Lost luggage: What to do before and after an airline loses your bags

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Stephanie Patterson

According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), mishandled baggage rates increased by 0.21% from January 2019 to January 2022. The percentage of luggage lost or delayed in the first six months of 2022 was .6%. That equates to 1,443,306 bags on domestic flights.

The good news: Lost or delayed luggage comprises a small percentage of the sheer volume of luggage transported from one airport to another.

But if an airline has lost your luggage, it becomes personal. Here’s what you need to know to make the ordeal a little less painful.

First up: Your luggage might not be lost

After a flight arrives, luggage is released in batches. This process can take 15 to 45 minutes. If you don’t see your bags, check the surrounding carousels to see if your suitcases were offloaded to the wrong location.

If your bag does not show up, notify the airline’s baggage claim desk. If you were on a connecting itinerary with more than one airline, go to the operating airline from your last flight.

How to file a missing bag report

If your bag is missing, file a report right away. Once the airline is aware of the problem, it can often identify where your wayward bag is and reroute it as necessary.

Some airlines will require you to file a report within four to twenty-four hours.

  1. Locate the baggage claim desk of the operating airline of your last flight.
  1. Inform the agent that your bag is missing. There’s a possibility that it could be in the baggage claim office.
  1. Provide the agent with a copy of the bag tag you received at check-in. The agent can track the location your bag was scanned last. They can then give you an estimate of when your bag will arrive. 
  1. Get a copy of the tracking number. 
  1. Fill out a missing bag report. It’s essential to provide a photo of the bag (if you took one) and a detailed description of the bag, including the color, size, hard side or soft side, and any bright ribbons or something added to make the bag more distinctive. Be sure to get a copy of the report before you leave.
  1. Provide your travel itinerary. If you’re continuing to another city, the airline will need to forward the bag. Ask for a written confirmation and an estimated delivery date.
  1. Give the agent your local address and contact information. It will be up to the airline to deliver your bag to the address you provide. The airline may ask you to wait at the airport or return later if your bag is arriving on the next flight. You have the right to refuse and request delivery. Confirm that the delivery service will be free. Your bag becomes the airline’s responsibility once you check it.
  1. Ask who you should contact and a phone number for status updates. You can generally track your lost baggage claim on the airline’s website or app.
  1. Ask if the airline will provide you with compensation for a change of clothes and reasonable necessities while waiting for your bag (see below.)
  1. Stay in frequent communication with the airline regarding the status of your bag.
  1. If you have coverage for lost or delayed luggage, notify your travel insurance and credit card company.

Ask the airline about compensation for your expenses

A delayed bag creates a hardship. You now have to shop for necessities and a change of clothes, which not only cuts into your vacation or business schedule but is money you didn’t plan on spending. 

The Department of Transportation requires airlines to provide monetary compensation to passengers if their bag is delayed, lost, pilfered, or damaged on domestic flights. The DOT does not allow airlines to set a daily limit on short-term expenses.

The airline must reimburse you for reasonable expenses that you can prove you made for clothing and necessities. Ask the airline what it typically pays for reimbursement.

The airline may provide you with an emergency kit with toiletries or other items. If the airline lost your child’s car seat, ask if there’s a complimentary one available.

Find out if the airline offers a flat dollar amount that it’s willing to pay up front. That would save you from having to file a claim for reimbursement. 

It’s essential to keep all your receipts for replacement items. You’ll need to provide these to the airline as proof of your expenditures and for filing a claim with your travel insurance or credit card.

How to request reimbursement of expenses for a missing bag

Most airlines require you to submit a claim for reimbursement of expenses for clothing and necessities. This claim must be filed within 30 days from the date your bag was delayed. 

Depending on the airline, you may be able to take your receipts to the baggage claim desk for reimbursement or fill out a statement of mishandling form online. You can also mail your receipts along with the required form. 

You’ll need the following information:

  • Your delayed baggage reference number.
  • A copy of your ticket receipt and baggage claim number.
  • Your original receipts for the purchases you made. Note: keep a copy of the receipts if you plan to mail them. You’ll need these if you plan to file a claim with another source.

Note: If your bag is declared officially lost, the airline will deduct any amounts it paid from the final settlement.

If your luggage is missing on your return flight home, the airline may not offer to provide you with any compensation for purchasing necessities or clothing. However, it’s worth asking because there may be items in your bag that you will need and don’t have at home. Also, the DOT does not list this as an exclusion.

When your flight cancels after you checked your luggage

If your flight is canceled after you have checked your luggage, the airline should rebook you on the next available flight and automatically reroute your bag (at least that’s how it’s supposed to work).

If your flight doesn’t leave until the following day, ask the airline if you can retrieve your luggage. However, if your bag has already been loaded onto the plane, it may not be accessible. Feel free to ask the airline for complimentary toiletries.

If your bag arrives on a different flight before you, the airline will hold it at the baggage claim desk. Track your bag on the airline’s website.

Additionally, if your flight is canceled and will not be rebooked, the airline will release checked bags to a designated carousel. Check with the airline for the carousel number.

Notify your travel insurance or credit card company

If you have travel insurance, notify the company that your bag is missing. The reimbursement amount paid by the airline may not be sufficient. Even though the DOT requires the airline to provide compensation for delayed luggage, there’s no guarantee it will.

If you have baggage benefits on the credit card you used to pay for your flight, inform the company. This coverage is generally secondary to insurance.

Ask how payments will be made. The reimbursement from the airline will more than likely take longer than a payment from your travel insurance company.

Tracking devices for your bag and other services

If you prefer to keep track of your bag, there are tracking devices available. With Apple’s  AirTag, you can track your bag with your iPhone and locate it via GPS. Put the tag inside your luggage.

There are also services like Blue Ribbon Bags which will track your bags for you — and give you an automatic cash payment if they can’t find your luggage within 96 hours. But make sure you fully understand the terms of use of any service you choose.

Escalate your complaint if necessary

If the airline is not providing you with information on the status of your bag, escalate your complaint using Twitter or by contacting customer service.

If it’s been over 24 hours and you still have not heard anything about your bag, you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

Special delayed, lost, or damaged luggage airline policies

Airlines require passengers to report delayed or damaged luggage at baggage claim immediately between four and twenty-four hours, depending on the airline.  

United Airlines — $1,500 lost luggage settlement

With United Airlines, if your bag is not located within five days, you have the option to accept a  payment of $1,500 per bag for the value of your contents and the bag. This amount includes the baggage fees you paid to check your bag. You won’t have to fill out any additional paperwork. The baggage claim department will process the payment if you choose to accept it. If your contents are worth more than $1,500, you’ll need to file a detailed claim report online for lost luggage.

United Airlines lost luggage policy.
United Airlines will pay passengers $1,500 without question if their lost luggage remains missing after five days. (Source: United Airlines website)

Note: United Airlines passengers with lost luggage can call 1-800-335-2247 to get the claim process started.

Delta Air Lines — 20-minute guarantee

Delta Air Lines states that if your bag does not arrive on the carousel within 20 minutes of when the aircraft door opens, you could earn 2,500 bonus miles. This bonus is valid on domestic flights and in Puerto Rico. You can request these bonus miles for delayed luggage from Delta here.

Delta Air Lines delayed and lost luggage policy.
Delta Air Lines has a 20-minute guarantee: If your luggage doesn’t appear at the carousel within 20-minutes of arrival, you can apply for 2,500 bonus miles. (Source: Delta Air Lines website)

Alaska Airlines — 20-minute guarantee

Alaska Airlines offers 2,500 bonus miles or a $25 discount on a future flight if your luggage does not arrive on the carousel within 20 minutes. You must get an authorization code from a customer service agent at the airport and then submit your request through Alaska Airlines’ online delayed luggage claim form.

Airline links regarding lost, delayed, or damaged luggage

Alaska Airlines

Allegiant

American Airlines 

British Airways

Delta Air Lines

Frontier 

Hawaiian Airlines

JetBlue

Southwest 

Spirit

United

When is your luggage officially lost?

According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), airlines have different policies as to when they declare a bag as officially lost. The time frame for domestic flights is typically between five and fourteen days. 

For international flights under the Montreal Convention, the airline has 21 days to locate a missing bag before it must declare a bag as lost.

The airline is responsible for paying you for the contents of your bag. However, it will factor in depreciation when determining the amount you will receive. 

Contract of carriage exclusions on valuables and high-priced items

It’s important to note that the airlines are not liable to compensate passengers for items listed as an exclusion in their contract of carriage on domestic flights.

A list of commonly excluded items includes fragile items, electronics, laptops, cameras, cash, eyeglasses, medications, valuables, jewelry, artwork, furs, some musical instruments, expensive sporting equipment, investment documents, and more. 

For international flights, the airlines are responsible for valuables and high-priced items (up to the liability limit as set by the Montreal Convention), even if the passenger does not inform the airline when checking their bag. The airline may request proof that valuables were in your bag. This is where documenting your contents with photos, receipts, and a list of items would be helpful.

File a lost baggage claim

When the airline declares your bag as officially lost, you’ll need to submit an additional claim to receive payment for your lost items. You can usually do this on the airline’s website. Your claim will include a detailed report listing all the contents of your bag. The airline may request the purchase date and value or original receipts.  

While packing, take photos of all the items you put in your bag and keep receipts of recent purchases. This will provide documentation if your bag gets lost.

What does the airline owe a passenger for a lost bag?

What an airline owes you if it loses your bags will depend on whether you’re flying domestically or internationally.

Department of Transportation for domestic flights

The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to pay passengers up to $3,800 for lost bags on a domestic flight. 

According to the DOT, the airline is responsible for your luggage once you check it in. It cannot shift the responsibility to security if there’s a problem with your bag.

If the airline does not consider your bag as lost after a reasonable amount of time, it can be subject to enforcement action by the DOT. 

You can file a claim with the DOT if the airline does not adhere to these regulations.

Payment of contents based on fair market value 

The airline’s liability limit is based on the fair market value of the contents. The amount will be based on a depreciated value.

There’s no guarantee that you will receive the full amount of $3,800. The airline will deduct any previous payments made for clothing and necessities from the final settlement. 

Payments for valuables or expensive items

As mentioned, if the airline’s contract of carriage excludes any valuables or high-priced items that were in your bag. it is not liable for domestic travel. It will reimburse you a flat amount that will be substantially less than the actual value.

Montreal Convention covers international flights

The Montreal Convention establishes the regulations for international flights. The airline’s maximum liability is 1,288 SDR (Special Drawing Rights) per customer for checked and unchecked bags. Currently, 1 SDR is equal to $1.28. The current maximum liability for lost luggage is $1,654 per passenger (not per bag).

For international travel, the airline is responsible for the payment of valuables or expensive items up to the maximum liability amount.

Refund of baggage fees

The airline must refund baggage fees for lost bags. This includes domestic and international flights.

Traveling with valuables or expensive items

You should pack valuables and expensive items in your carry-on bag. The airlines limit their liability by listing these items as exclusions.

As mentioned, some common exclusions include eyeglasses, medicine, money, electronics, jewelry, fragile items, antiques, laptops, artifacts, artwork, cameras, furs, computers, some musical instruments or expensive sports equipment, investment documents, and more.

It’s in your best interest to keep expensive items at home. If you must travel with jewelry or other valuables worth $1,000 or more, you can buy an extra endorsement with travel insurance or your homeowner’s policy that covers these items. You can also purchase excess valuation coverage through the airline. But under no circumstances should you gate check $158,000 worth of uninsured jewelry as this passenger did.

Excess valuation coverage through the airline

Some airlines allow you to purchase excess valuation when your personal contents exceed the maximum amount of compensation ($3,800 for domestic and $1,654 for international flights.)

For example, Alaska and American Airlines will cover valuables up to $5,000 if you purchase the added coverage. Alaska charges $1 for every $100 worth of value, and American charges $5 for every $100 worth of value.

There’s one caveat, though. Depending on the airline, you will need to purchase insurance from each carrier if there’s more than one airline on your itinerary. You would then have to claim your bag at the connecting airport, re-check it with the next carrier, and buy excess valuation coverage. 

What if the airline loses your luggage right before your cruise?

If the airline loses your luggage when you are about to embark on a cruise, there is hope that you can still reconnect with your bag.

Before leaving the airport, file a claim with the baggage claim desk. If your bag has not arrived by embarkation, present your claim number, case number, and baggage service contact information to the cruise concierge. The concierge will often work with the airline to have your bag rerouted to the ship at the next port.

Ask if the cruise line will continue to track your bag since it could be costly for you to make calls while out to sea.

The cruise line will often provide complimentary laundry service and emergency kits with toiletries.

At Consumer Rescue, we recommend that passengers embarking on a cruise arrive two days (or at least one day) in advance. Otherwise, you risk missing your cruise entirely if your flight has a problem.

If your luggage is arriving on a later flight, you could end up cruising without your belongings and may not have time to shop for clothing or necessities.

What if the cruise line loses my bag?

Contact guest services if your bag does not arrive in your room. Curbside porters are not employees of the cruise line. If you believe they lost your bag, the cruise line may ask you to contact the porter management.

Cruise lines offer limited compensation for lost or stolen bags. Carnival offers $50 a bag, while Viking provides $500 per passenger.

Some cruise lines like Windstar, Celebrity, and Viking offer additional coverage (up to $5,000) if you pay a percentage (1-5%) of the value and provide written notice of the contents.

You will receive additional coverage if you purchase travel insurance through the cruise line. For example, with Carnival and Royal Caribbean insurance, you can receive up to $1,500 for bags that are lost or stolen. It will also reimburse up to $500 for necessities when the cruise line delays your bags.

Pro-tip: Before you leave your luggage behind at your port-side hotel expecting it to be delivered to your cruise ship, make sure the property actually offers such a service. Otherwise, you could end up cruising without your clothes as these passengers did:

What to pack in your carry-on bag

You should carry important documents such as your passport, visa, birth certificate, identification, credit cards, and cash on your person or carry-on. You will be denied boarding if you do not have the necessary identification.

  • Pack your eyeglasses, contacts, cash, credit cards, and prescription drugs.
  • Include a change of clothes for two days, along with pajamas or sweats for comfort.
  • If on a cruise, pack your swimsuit and dinner attire.
  • Pack a pair of shoes in addition to the ones you have on.
  • Pack valuables such as jewelry, electronics, laptop, or other fragile items in your carry-on bag.

How to prepare your bag when packing

To make your luggage easier to find, make your bag stand out from the crowd. Document the contents in your bag while packing.

  • Many bags look alike. Add something to make your bag stand out such as a bright-colored ribbon on the handle or colored duct tape.
  • Put a copy of your itinerary and your contact information inside the bag.
  • Put your contact information on the handle of the bag. It’s not a good idea to put your home address outside the bag. Put your name and cell phone number only.
  • Lay all the contents on the bed before putting them in the suitcase. Take photos of all the items and note the contents. This will provide proof of what was inside. Keep receipts of recent purchases.
  • Take a photo of the outside of the bag. This will help the airline to identify it.
  • If you are traveling with your spouse or partner, a suggestion would be to pack some of your items in each other’s bag.

How to reduce your chances of lost or delayed luggage

  • Nonstop flights are less likely to lose your luggage.
  • Avoid tight connections. Your bag may not make it to your connecting flight. This is especially important when flying internationally.
  • Avoid checking your bag at the last minute.
  • Be sure to keep your baggage claim ticket in a safe place.
  • Have the correct information on the outside of your bag and remove all old tags.

Credit card benefits for delayed, lost, stolen, or damaged baggage 

The credit card you used to purchase your ticket may offer benefits for lost, damaged, delayed, or stolen luggage while on common carriers such as airlines, buses, trains, and cruises. Find out if the coverage is worldwide.

  • You have to file a claim with the carrier and the credit card company within a specified time frame.
  • Credit card benefits are typically secondary to insurance benefits and payments from the carrier. They will cover up to a specified limit (often $3,000) and will not duplicate any payments. Credit card benefits usually cover two claims per year.
  • There are exclusions. Credit card benefits may not cover sporting equipment, musical instruments, electronics, eyeglasses, cash, tickets, jewelry, art, collectibles, and items with defective workmanship.
  • Credit card benefits may reimburse you for necessities and clothing when your luggage is delayed four or more hours. For example, a standard Visa plan will pay up to $300 for reasonable expenses.
  • If the carrier denies the claim regarding your baggage, the credit card company will not pay either.

How to file a claim with your credit card company

You’ll need the following:

  • A copy of the initial claim report that you filed with the carrier.
  • A receipt for the purchase of your tickets or a statement.
  • A police report for a stolen bag.
  • Proof of the settlement paid by the carrier.
  • A receipt for the cost of repair.

Travel insurance for delayed, lost, stolen, or damaged bags 

Before purchasing travel insurance, consider what you will be packing. If you plan to pack expensive or valuable items, find a plan that will provide adequate coverage. Many travel insurance policies do not cover high-end items over $500.

Some policies will only cover checked bags, whereas others will cover carry-on bags and personal items throughout the trip.

Reimbursement amounts will not cover the cost of replacing your items. You’ll receive the current cash value or the cost of repair.

Travel insurance coverage for delayed baggage

Benefits do not usually kick in until your luggage has been delayed for 12 to 24 hours.

After 12 or 24 hours, the benefits will cover expenses for clothing, toiletries, and other reasonable necessities. The travel insurance will not duplicate any payments made by the carrier or other insurance sources but can be in addition to the payments received.

Travel insurance policies usually pay a specified amount per person with a maximum daily payout.

Filing a claim is usually easy, and you could receive a payment within 48 hours or less.

  • You’ll need to provide proof of the delay and the length of the delay.
  • You will need receipts for any clothing and necessities that you purchased.
  • You may need to provide proof of payments made by the carrier.

Travel insurance coverage for lost, damaged, or stolen baggage

Travel insurance provides coverage for personal items that are lost, damaged, or stolen. The payment will not duplicate payments made by the carrier or another insurance source.

The policy will include an overall coverage limit, a per-item limit, a specific item limit, and a per-person limit. More expensive items are subject to a specific item limit. For example, the insurance company may reimburse you up to $500 total for all jewelry, electronics, cell phones, furs, laptops, sports equipment, and more.

  • You’ll need to prove that your bag was lost, stolen, or damaged. This would include a claim filed with the carrier or a police report. 
  • Some policies will cover your personal belongings throughout the trip, while others will only cover checked baggage.
  • As has been noted, eyeglasses and hearing aids are typically not covered.
  • You may need to provide the original receipt for more expensive items.
  • Payments are based on the actual cash value of your lost or stolen items.
  • Provides coverage for the cost of repairing the damaged item.

Homeowners insurance covers your property when traveling

Homeowners insurance covers your personal property at home or when you travel. You will need to pay a deductible.

You could file a claim with your homeowners insurance if the payments you received from the carrier and other sources did not adequately cover your losses. 

Consequently, it’s worth it to file a claim if you have an endorsement covering specific high-end items that are lost or stolen.

Lost or damaged assistive devices used by passengers

The DOT regulates the airlines’ responsibilities regarding lost or damaged assistive devices used by passengers with disabilities. Assistive devices include wheelchairs, canes, walkers, hearing aids, crutches, portable oxygen, prescription medications and devices to administer them, braces, and CPAP machines.

Comparatively, assistive devices do not have the same liability limit ($3,800 maximum) as luggage. If an assistive device is lost or damaged, the airline is required to reimburse the passenger for the original purchase price. For example, if the airline loses an assistive device that costs $10,000, it is liable for $10,000.

If an assistive device (like a wheelchair) must be disassembled for transport, the airline must return it in the same condition it was received.

Bottom Line:

If you are left standing at the carousel waiting for a bag that appears to have stood you up, you are not alone. From January to June of this year, 1,443,306 bags were misplaced on domestic flights. 

Of course, everyone would prefer that their travels go smoothly, but that’s not always the case. If you have not received a response from your airline on a compensation claim and would like help, contact the Consumer Rescue team here. 

There is no charge for these services (amazing, right?). Our advocacy team has a highly successful track record and is always here to help. (Stephanie Patterson, Consumer Rescue)

Before you go: Check out Consumer Rescue’s ultimate guide to TSA Precheck, Global Entry, and CLEAR.

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Stephanie Patterson

Stephanie is a travel columnist at Consumer Rescue. She has authored several books for corporate travelers (available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble) and also publishes an informative website with a focus on promoting smart and safe travel. When Stephanie is not here helping consumers, she's an interior designer who loves to think outside the norm!