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The ultimate guide to losing and finding your luggage

It weighs you down, it costs extra, and airlines love to lose it. Luggage is something most travelers wish they didn’t have to worry about — which is exactly why you should think about it before your next trip.

Selecting the right luggage might be the easy part. Knowing your rights when your bags are lost or misplaced isn’t. (And if you travel enough, your luggage will eventually get lost.)

You may be able to skip bringing your luggage entirely. And there’s definitely a way to avoid luggage fees. But you should also carefully consider the type of luggage you carry and take a few moments to understand the luggage liability and claim process.

Do I need luggage?

You might not. Some travel jackets contain enough pocket space to accommodate a change of clothes and basic toiletries.

Travel with luggage:

  • If you’re going somewhere where you will need more than one change of clothes and basic toiletries.
  • If you need to carry anything larger than your pocket, either as a checked bag or as a carry-on. That includes a laptop computer, tablet, or other electronics, which should never be checked.
  • If you need to bring food, beverages, medical supplies, or prescription drugs on your trip. Never place medicine, car keys or house keys in checked luggage!

Travel without luggage:

  • If it’s a short trip or day trip, and you will not need more than one change of clothes.
  • If you’re going somewhere that luggage will slow you down. For example, you wouldn’t want to take a large bag into a theme park — many parks will send you to a long line for the bag to be searched. You may have to leave your baggage in a locker, too.
  • If you can easily buy the necessities at your destination, and need to get to your destination quickly. (Or if you’re fleeing a natural disaster or civil war, and need to leave town on the double.)

Should I check my bag or carry it?

  • Airline. Checking a bag used to be a relatively easy decision. Most airlines included the cost of checking a first and second suitcase. The checked bags could still get lost, but at least you weren’t paying more for them. Now, with only one or two exceptions, you pay for the privilege. That’s left a lot of air travelers repacking their bags, or packing less. 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 ask that you check the rest of your luggage, allowing it to be brought to your quarters. There’s no extra charge for checking your bag, although you’ll be expected to 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 items are pilfered from your bag.
  • Hotel. Bags can be left 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. There’s usually no charge for this service, although tipping may be expected. Again, the hotel’s liability may be limited, so you should be wary of checking anything valuable.
  • Bus and train. Rail and motorcoach operators rarely charge for carry-on luggage, but their liability is limited by contract or federal law. 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.

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 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.
  • vernight 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.
  • Carry 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.

What kind of luggage should I travel with?

Luggage comes in all shapes and sizes, and deciding which is right for you is a personal and practical decision. This isn’t an article about fashion, so I won’t be able to help you choose between leather and ballistic nylon, but let’s talk size.

Airline carry-on bags must fit in the overhead compartment, or under your seat. For most commercial aircraft (but not all), that means the maximum dimensions can’t exceed 22″ long x 14″ wide x 9″ tall for domestic flights. That’s the largest carry-on bag you can bring. (Unbelievably, it’s smaller for international flights.)

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You may not be able to take that bag on a plane if:

  • You’re on a smaller aircraft, such as a regional jet.
  • All the overhead compartments are already full.
  • You’ve overpacked the bag and it won’t squeeze in the overhead compartment.

I recommend keeping your primary bag compact — certainly, no larger than the maximum carry-on size for an aircraft. Otherwise, every time you check in, you’re taking a chance that your primary carry-on — and let me emphasize, this is the bag with all of your valuables, including passports and medication— will be forcibly checked by the airline. It’s just not worth it.

Note: If you’re traveling by bus or train, you may experience limitations similar to those found on a small regional jet. You might need to quickly remove the valuables from your wheeled luggage before you check it, which is not an ideal situation. Check the baggage limits for your motorcoach or train before you leave, so that you don’t have to quickly repack your bags.

  • Soft or hard luggage? Hard-sided luggage will protect your belongings, but it comes at a cost. The luggage tends to weigh more, and it’s less flexible. So you won’t be able to wedge the bag into an overhead bin, and it’s more of a challenge to overpack a hard-sided bag (though it’s not impossible). Where you’re going matters. In the tropics, where you might deplane onto the tarmac and pick up your luggage, soft-sided luggage can get soaked in a downpour before you get to it. Also, destinations with high humidity can cause clothes in soft-sided luggage to get damp. It isn’t unusual for experienced travelers to own two sets of luggage, and choose the kind that’s more appropriate for the likely travel conditions.
  • Does the material matter? When you’re buying soft-sided luggage, pay close attention to the type of fabric and its denier, which is a trade term for strength. Ballistic or Cordura nylon is more resilient than other polyester fabrics. Look for something strong, and a denier of 400 or higher.
  • How can I tell if the luggage is well-made? Typically, the more you pay the better the luggage, but not always. A solid look and feel will ensure the luggage lasts longer than a few trips. Look for covered exterior seams, lock stitches, and zippers with reinforced seams. Don’t be afraid to give the bag a pull (the equivalent of “kicking the tires” on a car) to make sure the stitches, zippers, and handles have a solid feel. If the handle seems like it could come off with another tug, try a different set.
  • Wheels or no wheels? Wheels add weight to your luggage, but they can also make the carry-on so much more convenient. I’m a firm believer in wheels, but bear in mind that not every bag must have wheels. Some of your carry-ons can rest comfortably on the wheeled luggage when you’re in an airport terminal or checking into a hotel. Don’t go all wheel-crazy!
  • What about “wearable” luggage? Several clothing manufacturers offer pants, shirts and jackets that are advertised as wearable luggage. While these can carry some of your personal belongings when you travel, I don’t recommend using them as your primary luggage. At some point, you’ll need a bag.
  • Two wheels or four? If your primary bag is wheeled, you have one more decision to make: two wheels or four? While the standard, two-wheeled luggage remains the most popular among frequent travelers, spinner luggage, featuring four wheels mounted on casters, is another option. Kids love it, because it moves easily in any direction. Four-wheelers also don’t fall over as often as the two-wheelers but they can roll away from you on their own.
  • Luggage security? Would you give a total stranger your name, address, and phone number? That’s what a luggage tag does unless it has a privacy cover. Certain luggage features electromagnetic shielding compartments to protect your laptop, tablet, cell phone and other digital devices from hacking and identity theft. You may not need this advanced protection, but if you’re nervous about security, the added peace of mind can be a plus. Criminals — and even some governments — are continually developing new schemes to access your personal and financial data.
  • Do warranties matter? Absolutely. Ideally, your bag will come with an unconditional lifetime warranty. Do manufacturers cover their product? You bet. I’ve dealt with many travelers who had their bags replaced, no questions asked. Note: read the fine print very carefully. Some warranties won’t cover all types of damage.
  • What’s the best color? For years, to paraphrase Henry Ford, you could buy luggage in any color, as long as it was black. At least that’s how many luggage manufacturers felt. Today, luggage comes in lots of colors, and I suggest you keep it colorful. Why? Everyone else has black luggage, which is easy to confuse with everyone else’s. If you already own a black suitcase, don’t worry. You can fix that by giving your luggage a unique tag or even pulling colorful duct tape around one of the handles — anything to set it apart. You’ll thank me at the baggage carousel.

How do I pack smarter?

  • Learn a system. There are various packing methods designed to fit more items into less space. Ever since I learned to fold the Navy way, I’ve been able to cram more into a bag, but rolling your clothes is another way to maximize room. Find a system that works for you, and use it.
  • Take only what you need. When in doubt, leave it out. Odds are, there’s a drug store or clothing store at your destination, and you can buy an item you need.
  • Plan ahead to pack less. Know the weather forecast at your destination and your activities and pack what works for both. Resist the temptation to add something “just in case.”
  • Don’t overpack. You’ll have trouble getting it into the car, or the overhead compartment, and it will stress you out. What’s more, you won’t be able to buy anything to take home with you. Your kids will be disappointed.

What happens when my bags are lost?

Airline. If your luggage is lost on a domestic flight, the rules are covered in your carrier’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline. If it’s an international flight, you’re covered under the Montreal Convention (more on this in a minute).

Domestic 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 luggage desk by baggage claim to let them know your bag hasn’t shown up. They have access to your reservation and any comments that might be noted about your bag. Sometimes it gets placed on another flight that’s arriving soon, and you can wait for it at the airport, or the airline can deliver it to your hotel. 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.)

The contract basically allows the airline to cover the cost of buying a new bag and some replacement clothes. You will be asked for receipts, and 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.

What’s excluded from liability? Almost everything. American Airlines’ domestic contract excludes antiques, artifacts, artwork, books and documents, china, computers, and other electronic equipment, computer software, fragile items (including child/infant restraint devices such as strollers and car seats), eyeglasses, prescription sunglasses, nonprescription sunglasses, and all other eyewear and eye/vision devices (whether lenses are glass, plastic, or some other material), furs, heirlooms, keys, liquids, medicines, money, orthotics, surgical supports, perishable items, photographic, video and optical equipment, precious metals, stones or jewelry, securities and negotiable papers, silverware, samples, unique or irreplaceable items, or any other similar valuable items.

Whew! Moral of the story — never check these items!

International losses

Luggage losses internationally are governed by the Montreal Convention (the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air). 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. For example, Article 19 of the convention says a carrier is liable for damage occasioned by delay in the carriage by air of baggage, except to the extent that it proves that it took all reasonable measures to prevent the damage, or that it was impossible to take such measures.

Article 22 sets the liability limit for damages associated with delayed passenger baggage at about $1,780 (it’s calculated in something called Special Drawing Rights). Article 26 states that any provision tending to relieve a carrier of liability, or to fix a lower limit than that which is laid down in the Convention, is null and void. By the way, violations of the Montreal Convention are forbidden under U.S. federal law, and would constitute unfair or deceptive business practices, and unfair methods of competition.

Under the Montreal Convention, an airline has 21 days before “misplaced” luggage is declared lost, but you shouldn’t wait 21 days before claiming the loss. 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 own 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.


Your cruise line’s liability for your luggage is outlined in your ticket contract or cruise contract. Basically, you have to prove that the luggage was in the cruise line’s possession, custody, or control when it was lost. 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 also exempt.

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.


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) of the items via Amtrak or payment of the applicable storage charges, 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.


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 in total. 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?

Lost baggage is surprisingly common. For every flight, there are usually one or two bags that are misplaced. Fortunately, most of those bags are eventually found. Cruise lines and train operators do not report luggage loss statistics to the government, but such losses are generally not as common, and with any luck you’ll avoid problems.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 be asked 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.
  3. Ask for an allowance. You should be able to get a stipend to buy toiletries and clothes while they look for your belongings. Although this isn’t written into any contracts, it is generally a policy to take care of passengers whose belongings have been lost. 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.)
  4. File a travel insurance claim. Virtually all travel insurance and some credit cards cover lost luggage.
  5. Be patient. It can take weeks, and sometimes months, to recover lost luggage. Sometimes it’s lost forever. Good thing you didn’t check anything valuable, otherwise you’d have a situation on your hands!

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

Unfortunately, the process of claiming lost luggage — indeed, of even trying to track down lost luggage — is as opaque as any I’ve ever seen 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.

Unless your bag is found quickly, it can take weeks — even months — to process your claim. Be patient.

The company will always pay the minimum it must under its rules or applicable law. Your appeal should be in writing, and it should follow the steps as I outlined in this story.

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.

How to prevent your luggage from getting lost

Luggage likes to get lost, no question about it. Preventing it is relatively easy.

  1. Buy a sturdy and colorful bag tag. Some of the flimsier paper tags are easily ripped off in transit.
  2. Mark it up. Use tape, strings, spray paint — anything that’ll make your bag stand out.
  3. 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.
  4. Tell ’em where you’ll be. Store a copy of your itinerary 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Keep a packing list. That way, you know what you put in the bag that’s gone missing.

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 belo ngings safe when you’re on the road. After all, your bags should make your next trip better instead of being a burden.


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