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Travelers forget everything from passports to false teeth

1:11 PM, Feb 11, 2013   |    comments
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Frequent business traveler Joyce Gioia forgot more than $20,000 worth of jewelry in her hotel room in Italy last year.

Luckily for Gioia, the jewelry was in a room safe, and staff at the Rome Marriott Grand Hotel Flora shipped the items to her home in Austin.

"I had done such a dumb thing, and I was very happy to get the jewelry back," says Gioia, a management consultant.

Travelers annually leave millions of personally important items such as wallets, keys, cellphones and eyeglasses behind in hotels, airports, airplanes and rental cars. Fortunately for the forgetful, many belongings - including very valuable and unusual ones such as Gioia's jewelry - are returned.

Many, however, aren't, and they are given away or sold if their owners don't retrieve them or their owners cannot be found.

Gioia and other travelers scold themselves for their forgetfulness, but psychologists say it's commonplace even among the most veteran of travelers.

"When traveling, people tend to have lots on their minds, and there are often many unexpected distractions," says David Meyer, a University of Michigan psychology professor. "The combination of too much to keep track of, limited attention for doing so and being in relatively unusual circumstances outside familiar work and home locations promote forgetting about the small stuff being carried along the way."

USA TODAY contacted several airlines, airports, hotels and car-rental companies and, among other things, asked how many items are left behind by their customers yearly.

Southwest Airlines, which carried 88 million passengers last year, reported the largest number. The airline takes possession of up to 10,000 items a month that are left behind at airports and in planes, says spokeswoman Katie McDonald.

Books, cellphones, clothing and reading glasses are the most common items left behind, she says.

The most valuable items? A $10,000 diamond engagement ring, an NFL Super Bowl ring and professional video equipment - which all were returned to their owners.

Southwest stores items in a 4,000-square-foot area within a Dallas warehouse. Unclaimed items stay there 30 to 90 days, and the majority is then donated to the Salvation Army, McDonald says.

Most items left behind don't contain an owner's contact information and aren't reported lost, she says. Also, many electronic devices are locked, making it difficult to determine who owns them.

Airport security

American Airlines tries to reunite items with their owners "for several weeks," says airline spokesman Tim Smith. And, if that cannot be done, he says, items are sold to a salvage company.

The cost of returning items to owners is "significant," he says, much more than the income received from the salvage company. "Lost and found is a customer service - not a money maker," Smith says.

McCarran airport in Las Vegas says about 30,000 items - an average of 82 a day - are left behind each year.

Most are left at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints and turned over to the airport, says McCarran spokeswoman Candice Seeley.

The most common forgotten items: cellphones, eyeglasses, belts, watches, wallets and other belongings that "travelers shed in preparation for screening," Seeley says.

Most of the 15,936 items logged into the lost-and-found office at Oregon's Portland International Airport last year also were left at TSA checkpoints, says airport spokesman Steve Johnson.

After 30 days, many unclaimed items are donated to charity, he says. Items valued at more than $100 are kept for 90 days, then auctioned at a state surplus website.

The airport employs a full-time worker to handle lost items and incurs mailing costs of $10,000 to $20,000 yearly to return items, Johnson says.

Many hotels told USA TODAY that at least one item a day is left behind by guests.

Many see more. The Hyatt Regency in Chicago reports about 7,300 items a year, or about 20 a day, are left, according to Shaheryar Adil, a manager at the hotel.

At Hyatt hotels generally, passports, credit cards, state ID cards, computers, wedding rings and other jewelry, MP3 players and cash are most often left behind, says Hyatt spokeswoman Lori Alexander.

Other hotels see other trends. Novotel last year surveyed its 31 hotels in Britain and found that more mobile phone chargers were left behind by guests than any other item.

Phone chargers apparently are easily forgotten. Matthew Humphreys, an assistant manager at the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco, says he's worked at nine Hyatt hotels and the housekeeping staff in each had a large box of chargers.

"If you are traveling and find yourself in need of a phone charger, definitely call down and ask housekeeping," Humphreys says.

Next to chargers, Novotel found underwear was most forgotten, followed by false teeth and hearing aids, shoes and clothing, keys, toiletries, adult toys, electric toothbrushes, laptops and jewelry.

"We continue to be mystified by the random collection of items left in our rooms by guests," says Melissa Micallef, Novotel's marketing manager. "Our lost property departments really are treasure troves."

Respecting Privacy

Many hotels say they respect guests' privacy and won't return an item unless the owner asks for it. That prevents them from getting caught in such sticky situations as a spouse learning that a mate may have spent the night with someone else.

Considering that "intimate apparel" and "adult toys," according to Adil, are some of the most unusual items left behind at the Chicago Hyatt Regency, the policy may make sense.

The Surrey hotel in New York reaches out to people who leave valuables behind, says Shan Kanagasingham, general manager of the hotel.

About 30% of the roughly 500 items left at the luxury hotel each year are returned, she says. Items are kept for three months. If they can't be returned, they're given to the people who found them.

The Ritz-Carlton, which only returns items requested by guests, keeps items up to 120 days, depending on value, and gives unclaimed items to the employees who found them, says Sandra Estornell, the chain's corporate director of rooms' development.

Many hotels charge guests for returning items because the costs of returning them can run high.

A mess contributes to forgetting

It's easy to understand why belongings are left.

Claire Heymann, owner of the small luxury Hotel St. Germain in Dallas, says some rooms are in "such disarray" that guests don't see an item before leaving and some items are hidden for "safekeeping" and then forgotten.

A guest once lost a $1 million earring in the courtyard during an evening cocktail reception, but it was found, Heymann says.

Among items left at her hotel: sleep masks, keys for handcuffs, boxes of live sleeping butterflies, a mannequin head, a toupee and a five-year sobriety coin from Alcoholics Anonymous left next to an empty bottle of champagne.

Hertz spokeswoman Paula Rivera says "thousands" of items are left behind in Hertz cars annually, particularly mobile phones, laptops and cameras.

Every Hertz location has a person responsible for lost items, and about 75% are returned to their owners, she says. Unclaimed items are donated to charity.

Travel disrupts a person's habits at home or work, where a coat, keys and briefcase may regularly be placed in a particular place, says Robert Bjork, a UCLA psychology professor.

"We do things in a certain order as we depart from home or work," Bjork says. "Those habits protect us from forgetting things, and they are disrupted by travel."

Frequent business traveler Lori DeFurio of Jordan, N.Y., calls herself "the queen of leaving stuff behind."

In December, she left a new winter coat and leather gloves in the overhead bin on a Southwest jet.

"I remembered five minutes after I left the airport," says DeFurio, who works in the computer software industry. "I called the airline from the taxi and had the concierge at the hotel keep trying, but I never got it back."

Some frequent business travelers have formulated strategies, or routines, to prevent leaving things behind.

Flight attendant Jennifer Welch of Hillsborough, Calif., says her last actions before checking out are shutting off her computer and then conducting "a sweep" of the room.

"I've noticed that on the occasions when I forgot items, it happened when I was tired and did things in a different order than I normally would," she says.

By Gary Stoller

USA Today

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