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Recovery for baggage theft

You arrive at the airport for the beginning of your vacation, claim your checked baggage, take a quick look, and discover that something you packed is missing. It doesn’t happen all the time, obviously, but it happens often enough to be a real hassle. It’s even more of a hassle if the airline refuses to reimburse you for the loss, as was the case for a reader who recently lost a laptop computer that way.

Although you can’t ever guarantee a hassle-free trip, you can take some steps to minimize either the chances or financial risks of baggage theft or loss when you fly.

Airline responsibility

On a domestic trip, airlines are liable for up to $3,000, per passenger, per trip, for loss of or damage to your checked baggage or items packed in that baggage. Limits on some international trips are sharply lower—as low as about $650 per bag or $1,500 per passenger, per trip.

Moreover, airline liability comes with some significant caveats:

  • The amount you can recover is based on depreciated, not replacement value.
  • Airlines say they won’t cover damage or loss due to security screening—and you can’t always tell who was responsible for any given problem.
  • Airlines won’t provide any recovery at all for the sorts of items most likely to be stolen or damaged. Here, for example, is what American excludes:
    “Photographic equipment, computers, VCRs, and any other electronic equipment including software or components; jewelry, cash, documents, furs, works of art, or other similar valuable items, including but not limited to antiques, books, china, fragile items, liquids, medicines, perishable items, securities, negotiable papers, or silverware.” Other airlines use similar lists.

Most airlines will increase the maximum baggage liability if you pay extra. Even then, however, those lines continue to exclude the specified valuable items.

Travel insurance coverage

Although most bundled travel insurance policies include some coverage for lost/damaged baggage, even a separate travel insurance policy doesn’t protect you against the sort of loss our reader experienced:

  • Limits on most policies are $1,000 per person, with a maximum value of $300 per article or item.
  • Often, it’s secondary, meaning that it covers only what you can’t first recover from the airline.

Travel insurance does cover some items the airlines exclude, but not all of them. CSA Travel Protection and Travelex are reasonably representative of the industry. They:

  • Cover a combined maximum of $600 for jewelry, watches, articles consisting in whole or in part of silver, gold or platinum, articles trimmed with fur, cameras and their accessories, and related equipment.
  • Exclude telephones, computer hardware and software, plus professional or occupational equipment or property, whether or not electronic.

Other insurance coverage

Clearly, if you want to insure against loss or damage to a laptop computer, expensive camera, jewelry, or other items that are valuable to you—and to potential thieves—you have to go beyond the base airline liability and even ordinary travel insurance:

  • Your regular household insurance policy may cover many personal articles, even when you’re traveling and away from home. However, it may also exclude some high-value or extra risky items.
  • If you regularly travel with an expensive camera, laptop, or other electronic equipment, consider getting a year-round overall insurance policy for it. Many “factory warranties,” overpriced though they may be, could solve your problem. Or you might be better off with a special policy for those items—check with your property or household insurance agent.

Who’s responsible?

Whenever you note damage to or loss of checked baggage or anything packed in your baggage, the airline that delivers you to the destination where you first claim your bags is responsible for tackling your claim. If you used two or more airlines on a connecting ticket, it’s not up to you to try to figure out which line is responsible—the airlines sort it out among themselves.

Most lines specify that you should file your initial report within 24 hours of the time you reclaim your baggage. In general, the best time and place is at the arrival airport, but if you don’t notice the loss or damage until you arrive at home or a hotel, call the airline as soon as possible. Either way, you can expect a delay up to 60 days before the airline responds.

If you take out travel insurance, file a claim with the insurance carrier as soon as you can. With secondary coverage, expect the insurance company to wait until you settle with the airline before reaching their own settlement.

What to do

Given these facts, some basic rules about taking valuable items on an air trip become clear:

  • If you don’t really need it, leave it home. This rule applies especially to jewelry, precious metals, and such.
  • Never—repeat, never—pack valuable and thief-tempting items such as expensive cameras, computers, and phones in your checked baggage. If you need them, take them in your carry-on bag.
  • Arrange special insurance coverage for valuable items you regularly take with you on trips—especially laptops.
  • If you have to get valuable and irreplaceable items such as antiques, heirlooms, and papers from one point to another, ship them separately by express delivery, heavily insured.

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