What to Do When Your Checked Bag Is Lost

Oh no! Your checked bag(s) is lost.

Many travelers have experienced lost baggage at least once in their lifetime. While waiting at the baggage carousel you discover that your baggage isn’t on the carousel. The airline has lost your luggage. Now what?

As long as airlines have been checking baggage, they’ve been sending a few somewhere other than where they were supposed to go. Airlines are doing better recently than they did 20 years ago, so your chances for a satisfactory ending has improved as well.

The government has been collecting statistics on lost luggage, or mishandled bag, reports for decades. The number of mishandled bag reports per 100,000 passengers has dropped, somewhat unevenly, from 5 to 7 in the early 1990s to 3 to 4 since 2009.

The airlines are getting better at tracking the bags they do lose. With barcoded tags and now, a few RFID-enabled tags, their systems keep excellent track of luggage. The last two times I’ve had a problem with my checked bag, an agent at the lost-baggage desk was able to immediately tell me where it was and the flight on which it would arrive.

There’s still a chance your bags may go missing, however. Here’s what to do.

Delayed Bags

Most so-called “lost” baggage really isn’t lost, rather, it’s delayed. And in most cases, an airline can reunite you with your baggage within 24 hours or less. When you realize that your bag isn’t going to show up on the carousel, go immediately to your airline’s lost-baggage counter or equivalent. In smaller airports, ask any airline employee where to go. Even if you are in a hurry and have to get someplace, report missing baggage before you leave the airport. Some airline contracts specify that you must file no later than four hours after arrival; others say 24 hours.

Hand over your baggage check (but write down the numbers or take a photo with your smartphone) and fill out the required form. Get a copy with the relevant tracking numbers, airline phone number or baggage-tracking website. Note the name of the agent that handles your claim, and note the estimated time your bag will arrive.

Negotiate

Ask exactly how, when, and where the airline plans to deliver your bag. Normally, an airline delivers your bag to a local hotel or residence address the same day the bag arrives at your airport. If you need a different delivery location, ask for it. Airlines usually deliver delayed bags at no cost to you; some may ask you to pay.

Ask what the airline provides in the way of assistance. No law requires any specific assistance; only that airlines must have a policy and make it available to you. At a minimum, airlines typically cover overnight needs such as toothpaste and other toiletries; some airlines stock and hand out regular overnight kits at the lost-baggage desk. If your bag is lost on a flight arriving at an airport other than your home, many airlines offer to cover all or part of the cost of items you may need to continue your vacation or business trip, and some offer a set daily allowance; others offer to reimburse you for items you buy on the basis of receipts.

Lost Checked Bag

If most airlines don’t get your bag back to you within five days, the bag falls into a category of “maybe really lost.” You have to submit more information, but you can also enter more claims. An airline defines “really lost” at anywhere from five to 30 days, at which point both you and the airline proceed on the assumption that you’ll never see your bag again.

Damaged Bags

Generally, airlines will not take responsibility for minor damage to your luggage, such as bumps, scratches, dents, and scuffs, nor will they cover damage to straps, pulls, locks, or wheels that are the result of normal wear and tear. Airlines will generally cover broken fragile items packed in your luggage only if they are packed in a container designed for shipping. And they exclude damage or loss claims for a long list of extra-fragile items or high-value items such as jewelry, computers, and cameras that are both fragile and tempting targets for theft.

Compensation 

Only one big airline, Alaska, provides monetary compensation for delayed baggage: If the airline that lost your luggage doesn’t deliver your checked baggage within 20 minutes of arrival at the gate, it issues a voucher for $25 toward a future flight or 2,500 frequent-flyer miles. But this rule applies to all baggage, not just delayed baggage.

Other airlines do not issue any compensation for delayed baggage, even when you pay a checked-bag fee. Congress recently urged the DOT to rule that airlines must refund baggage fees if baggage isn’t delivered within 24 hours. In my view, that’s inadequate. The “hassle factor” begins as soon as your flight arrives without your baggage, and the refund should apply immediately. But even the weak proposal is iffy.

Whether delayed or really lost, baggage has a current maximum loss/damage claim of $3,500 on a completely domestic flight. The cap on international flights, including domestic segments, is set at 1,131 Special Drawing Rights, currently worth about $1,600.

How To Prevent

Don’t pack your valuables or “can’t be without it” items in your checked baggage (medicine, important papers, jewelry, laptops). Carry it with you. Make a list of packed items and their estimated value before you leave. Keep receipts for expensive items you pack, as you may be required to send copies of them to the airline in the case of a lost bag. If you absolutely have to check some of those items, insure them separately: An airline won’t cover them even if you buy excess-value coverage. And remove old claim tags to prevent confusion about your destination.

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Source: Smarter Travel Author: Ed Perkins

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