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How to Cope with Lost Luggage on Vacation

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You’re standing at the baggage carousel for what seems like forever when the steady flow of bags onto the conveyor belt slows to a trickle, then stops. Your bags are nowhere in sight. Or your bags do show up, but look like an angry gorilla has been throwing them around his cage for sport. Who’s responsible for your damaged, delayed, or lost luggage?

As long as airlines have been checking baggage, they’ve been sending a few somewhere other than where they were supposed to go. Fortunately, airlines are doing better recently than they did 20 years ago, so your chances for a happy ending have improved for two reasons:

  • They’re losing fewer bags. The government has been collecting statistics on mishandled bag reports for decades, and the number of mishandled bag reports per 100,000 passengers has dropped from a high of seven in the early 1990s to about three since 2009.
  • They’re getting better at tracking the bags they do lose. With barcoded tags and even a few RFID-enabled tags, the airlines’ systems keep excellent track of bags. The last two times I’ve had a bag problem, an agent at the lost-baggage desk was able to tell me immediately where my bag was and the flight on which it would arrive.

Although airline performance has improved, what you do when an airline mishandles a bag remains about as it was in the 1990s. Below is guidance about what to do if your luggage is delayed, lost, or damaged, as well as tips for preventing these scenarios.

What to Do If Your Luggage Is Delayed

If your bags don’t arrive on the carousel, try not to panic. Most so-called “lost” baggage really isn’t lost; rather, it’s delayed. And in most cases an airline can reunite you with your baggage within 24 hours.

When you realize that your bag isn’t going to show up on the carousel, go immediately to your airline’s lost-baggage counter, which you’ll find in most big-airport baggage areas. In smaller airports, ask any airline employee where to go. Even if you have someplace you need to be, report missing baggage before you leave the airport. (Some airline contracts specify that you must file no later than four hours after arrival; others say 24 hours.) When filing your claim, give the attendant a hotel or home address, as well as a phone number where you can be reached.

Hand over your baggage check (but write down the numbers) and fill out the form, making sure to get a copy of any relevant tracking numbers, websites, and phone numbers (some airlines have an online system while others will provide you with a phone number to call for updates). Note the name of the agent that handles your claim as well as the estimated time your bag will arrive.

If your bags are on the next flight, you could have them within a few hours. If they’ve been sent to the wrong airport, it could take a couple of days. If your baggage is delayed on a connecting itinerary involving more than one airline, you deal with the airline that flew you to your final destination, even if you think the first airline was responsible.

The airlines typically bring you your luggage when it is found; you will rarely need to return to the airport to pick it up. If you’re staying at a hotel or resort, alert the front desk about an incoming bag. Airlines usually deliver delayed bags at no cost to you, but some may ask you to pay.

Additionally, many airlines will reimburse any unexpected expenses caused by the loss or delay (keep your receipts!). No law requires any specific assistance, only that airlines must have a policy and make it available to you.

At a minimum, airlines typically cover overnight needs such as toothpaste and such; some lines stock and hand out regular overnight kits at the lost-baggage desk. If your bag is lost on a flight arriving at an airport other than your home, many airlines offer to cover all or part of the cost of items you may need to continue your vacation or business trip. Some airlines offer a set daily allowance; others offer to reimburse you for items you buy on the basis of receipts. And some airlines say almost nothing beyond “We’ll get your bag back.” Very little is set; prepare to negotiate.

Only one major U.S. airline, Alaska, provides any monetary compensation for delayed baggage: If the line doesn’t deliver your checked baggage within 20 minutes of arrival at the gate, it issues a voucher for $25 toward a future flight or 2,500 frequent-flyer miles. Other airlines do not issue refunds of baggage fees until your suitcase is declared lost.

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What to Do If Your Luggage Is Lost

If an airline doesn’t get your bag back to you within five days, the bag may be truly lost. An airline defines “lost” at anywhere from five to 30 days, at which point both you and the airline proceed on the assumption that you’ll never see your bag again.

If the airline loses your bags, make sure you get a written claim for damages. This may require a different form than the original “missing luggage” form. This can be done at the airport or online.

The maximum an airline pays on lost bags and their contents is generally limited to $3,500 per passenger on U.S. domestic flights, and a varying rate per passenger for checked baggage on international flights based on the Warsaw Convention or the Montreal Convention. In the United States, if you paid a checked baggage fee for your lost bag, the airline must refund your fee. Check your carrier’s website for specifics.

You can purchase “excess valuation” protection from your airline if your checked baggage is worth more than these limits, but before doing so, make sure the items aren’t already covered by your homeowner’s or travel insurance policy. Some credit card companies and travel agencies also offer optional or automatic supplemental baggage coverage.

The airlines typically have a long list of items for which they will not be held responsible; these include jewelry, money, heirlooms, and other valuables. These items should always be left at home or packed in your carry-on bag.

Any lost baggage claim process is obviously a negotiation. Airlines will typically cover only the depreciated value of whatever you say you lost, not the original purchase price. They will ask for receipts, even for a suit you bought 10 years ago. You may go back and forth several times before reaching a deal. The airline may offer you a voucher for future travel in lieu of cash, which is generally a good deal only if the voucher value is double to triple a satisfactory cash value and, even then, only if the voucher conditions actually allow you to travel.

What to Do If Your Luggage Is Damaged

Once you’ve gotten your bags off the carousel, immediately check them for damage or other signs of tampering or mishandling. Report any damage before leaving the airport; airline customer service agents will often want to inspect the bag.

Keep in mind that most airlines won’t cover minor damage such as bumps, scratches, dents, and scuffs, nor will they cover damage to straps, pulls, locks, or wheels that are the result of normal wear and tear. Airlines will generally cover broken fragile items packed in your luggage only if they are packed in a container designed for shipping. And they exclude damage or loss claims for a long list of high-value items such as jewelry, computers, and cameras that are both fragile and tempting targets for theft.

Airlines won’t take responsibility for damage that occurred during a TSA inspection. If you think your baggage was damaged during a TSA inspection (all inspected bags will have a written notification inside), call 866-289-9673 to report it. When that happens, expect a protracted “he said, she said” tussle between the TSA and the airline.

You will most likely need to produce a receipt for any repairs or be required to use airline-sanctioned luggage repair vendors. Ask the baggage claim attendant for specific information. You don’t want to find out that you have paid for a repair that isn’t covered.

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What to Do If Your Luggage Is Stolen

Head directly to the baggage carousel when you get off your flight to minimize the potential time for your bag to be stolen. Many airlines scan bags when they’re loaded into the baggage claim area and keep records, especially at larger airports. If your bag goes missing after you’ve left the baggage claim area, your claim is no longer with the airline, but with the police. Your homeowner’s insurance may cover a stolen suitcase; if it doesn’t, consider purchasing travel insurance.

How to Appeal Your Lost Luggage Complaint

If you can’t reach a satisfactory resolution with your airline and you feel the need for further assistance, file a complaint with the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

How to Prevent Lost Luggage

Of course, all of this information assumes the worst has already happened and damage control is needed. Nothing undermines a well-planned vacation quite like no-show luggage. So how can travelers safeguard their stuff? The obvious solutions are to book a nonstop flight or pack everything in a carry-on, but clearly this won’t work for everyone. Fortunately, there are other ways to ensure you can avoid these worst-case scenarios altogether.

  1. Put your name and cell phone number on the outside and inside of your bags, and include a travel itinerary. Luggage tags can easily be torn off in the rough-and-tumble handling process, but a name and contact info—along with a copy of your itinerary—placed on top of your belongings inside your bag will almost certainly stay put.
  2. Take a picture of your luggage. If your bag has gone AWOL and you’re attempting to get it back, photo evidence will help. Take a picture of the outside of your bag to show the airline staff member who is helping you locate it. Snap a picture of the inside of your bag as well; this will come in handy in case you need to file an insurance claim for your lost belongings. It’s also wise to take a quick photo of your baggage-claim ticket, in case you lose it.
  3. Customize your luggage. Suitcases, unfortunately, sometimes suffer from a case of mistaken identity at the baggage carousel. This is especially likely to happen when half of your plane is traveling with the same black Samsonite. Give your bag a makeover with a colorful luggage strap or some neon duct tape. For more ideas, see 9 Ways to Make Your Luggage Stand Out.
  4. Arrive at your departure airport early. Travelers who check in late—whether they arrived at the airport with only minutes to spare or got held up in a meandering check-in line—are more likely to get separated from their bags. Baggage handlers need time to process luggage and load it onto planes. Aim to arrive at the airport a couple of hours before your flight (or more for international flights or busy holiday periods).
  1. Avoid tight connections, as these increase the likelihood that your bags will go missing. If your flight is late, the window of time for airport staff to transfer your bag from one plane to the next narrows. Some booking sites sell domestic multi-leg itineraries with layovers of less than an hour, which doesn’t leave any wiggle room in an industry in which flights are frequently delayed. International connections can take even more time if you have to reclaim your bags, go through security, and check them again. For this reason, it’s important to allow plenty of time—two or more hours, ideally—on international layovers, and at least 90 minutes for domestic connections.
  2. Don’t put valuables or “can’t be without it” items in your checked baggage (medicine, important papers, jewelry, laptops). Pack all such items in your carry-on. See 10 Things Not to Do When Checking a Bag for more information.
  3. Make a list of packed items and their estimated value before you leave. It sounds tedious, but when an airline asks what was in your bag, you don’t want to forget anything of value. If you make a packing list before you travel, hang on to it—this is an easy way to remember everything you put into your bags. Keep receipts for any expensive items you pack, as you may be required to send copies of them to the airline in the case of a lost bag. If you absolutely have to check some of those items, insure them separately: An airline won’t cover them even if you buy excess-value coverage.
  4. Make sure the person who checks your baggage attaches the correct destination ticket to every bag, and get a claim ticket for each. Always remove old claim tags to prevent confusion about your destination. Better yet, opt for a smarter luggage tag. Several high-tech brands of tags feature codes or microchips that travelers can use to find lost luggage. Consider Dynotags, SuperSmartTag, or ReboundTAG.
  5. Pack a change of clothes in your carry-on bag so you’ll have something to wear if your checked bag is lost or delayed. If you’re traveling with a partner, consider dividing each person’s clothes between your checked bags; this way if one of the bags is lost, you’ll each still have some of your belongings.
  6. Travel insurance is the best guarantee that you’ll recoup any losses. See Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know for more information.

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What to Pack on Your Next Trip

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with the latest information. Ed Perkins, Caroline Costello, and Margaret Leahy contributed to this story.

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

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