What to Do When an Airline Loses Your Bag

Aug 11, 2017

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If you’re even a semi-frequent traveler, you’ve probably experienced that dreaded moment at baggage claim at least once. The bags for your flight start flowing onto the carousel, and one by one they’re picked up by your fellow passengers, eager to get onto their meetings, vacations or homes. The crowd dwindles in direct correlation with the number of bags on the belt, and soon it’s just you (with maybe a few other unlucky souls) as the carousel grinds to a halt. Your heart sinks as reality sets in: Your bag hasn’t arrived with you.

While this is definitely cause for action, don’t immediately give up hope! There are many steps you can take to minimize the stress and hassle of a situation like this. Today I want to go through my list of key things you can do when an airline loses your bag.

Let me address some semantics up front. The chances of an airline actually losing your bag (as in you never see it again) is very small. According to a report by SITA, a leading specialist in air transport communications and information technology, airlines “mishandled” just 5.73 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2017, which works out to roughly a 1 in 175 chance that your bag won’t arrive with you. However, of these mishandled bags, just 7% are truly lost for good, which works out to roughly 1 in every 2,500 passengers.

In this post, I’m using the word “loses” in the same way that SITA uses the word “mishandles,” as this most closely corresponds to the common vernacular used by travelers. After all, you’ve probably never received a call or text from a friend or family member with something like, “Guess what?? Delta mishandled my bag!” When your bag doesn’t appear at baggage claim, it is temporarily lost, and chances are quite good that it will eventually be returned. My suggestions below start with what to do when you first recognize that your bag didn’t travel with you, but you’ll notice that the last one applies if your bag is ultimately deemed lost for good.

So what should you do when your bag doesn’t arrive at baggage claim?

Stay Calm

Portrait of businessman in a vacation mood, wearing beach shorts, garlands and sunglasses, sitting in yoga pose and waiting for the flight at the airport.
You may not be this calm, but keeping your cool is an important first step when your baggage doesn’t arrive. Image courtesy of izusek via Getty Images.

The first bit of advice really applies to your entire flying experience: Stay calm. We’ve unfortunately seen incidents where passengers not keeping their cool have resulted in fisticuffs  There’s no debating that traveling can be stressful, and if your bags don’t arrive, that only ups the anxiety levels. However, the staff member to whom you are reporting the missing bag had nothing to do with the mishandling, so getting rude with him/her will get you nowhere. As my wife likes to say, “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar!” (And yes, she was raised in the South.)

Try to Find It in an Alternate Location

If your bag doesn’t come off the carousel at which you’re waiting, there’s a chance (albeit a slim one) that it could’ve made the flight but gotten offloaded elsewhere. Take a quick look at other carousels, and check to see if the bag somehow beat you there and is waiting in the airline’s baggage office or another holding area. A few years ago, I arrived back in Orlando one night from a work trip and was surprised to see my bag sitting there already. I had arrived at my departure airport early, so the airline sent it on an earlier flight. Though this rarely happens, it’s worth double-checking before bringing it to the airline’s attention.

Immediately Report It, and Document EVERYTHING

As soon as you determine that the bag did not in fact make the trip with you, immediately report it to the operating airline. If you were on a connecting itinerary with more than one airline, the claim must be filed with the operating carrier of your last flight, as that airline is ultimately responsible for delivering your bag to you, even if the bag never made it into its system. Keep in mind that if you’ve flown into a small airport, there’s a decent chance that you’ll need to report the missing bag to a contract agency that works with multiple airlines. Just look for the logo of the carrier that operated your last flight.

Hopefully this goes without saying, but when you notify the airline (or contractor) that your bag is missing, include every little bit of information you can about your bag and your travel plans. Provide a detailed description of the size, color and material of the bag, including any identifying tags. Ensure the claim has your local address and contact information, and be sure to get the phone number of the lost luggage desk as well as some type of reference or claim number. Many airlines have everything in a computer for easy tracking, but if your luggage is missing in an airport like Curacao (as my wife and I experienced a few years ago), you may wind up with the yellow copy of a triplicate form.

Don’t Go to Them; Make Them Come to You

As I mention above, one of the most important things to include in your claim is your local address. Do not offer or agree to return to the airport to retrieve your bags. Even if the agent claims that it will be on the next flight and asks you to wait in the airport, politely but firmly decline that suggestion. If your bag hasn’t arrived with you, the airline’s baggage office (or contract agency) is now responsible for getting it to you and should be willing to cover the cost of a courier to do so.

This may even work when you’re traveling to another city. Back in November 2011, my wife and I flew from Orlando (MCO) to Sydney (SYD) via Los Angeles (LAX) on a Delta award ticket. We then booked a separate one-way ticket from Sydney (SYD) to Adelaide (ADL) on Virgin Australia, as Delta wasn’t (at the time) able to include these flights on our award ticket. Unfortunately, our bags somehow were left in Los Angeles, and we were a bit nervous that Delta wouldn’t be able to get them to us in Adelaide. Fortunately, they arrived roughly 30 hours later, having been put on the next day’s LAX-SYD flight, transferred to a Virgin Australia flight and then driven to our hotel.

(NOTE: I was a Diamond Medallion member at the time, and Delta does have a partnership with Virgin, so as always, your miles may vary.)

Determine What the Airline Will Cover

If Delta mishandles your bag, you’re generally eligible for $50 (or even more) per day that your luggage remains missing.

While you’re filling out the form, be sure to ask what the airline is willing to provide as well as to what extent it will reimburse you. Many carriers will keep amenity kits on hand in baggage offices to pass out to customers with missing bags, but they should also provide some reimbursement for reasonable expenses. For example, Delta will cover “reasonable expenses” of roughly $50 per day, though this isn’t a formal cap; the airline could offer more to accommodate for unique circumstances. American and United, on the other hand, don’t specify a dollar amount when your bag is delayed, though they too cover items you need immediately when your bag is late.

Ask the agent with whom you file the missing bag report, as he/she should be able to provide you the guidelines for the given carrier, including whether or not you’re eligible for a refund of any checked baggage fee you paid. Just note that if you’re arriving back home after a vacation or business trip, the airline usually won’t cover any expenses (aside from returning your bag to you), as you should be able to simply go home and have access to all of the essential items you’ll need.

Go on a (Reasonable) Shopping Spree, and Keep Your Receipts

Once you’ve submitted your claim, the waiting game begins. However, to help pass the time, you may need to find a store to pick up the essentials you need while your bag is located. A change of clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant…these should all fall under the category of “reasonable” and be reimbursed without question. That being said, just about every airline will require original receipts for every purchase you make, so this isn’t an invitation to pick up a six-pack or go out to a nice dinner. Focus on the bare essentials in the hopes that your bag will arrive soon.

Track Your Bag Yourself

American is just one airline with online self-tracking features for lost bags.
American is just one airline with online self-tracking features for lost bags.

Once you’ve picked up these items and make it to your hotel or other accommodation, you may want to check the status of your bag yourself and see if there’s any update. Many carriers are moving toward more automated systems for tracking baggage (which should help not only locate missing bags but also help ensure they don’t get mishandled in the first place). If you have your original bag claim check or a reference number associated with the missing bag claim you submitted, you may be able to stay updated online.

Here are links to the major carrier’s online bag lookup tools:

  • American: Enter your first name, last name and file number.
  • Delta: Expand the Delayed Baggage header and enter you last name and bag tag number or file reference number.
  • United: Enter your file reference number and last name.

Escalate When Necessary

If you aren’t getting any updates through the online system and can’t get any details from the local airport, consider escalating the claim through other channels. When my bag didn’t make a connecting flight from New York-JFK to Montreal (YUL) back in 2014 and wasn’t loaded on any of the next three nonstops, I took to Twitter and contacted DeltaAssist, which promptly investigated and made sure it was added to the next flight. You can also try calling customer service, and if you have elite status with the carrier, this is a great time to pull the “how can you treat a loyal flyer like this?” card.

If you still aren’t getting anywhere, I’d recommend filing (or at least threatening to file) a complaint with the US Department of Transportation. While this almost certainly won’t help resolve your claim any quicker, it will draw greater attention to it. Since these complaints are compiled and reported each month (and were included in our guide to The Best and Worst Airlines in the United States earlier this year), airlines have an incentive to keep these at a minimum. Even if your bag is eventually located, any hassles or frustrations you encounter during the process should be reported.

Enlist the Help of Your Credit Card Issuer

Airlines may try to limit the reimbursement they provide for reasonable expenses when your bags are delayed, but fortunately there are many credit cards that cover baggage delays in their suite of protection benefits. Once your bags are delayed by a certain amount of time (generally 3-12 hours, depending on the card), you can be reimbursed for expenses you incur as a result of the delay. The best part is that this isn’t limited to expensive premium cards; it’s provided by several lower-fee ones as well.

Here’s a sampling of travel rewards credit cards with baggage delay coverage, along with pertinent details of the policy:

Card Length of Delay Maximum Amount Who’s Covered?
Chase Sapphire Reserve 6 hours $100 per day for 5 days Cardholder and immediate family
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 6 hours $100 per day for 5 days Cardholder and immediate family
Citi Prestige Card 3 hours $500 per traveler, per trip Cardholder, family members and travel companions
Citi Premier Card 6 hours $100 per traveler, per trip Cardholder, family members and travel companions
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard 12 hours $100 per day for 3 days Primary cardholder

As you can see, these cards can add some nice value if your bags are mishandled. However, you typically need to purchase part of (or sometimes the entire) trip with the given card in order for its baggage delay perks to kick in, so be sure to investigate the individual policy to understand what is and is not covered.

What to Expect If Your Bag Is Truly Lost

Generally speaking, an airline will classify your bag as truly lost after 14-21 days (though it may happen sooner). Once this determination is made, you’re now able to file a claim against the airline for lost (rather than delayed) baggage, and this typically allows for higher compensation. You’ll need to submit a new claim now that the bag is truly lost, and this process tends to be more detailed. Most claim forms will ask you to list out everything that was in the bag, including purchase dates and even original receipts for items over a certain dollar amount. Keep in mind that depreciation does apply; don’t expect to get full reimbursement for a suit you bought for $300 five years ago!

In addition, it’s important to note that this isn’t a chance to fleece the airline, as there are specific rules in place to govern this type of situation. Here’s an overview:

  1. US Code of Federal Regulations: If you’re traveling wholly within the US, 14 CFR Part 254 specifies that carriers must set their limits for compensation for lost baggage at no less than $3,500. That doesn’t mean you’re automatically getting that amount when your bag is lost; it simply means that airlines are obligated to pay at least that amount if you can prove your bag’s contents were more valuable.
  2. Montreal Convention: This agreement, drafted in 1999 and modified as recently as 2009, currently has 126 signatory nations from around the world. If you’re traveling internationally between two countries that have signed the Montreal Convention, the airline’s liability for lost baggage is capped at 1,131 Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). This is an international reserve asset created by the International Monetary Fund in 1969, and based on current valuations, this amount is roughly $1,600.
  3. Warsaw Convention: This agreement, first adopted in 1929 and modified several times since, applies if either your departure point or final destination falls outside the 126 nations that have signed onto the Montreal Convention. Unfortunately, this doesn’t explicitly address checked luggage, though I’ve read interpretations that lump this into “cargo” and thus limit liability to 17 SDRs (roughly $24) per kg.

Again, these are not set payments when an airline loses your bag for good. You still need to submit the claim with details of the contents of your luggage. In addition, if an airline has already paid for your expenses while your bag was thought to be delayed, that amount will likely be deducted from your final payout.

The above advice related to credit cards applies here as well, as many top travel rewards credit cards will cover baggage loss if you paid for some or all of the trip with your card. Once again, these policies vary widely by issuer and card, so be sure to read the specific policy of the card you used to purchase the trip before submitting a claim (and note that this coverage is generally secondary, meaning the issuer will pay out after you receive compensation from the airline).

How Can You Reduce the Chances of This Even Happening?

This type of itinerary (which my wife and I flew in December 2013) isn't going to help avoid baggage problems.
This type of itinerary (which my wife and I flew in December 2013) isn’t going to help avoid baggage problems.

The above tips are applicable when your bag is mishandled, but there are some important steps you can take to minimize the chances of this happening long before you even get to the airport. Here are a few tips:

  • Keep the itinerary simple. Is it worth saving $50 to book a multi-stop itinerary on three different airlines with tight connections when you could book a simple one-stop flight on a single carrier? When you involve more than one airline, it becomes easier for them to blame one another when your bag doesn’t make it. In other words, don’t book an itinerary like the one above (though it’s worth pointing out that our checked bags arrived in Istanbul on schedule after traveling on four flights across three Star Alliance airlines with two overnight layovers).
  • Keep all essential (and valuable) items in your carry-on. If you absolutely need it, don’t check it. Medication, jewelry, electronics, cash…all of it should be in your carry-on. Most insurance policies and airline reimbursement policies won’t cover these items if your bag is delayed or lost, anyway.
  • Pack 1-2 days of clothes in a carry-on. I’ve recently started doing this to ensure we have the important items we need when we arrive. We lost almost a full day in Australia back in 2011 shopping for clothes while we waited on Delta to deliver our bags. Ideally you won’t need to rely on these items, but it’s a good fallback.

Bottom Line

An airline mishandling your luggage is a stressful way to start a vacation or work trip, and it can sometimes take days to track it down. However, you aren’t totally powerless in these cases, as most airlines will reimburse you for reasonable expenses incurred while they search for your bag. Hopefully this post has highlighted just what you can do if you find yourself in a similar situation on your next trip!

How do you typically handle a baggage delay?

Featured image courtesy of John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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