May 21, 2018

Little Details: Sweetie, we have a problem

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Something was wrong. Two hundred passengers stared at the conveyor belt rippling past with nary a suitcase in sight. Could it be that, somehow, our luggage lost its way from Brussels to Malaga?
Our flight crew cheerfully served drinks and snacks on the short hop from Belgium. Smiling attendants passed cold cups of Coke and dispensed pretzels with never a hint of a problem.
Should we have noticed a lack of activity on the tarmac in and around the luggage hold when boarding?
Might we have guessed that our planeload of travelers would be flown to our destination without a single piece of checked baggage?   Could we have imagined Belgian handlers calling a strike at 10 a.m., refusing to load a single suitcase, stroller or sack for our 10:05 a.m. flight?
Minutes passed. The conveyor belt continued its metallic meander in utter, complete emptiness. No announcement was made. No ground crew alerted us to a problem. My husband noticed—peripherally—a passenger making his way to a “baggage” window. He made a beeline. Soon, 200 passengers diverted their gaze from the hapless conveyor belt, noting the few, the observant, the lucky who secured top slots in what would become a human centipede of disgruntled travelers.
Staying behind with our then-4-year old, I extracted my small travel tablecloth from my backpack and spread it out on the polished concrete floor. I pulled out snacks, crayons and paper to engage our daughter during the wait.
My husband emerged, receipt in hand. He was told if our luggage didn’t arrive within 24 hours we’d receive compensation.
The Stamper Family had a problem. We were booked at a $12 per night campsite in Zahara de los Atunes on the Costa de la Luz. We planned the trip to the Andalusia region of Spain, reasoning that family-friendly beaches and historic sites would keep our toddler and her history-loving parents happy. We had a campsite but we had no tent, no sleeping bags, no sleeping pads and no cooking gear.
Tired and stressed, we pulled out our Lonely Planet guidebook and identified a nearby town where we could book a bed and return to the airport the next day to, hopefully, retrieve our luggage. We chose Torremolinos because it was on the sea—and a mere 12 kilometers from Malaga. We picked up our rental car and drove to town, securing a room at the Pension Micaela. The floors were black and white tiles and we had a small balcony overlooking the shops and cafes.
We were less savvy travelers back then. We didn’t think to pack a change of clothes in our carry-ons. Despite our grumpiness from the inconvenience, we opted to use the circumstance to teach our daughter about adjusting to travel’s imperfections.
“Sweetie,” I said, “we have a problem. Our luggage didn’t arrive so we don’t have our tent. Hopefully, our luggage will arrive tomorrow and we can drive to the campground. In the meantime, we’re going to take a nap and, later, have a pizza picnic on the beach.”
To a 4-year-old, the pizza picnic made everything all right.
Our luggage arrived the next day—more than twenty-four hours late, entitling us to $200 in compensation. The clerk was none too happy when I inquired about the fee. He directed us to an office in another area of the airport where the paperwork could be filled out. I wasn’t going to pass up the cash. My trip was already delayed by one day. What would another hour matter? The funds would cover our hotel room and meals and make up for the “inconvenience” we experienced.
Soon enough, we were speeding along the N340 highway towards the Camping Bahia da La Plata with tent and sleeping bags in tow. Driving along the Mediterranean Coast, we pass Tarifa on the southernmost tip of Spain and swung upward towards Zahara, straddling the Atlantic Ocean.
We pitched our tent on a site overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar and the northern coast of Africa, mountainous and beautiful. We’d arrived.
Travel Tips: Carry a photograph of your luggage (e.g., on your phone). Create and carry a checklist of packed items with estimated values. If your luggage is delayed or lost, ask airline personnel the process for seeking compensation. This information is not always readily volunteered. Carry a copy of the photo page of your passport and your credit and bank cards with the card companies’ emergency numbers.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, was a 2013 finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism.  Reader comments are welcome at or

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