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What to Do if an Airline Loses Your Bag

Airports + Flying
by Eben Diskin Aug 15, 2023

Part of why traveling is so stressful doesn’t have anything to do with the traveler themselves. Yeah, getting yourself to the airport on time, making it through security hassle-free, finding your gate, overpaying for food, and praying for no delays, can be anxiety-inducing. But even if you make it through all that, the biggest potential headache still awaits. Once you land at your destination you’re supposed to be home free, but instead, you’re faced with the nail-biting experience of waiting for your luggage at the baggage carousel and running through disaster scenarios in your head if your bags don’t show up. It’s unlikely, but it does happen. Maybe it’s even happened to you. Don’t worry, though. If your bags don’t appear on the carousel, you’re not completely up the creek. Here’s what’s usually happening behind the scenes when bags are lost, and what you can do to make the best of the situation.

How are bags lost, anyway?

First, it’s important to understand how rare it is for bags to be lost or delayed at all. Though it’s one of travelers’ most pervasive fears, the actual chance of losing your bag is minuscule.

“Less than one percent of all U.S. flyers face lost, delayed or damaged bags,” says Scott Mayerowitz, founder of GlobeTrotScott Strategies and former executive editor at The Points Guy. “The most common issue is flight delays, especially on connecting itineraries. When major hub airports like Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, or Houston have bad summer thunderstorms it causes a series of delays and all too often bags get stranded or placed on the wrong plane.”

This assessment is corroborated by Ross Feinstein, a consultant and aviation expert who used to lead communications for American Airlines and the TSA. “The majority of mishandled bags occurs usually during irregular operations,” he says, “which could be the result of weather delays, cancellations or a mechanical issue — usually that’s when we see bags piling up, especially during major storms that delay and cancel a large number of flights.”

Feinstein stresses, however, that even “lost” bags aren’t actually lost. They’re simply delayed to a later flight. Tracking systems implemented by airlines are sophisticated enough that bags are extremely rarely lost forever – it just might take longer than you’d like to reunite with them on the other side.

“Bags aren’t actually lost,” he says, “but due to a delay on a connecting flight, for example, the bag might be mishandled. I can’t stress enough how rare it is for an airline to actually lose a bag.”

If your bag doesn’t show up on the carousel, what’s the best course of action?

Okay, so your fears became reality and your luggage never showed up at baggage claim. You’re standing there feeling helpless, annoyed, confused, and maybe a little cold, because your extra sweater was in your suitcase. Now what?

“First, check your phone,” Mayerowitz advises. “If you have the airline’s app downloaded, you might know as soon as you land that your bag didn’t make the journey with you. Some airlines will let you file a claim right there and will send your bag to your home or hotel. Others make you go to the baggage office near the carousel. File a claim and save that claim number.”

Indeed, apps seem to be travelers’ best tools for both locating their luggage and connecting with the airline to resolve the issue.

“Delta Air Lines uses RFID tags in all of the baggage tags that are affixed to bags to track bags throughout their system,” Feinstein says, “and customers can use the Delta app to track their bags in realtime. American Airlines and United Airlines scan bags at numerous points throughout a bag’s journey with a laser scanner, and like Delta customers can track their bags using their respective apps.”

But you don’t have to rely on airline apps for tracking, either. Particularly diligent passengers can take matters into their own hands, like adding an Apple AirTag to your bag so you can track it yourself.

“With all of this bag tracking technology at your disposal,” says Feinstein, “a customer will most likely receive a notification from the airline that their bag has been delayed, and in many cases, be asked to fill out some information electronically via their mobile phone. This usually includes a bag description and the address you will want the bag delivered to. Additionally, you can visit the baggage service office to file a claim.”

Decades ago, passengers who lost their bag may have truly been at a loss, resigned to standing in line to speak to a surly customer service rep. Now, with all the tracking technology available to both airlines and passengers, we don’t even need to wait around until every bag arrives on the carousel to figure out our bags have been delayed, or to take action about it.

How will the airline make it up to you?

When you’re wronged, there’s a certain expectation that whoever wronged you will extend an olive branch somehow. While that’s technically true for lost baggage, there’s no universal set of rules dictating how airlines compensate passengers whose baggage they’ve lost.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation does set maximum liabilities for airlines,” Mayerowitz says. “It’s $3,800 on a domestic flight. For international flights, the limit is actually lower; $1,700. Airlines can pay passengers more than that amount, but I would never advise anybody to check expensive laptops or other items that might not survive the trip. If you paid for a premium cabin or have elite status with the airline, you might be able to negotiate a higher settlement.”

If your baggage is lost, and you’re forced to buy new clothes or essentials to tide you over while you wait for your bag, you could be eligible for reimbursement. Mayerowitz advises keeping all receipts for new toiletries or clothing that you purchase during your bag’s delay. Airlines will usually reimburse you for “reasonable expenses” due to a bag delay.

Every airline, however, has a different policy when it comes to reimbursement for baggage delays.

According to Feinstein, Delta passengers are entitled to reasonable expense reimbursements (clothes, toiletries, etc.) if their bags are delayed – “reasonable” generally being defined as $50 per day. For United passengers, customers whose bags were delayed somewhere other than where they live may submit a claim for reimbursement of expenses, along with receipts, for the period their bags were delayed. If the bags aren’t found after five days, the customer may also submit a claim for their lost bags.

Similarly, on Southwest, if your luggage is delayed or lost for reasons outside of your control, you can file a mishandled baggage report at the airport and submit a claim for consideration of reimbursement of reasonable expenses. If you paid an excess baggage fee to Southwest and your checked bag was delayed and not recovered, they’ll refund the applicable fees.

All of that is to say: don’t go buying a whole new wardrobe if your bag is delayed. That almost certainly won’t be considered a “reasonable expense.”

Playing the waiting game

Even if you’ve filed a claim with the airline, and know your luggage will eventually be returned to you, waiting around is still pretty stressful – especially if you’re on a short vacation and need your bags. So, how long can you expect to wait? The answer, as with most airline-related questions, depends on a multitude of factors.

“It depends on your trip,” Mayerowitz says. “Travelers to remote international destinations with just one flight a day are probably going to need to wait until the next day’s flight –- assuming it’s daily service. Those on shorter domestic trips should hopefully see their bag by the end of the day or early the next day. If there are massive storms and thousands of bags are delayed, it could take much longer.”

The only surefire way to prevent baggage loss is by not checking a bag at all. Those who value traveling economically would advocate this strategy anyway. But to minimize your risk while checking a bag, make sure you have enough clothing in your carry-on to last at least three days. That way, in the rare event your checked bags are lost, you won’t have to worry about wearing the same shirt all week.

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