What to Do When an Airline Loses Your Luggage

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empty airport luggage claim carousel

You’ve been planning your trip for months. You’ve lined up every sick day your company allows and two and a half years of accumulated vacation time. You’re going to enjoy every minute of it. Your anticipation builds as the plane’s wheels touch down. All you need to do is collect your bag, chat with a customs agent and you’ll soon be sampling your first local beer of the trip. Except when you get to baggage claim, your pack – the one and only piece of luggage you’ll be bringing on your multi-month adventure – is not the there. Ouch. What do you do?

Airlines worldwide lose an astonishing reported 26 million pieces of luggage per year. Whether it’s loading it on the wrong plane, routing it to the wrong destination or damage to its routing label, it happens. You probably know someone to whom it’s happened, and if you travel enough, eventually it will likely happen to you. The good news is that 98 percent of lost luggage is found. The question is how can you ensure that you will be part of the 98 percent and when your luggage is found that it will be returned to you. Here is how to make that happen:

Lost luggage claim form

It’s best to fill out a lost luggage claim form before you leave the airport.

First: Don’t leave the airport without filing a claim: Sure, the music festival you came for starts in an hour and a half and your friends will likely have clothes for you. But it’s essential that you start the process and paperwork trail immediately. If you are unlucky enough to be part of the 2 percent of bags not found, how is the airline to know that you didn’t simply pick up your bag and then get robbed on the way to the hotel?

How to file the claim: No two airports are alike. London’s Heathrow has little in common with an island airstrip in the Caribbean. But they all should have either a claims or reservations desk. In filing a claim, make sure to include your name, the flight number, the date and time of the flight and any correspondence with the airline that connects you to that flight and your bag.

a pile of purchase receipts

Many airlines will reimburse you for limited expenses related to lost luggage, but you’ll need to show them your receipts.

Keep a record and receipts of expenses incurred as a result of your lost luggage. Chances are you’ll get your bag back within a day or two of filing your claim. But you’ll need a few necessities and toiletries to tide you over. Some airlines will provide you funds immediately upon filing a claim for necessities whiles others will pay you back later. But most major airlines will reimburse you for these as long as you keep an itemized list and receipts of your expenses. You might even be able to have them waive your baggage fees since they failed to adequately provide that service. The reimbursement process can take up to six weeks, and each airline’s definition of “reasonable expenses” can vary, but you’ve spent enough on your trip already so every penny counts.

You’ll also want to have an itemized list of everything that was in your bag. This seems like a lot of work, but if your bag is fully lost, you’ll need this to seek reimbursement.  According to the U. S. Department of Transportation, airline liability for loss luggage reimbursements is capped at $3,300. But you definitely don’t want to be storing items worth thousands of dollars in your checked bag anyway. Anything that expensive should be carried with you or left at home.

Third: Follow-up: Surprising as it is to hear, finding your particular piece of luggage is not the number one priority of most major airlines. So be polite, but be consistent. Continue to call and email until the bag is found or officially determined to be lost. (See below on what to do if determined to be lost). Make sure you get a claim reference number when you file your claim and use that in all of your follow-up communications. You can also keep in contact with the appropriate airports lost and found. Here is the contact information for the lost and found departments of United States airports by state.

If Your Bag is Completely Lost

Luggage that has been completely lost by an airline

If your bag is completely lost, do not curse the travel gods (you will need them during the rest of your trip) and do not curse the airline staff as they are likely not the ones who made the mistake and you will need them too.

File a new claim: At this stage, a whole new round of fun begins. You must file a claim for reimbursement with the airline usually within 3 to 6 weeks after the bag is declared lost. In filing a claim, you will need your ticket, all your baggage check-in information and baggage charges, an itemized list with values for all of the items in your luggage and, for expensive items, you also sometimes need to show proof of ownership, such as a credit card statement or receipt.

Two figures of people negotiating

You can negotiate with airlines over the value of your lost luggage reimbursement and related expenses.

Negotiate: This is not a cut-and-dried process. When an airline loses your luggage they estimate the value of your lost items and the reimbursement they will provide based on their own equations. They also only reimburse for your items’ depreciated value – not the value at which you purchased them. So they may not give you as much as you believe you deserve. They also may deny some claims outright. If they offer you free tickets, demand to know the limitations and the blackout periods of those tickets. Definitely negotiate if you don’t feel your settlement is fair. In an era of social media and quick and easy access to your rights (see below), you have more leverage than you think.

This is not a fun process: Airlines often require receipts and proof of ownership. They also have an extensive list of things that they do not cover, such as expensive jewelry and family heirlooms. (Another reason to pack only the basics). It can then take up to three months for you to receive the actual reimbursement.

Prevent Airlines from Losing your Bag in the First Place

The best way to prevent all of this hassle is for the airline not to lose your bag in the first place. And though that is largely out of your control, there are a few things you can do that will greatly increase the chance your bag will arrive where you do.

Verify: Being a ticketing agent at an airline is a tough job. The lines never ends and mistakes happen. So after the agent has printed out your bag’s label and wrapped it around the handle, ask to see it to verify that it is going where you want it to go. Also make sure you get a claim ticket. They won’t be offended. You’ll also want to make sure all previous labels are removed so quick-moving baggage handlers don’t look at the wrong one. And make sure to clarify if you need to re-check your bag at a layover of if it is being checked directly to your final destination.

Luggage tags to prevent lost luggage

Luggage tags help prevent airlines from losing your luggage and help you get your luggage back with it is lost.

Use Luggage Tags: If your bag is lost, luggage tags greatly increase your chance of getting it back and also allow handlers or others in a strange airport to identify and notify you immediately. Luggage tags are leather or plastic, business-card size accessories you attached to your bag which contain your name, address, phone number, email and any other information you would like to provide. You’ll also want to place a luggage tag or other identifying information and your itinerary inside your bag. Check out all of Backpack Travel Store’s luggage tags.

Mark and Photograph Your Bag: you want to make your bag stand out as much as possible. This makes it easier to identify if lost and reduces the likelihood it will be mistakenly picked up by another traveller at the baggage carousel. You can do this by either purchasing a bag with crazy colors or unique design or simply by tying a bandana with a bright color or unique design around one of your bag’s handles. You’ll also want to photograph your bag, so if it is lost you can email the photo to airline officials in your effort to get it back.

List and Photograph the Items in Your Bag: This sounds like a hassle but only takes a few moments. Before you pack, lay everything out on your bed and simply take a quick cell phone photo. Also, keep a written list as you will need to provide this for reimbursement if your bag is lost.

TSA Approved Luggage Locks

TSA Approved Luggage Locks

Use TSA Approved Luggage Locks: TSA-approved luggage locks are vital to not only keep the bad guys out but to allow transportation officials in. Transportation officials may need to get in your bag to help identify it. These locks are designed to allow transportation officials to use a master key to unlock them and they include a built-in indicator letting you know when the locks have been unlocked and someone has been in your bag.

Get to the Airport Early and Avoid Tight Connections: It makes sense. The more time and the less rushed airline staff are in handling your bag at check-in or connections, the fewer mistakes they will make. It’s also best to avoid curbside check-in. The fewer hands a bag goes through, the less chance of a misdirection.

Don’t Pack Valuables in Your Checked Luggage: Granted, this tip doesn’t actually affect whether your bag is lost or not. But it will make you a whole lot happier if it is. Your camera, your jewellery, medications, really anything of actual value to you – sentimental or financial – should be carried on or left at home.

And if you want to be super cautious, purchase travel insurance. Travel insurance is a hit and miss proposition. Some consider it a waste of money, while those who have been reimbursed by it consider it the greatest decision they ever made. It’s up to you.

Be familiar with TSA airline regulations: The Transportation Safety Administration has many guidelines that are designed to help you maximize the likelihood of a smooth trip. In addition to the above, check out the Department of Transportation’s packing guidelines. And here is a complete list of TSA airline flight rules and regulations.

And If All Else Fails

Stuff happens. Whether you believe in Karma or just mathematical probability, things don’t always work out as we like. If you are part of the unlucky 2 percent that doesn’t get your luggage back or you feel the airline hasn’t handled the situation properly or provided you with the value of reimbursement you need, you can always file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

So remember, luggage gets lost. But it doesn’t have to be a crisis. Remember to put as little in your checked bag is possible and be diligent in your efforts to try to get it back. And above all, enjoy the journey.

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