Losing yout luggage can derail your entire plan
Luggage left at the airport. Losing yout luggage can derail your entire plan. Credit: canva

Lost luggage can really put a dampener on your vacation, especially if your bags are lost on the first day. You need to stay in contact with the airline to make sure your items are retrieved. But what happens if your luggage is never found? Read on to discover what to do when your luggage is lost, what can be done to get your bags back to you, whose responsibility it is, and much more.

Lost vs. Delayed Luggage

It’s important to know the difference between lost and delayed luggage. According to the US Department of Transportation (DOT), most airlines consider bags to be lost if they haven’t been found between five and 14 days after they are reported missing. Before this time, they will be considered delayed.

Here’s our recommended list of steps to do if your luggage got delayed.

These time frames will make a difference when it comes to compensation. In either case, it’s the airline’s responsibility to find your luggage and get it back to you as quickly as possible.

What to Do When Your Luggage Is Missing

If your bags don’t show up on the baggage carousel or in the oversized luggage area, you might imagine the worst right away. However, you should remember to be patient. Bags can sometimes take over 30 minutes to appear in busy airports and can come in waves instead of all at once.

However, if you notice that everyone else from your flight has their bags and the flight number is removed from the screens above the carousel, it’s time to take action. Here’s what you need to do next.

1. Report it as missing as soon as possible

The quicker you report your bag missing, the quicker the airline can start looking for it. If it is in the airport somewhere, they might get it back to you before you leave. If it takes too long and you need to pick up your rental car or catch a train, they will already have your information.

Maybe you’d feel like leaving right away because the line is long at the help desk. But the longer you put it off, the longer you may have to wait to actually get your bag back.

2. Ask for free delivery of delayed luggage

If you do need to leave the airport before your bag is found, make sure the airline will send it to your home or accommodation for free before you go. Most airlines do this as a courtesy, but you should always confirm so you won’t have any unexpected expenses.

3. Ask for a refund

You paid to have your luggage transported in the hold of the plane. If the handling company or the airline lost it, you spent that money for nothing. You can try and get a refund of that value right away to make up for the inconvenience.

4. Keep note of your expenses

Let’s say you have traveled from snowy Minnesota to the beaches of Mexico. You’re still wrapped up in your thermal gear, your bag is missing, and you’re really going to need your summer clothes. If the airline can’t find it quickly, you’re going to need to spend at least some money on shorts and a t-shirt. That’s just for clothes. You’ll probably also need toiletries and other accessories.

Your expenses are going to increase over this time. Make sure to keep all of the receipts for items you need during your vacation.

5. Make a Claim

If your baggage has been missing for over 24 hours, you should qualify for some amount of compensation. You will need to check with the airline if their limit is 24 hours and what you need to do to make a claim. In most cases, you will fill out a form where you can list the contents you have in your luggage and an approximate value for everything.

Make a habit to take pictures of your bags and what’s in them before leaving for the airport so that you can show the airline in case they go missing. These images can be useful to give weight to your claim.

6. Check Your Policies

Insurance policies and credit card benefits can help you during this time. If you have travel insurance or booked your trip with a credit card, you might be entitled to compensation to help you during this time. Check your policies or contact the companies that provide them to confirm if they cover delayed or lost luggage.

There are two benefits here. First, these companies might compensate you more quickly than the airline. Also, even if the airline has given you compensation of a lower value than you expected, you might be able to claim back the rest of your expenses with your insurance or credit card policies.

Finding Lost or Delayed Baggage

Lost or delayed baggage can be one of the worst parts of air travel, but it doesn’t happen as often as it may seem. Some studies show that around 0.7% to 1% of bags go missing each year, and that’s out of nearly four billion pieces of luggage shipped by airlines. And within these low percentages, few are cases of bags that are never found.

Airlines know where a bag is dropped off because it is tagged and included in their system before take-off. This makes it easier to find. The tag includes a barcode that can be scanned using the WorldTracer system. This is used in airports all over the world, so no matter where your bag ends up, it should make it back to you.

Lost Baggage Deadlines

As mentioned before, most airlines claim your bag is lost between five and 14 days after you notify them. After this time, you can claim for compensation. The DOT doesn’t state a specific number of days after your bag goes missing that the airline needs to tell you it’s technically lost. However, they do state that airlines that unreasonably refuse to declare baggage as lost after an “unreasonable” amount of time can be subject to actions of enforcement.

What happens to bags that are never found?

After 30 days, the chances of finding a lost bag drop by half. If the airline does ever find your baggage but can’t identify it, they can sell it at auction or donate the contents to charity.

Airline Responsibilities

Once your baggage is officially lost, you can make your claim for compensation. The airline has two ways in which they must compensate you:

  1. They must refund the baggage handling fee you paid when you booked your flight.
  2. They must compensate you for your bag and its contents. The airline can ask for receipts that prove incurred expenses.

Of course, there is always the small print. The airline will take the depreciation of your items into account and there is a maximum liability limit for each case. Here are the limits:

  • Domestic flights: $3,800 per passenger (per DOT)
  • International flights: approximately $1,700 per passenger (per Montreal Convention)

Each airline can choose to offer you a higher sum, but they are not required to by law.

Not Satisfied? Suing an Airline

Some passengers aren’t satisfied with the way their case is handled and want to find more measures to get proper compensation. You might receive a lower amount than you should, or the airline can claim there was an error or suspicious activity on your behalf in the case.

If this happens, you can file a complaint with the DOT. The airline will have 60 days to reply. If you’re still not satisfied with the outcome, you can contact an aviation law attorney to help you with the next steps.

Tips to Avoid Losing Your Baggage

There is no definite way to make sure your bag isn’t lost in transit or to find it if it does go missing. However, here are some tips to lower your chances of suffering over a lost bag.

1. Choose carry-on

Sometimes, you just need to take a bigger bag and put it into the hold. However, if you can manage with just cabin bags, that’s what you should go for. A carry-on will be with you all the way through the airport, and it’s right above your head or at your feet during the flight.

Baggage goes missing because of errors during handling. It might be sent to the wrong plane or left behind at your departure airport. Or someone could take your bag off the carousel without you noticing. With carry-on baggage, you avoid all of these issues.

2. Book direct flights

Luggage can also go missing on layovers. Your trip can take up to a full day when you choose connecting flights, so if your bag does get lost, you won’t know until long after you depart. Was it left at the first airport, the second, or is it missing at your final destination? The more variables there are, the harder it will be to find a missing bag.

With direct flights, you cut out some of these issues. If you really need to stop on a layover because there isn’t any option, try collecting your baggage before the second flight. Depending on how they handle your luggage during layovers, this might or might not be possible. Check out our article on getting your luggage on a layover for more information.

3. Have distinctive markings

Most suitcases are black or silver. Many bags go missing because someone picks up one that they think is theirs because it’s the same color. You can avoid this by getting less common colors, like bright pinks, oranges, or multicolored bags. You should also add a tag with your name, address, and phone number so that if it does get lost, it can be traced back to you.

4. Get a tracking device

Airlines’ tracking systems rely mostly on manual scans of the tags on your baggage. By getting a tracking device and putting it in your bag, you can search for it yourself. Two examples are Tile Mate (for Android) and the Apple AirTag. They can connect to your phone and will continue working even when you’re not nearby.

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