren’t covered in granola or chocolate chips can be a stealthy sugar bomb. Fruit-on-the-bottom varieties are “not really fruit—it’s more like jelly,” says Nolan Cohn, and the dessert-like flavors and toppings can have almost as much sugar as the treats they’re named after. A cup of unflavored Greek yogurt is a safe bet, but if you need something less tart, vanilla varieties tend to have a bit less sugar than the fruity ones, she says. Try these other 13 healthy tricks for actually losing weight on vacation.

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Granola bars

Granola bars are often designed to look like a smart choice, but there’s more than meets the eye. “Some are like candy bars in a really strategic marketing package to make it look like something way healthier than it is,” says Nolan Cohn. Granola bars can be packed with added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and other decidedly unhealthy ingredients, especially if they’re covered in a waxy (and melty) coating. That said, a shelf-stable, portable snack is convenient when you need to take the hunger off during your travels, so hunt down an option with 12 or fewer grams of sugar, she says. Check out these other 10 ways to eat healthy on vacation.

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Coffee

A cheap, low-calorie cup of coffee might seem like the perfect treat while you’re waiting, but you might regret it once you’re seated. “Coffee has caffeine and can agitate the nerves, which might not make for the most relaxing flight,” says Mills. Plus, if coffee goes through you fast, you could end up making multiple bathroom dashes, she points out. Try a calming herbal tea instead, Mills suggests.

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Large bar tab

While a glass of wine as you wait for your flight won’t do much harm for most people, you’ll want to keep your drinking to a minimum. Not only could it dehydrate you before an already dehydrating plane ride, but alcohol isn’t good for deep sleep. You might crash quick, but the alcohol will wake you up and keep you out of deep REM sleep as your liver works it out. “A less restful trip, especially if you’re going overseas, may be counterproductive to enjoying yourself fully when you arrive,” says Mills.

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Double-decker sandwiches

You might not have too many choices at a quick-grab sandwich station, but keep your calories in check by avoiding excessive fillings, says Mills. “If it has triple layers of meat or bread, that’s a tipoff that you’re getting triple servings,” she says. “‘Crispy,’ breaded,’ and ‘fried’ … are words on a menu that are tipoffs of an extra serving of carbohydrates, plus the extra fat.” 

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Water bottles

You might not want to rely on the bottled water from the airport terminal—and not just because of its sky-high prices. Normally we’d never discourage some good-for-you hydration, but hear us out if you have a small bladder. “You’re guzzling water before getting on the plane, then sharing a toilet with how many people?” says Nolan Cohn. Because hydration is important, especially when you’re stuck in a dry plane cabin, she recommends sipping extra water the night and morning before your flight so you aren’t dehydrated when you board. Especially if your flight is more than a couple hours, though, don’t ignore your thirst in the name of avoiding the bathroom, she says.

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Anything your stomach isn't used to

When you’re about to sit in close quarters for hours on end, you’ll want to avoid foods that don’t tend to sit well with your digestive system. Steer clear of foods that normally might upset your stomach, such as certain types of fiber or greasy foods. “A hamburger and French fries or fried chicken before you get on a plane might not be the best idea,” says Nolan Cohn. “They have a higher potential for triggering diarrhea or GI issues.”

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