Lost Luggage: Here’s What to Do If Your Luggage is Lost

You’ve just gotten off the plane and you’re in a new country, ready for an amazing vacation! You can already imagine the awesome people you’re going to meet, the food you’re about to indulge in, maybe a few late nights and some unforgettable stories. Waiting by the luggage carousel, you’re just waiting for your suitcase to get unloaded before you can start your adventures—time passes and the bags from your flight stop coming. An awful realization hits your jetlagged mind: my bag is missing! We know. Lost luggage is the WORST. 

What happens to lost luggage? 

Although it’s a common fear, lost luggage is actually pretty uncommon. The chances of getting lost luggage back is actually pretty good—of all the bags transported via airlines each year, less than 1% are lost, delayed or damaged. Lost luggage is usually not even lost—the vast majority of baggage “lost” is really just delayed. If your bag doesn’t make it to your destination with you, airlines are usually able to locate it fairly quickly and get it on the next flight there. About 97% of lost luggage is returned to its owner within 2 days, and less than 5% of all lost luggage is actually lost, aka never returned. 

How can I find my lost luggage? 

1. Stay calm

Stay calm! Panicking will not help you. Yes, this situation is stressful and awful, but you’re going to get through it. Chances are that your bag was simply misplaced and can be put on the next flight to your destination. Take a deep breath and steady yourself. Remember also that airlines today have sophisticated methods of locating luggage. Stay calm, you’ll get through this!

2. Go to the baggage claim office. 

If the luggage carousel is empty and your bag is nowhere to be seen, go directly to the airport’s baggage claim office and file a report of your lost luggage. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Some airlines require that you report a lost bag within a certain number of hours, so do NOT wait. Be sure to include the identification numbers from your claim tickets. 

Filing a report accomplishes two important things. One, it lets the airline know they need to locate your bag. Secondly, it creates a paper trail that will allow you, if necessary, to receive reimbursement for the items you purchase because of your missing bag. Ask for a copy of the report, write down the name of the person who helped you, get a follow-up phone number (useful for getting back in touch if your bag isn’t found), and hold on to your luggage tickets. Here are some important questions to ask:

  • Can you locate my bag?
  • What number should I call for updates on my missing bag?
  • When can I expect an update from the airline about my missing bag?
  • If my bag is found, will your company pay to have the luggage delivered to me at my hostel/hotel?

3. Check into your hostel/hotel

After you’ve made your report, there isn’t much more you can do at the airport, so now is a good time to go check into your hostel or hotel. You may want to buy some essentials, such as some toiletries and basic clothes, to replace your missing ones. Ask your hotel where you can find such items for cheap or if they will provide them to you. (Sorry, but a new iPad doesn’t count as an essential, unless you packed an iPad in your missing suitcase and can prove it.) Be sure to keep a list of expenditures, and hold on to any receipts! On domestic US flights, the maximum cost of “reasonable expenses” you can incur because of your missing bag is $3,500; on international flights, it’s about $1,500. Keep your expenditures reasonable so that you don’t need to negotiate with the airline.

4. Follow up with the airline

Don’t wait for them to call, be proactive and get updates. You can also ask (nicely!) to be reimbursed for your checked baggage fee. You paid the fee to ensure you had your bag when you arrived, but the airline didn’t hold up their end of the deal! Some airlines will reimburse it for you if your bag is lost or delayed. You can also check with your credit card company, since they may give you a reimbursement for your lost bag. Just make sure that you used their card to purchase the flight, then call your card company and find out.

The US Department of Transportation sets laws about lost luggage on American domestic flights; for international flights, it’s the Montreal Convention. According to both, if your bag truly is lost, the airline must compensate you for it and your lost items. You won’t get the full price of the lost items but a depreciated amount, unless you can prove the items you lost were brand new. 

How to make sure your luggage doesn’t get lost 

When traveling, it’s always a good idea to try to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. What if my bag is delayed? How can I find my bags if the airline loses them? What if my bag is stolen? But to mitigate these “what-if” stresses in real life, try the following tips:

Keep the essentials with you

Always carry spare chargers, adapters, and converters for all your essential electronics (not to mention the electronics themselves) in your carry-on bag. When your bag is missing, a working and charged phone is necessary at the very least. How else will the airline contact you when they’ve located your bag? Also, pack some essentials that can hold you for a few days until you get to a store or (hopefully!) your bag reappears. Some general items could be: travel-size toiletries like shampoo, conditioner, soap, a small comb and brush, toothbrush and toothpaste, a bathing suit (if you’re going to a warm location), socks, pajamas, and a spare set or two of lightweight clothes. 

Don’t lose your baggage claim tickets

If you’re prone to losing things or just like being careful, take a picture of the tickets with your phone. If the baggage claim tickets are stickers (as they often are), you can also stick them to your passport or another item you won’t lose. Take a picture of your bag as well, so that you can show any airline agent exactly what your lost luggage looks like.

Know what you packed.

Before you leave for the airport, take a picture of what’s inside your checked baggage. Alternatively, have a list of items you packed in the suitcase before checking it. In the worst-case scenario, if an airline really does lose your bag, you’ll know exactly what they need to reimburse you for.

Check in early for your flight. 

No need to get to Dad-level and show up for your flight four hours early, but checking in at the last-minute increases your chances that your bag won’t make it on the flight with you. If you’re checking a bag, be sure to show up at least 90 minutes before your flight for domestic flights. For international flights, give yourself at least 2.5 hours. If you’re traveling around the holidays, plan for extra-long lines and more delays and give yourself additional time. 

Travel on nonstop flights and avoid short layovers.

Of course, things happen, but in general, it’s very rare to lose your luggage if you have a direct flight. Connections are where things tend to go haywire. If your connection time is very short (less than an hour), chances increase that your bags can be delayed. Keep in mind that the less time you have to get from one flight to another is also less time for your bag to be transferred to your next flight. 

Prep your travel bags. 

Before your trip, make sure you remove any old stickers and baggage tags from previous trips on your bag. These contain routing information and could send your bag somewhere else. Second: many suitcases look alike, and sometimes people take the wrong bag. Mark your suitcases as yours: buy a suitcase or paint one in a distinctive color or pattern, tie a colorful bandana to the handle, anything that screams, “HEY MORON, THIS ISN’T YOUR BAG!” at tired fellow travelers. Also, be sure to have a luggage tag on your bag that bears your name, email address and phone number. Do NOT put your address on the tag: you don’t want to give someone directions to where you live.

Finally: never (EVER!) put anything in your checked luggage that is sentimental, highly valuable or irreplaceable. The safest place for your items is with you. Although truly lost luggage is extremely rare, you don’t want to take the chance. 

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Do airlines reimburse you for lost luggage?

Lost luggage compensation varies by airline. In general, on domestic US flights, the maximum cost of what you can be reimbursed for because of your missing bag is $3,500. On international flights, it’s about $1,500. Remember, that’s not a guarantee, that’s what airlines must pay maximum if you can prove that the contents of your luggage were more valuable than that. Also keep in mind that depreciation is a factor here as well. If you bought a fancy GoPro setup five years ago for $1,000, the airline is not going to give you $1,000 for it now. 

Some airlines offer flat-fee reimbursement for your luggage if it’s lost. Either way, you’ll need to contact the airline directly to make a claim for the compensation. Also keep in mind that your luggage isn’t considered “lost” unless it’s been around 1-2 weeks after your flight. 

How much do airlines compensate for lost luggage? 

Although your luggage isn’t considered “lost” until generally around 1-2 weeks after your flight, the airline is still responsible to help you out even if your luggage is just delayed. This means, according to the Department of Transportation in the US, that airlines can be required to reimburse you for “reasonable, verifiable and actual incidental expenses” that occur while your luggage is delayed. Hold onto all of your receipts to claim these expenses. Remember that they’ll also need to be reasonable—i.e. you need a sweater because you showed up somewhere cold without enough layers since your warm clothes were packed, not you went out and bought several pairs of new Nikes because your luggage was delayed and you “didn’t have shoes.” Keep it reasonable if you don’t want to be splitting hairs later with the airline. 

While dealing with lost luggage is obviously not an ideal situation, we promise you will make it through this. There are plenty of things you can do to help alleviate the stress of this situation, or avoid it entirely such as always traveling with an extra day’s outfit in your carry-on. This way, you can travel with peace of mind, knowing you will have one less thing to worry about if your bag goes MIA. And remember, make sure you contact the airline immediately to get your lost luggage back. Be proactive and you’ll be just fine!

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