An in-depth guide to GPS bag tags in 2021

One of the best features offered in high tech smart luggage is the ability to locate your luggage via inbuilt apps.

It’s not something you need to often do, but being able to locate your bags is a great safety net when the inevitable happens — in 2018 nearly 25 million bags were lost by airlines!

GPS bag tags are a great way to replicate this tracking feature — often only found on the most expensive smart luggage — for a fraction of the price.

This article will look at how these clever luggage tags work, what to watch out for and buying advice, alongside providing an alternative to GPS bag tags.

How do GPS bag tags work?

GPS luggage trackers work in three ways — however the overarching premises are very similar! They all work on triangulation of your position from at least three known points.

The three types of navigation networks:

  1. GSM Networks
  2. GPS networks
  3. Hybrid GPS and GSM

But what does this mean?!

GPS tracking devices utilise a network of at least 24 satellites orbiting the globe to work out exactly where they are placed. Your luggage trackers position is a triangulation from satellites.

The technical details are quite in-depth, but there’s a great overview here:

This is a very accurate system, and can locate your luggage to within 7 meters anywhere in the world.

cell towers bag tags gps

GSM tracking is a similar concept, except instead of using satellites to triangulate your position, the bag tags use cellular phone masts.

This system is more accurate than GPS tracking in areas with a high density of phone masts, but less accurate overall.

The most accurate gps bag tags will use a hybrid system. These bag tags rely on more accurate GPS signals alongside GSM locating to provide you with the most accurate location.

Buying a GPS bag tag — What to watch out for

High power drain

GPS tracking uses a lot of battery power. For this reason, there is usually a key trade off — larger and heavier devices with bigger batteries, or more compact devices with limited battery life.

Updating your bags position requires power, the more frequently your bag tag requests its location the faster the battery drain.

Some GPS bag tags improve the performance of their battery life by having multiple modes. You might not require “always-on” tracking — you rarely need to see your bag move through the airport in real-time. So more advanced trackers can save battery life by reducing the intervals between when they broadcast their position, every 1/10/30/60/120 minutes etc.

Even the most advanced GPS luggage trackers, on the most economical settings have an average battery life of less than one month. For this reason, it is always our advice that you should seek to buy a GPS bag tag with a rechargeable battery — as the costs of new batteries add up quickly.

Switching off cellular trackers on aircraft

Cellular devices are required to be placed into flight safe mode when on aircraft — to avoid interference with aircraft electronics.

Unlike smartphones and laptops, some bag trackers don’t have flight safe modes, and should be switched off manually before flying.

If you are buying a bag tag to use for your smart luggage, you will want to make sure ideally it has a low-power aeroplane mode and that it is IATA compliant. Some trackers are sold as generic bag locators — and are not designed for flying. This can cause problems, as the entire point is tracking your luggage when you get on a flight, so you don’t want to have to turn it off at the airport!

Clever bag tags like GEGO have been certified as safe to use by the FAA and TSA and can be left on throughout the flight — but this is not a feature that cheaper brands all have.

Ongoing cellular costs & overseas availability

satellite bag tag gps

Reading about how GPS bag tags work you may have associated GSM with requiring a cellular contract.

Unfortunately, GPS-only bag tags also require a cellular data contract to function.

While GPS tags obtain their location from GPS satellites unlike your smartphone — where this GPS location information can be displayed and processed on your device — GPS bag tags obviously don’t have any processing power, and they need a way of uploading this location information, so you can view it.

For this reason, all types of GPS trackers need ongoing cellular data contracts. The first year of charges is often included in the purchase price of many luggage locating tags, but make sure you know what the ongoing cost will be. Often a more expensive device with a cheaper ongoing contract can work out significantly cheaper than the cheapest devices which can come with higher ongoing charges.

vodafone curve smart gps bag tag
The Vodafone Curve bag tag is particularly small and lightweight

One way of minimising cellular data costs is to actually buy a GPS bag tag directly from a mobile network. A great example is Vodafone whose Curve Smart GPS tracker has some of the lowest monthly network fee’s of any devices, due to its tie up with the major network.

It is also worth remembering that while GPS will work globally, the way your tag updates its location information — cellular data — has limited coverage in some parts of the world.

For travellers to Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea pay careful attention to the provisions of the cellular data your bag tag uses. Some older sim cards will not work here, and others will have additional charges. You can see the coverage that individual counties use at the global GSM map.

Short-lived support

Unfortunately, the smart luggage and tech world moves fast. With some devices costing significant sums, the last thing you want is to buy a clever bag tag and find out that it is no longer being supported after a few months.

Here are three tips to ensure your device remains supported for a long time:

  • Wait until manufacturers have their stores and avoid crowdfunding campaigns.
  • Pick devices that have external sim cards can mean that even if the manufacturer goes bust or the device is no longer supported, your bag tag will continue to work as the cellular data is not tied into the device manufacturer.
  • Choosing bag tags from well-known brands that sell spare batteries. While we always advise for rechargeable batteries, devices that enable you to replace the battery are generally higher quality and have a longer designed lifespan.

An alternative to GPS bag tags

One alternative to GPS smart tags that is growing in popularity are bluetooth bag tags. This new breed of clever luggage tags offer similar features to GPS bag tags but without ongoing network costs.

These luggage tags use bluetooth for position triangulation and to share their location with your phone via a process known as crowdsourced locating.

There are three main drawbacks:

  1. Location is less accurate
  2. Only works in high density areas
  3. Location is not on-demand or realtime

Despite the drawbacks, bluetooth bag tags offer a wealth of benefits and if the ongoing cost of GPS trackers put you off — you should seriously consider them as an alternative.

Summary — GPS trackers and your luggage

GPS smart luggage trackers are a great way to have a piece of mind over your luggage, and can be a lifesaver on occasions when it goes missing.

The ability to track your bags doesn’t just extend to the airport.

With GPS bag tag’s becoming increasingly light and portable, you can ensure your bag, wallet or even keys are always to be found when you are not using your tracker with your smart luggage.

baggage carousel gps clever bag tag

This convenience does come at a cost — in the form of an ongoing monthly contract — which is a disadvantage over bluetooth trackers. However, smart GPS tags come with many advantages in terms of accuracy and real time updating.

Here’s a final roundup of all the things to be aware of when choosing the right GPS bag tag:

  • Type: GPS / GSM or Hybrid
  • Battery: Rechargeable, multiple power modes, ideally replaceable
  • Aircraft compatibility and flight safe compliance
  • Value for money: Consider ongoing cellular costs with purchase price
  • Brand: Choose a well established and reputable brand
  • Overseas coverage of data — especially if you travel to southeast Asia frequently