The ultimate guide to finding your lost luggage

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By Christopher Elliott

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably lost your luggage.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Airlines misplace two or three bags per flight (7.6 bags per thousand passengers, according to SITA, a multinational information technology company). 

Fortunately, airlines find most of them. But if your bag isn’t on the conveyor belt, there’s a 93 percent chance you’ll see it again. I like those odds.

There are no comparable statistics for buses, cruise lines or trains. But based on the three decades of advocacy work I’ve done, the loss rate is far lower for all three 

If you’re reading this story because of a lost bag, that’s probably a small comfort to you. (Related: Here’s how to buy the best luggage for your next trip.)

So let’s review a few things:

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands, including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.
  • What are the rules when my bags go missing?
  • What should I do when my checked luggage is lost?
  • What do I need to know about the luggage claims process?

What are the rules when my bags go missing?

Let’s review the steps to take if an airline, cruise line, hotel or motor coach operator loses your luggage. (Related: Yo, mind your luggage manners!)

Airline

If an airline loses your checked luggage on a domestic flight, you’ll find the reimbursement rules in your carrier’s contract of carriage. That’s the legal agreement between you and the airline. If it’s an international flight, the Montreal Convention applies (more on this in a minute).

Domestic (U.S.) luggage losses

Under most airline contracts, you have to file a claim within 24 hours of the loss, but you shouldn’t leave the airport before going to the lost luggage desk to let them know your bag hasn’t shown up. 

Often, an airline will place your luggage on another flight that arrives a few hours after you do. If you can’t wait at the airport, they’ll make arrangements to deliver your bags to your hotel or home. (Related: Luggage lies: Baggage trackers don’t always work!)

By the way, you can ask an airline to cover the costs of a change of clothes and toiletries while it searches for your bag. It’s better to ask for an allowance before you leave the airport instead of buying the needed items and then billing the airline. (It may or may not cover the replacements.)

Generally, airlines cover the cost of buying a new bag and some replacement clothes. Your airline will ask you for receipts. If you can’t provide them, the airline may only refund a nominal amount, if anything. However, there’s a silver lining: Under federal regulations, it must refund your luggage fee if it loses the bag. (Related: Who’s really to blame for these absurd luggage rules?)

What does the airline exclude from liability? Almost everything. American Airlines’ domestic contract excludes everything from antiques and computers to silverware. Whatever you put in your luggage, it’s pretty much excluded. Even if the airline covers it, you must have the original receipt for the purchase of each item.

International luggage losses

The Montreal Convention governs international luggage losses. When you’re dealing with a loss on an international flight, you’ll want to refer directly to the convention text if you think your airline isn’t compensating you appropriately.

The text of the Montreal Convention is dense and difficult to understand. The important part is in Article 22. It sets the liability limit for damages associated with delayed passenger baggage at about $1,700 (it’s calculated in something called Special Drawing Rights).

By the way, U.S. law forbids an airline from violating the Montreal Convention. It constitutes an unfair or deceptive business practices, and unfair methods of competition.

Under the Montreal Convention, an airline has 21 days before it can classify “misplaced” luggage as lost. You shouldn’t wait 21 days before filing a claim. The sooner you say something, the sooner the airline can start looking for your lost luggage. I strongly recommend making a claim within 24 hours of your loss, in order to comply with your airline’s separate policy on lost luggage.

In the past, domestic airlines have shortchanged passengers on compensation under the Montreal Convention, so be wary of the first offer you get for a loss on an international flight.

Cruise line

Your cruise line’s ticket contract or cruise contract outlines its liability for lost luggage. Basically, you have to prove that the luggage was in the cruise line’s possession, custody, or control at the time of the loss. A typical contract will also have an exception for wear, tear, and normal usage. Perishable items, medicine, liquor, cash, securities, or other financial instruments are exempt from coverage. (Related: The ultimate guide to taking a cruise.)

Carnival Cruise Lines’ contract, for example, stipulates that the aggregate value of your property does not exceed $50 per guest or bag, with a maximum value of $100 per stateroom regardless of the number of occupants or bags. You can get around that by declaring the value of your items in writing, and paying Carnival five percent of the declared value, but that almost never happens. In other words, if your jewelry goes missing while you’re on a cruise, and you haven’t declared it in advance and in writing, the maximum your cruise line must pay is $100. Put differently, don’t bring your jewels on your cruise, or make sure your homeowner’s or renter’s policy covers your things. Some trip insurance policies and some credit cards also include baggage insurance.

Train

In the United States, Amtrak accepts limited liability for your luggage. You have 30 days from the date of your loss to file a claim. Its terms specifically exempt missing or stolen items inside unlocked or unsecured baggage, minor damages to baggage considered normal wear and tear (despite reasonable care when handling), baggage that was transported without travel of the owner (unaccompanied baggage) and loss of or damage to any prohibited items (including both the bags and other items packed together with prohibited items).

If you check your luggage, Amtrak’s liability is limited to $50 per bag. If you check it as a parcel, it’s limited to $100 per bag. Amtrak also disclaims liability for any special items carried onboard, or any bicycles accepted in the baggage area not packed within a bicycle box.

Just as with the cruise line, you can declare additional valuation, up to $2,500, upon payment of the applicable charge. Few passengers do.

Hotel

If you check your luggage with a bellman, and it’s lost, your hotel’s liability is spelled out in the state’s innkeeper laws. Those tend to favor the hotel, and limit the damages you can claim.

For example, California state laws say that in no case does a hotel owner’s liability exceed $1,000. The amount of damages will not exceed $500 for each trunk, $250 for each valise or traveling bag and its contents, $250 for each box, bundle, or package and its contents, and $250 for all other personal property of any kind, unless the innkeeper consents in writing to assume a greater liability. Your damage claim will probably be forwarded to the hotel’s insurance company for processing, and you may be asked for original receipts for all the items you’re claiming. This may make it difficult, if not impossible, to make a successful claim.

What should I do when my checked luggage is lost?

There’s a way you can recover your luggage quickly. But you need to do something the moment your luggage goes missing.

Look around

If you’re at a luggage carousel, or at a train station, have a look around. Sometimes luggage arrives early, and is placed next to the carousel or in a holding area. It’s possible the bag is not lost, after all. (Related: A real lost luggage whodunnit.)

File a claim

The sooner you let the airline, rail operator, cruise line, or hotel know of your loss, the sooner they can try to find your bag. Airlines have standard forms you’ll need to fill out. A hotel might not. Get something in writing that documents your loss. If necessary, call the police, and fill out a report. (Related: If luggage fees are wrong, who pays?)

Ask for an allowance

You should be able to get a stipend to buy toiletries and clothes while they look for your belongings. This isn’t part of the contract of carriage. But airlines have policies to take care of customers when they lose luggage. Note: You should always ask for specifics. Should you save receipts? Will they simply give you a gift card? Is there a limit to the stipend? (There almost always is.) (Related: Who’s responsible for this pilfered luggage?)

File a travel insurance claim

Virtually all travel insurance policies and some credit cards cover lost luggage. (Related: How to find the best travel insurance for your next trip.)

Be patient

It can take weeks, and sometimes months, to recover lost luggage. Good thing you didn’t check anything valuable, otherwise you’d be in trouble.

What do I need to know about the luggage claims process?

Unfortunately, the process of claiming reimbursement for lost luggage — indeed, of even trying to track down lost luggage — is as opaque as any in the travel industry. 

Once you’ve filed a claim, you may receive a receipt with a phone number for a “luggage services” department, which either never picks up, or only offers automated information. You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares. If the bag is lost, the company may ask for receipts, which you probably don’t have. (Related: Iberia damaged my luggage and refused to pay me for it!)

  • If your bag is lost permanently, it can take weeks — even months — to process your claim. Be patient. (Please note that my advocacy team can’t help recover your luggage, but we will give you all the tools you need to help yourself.)
  • Don’t let the company leave you with the impression that it cares about your loss. For most travel companies, luggage loss and the resulting claims are a cost of doing business. The technology exists to almost completely eliminate lost luggage, but it’s cheaper to just keep losing your personal belongings, at least for now. (Related: Got a customer complaint? Here’s how to contact the CEO directly.)

How to prevent your luggage from getting lost

Luggage likes to get lost, no question about it. But preventing it is relatively simple.

Buy a luggage tracker

Get an AirTag or Tile. Luggage trackers are one of the best ways to find misplaced bags. But they are not foolproof. Tracking devices are useless when someone tries to pilfer your luggage, and even if hidden in your checked bag, they’re easy to find and remove.

Buy a sturdy and colorful bag tag

Flimsy paper tags are easily ripped off in transit. And the paper ones they give you at the airport? Useless. Get a sturdy plastic one. Some bag tags also have scannable QR codes. Note: Don’t put your full address on your bag tag. That’s an invitation to thieves. Just include your name, email and phone number.

Mark it up

Use tape, strings, spray paint — anything that’ll make your bag stand out. And for heaven’s sake, leave that pricey Louis Vuitton bag at home. That’s just an invitation to pilfer your luggage.

Make sure it’s going to the right place

Those three-letter airport codes can be counterintuitive, so if you don’t recognize the one on your tag, ask the ticket agent. (Related: The ultimate guide to finding the best travel advice.)

Tell ’em where you’ll be

Store a copy of your itinerary and contact information inside the bag or outside pocket and make sure there’s a duplicate name tag inside the bag. In the unlikely event your outside tag goes missing, they’ll still be able to find you.

Take a picture

Use your cell phone camera to take a snapshot of your bag before you check it in. It’ll be easier to track down when you can show an airline or train employee a picture of the missing item.

Keep a packing list

That way, you know what you put in the bag. Also, take a picture of the inside of your bag with the things in it.

Better yet, don’t let the bag out of your sight

The only way to not lose your bag is to never let it out of your sight. Take it on the plane, train or bus. Don’t check it.

A little knowledge of your luggage options, how to protect your baggage when you travel, and your rights when it’s lost, can keep your personal belongings safe when you’re on the road. 

What if I can’t carry everything with me?

OK, you’re probably asking yourself if checking a bag is such a good idea. It might be, but it might not be. Here’s how to make a decision about checking your luggage. (Related: Are fees for carry-on luggage just the beginning?)

Airline

Checking a bag used to be a relatively easy decision. Most airlines included the cost of checking a first and second suitcase. Your airline could still lose your checked luggage, but at least you weren’t paying more for them. Now, with only one or two exceptions, you pay for the privilege. For most vacations or business trips (those lasting a week or less), you can usually fit everything into a carry-on bag. Many air travelers try to do that, instead of giving the airline an extra $25 or more per bag . (Note: Some “discount” airlines like Spirit also charge for carry-on bags, which makes this strategy more difficult to execute.)

Cruise line

Most cruise lines allow you to carry one bag on board when you embark. But they insisted that you check the rest of your luggage and then bring it to your stateroom. Cruise lines don’t charge extra for your bag, but they may insist that you tip your porter for the service. This usually works, although I strongly recommend that you keep all valuables with you. Your cruise line may not cover all your losses if someone pilfers the contents of your bag.

Hotel

You can leave your bag with a bellman, or checked at the front desk for safekeeping when you’re waiting for your room to become available or need to check out of your room but still have a few hours to kill in town. The hotel may charge you or solicit a generous tip. Again, the hotel’s liability may be limited, so you should be wary of checking anything valuable.

Bus and train

Rail and motor coach operators rarely charge for carry-on luggage, but federal law limits their liability. It’s unusual for passengers to carry an excessive amount of luggage when traveling by bus or train, since it often involves walking longer distances within cities or between terminals. Again: Don’t leave anything valuable in your bags if they will be out of your sight.

Bottom line: If you can avoid checking your bags, you should. It’s the only way to ensure your luggage doesn’t get lost.

How to avoid luggage fees

Luggage fees are cruel. I mean, most people travel with at least one bag. And most airline tickets used to include at least one checked bag. Today, airlines milk their passengers for extra luggage fees, which can significantly raise the price of flying. 

But there are ways to avoid luggage fees:

  • Don’t carry any luggage. I’ve already covered that. A sturdy travel jacket will allow you to “wear” all of your belongings on the plane. You might not be the picture of elegance, but you’ll save money.
  • Overnight it. You can overnight your luggage to your destination, which will deny the airline the fee, but could cost you a little extra. There are also luggage shipping services like Luggage Free and Lugless that can get your bags directly to your door.
  • Bring it on the plane. Even if it’s too big (which I hope it isn’t), your airline will offer a free courtesy gate check when the overhead bins have filled up. Problem solved! By the way, don’t forget to get a receipt for your bag if that happens.

Luggage gets lost, but it doesn’t have to stay lost. Now you know how to avoid lost bags and find them quickly if they’re lost. You also know your rights if the luggage stays lost — which I hope it doesn’t.

About this story

This article originated as part of a chapter in my book “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler.” I’ve updated it numerous times and posted it on this site. I hope you never have to use the information in this guide. But there’s only one way to make sure. That’s right: Never check your luggage! (Sorry to repeat myself.)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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