How To Deal With Lost or Delayed Luggage

You’re still standing at the luggage carousel, despite the fact that all other passengers have grabbed their bags and gone. And when it becomes perfectly clear that your suitcase isn’t seconds away from popping up and tumbling into your open arms? Most of us assume the worst.

However, not all bags that wander are lost! Instead, airlines breakdown missing luggage like so:

Delayed Bags

Most "lost" bags are only delayed, as airlines have increasingly sophisticated systems of tracking them down, and can usually do so within a few hours. Chances are, your bags simply got on the wrong flight.

What You Can Do if Your Luggage is Delayed

Your best protection is a paper trail, so don’t forget to file a claim! There should be a claims office in the baggage claim area, otherwise head over to the reservation desk and file it there. Don't wait to get home, do it immediately. The claims process varies between airlines, but you should always include your name, date/time of flight, and flight number on any correspondence you have with the airline.

Even if airline personnel has located your luggage and says it's on the next flight, ask them to file a report. You can give them your baggage claim tags, just make sure to get a copy of the report in return. Also, make sure to get a phone number so that you can follow up with someone just in case.

What to Expect if Your Luggage is Delayed

After filing your claim, the airline has 21 days to try and find it and return it to you. However, there are no set rules as to how the airline will help you during this 21-day delay. Generally, you're entitled to getting back "reasonable expenses" incurred while luggage-less. Although the airline might not agree with what you consider reasonable, they should cover any emergency expenses that you have to pay because you don't have your luggage. 

There are several ways the airline can do this. For example, they could:

  • Give you an immediate one-off payment so that you can buy emergency items, such as toiletries and spare clothes.
  • Pay you a set amount for each day of the delay, up to a maximum number of days.
  • Not make any up-front cash payments but give you money back for any expenses you've incurred because your baggage is delayed. If they do this, make sure you keep all your receipts.

You'll need to speak to the airline directly to find out what they'll offer you. For those with travel insurance, you may be able to get a more generous payment from your insurance provider—yet another reason to consider purchasing coverage.

See Also: Choosing Travel Insurance That Keeps You Covered

Don’t Forget About Fee Reimbursement

You paid a pretty penny to check your bags, so why shouldn’t you get a refund if the airline fails to hold up their end of the deal? Whether you actually get reimbursed depends on the airline, but asking to get reimbursed for baggage fees when your bag is delayed or lost can't hurt.

Lost Bags

The airline will do everything it can to find your bag and avoid having to pay out. But, if 21 days have passed, your luggage is considered to be lost, and they’ll have to reimburse you for it. 

What You Can Do if Your Luggage is Lost

You'll have to make a claim for compensation—a separate claim from when you initially notified the airline that your luggage was lost. The airline will usually ask you for a list of the missing items. If you can, give them original receipts to substantiate your compensation claim.

Know That You’ll Never Get Paid The Full Price For Your Things

Airlines will only pay depreciated values for your items, so unless you can prove that something you lost is brand new, they'll only pay you a fraction of its value. The same goes for reimbursing you for clothes or anything bought while your luggage was temporarily lost—since they assume you will wear items again in the future they won't pay the full price.

Don't Ask For Too Much

If airlines feel like you're exaggerating, or worse, lying, they might deny your claim entirely. They're also prone to asking for receipts or other documentation. So, unless you're a hoarder with every receipt for everything you've ever bought, get ready to haggle with the airline on what your stuff is actually worth.

Check Your Home Insurance and Credit Cards

Some homeowner's or renter's insurance policies will cover losses that occurred outside of your home. In a similar vein, some credit cards offer flight insurance or supplemental baggage coverage, which are often automatically applied when you buy a ticket with that card.

See Also: How to Pick a Travel Credit Card That Will Take You Places

What to Expect if Your Luggage is Lost

The maximum an airline pays for lost bags and their contents is currently limited to $3,400 per passenger on domestic flights, and a varying per-passenger rate for checked baggage on international flights. Additionally, if you paid a checked baggage fee for your lost bag, the airline must refund your fee.

Once your claim is filed, it can take airlines anywhere from four weeks to three months to reimburse you. In some cases, they’ll offer you travel vouchers worth more than the cash they owe, but you should make sure those aren’t constrained by restrictions and blackout dates.

Tips to Prevent Lost or Delayed Bags

The best way to avoid lost luggage is not to check any at all! But as that's not always possible, here are some tips that can save you the trouble of ever thinking about making a baggage claim (or make it simpler if you do):

Say Cheese

Take a photo of your luggage before you depart! It’s far more effective than describing your lost luggage as “black with wheels and a handle.”


Label your luggage on the inside and outside, including name, phone number, address and an alternate contact. You can even include your itinerary on the inside of your bags so you can be traced more easily. Also, be sure to remove any old claim checks from the bags.

Arrive Early

One of the leading causes of lost luggage is late arrivals, since bags may not have time to make it to the plane.

Avoid Connections

It’s not always possible, but avoiding connecting flights greatly reduces your chances of lost luggage. When connecting from a domestic flight to an international one, you can even collect your baggage at the international gateway, carry it yourself to the international terminal and check it again.

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

If you’re traveling with someone else, split your belongings between two bags. That way, if one is lost, you’ll each at least have something clean to wear.

Keep Your Valuable Close

Most airlines have a clause in their fine print stating that you’re not allowed to check bags containing valuables. And if you do? Don’t expect to be reimbursed. Restricted items can include heirlooms (maybe your great-grandmother’s handmade quilt), books and documents, jewelry, computers and software, eyeglasses, contact lenses and even non-prescription sunglasses, furs, cameras, and cash! Reviewing your airline’s list will help you pack smarter—and lighter.

Track Bags Yourself

Just because the guy behind the baggage claim counter doesn't know where your bag is, doesn't mean you shouldn't. Numerous products on the market today are designed specifically to ride shotgun in your checked luggage and report their whereabouts on command.

See Also: 8 Tiny Travel Accessories You Didn’t Know You Need

Finally, Don’t Give Up!

If you’ve lost your bag and made a report, but haven’t gotten any satisfaction—keep on them. Call the frequent flier members hotline (a good reason to join). Hang on to all your paperwork and reference your claim number in every communication.

Even better, stay on the airline’s case with Twitter and/or Facebook; the airlines do respond quickly to problems they hear about on social media as a reputation for poor service can directly impact ticket sales.

Do you have any tried-and-true tips to avoid or cope with lost luggage claims? Tell us in the comments below!

You may also like: 19 Things Flight Attendants Wish You Knew

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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