Airline Lose Your Luggage? Here's What You Can Do—and How You Can Avoid It

It’s one of the worst parts about traveling, but there are ways around it

Left Luggage on the Belt

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Lost luggage happens, and it's a bummer—but it doesn't have to be the end of the world. We've put together a few tips on keeping your bags from traveling without you, keeping track of them even if they go AWOL, and what you need to do to get them back.

How to Avoid Losing Your Bags

Carry On Those Wayward Bags

The best way to avoid lost luggage is to carry it on, which is not necessarily convenient for long-term trips or carrying large liquids. Airlines usually allow two unchecked bags—one carry-on-sized bag and one personal item, traditionally defined as a purse, tote, or anything small enough to fit under an airplane seat.

Pack light and go carry-on only; that way, you'll never lose sight of your bag. Check airline rules before flying, as each carrier may have different bag dimensions.

Label Your Baggage Outside

All checked bags should have some label on the outside. While a label might not be helpful to the agents looking for your lost luggage, it can be beneficial to the bag's owner when it comes to identifying the bag. Most luggage pieces come with outside tag holders, but tags are also available at the airline check-in counters, which tie easily around bag handles.

Don't forget to keep the baggage stubs when you check your bag; they'll be needed if your bag does go missing. 

Label Your Baggage Inside, Too

Putting a label on the inside of a bag is just as important as, if not more than, a label on the outside, That way, if bag tags get lost, passenger information will be right inside. An easy way to do this is to stick a piece of ducktape inside with passenger information. Slipping in a cell phone number might also be a good idea. (Pro-tip: write "phone number" in relevant languages so anyone will be able to give you a call.)

If your bag is discovered, it's far more likely it'll find its way home to you if it has your details inside. 

Color Tag Your Bag

Having some sort of identifier on a bag will make it that much easier to find if it were to get lost. Brightly colored tape, handle wraps, and colored bag tags are all identifiers that are easy to spot and are different enough to help tell bags apart.

A plain black bag that has no labels on the outside will be difficult for the airline to track down successfully, especially if it has no identifiers on it at all.

AirTags, Anyone?

Attaching an Apple AirTag to checked bags has become the new wave, and for good reason. No matter where a checked bag ends up, a single app will have its location almost immediately, regardless of where it is in the world.

Didn't make it on the plane? You'll see it on the tarmac. Did it end up in a different city? You'll know exactly where. That information will bring you one step closer to being reunited with your missing bag.

A single AirTag costs about $30, which (depending on the carrier) can be less than a checked bag fee. It's a relatively affordable asset that everyone should take advantage of.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Descriptions

Take a picture of your bag, preferably with a color tag, and keep it on your phone or another camera. Print it out and keep it with your passport in your carry-on or passport holder, too. If you have to report a missing bag, you have an easy way (your phone) to show what your bag looks like. If you have it on your phone and have a hard copy, you can leave the copy at the baggage counter if you have to leave the airport without your bag.

Tear Off Old Tags

Before checking luggage, rip off any old baggage tags from previous flights. This will eliminate any confusion on where the bag's final destination should be. It's best to do this before the bag gets checked in; that way it isn't left up to the gate agents to deal with. It's a simple step that can save days of headaches.

Be Waiting for Your Bags

Get to the area of the airport where your baggage will be being unloaded as fast as possible after your flight lands. If you're going to the baggage claim, you'll arrive long before the bags; look above big oval carousels for your flight number—that flight's bags will be dumped down a chute to that carousel. Watch for your color tag if you decide to attach one. If bags are being unloaded on the tarmac from a small plane, watch yours until it's in your hand (you can probably walk up and grab it).

What Should You Do About Lost Luggage?

If your bag doesn't show up on the baggage carousel, look immediately for the airline's nearby baggage office or window and report it there at once (the office is near—it's probably not on another level). Give the window clerk your baggage stubs and wait for further instruction. Don't panic—your bag may just be delayed and coming in on another flight.

What Will Happen When You Report Lost Luggage?

The clerk at the baggage claim window will track your bag on the computer using your stubs. If the bag isn't on another flight, the clerk will call around to track it down or send airline workers to look for it. Make sure you describe your bag in detail and show any photos if you have them. Having an AirTag with an exact location will significantly reduce the confusion in locating the bag.

The clerk will then ask you to fill in a claim form with pertinent personal information and bag description. Supply a way to be reached over the next few days. Give the clerk a copy of your bag's picture (if you printed a hard copy) and keep a copy of the form.

The airline will look for your bag and return it to you if it is found. Yes, ominous words. It's now safe to assume it may be officially lost luggage unless the clerk tracks it as having been delivered to the carousel—in that case, it may be stolen, and you will now need to contact the police.

What the Airline Will Do If Your Baggage Is Gone

If the airline finds your bag, they'll get it to you. If not, the airline will try to replace the lost luggage itself with the closest match possible.

You're entitled to content recompense—this varies by airline, but each policy limits refund amounts, and you may not get exactly what you'd like. Be sure to find out if you'll be reimbursed if you buy replacements for items from your lost luggage now (while you're traveling), like clothes and toothpaste, and keep your claim form for checking progress. 

Consider Purchasing Travel Insurance

Having travel insurance can help if you happen to have your luggage lost by an airline. 

As soon as your luggage has been declared lost, you should call your travel insurance company to ask for advice on what to do next. They may tell you to wait to see if the luggage is recovered by the airline, or they may reimburse you for any emergency purchases you need to make while you wait, such as toiletries and clothes. And if your airline refuses to compensate you for losing your luggage? Your travel insurance almost certainly will.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Why does luggage get lost?

    Luggage can be misplaced for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, mistakes are made, and bags get put on the wrong planes or given the wrong labels. Sometimes, a bag's label might be illegible, or damaged, so no one knows where it belongs. A passenger might even forget to get their luggage and it has to be sent to unclaimed baggage.

  • What can I do if my luggage is lost?

    File a claim as soon as you realize your bag is missing, and provide as much information as you can. Don't forget to ask the airline if you're eligible to be reimbursed for your missing items.

  • How often does luggage get lost?

    According to LuggageHero, the chance of your bag being mishandled sits around 0.4 percent.

  • How much will I get reimbursed for my lost bag?

    Each airline has its own standards on refunds and reimbursing, so it's important to speak directly with your carrier.