What to Do If an Airline Loses Your Luggage: 10 Simple Steps
Lost luggage happens. Here's what to do if it happens to you.
It’s a terrible feeling to find yourself standing at the airport baggage carousel, watching everyone else retrieve their checked bags and ultimately accepting that yours isn’t coming around the bend. If you’ve ever had to deal with lost luggage, you’re hardly alone.
U.S. airlines lost or mishandled more than 700,000 pieces of luggage in the first half of 2021, and it seems they were just ramping up. According to U.K.-based luggage storage company Radical Storage, 1.9 million pieces of baggage were reported lost, stolen or damaged by U.S. airlines in 2021.
This year has been even more challenging, with airlines and airports barely managing to get by as a result of staffing issues. A delayed or canceled flight can be the difference between bags that make it to your final destination and those that wind up on the lost luggage list. The Department of Transportation’s May 2022 Air Travel Consumer Report found that airlines lost, delayed or damaged nearly 238,000 bags, an 80% increase compared with May 2021. The following month, airlines mishandled nearly 302,000 bags, a 25% increase from the previous year. What’s more, in the first six months of the year, U.S. airlines have mishandled more than 1.4 million bags.
Booking on airlines less likely to lose your bag is a great way to increase the chances of your luggage joining you on your trip. But as you plan your vacation and head to the airport, consider whether it’s smarter to check your bag or finally learn how to pack light.
What to do if your bag is lost
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If your suitcase doesn’t show up at baggage claim, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of recovering it or—if your bag isn’t found in a timely manner or at all—to receive compensation for the lost luggage. Valerie Edman, owner and luxury travel advisor at Cultured Travel, breaks it down step by step:
- Confirm your luggage is indeed lost. Airline workers may offload a flight’s bags in waves, so wait at least 45 minutes for luggage to arrive on the conveyor belt. After 45 minutes, check nearby conveyor belts. Still no luggage? Remain calm.
- Locate the baggage desk for the airline that operated the final leg of your flight.
- Inform the desk agent about the missing luggage.
- File a missing baggage report.
- Provide a local address and contact information so the airline can deliver the luggage to you.
- Get the phone number of the baggage desk and a reference or tracking number to follow up if necessary.
- Ask the airline what it will cover for reimbursement.
- Request an overnight kit and ask for an allowance for reasonable expenses.
- Go shopping to get the basics. Make sure to keep all the receipts.
- Call your travel insurance company, if you have one. (More on that below.)
Talk to a desk agent
However hurried you are to get where you’re going, avoid the temptation to take the easy way out. In other words, don’t expect to send an email about your lost luggage.
“You must make a lost luggage claim at the airport, in person, unless the airline staff directs you to call a service number, preferably on a phone they provide,” says Frank Harrison, a World Travel Protection regional security director for North America and the United Kingdom. “Even if you’re ready to leave the airport and get to your final destination, go to the airline’s customer care desk inside the luggage arrival hall. If there is no customer support desk or personnel in the baggage claims area, go to the main customer service desk on the check-in side of the terminal.”
The last thing you want (after lost luggage, of course) is to leave the airport and realize you have more questions for the baggage claim agent. Edman stresses how important it is to “get the phone number of the baggage desk and a reference or tracking number to follow up if necessary.”
Ask the right questions
Some sources say that airlines are required to deliver your bags free of charge, but as the Department of Transportation website states, “don’t assume that the airline will deliver the bag without charge when it is found; ask the airline about this.” There are a host of things airlines won’t tell you, so it’s best to read the fine print, ask questions and get your answers in writing.
While you’re peppering the desk agent with questions, find out whether the airline will cover reasonable expenses. If not, you need to know the details of its reimbursement policy before you hit up a local Target for the basics. According to the Department of Transportation, airlines that don’t provide cash advances for necessities may reimburse you for purchases of those items. (A traveler needs clean underwear, after all.)
But instead of assuming, the department suggests discussing exactly which items an airline will reimburse you for buying and keeping your receipts. Athletic travelers will be pleased to hear that airlines that misplace sporting equipment may cover your fee for the rental of replacements.
Touch base with your travel insurance
The next step is to call your travel insurance company, if you purchased a plan. It should cover lost or delayed luggage, so call to find out the specifics of your coverage and how to file a claim.
If you don’t want to buy travel insurance, you can sign up for a service such as Blue Ribbon Bags, which helps expedite and locate any lost luggage. Rates start at $5 per bag, and if the company doesn’t find your lost luggage within 96 hours, it pays out $1,000 per bag.
Track your luggage
Generally speaking, you can track your bag using the airline’s app, if it has one, or its website.
American Airlines had the highest rates of mishandled or lost luggage in 2021, so if you fly the friendly skies on this airline and lose your bags in the process, you can track them on the company’s website or via its app. United Airlines comes in second for mishandled bags, and it offers baggage tracking through the United app.
As a backup, tech expert and frequent flier Andreas Grant of Networks Hardware recommends using an Apple AirTag to help prevent lost luggage. “I specifically suggest AirTags,” he says, “One of my friends managed to recover his bag using an AirTag even though the airline authority was claiming that they lost it. My friend gave them the exact location of his missing bag, which helped him stand his ground and request the airlines do their job.”
You don’t have to use this particular product if you don’t want—other manufacturers, like Tile, make small tracking devices—but Grant is partial to the Apple product. “There are other similar gadgets,” he says, “but the network of iOS devices is what makes an AirTag better than its competitor.”
What airlines do and don’t cover
As much as travelers would like an airline to reimburse them for every last item in their lost luggage, that’s not a realistic expectation.
According to the Department of Transportation, airlines don’t consider missing bags lost right away. Though policies differ by company and may depend on whether you were traveling domestically or internationally, it usually takes between five and 14 days post-flight for an airline to declare a bag is lost.
Per the department’s regulations, airlines don’t have to pay more than $3,800 for luggage lost on domestic flights. And the maximum amount they’re liable for on luggage lost during international flights is about $1,780.
“In this day and age of travel, few airlines will offer more than a lost report opportunity and an eventual small settlement if permanently lost,” says Harrison. “Before you travel, verify if the airline offers support beyond tracking and loss claims. Make sure you know the replacement value coverage. Some policies will only cover a portion of the claimed loss. Know in advance before you pack that expensive branded bag and clothes.”
Meghan Walch, a travel insurance expert with InsureMyTrip, points out that fragile items and electronics are often not covered by airlines. So it’s always a good idea to know up front what your specific airline will or won’t cover in the case of lost luggage.
As for what the airline owes you when your baggage has been delayed, there are Department of Transportation regulations for that as well. For starters, airlines are responsible for locating the bag. And they need to reimburse travelers for reasonable expenses incurred while they wait for their bags. While they’re prohibited from setting a random reimbursement amount for daily expenses, they’re able to set a maximum fee for reimbursements.
How travel insurance can help with lost luggage
Travel insurance helps with lost luggage as well as travel mishaps such as last-minute flight cancelations and delays and rental car issues. It’s a safety net in case you end up sans luggage, and it’s one that’s probably worth the investment, experts say. “If the pandemic can be used as a lesson, it is that no one person can manage this risk alone, no matter how travel-savvy they believe they are,” says Harrison.
If your bags unexpectedly go missing, your travel insurance will compensate you for the loss. And if your bags get delayed, the insurance may cover the cost of essential items to tide you over. Plus, it “may have coverage if something is stolen from the luggage at a hotel or while on a tour,” Walch says. So travel insurance may help cover more than just luggage lost while flying.
Travel insurance is relatively affordable, but the cost depends on factors like the destination, travelers’ ages, the length of the trip and the total cost of the trip. Insurance for a two-week, $3,000 trip in the United States for a middle-aged person is about $100, while insurance for a one-week, $5,000 trip for two to Italy is closer to $200. You can browse individual travel insurance websites or use a tool to compare plans and get a benchmark for rates.
Susan Sherren, founder of luxury travel consulting company Couture Trips, prefers Allianz travel insurance for her trips, but her bottom line is this: When faced with lost luggage, you’ll have an easier time dealing with your travel insurance than with the airline. “Purchase travel insurance,” she says. “Most plans vary on their coverages, but it is [more] ideal to submit a claim with them than to wrangle with airlines who don’t even pick up their phones.”
How your credit card could help with lost luggage
You might not need separate travel insurance if you have a credit card that offers travel coverage. Anthony Martin, founder and CEO of Choice Mutual, is not only an insurance agent but also a frequent business traveler. He points out that many credit cards offer protection from loss or damage on a wide range of things, including delayed or lost luggage.
“Chase will reimburse up to $3,000 for damaged luggage on a flight that was booked using your Chase Sapphire Reserve card,” Martin says. The card also gives travelers with lost luggage $100 a day for up to five days so they can purchase essentials such as toiletries, clothes and one cell phone charger. You should always carry contacts, glasses, hearing aids, tickets, valuable documents, money, jewelry and other valuables in your carry-on bag, as those items are excluded from coverage.
It’s worth noting that you’ll pay mightily for the assurance Chase’s card provides. It has an annual fee of $550 a year. Still, it may be worth it for frequent fliers.
How to prevent lost luggage
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Nonstop flights are more expensive, but they’re also one of the best ways to prevent lost luggage because you eliminate worries about your bag making it onto a connecting flight when there are airline delays or time is otherwise cut short.
“Fly direct when possible, as this limits the number of transfers your luggage has to do, which minimizes the risks of luggage being lost,” says Leona Bowman, packing expert for Wear When What Why. Bowman’s business offers packing lists and tips for destinations on six continents and serves up this top tip for preventing lost luggage: Don’t check your bags.
Suitcase-packing mistakes can lead to overstuffed bags that need to be checked, and checked bags are at risk for being lost. The solution: Learn ways to pack lighter when you travel and become an expert in packing tips and tricks. Packing cubes are a huge help, and so is knowing how to source the best travel-size toiletries. It also never hurts to take pointers from a travel writer who packs for two weeks in one carry-on.
“You can’t lose something that never leaves your person,” Bowman says. That’s why traveling with only a carry-on is the way to go.
Sherren agrees. “Avoid checking bags for domestic flights—period,” she says. “And pack two days worth of clothing and necessary toiletries in your carry-on if you travel overseas and check any luggage.”
Traveling light requires some effort and forward thinking. For instance, if you’re going on a hiking trip and want to bring only a carry-on, you’re going to have to wear your hiking boots and perhaps some of your outerwear. It might not be the most comfortable, but it will prevent the hassle of lost luggage, especially if you can’t purchase some of the must-have items in a pinch.
“If you have a comfortable pair of shoes that would be suitable for both sightseeing and dinners, wear those on the plane,” suggests Daniel Jones of Haversham & Baker Expeditions. “Don’t forget medications. Besides plug adapters and charging cords, take a moment to consider other things that you may not want to arrive without, like a rain jacket if you’re visiting Ireland or the U.K., or your swimsuit if you’re going to a tropical destination.”
Before you go
If you wind up with lost luggage and need to make a claim with the airline and/or your travel insurance company or credit card, you’re going to need to know what you had in your bags. And the more you can prove, the better off you’ll be.
“Pre-departure, document and take photos of packed items and luggage conditions to aid a lost or damaged luggage claim,” Edman says.
And make sure it’s clear that these items made it to the airport with you. “Take a photo of your bag at the airport, displaying your ID tag, before checking in,” Sherren says.
Many people buy new things right before a trip, and if you do this, save all the receipts and take photos of these items in your luggage. “You’ll need to prove the value of your lost belongings,” says Edman. “This can be done with receipts, but if you don’t have receipts, you may be able to provide an estimate of the value of your belongings.”
- Valerie Edman, owner and luxury travel advisor at Cultured Travel
- Frank Harrison, regional security director of North America for World Travel Protection
- Andreas Grant, frequent flier and tech expert at Networks Hardware
- Meghan Walch, travel insurance expert with InsureMyTrip
- Susan Sherren, founder of Couture Trips
- Anthony Martin, founder and CEO of Choice Mutual
- Leona Bowman, packing expert for Wear When What Why
- Daniel Jones of Haversham & Baker Expeditions
- U.S. Department of Transportation: “Air Travel Consumer Reports for 2022”
- U.S. Department of Transportation: “Lost, Delayed, or Damaged Baggage”
- Radical Storage: “U.S. Airlines: Which Mishandle Baggage & Oversell Seats the Most”