You're standing at a baggage carousel for what seems like forever when the steady flow of bags onto the conveyor belt slows to a trickle, then stops. Your bags are nowhere in sight. Or your bags do show up, but look like an angry gorilla has been throwing them around his cage for sport. Who's responsible for your damaged, delayed or lost luggage?
If your bags are delayed, try not to panic. The airlines typically have ways to track them, and the vast majority of misplaced luggage is returned eventually. If your bags are on the next flight, you could have them within a few hours. If they've been sent to the wrong airport, it could take a couple of days. Make sure to file your claim immediately at the airport and to give the attendant a hotel or home address, as well as a phone number where you can be reached.
The airlines will typically bring you your luggage when it is found; you will rarely need to return to the airport to pick it up. Additionally, many airlines will reimburse any unexpected expenses caused by the loss or delay (keep your receipts!).
Before you leave the airport, get a reference number for your claim and find out how to check on your bag's status; some airlines have an online system while others will provide you with a phone number to call for updates.
If your bag is delayed more than 12 hours after a U.S. domestic flight or more than 15 hours after an international flight, you will soon be entitled to a refund of any checked baggage fee you paid, according to the latest FAA reauthorization bill.
If the airline loses your bags, make sure you get a written claim for damages. This may require a different form than the original "missing luggage" form. This can be done at the airport or by mail.
The maximum an airline pays on lost bags and their contents is currently limited to $3,500 per passenger on U.S. domestic flights, and a varying rate per passenger for checked baggage on international flights based on the Warsaw Convention or the Montreal Convention. In the United States, if you paid a checked baggage fee for your lost bag, the airline must refund your fee. Check your carrier's website for specifics.
You may need to produce receipts to prove the value of items you had in your suitcase. If you have them, include copies in any documentation you send to the airline. (Keep in mind that you will be reimbursed for the depreciated value of your items -- so the airline won't give you the full $1,000 you paid for that suit you purchased two years ago.) You can purchase "excess valuation" protection from your airline if your checked baggage is worth more than these limits (but before doing so, make sure the items aren't already covered by your homeowner's or travel insurance policy). Some credit card companies and travel agencies also offer optional or automatic supplemental baggage coverage.
The airlines typically have a long list of items for which they will not be held responsible; these include jewelry, money, heirlooms and other valuables. These sorts of items should always be left at home or packed in your carry-on bag.
Head directly to the baggage carousel when you get off your flight to minimize the potential time for your bag to be stolen. Many airlines scan bags when they're loaded into the baggage claim area and keep records, especially at larger airports. If your bag goes missing after you've left the baggage claim area, your claim is no longer with the airline, but with the police. Your homeowner's insurance may cover a stolen suitcase; if it doesn't, consider purchasing travel insurance.
Once you've gotten your bags off the carousel, immediately check them for damage or other signs of tampering or mishandling. Report any damage before leaving the airport; airline customer service agents will often want to inspect the bag. Keep in mind that most airlines won't cover minor wear and tear.
You will most likely need to produce a receipt for any repairs, or be required to use airline-sanctioned luggage repair vendors. Ask the baggage claim attendant for specific information. You don't want to find out that you have paid for a repair that isn't covered.
How to Prevent Lost Luggage
1. Put your name and phone number on the outside and inside of your bags. Even better, put a copy of your itinerary in each checked bag so the airline can locate you.
2. The most common causes of lost and delayed bags are late check-ins and tight connections. Avoid both when you can.
3. Pack all valuables in your carry-on bags. Cameras, computers, medication, wallets, heirlooms, jewelry, passports and essential travel documents should never be in your checked baggage. (See 10 Things Not to Do When Checking a Bag.)
4. Itemize. It sounds tedious, but when an airline asks what was in your bag, you don't want to forget anything of value. If you make a packing list before you travel, hang on to it -- this is an easy way to remember everything you put into your bags.
5. Make sure the person who checks your baggage attaches the correct destination ticket to every bag, and get a claim ticket for each.
6. Pack a change of clothes in your carry-on bag so that you'll have something to wear if your checked bag is delayed. If you're traveling with a partner, consider dividing each person's clothes between your checked bags; this way if one of the bags is lost, you'll each still have some of your belongings.
7. Travel insurance is the best guarantee that you'll recoup any losses. See our guide to travel insurance for more information.
8. Consider using a baggage tagging service such as SuperSmartTag or ReboundTAG (see Four High-Tech Luggage Tags and Apps That Will Save Your Trip). These services offer luggage tags with unique serial numbers that can be linked to the suitcase owner via an online database. The site will contact you as soon as your lost item is found.
If All Else Fails
If your bag is lost, stolen or damaged, be sure to file a complaint immediately. (See our tips for filing an effective complaint.) If you still can't get satisfaction, or feel the need to report the airline, contact the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division.
Finally, if you're wondering where lost bags go after they die, here's your answer: UnclaimedBaggage.com!
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--updated by Sarah Schlichter