What to Do if the Airline Loses Your Luggage

Lost luggage
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Flying to your next vacation destination? The fear of losing your luggage is a common but, as it turns out, slightly irrational phobia. 

Airlines still get a bad rap about mishandling bags, even though the Department of Transportation reports that the number of lost and mishandled bags hit a 30-year low in 2016. Only one percent of checked bags don't arrive promptly on the baggage carousel, and only a tiny fraction of those are truly lost.

Most mishandled bags arrive at their destination on the next flight, to be reunited with their owners soon afterward. Within 24 hours, 80 to 90 percent of mishandled bags are located, and within five days 95 to 98 percent of that original one percent find their owners.

There are folks who will chastise you for even thinking of checking a bag. They will extol the virtues of traveling light and brag that they would never pay a dime extra to check a bag. (Don't want to pay for checked bags? Fly Southwest Airlines.) Most of these folks are not flying with kids, so nod politely and do what feels right for you. When you've got kids in tow, it can be a huge relief to minimize your load when you're traveling.

Curious how your airline stacks up for lost luggage? You can view the most recent Air Travel Consumer Report and check the section on mishandled luggage. In a nutshell, all of the top 10 domestic carriers have fewer than five reports of mishandled luggage per 1,000 passengers.

More good news: Thanks to technological advances, airlines are getting much better at tracking the bags they do lose. With barcoded and RFID-enabled tags, systems now keep excellent track of bags so that by the time you report a lost bag, the airline can likely tell you exactly where it is and when you can expect it returned.

Checking your bag? Take these just-in-case steps:

4 Things to Do Before You Check Your Bag

  1. Take a photo of your bag with your smartphone. This will help should you need to file a missing bag report (see below).
  2. Put your name and cell phone number somewhere that's easy for the airline to find. A luggage tag is the obvious choice.
  3. Do a mental check to make sure there's nothing in a checked bag that you really can't afford to lose. Medication? Valuables? Flash drive containing a major project? Transfer those items to your carry-on if possible.
  4. When you check your bag, you'll get a baggage receipt. Keep it somewhere safe in your carry-on belongings. You'll need this should your bag happen to go missing.

3 Things to Do if the Airline Loses Your Bag

  1. Find the baggage claim office at the airport. There's often one office handling complaints for multiple airlines, so be prepared to line up.
  2. File a report at the airport. Don't decide that you'll call the airline when you get home or to your hotel. The report is straightforward and the process will go even faster if you have your baggage receipt and a photo of your luggage.
  3. If it's late at night and there's nobody at the baggage claim office, call your airline. If you had connecting flights, you need to contact the airline that brought you to your final destination. Be sure to take note of the time and whom you spoke to, and ask the airline to email you a copy of the report. ​

    Typically an airline will deliver your bag at no cost to your home or your hotel on the same day the bag arrives at your airport. 

    In the vast majority of cases, your bag will either be already en route or scheduled to go on the next available flight. Typically, you can ask to be sent a text alert when your bag is located, along with a URL you can use to track your bag and gauge an estimated time of delivery.

    What to Do if Your Bag is Really Lost

    • It can take a week or two before the airline declares a bag lost. At that point, you will need to fill out claim forms. Like insurance companies, airlines don't automatically pay the full amount of every claim. They consider the depreciated value of your possessions, not their original price.
    • Generally, it takes an airline anywhere from four weeks to three months to pay passengers for lost luggage.
    • When airlines offer a settlement, they may offer the option of a voucher for future flights in a higher amount than the cash payment. Be sure to ask about all the restrictions, including any blackout periods.