As a frequent flyer, I’m not rattled by much about air travel. Turbulence? No problem. Delays? Irritating but survivable. I don’t even worry much about getting bumped into a middle seat before a red-eye flight.
But when I’m waiting at the baggage carousel, I always have a single moment of panic in which I think, This is it … this is the trip where they’ve lost my bag. Suddenly, my cheap T-shirts feel a lot more valuable than they did a few hours ago and I freak out about the thought of replacing all my shoes. There’s something inherently unsettling about surrendering your belongings to an airline clerk and trusting that they’ll reappear at your final destination; sure enough, so many bags don’t make the journey that lost baggage has become one of the biggest potential travel disasters. If you’re the last one waiting when the carousel shuts down, what do you do?
Step 1: Report the baggage as missing.
The good news is that the vast majority of delayed bags will eventually be reunited with their owners, usually within seventy-two hours. For bags that don’t make it onto the flight with their owners (which the airlines euphemistically call “mishandled”), the airline’s baggage claim office will file a report and do a search. If the airline uses electronic tagging, it can sometimes locate your bag instantly. Once you’ve filed your claim, you’ll be given a file number or record number to track your bag’s progress. (Most airlines have Web sites for customers to use, but some still rely on a telephone service.) Keep your flight information, your baggage claim ticket, and a description of the luggage handy for reference at the desk. Assuming that the bag will eventually arrive, it’s the airline’s responsibility to deliver it to you, so offer the clerk a few ways to contact you to arrange a drop-off.
Step 2: Start a paper trail.
Keep a copy of the claim, along with a record of every person you speak to, every other piece of paper you’re given, and any other pertinent information. Write down the date and time of any phone call you make, as well as the name of each customer service representative you speak to, especially anyone who authorizes you to make emergency purchases, such as clothes or toiletries. If you need to file a claim for compensation for interim expenses (or if the bag is lost entirely), you’ll need all the documentation you can provide.
Step 3: Buy what you need—but don’t go crazy.
The Department of Transportation has begun cracking down on airlines’ refusal to compensate passengers for expenditures associated with lost bags, so it’s become easier to get reimbursed for many necessities. If you find yourself without your luggage, purchase the essentials—items like a toothbrush, clean underwear, or contact lens solution. If you’re on a business trip, you might need to purchase a fresh shirt or dress pants for a client meeting. Don’t treat the situation as an opportunity for a shopping spree, though, because what the airline reimburses you for is entirely within its discretion, and any nonessential or luxury item is likely to get denied. Even if you’re on a beach vacation, you probably won’t get reimbursed for a new swimsuit or camera, because they’re not necessities. Make absolutely sure to save the receipts for everything you purchase. In a change from past policies, airlines are now prohibited to require customers to wait twenty-four hours before purchasing essentials, or to provide reimbursement for baggage lost on outgoing flights only, so if you encounter these roadblocks, consider filing a complaint with the DOT.
Step 4: File an official lost-baggage claim.
Although policies vary between different airlines, if your bag hasn’t made its way back to you within four to five days, it’s time to file a claim for the entire bag. If you purchased essential items because of the baggage loss, you can submit those receipts for reimbursement as well, although the airline may try to deny them. Airlines have the forms available online, so you can submit them electronically or print them out and send them via snail mail. This is where your paper trail comes in handy: airlines are liable for up to $3,300 per bag for domestic flights, but getting the full amount will be tough, because you’ll need to show receipts and prove the value of your possessions. Remember that airlines reimburse based on the depreciated value of your belongings; if you paid $250 for shoes two years ago, the airline will pay you what the shoes are worth now, not what you paid then or what they’d cost to replace. It’s a good idea to keep an inventory of your luggage, as well as receipts for pricier items contained within. When asking for reimbursements, don’t forget to add the cost of the suitcase itself.
Step 5: Be persistent.
Airlines will use any pretense to deny a request for reimbursement. Like insurance companies, they rely on passengers’ getting frustrated and giving up, so don’t be afraid to keep plugging away. It may take a dozen or more calls or letters to the airline’s customer service, but if you persist in your request, it’s likely that you’ll prevail. However, remember that airlines specifically deny liability for valuable items, such as jewelry, cameras or recording equipment, artwork, antiques, business papers, and cash, so always carry these big-ticket items in your carry-on luggage. If the airline tries to deny a claim you feel is reasonable and backed up by evidence, transportation experts suggest filing a claim with the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement Office, and if the airline leaves you less than satisfied, it’s always worth checking to see if your homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, travel insurance, or credit card benefits can help.
Better Luck Next Time
No one wants her bag to end up at the unclaimed-baggage superstore, so before your next trip, take these few precautions to keep your bag as safe as possible:
- Be on time. Checking in late and scheduling a tight connecting flight are the top causes of delayed or missing bags. Give yourself at least an hour before or between flights.
- Go beyond the bag tag. Along with the external name tag, put something with your name and contact info in an inside pocket, like a business card or a copy of your itinerary. If the bag is lost and the external tag comes off, this can help baggage handlers locate you.
- Check the tag before it’s loaded. Make sure it lists the right destination. At busy airports, mistakes can—and do—happen.
- Carry valuable items with you. Keep anything of value in your carry-on luggage, because airlines will not reimburse you if these items are lost or stolen.
- Know your airline’s lost-baggage record. According to the DOT, the airlines with the worst baggage records are American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast, Pinnacle, Comair, and SkyWest. The five best are AirTran, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Continental, and Frontier.
According to the Department of Transportation, about 98 percent of luggage checked at the airport eventually makes it to its final destination. Considering the millions of bags airlines handle in a single day, that may seem fine, but when your bag is in that other 2 percent, knowing exactly what to do can make all the difference.