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What to Do When Your Checked Bag Is Lost

You’ve probably been there: waiting at the baggage claim carousel, while other folks from your flight grab their bags, the claim area empties, the conveyor stops, and still no bag. As long as airlines have been checking baggage, they’ve been sending a few somewhere other than where they were supposed to go. Airlines are doing better recently than they did 20 years ago, however, so your chances for a happy, or at least satisfactory, ending have improved:

  • They’re losing fewer bags, or in airline-ese, “mishandled” 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, somewhat unevenly, from 5 to 7 in the early 1990s to 3 to 4 since 2009.
  • They’re getting better at tracking the bags they do lose. With barcoded tags and now, a few RFID-enabled tags, their 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 loses a bag remains about as it was in the 1990s.

Delayed Bags

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 or less.

When you realize that your bag isn’t going to show up on the carousel, go immediately to your airline’s lost-baggage counter or equivalent that you 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. If your baggage is delayed on a connecting itinerary involving more than one airline, you deal with the airline that flew you to your destination, even if you think the first airline was responsible.

Hand over your baggage check (but write down the numbers) and fill out the form, making sure to get a copy, with the relevant tracking numbers, airline phone number or baggage-tracking website, and such. Note the name of the agent that handles your claim, and note the estimated time your bag will arrive.

Negotiate

Ask exactly how, when, and where the airline plans to deliver your bag. Normally, an airline delivers your bag to a local hotel or residence address the same day the bag arrives at your airport. If you need a different delivery location, ask for it. Airlines usually deliver delayed bags at no cost to you, but some may ask you to pay. And if you’re staying at a hotel or resort, alert the front desk about an incoming bag.

Ask what the airline provides in the way of assistance. 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 you bag back.” Very little is set; instead, you’re likely involved in a negotiation.

Lost Bags

If most lines don’t get your bag back to you within five days, the bag falls into a category of “maybe really lost.” You have to submit more information, but you can also enter more claims. An airline defines “really 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.

Damaged Bags

Generally, airlines will not take responsibility for minor damage to your luggage, 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 extra-fragile items or 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. In the event that you think your baggage was damaged during a TSA inspection (All inspected bags will have a written notification inside.), call 866-289-9673. And when that happens, expect a protracted “he said, she said” tussle between the TSA and the airline.

Compensation

Only one big 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. But this rule applies to all baggage, not just delayed baggage.

Other airlines do not issue any compensation for delayed baggage, even when you pay a checked-bag fee. Congress recently urged the DOT to rule that airlines must refund baggage fees if baggage isn’t delivered within 24 hours. In my view, that’s inadequate. The “hassle factor” begins as soon as your flight arrives without your baggage, and the refund should apply immediately. But even the weak proposal is iffy.

Whether delayed or really lost, baggage has a current maximum loss/damage claim of $3,500 on a completely domestic flight. The cap on international flights, including domestic segments, is set at 1,131 Special Drawing Rights, currently worth about $1,600.

Any claim process is obviously a negotiation. Airlines say they cover only depreciated value of whatever you say you lost. They 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 also 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.

Prevention

Don’t put the obvious valuable stuff or “can’t be without it” items in your checked baggage (medicine, important papers, jewelry, laptops). Carry it with you. Make a list of packed items and their estimated value before you leave. Keep receipts for 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. And remove old claim tags to prevent confusion about your destination.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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