Airlines have us pretty beat down. As seat sizes have shrunk, fees have gone up, and service has become abysmal, we now just accept getting screwed over as part of the air travel experience, like Biscoff cookies and safety demonstrations.
For example: Let’s say you’re one of those crazy people who still checks a bag, and it didn’t show up with you on your big ski trip to Steamboat Springs. You’re now stuck in a strange city with nothing but your laptop and a couple of Clif bars but still have a big day of skiing set for the next morning. Not wanting to hit the slopes in the t-shirt and warm-ups you wore on the plane, your only option is to go out and buy some new ski clothes — which, as anyone who’s ever skied knows, aren’t cheap.
You know the airline has to pay for that, right?
If you said no, you’re not alone. A recent study of 2,000 air travelers from the passenger rights organization AirHelp found that 87 percent of people who had lost, delayed, or damaged luggage didn’t file a claim with the airlines to compensate them for the inconvenience. An especially startling number given that the maximum some of them could have gotten is upwards of $3,000.
“A lot of people don’t know if an airline loses your luggage and you incur extra costs as a result, the airline is responsible for reimbursing you for those costs,” AirHelp CEO Henrik Zillmer told us. “People think it’s difficult to file a claim for compensation or simply aren’t informed about how to go through the process of filing a claim.”
Delving a little deeper, the AirHelp study found that 41 percent of the respondents didn’t think they were entitled to compensation, meaning we pretty much assume we have to just stand there and take it when our luggage gets lost. And the airlines don’t owe us squat for our trouble.
Another 31 percent weren’t aware that they had any rights when their luggage got delayed, further showing how downtrodden we’ve become. Another 29 percent didn’t know how to file a claim.
“Airlines really must do a better job of educating people about their rights,” Zillmer added.
By why would they?
Airlines won’t tell you how to get money for lost luggage. But we will.
The Montreal Convention of 1999 stipulated that airlines in over 120 countries must reimburse you up to the equivalent of $1,700 for international flights and up to $3,300 for domestic flights. But the airlines aren’t lining up to hand you a check. They might offer you $50 at the counter to cover “incidentals” like deodorant or a fresh pair of skivvies. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone in the baggage office who’ll eagerly tell you that you’re entitled to up to three grand.
In their defense, it’s not in their interest to have you know such things. But if this does happen to you, here’s how you make the claims process go as smoothly as possible:
1) File a lost luggage claim before you leave the airport.
As in do not pass go, do not collect a measly $50 — go directly to the baggage office and tell them your bag is lost. You’ll get a claim number that will help you track your bag, which you’ll need to file a claim for all the replacement stuff.
2) Take photos of any damaged luggage IMMEDIATELY.
If your luggage did show up, but it’s damaged, get pictures right away. Oftentimes airlines give you only 24 hours to report damaged luggage, so as soon as you notice that missing wheel, snap a pic and get claiming.
3) Go out and buy what you need, and only what you need.
Airlines are only required to reimburse you for reasonable expenses related to your lost luggage. So if you thought this was your big chance to go out and buy a Canada Goose to replace your ratty ten-year-old ski jacket, think again. You can try explaining that you have expensive taste and that you simply cannot ski in anything less than a $900 coat to the airline. But that’ll only make your claim harder. Basic rule: The less you spend, the easier it’ll be to get money.
4) Keep your receipts.
Seriously, we cannot stress this more.
5) Go online or call and file your claim.
You’ll need a scanned copy of your receipts, plus any photos of damage. Most major airlines have designated web pages to file claims, and most of the time they get back to you within one to two business days. You can also call each airline’s baggage customer service number, and they will point you in the right direction. Does it take a while? Yes, it does. But when you’re talking about a couple thousand dollars, it’s definitely worth the time.
6) Wait for the airline to process your claim.
If your claim is small, sometimes a good customer service rep will process it right on the phone and get the process of getting you paid moving. For larger claims, it can take a while to review. Make note of your claim number and don’t wait to follow up.
7) Receive payment.
If you don’t get payment, or what you think is a reasonable claim is denied, call the airline and find out why. If the airline still refuses to pay, you can sue in small claims court where no lawyer is required. Seems like a hassle for you, but it’s a much larger hassle for them and will probably get you money faster.
Reimbursement isn’t limited to luggage.
There are other things you’re entitled to, as well, under the Montreal Convention.
“No matter what type of issue is involved — flight disruptions or baggage problems — the Montreal Convention is there to help you,” says Zillmer. “If you miss a prepaid reservation, have to pay for an extra night at a hotel, or rack up any other unforeseen expenses due to air travel problems, you can get reimbursed. You can also get reimbursed for any loss you suffered as a result of a delay or lost luggage.”
So if you opted to miss your ski day rather than hit the slopes in claim-friendly, inexpensive ski gear, the airlines would be on the hook for your unused lift tickets, too.
There are, of course, rules. You need to report any damages within seven days of loss; for lost luggage, that extends to 21 days (remember, damaged luggage must still be 24 hours). If after 21 days your bag still isn’t with you, it’s considered lost, and you have no limit on how long you have to file a claim. But after two years, Zillmer says most of those rights are extinguished.
With baggage, like most things in life, knowledge is power. And since the airlines aren’t going to tell you how much money you’re owed when they lose your bag, it’s up to you to know how much you deserve. Filing a claim isn’t much harder than booking a flight, and though it might require some time on the phone with customer service, don’t let that stop you from following through. The airlines get stuff over on us all the time, and getting some new stuff when they lose our bags is a small victory we should all appreciate.
Best Travel Credit Cards
Top offers from our partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
80,000 bonus points
The Platinum Card®
75,000 bonus points
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 bonus points