What should I do if an airline loses my checked luggage?

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Christopher Elliott

It’s every traveler’s nightmare. You arrive at your destination, but your checked luggage doesn’t.

It happened to Dick Helms and his wife on a recent flight from Paris to Prague on CSA Czech Airlines. They were on their way to a river cruise, but their checked bags with all of their clothes and toiletries never showed up at the luggage carousel.

What now?

“We immediately filed a lost luggage claim at the Prague airport,” says Helms.

But a day later, there was still no sign of their baggage. And that was a problem because the Helmses were running out of clean clothes. They also didn’t have an electric razor or hair curler and needed to find replacements quickly.

So what do you do when your airline loses your checked bag? It is one of the most powerless feelings you can have as a traveler. Pursuing lost luggage can test your patience. The rules and regulations can be confusing. And many passengers can’t be sure what their airline will or won’t cover when it comes to replacing clothing and toiletries.

Helms and his wife purchased new clothes, razors, and toothbrushes while CSA searched for their belongings. But would the airline ever find their bags? And would the Helmses ever get reimbursed for their additional expenses? The solution to this Czech luggage problem turns out to be surprisingly complicated.

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You’re going to be OK

Let’s talk about that feeling of having lost your luggage. You’ve just entrusted your personal belongings to an airline and maybe paid a fee. And now your belongings are gone.

Making matters worse, the airline doesn’t seem to care. At the far end of the conveyor belt, a lone airline employee sits in a windowless office. You see the other unclaimed bags piled in front of the office, and you wonder, “How do they get away with this?”

Relax. Airlines find 97 percent of misplaced bags. There’s a high probability they’ll track down your belongings soon and deliver them to you. Don’t be put off by the bureaucrat in the glass-walled office; it’s nothing personal. Take a deep breath or two. I’m going to get you through this.

Your airline will probably find your luggage

I’ve covered lost luggage as a journalist for years at my consumer advocacy organization.

Airlines mishandle about five bags per 1,000, according to the latest Department of Transportation report. The most recent figures are for 2021. By comparison, discounting the pandemic years, domestic airlines mishandled closer to 6 bags per 1,000 in 2019.

But “mishandled” doesn’t just mean “lost.” It also covers bags that have been delayed, damaged or pilfered. Airlines must report these numbers to the government every month.

Fortunately, airlines have invested in technology that makes losing your checked luggage much more difficult (but not impossible).

The technology is similar to the scanning technology used by FedEx or UPS. It allows the airline to scan bags at various locations and send them to the right aircraft. That makes a bag much harder to lose.

The system isn’t foolproof, though. A bag can lose a scannable tag, or another passenger could accidentally pick up your luggage from the carousel.

How do I prevent my luggage from getting lost?

You can loss-proof your luggage before your trip with a few simple steps.

Don’t buy a black bag

Almost everyone has black luggage. Many misplaced bags are bags someone else mistook for their own — because they also had a black bag. If you already have dark luggage, add a bright luggage tag to differentiate your luggage from everyone else’s. You can also attach a six-inch strip of brightly colored duct tape on each of your bags. Or better yet, buy neon-pink baggage that no one will ever confuse for theirs.

Take a photo of your luggage

Take a picture of the outside and inside of your luggage before your trip. If your airline loses your luggage, you’ll have evidence of what you packed, and you can show them an image of the lost bag. Then print a copy of the pictures. If you file a claim, you can provide the printout to the airline employee.

Make sure your luggage is going to the right place

Those three-letter airport codes can be counterintuitive, so ask the ticket agent if you don’t recognize the one on your tag. Make sure your bag is headed to the same place as you. And most important, get a receipt for a checked bag. Your agent will attach the stub to your boarding pass. Keep the boarding pass and stub with your passport and other valuables. You may need it later.

Remove your old luggage tags

An old luggage tag from a previous flight — especially on the same airline — can confuse a luggage handler or a luggage tracking system. So strip away all the luggage tags except the one for your current flight.

Label your luggage

Many new checked bags have internal pockets where you can slide your business card into them. Or you can fill out the blank card inside with your full name, phone, and email. If your luggage goes missing, your carrier will try to reunite you with your bag. If the airline tag gets removed by accident, they’ll look for a personal information tag for guidance. But it’s not enough to tag the outside. Make sure you include a few business cards inside the bag in case the exterior label gets ripped off in transit. Some savvy travelers also include a copy of their itinerary so that if the luggage is lost, it can be forwarded to their next location.

Note: Don’t include your mailing address on your baggage tag. That’s an open invitation to rob your home while you’re away.

Track your bag

Some bags have a pouch where you can integrate an AirTag or other tracking device. That’s a critical redundancy in case the airline’s tracking systems fail. I know passengers who used AirTags to find their lost luggage when the airline had no idea where they were.

Should I check it or carry it?

Since checked luggage can go missing, you’ll want to carry at least one small bag on the plane. It should include:

  • A change of clothes.
  • Your passports and IDs.
  • Any electronics (cameras, tablets, computers).
  • Your medication in its original prescription bottle.
  • All fragile or irreplaceable items.

Never, ever entrust any valuable or fragile items to an airline. I’ll have more on exclusions in a moment.

Is there a way to guarantee my luggage won’t get lost?

Yes. Don’t check your luggage.

You can buy a travel jacket with lots of pockets, like a Scottevest, and wear your belongings on the plane with you.

You can overnight your luggage, which will cost you extra. Luggage shipping services like Luggage Free and Lugless can get your bags directly to your door. Or you could just use FedEx or UPS.

You can also try to carry on a bag that you would normally check. The airline might gate-check it as a courtesy, and at no charge, if it’s small enough or if it’s desperate enough to free up overhead bin space. I’ve never lost a gate-checked suitcase, but it’s possible. Don’t forget to get a claim check if you gate-check a bag.

What are my rights if an airline delays my luggage?

The U.S. government caps your airline’s liability for delayed baggage at $3,800 for domestic flights and $1,700 for international flights.

U.S. flights If your airline delays your bag while you’re flying in the United States, federal regulations require it to compensate you for “reasonable, verifiable, and actual incidental expenses” you incur while their bags are delayed. The expenses are subject to the maximum liability limits of $3,800 per passenger.

The government also requires airlines to refund any fees you paid the airline to transport your lost bag. As a practical matter, that means you should receive a refund if your bag goes missing.

The Department of Transportation updates the domestic baggage liability limit every two years. It uses the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers as of July of each review year to calculate the revised limit amount.

International flights For most international flights, your rights are defined in the Montreal Convention. The treaty sets the maximum baggage liability at about $1,700 (it’s calculated in Special Drawing Rights, a type of currency).

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reviews the Montreal Convention’s international baggage liability for inflationary adjustment every five years.

What are my rights if an airline loses my luggage?

No matter where you’re flying, your airline must replace your luggage if it loses it. But don’t expect it to issue a check for the full value of your belongings. As with delayed baggage, the government limits your airline’s liability to $3,800 for domestic flights and $1,700 for international flights.

Airlines don’t immediately declare your luggage lost. Instead, they classify it as missing and begin a search process that can take days or weeks.

After your initial claim, an airline can take anywhere from 5 to 14 days to declare your bag officially lost. It depends on the airline or airlines (if you’re on a code-share flight) and the type of itinerary (domestic vs. international).

What’s excluded from liability on a domestic flight?

Airlines have a right to exclude anything they want from liability, as long as it’s spelled out in the contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline.

And they do. For example, 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, non-prescription 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.

Bottom line: Never check these items.

What’s excluded from liability on an international flight?

When you’re dealing with a loss on an international flight, you’ll want to refer directly to the Montreal 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 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 it can declare “misplaced” luggage as 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. Ask your airline how much time you have to file a claim and then make sure you comply.

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. You may be able to negotiate a better settlement.

How do I file a claim for lost luggage?

There are a few essential steps to filing a lost luggage claim. But before you do, look around. Sometimes luggage arrives early. Airlines will place it next to the carousel or in a holding area. Maybe they didn’t lose your bag after all.

1. File a claim the moment your luggage goes missing

Timing is important. You usually have 24 hours to complete the paperwork. Head to the baggage claim office next to the carousel and ask to file a claim. An agent will ask for your passport or ID and baggage claim tag information. Often, the agent will be able to track your luggage on the spot and tell you where it is. This is also a good time to contact your travel insurance company or credit card to inform them of the lost item.

2. Fill in the form carefully

The claim form will take a while to complete. It asks for all your contact information, whether you declared any excess valuation on the luggage, and each item in the bag and its value. Many airlines also have this form online, which may be a more convenient way of furnishing this information. Your airline may ask you to substantiate the claim with original receipts. Don’t exaggerate or omit any information. Ask for a copy of the form or take a picture of the paperwork before you submit it. You’ll want to get the name of the airline employee who helped you with the claim and a contact phone number.

3. Track your lost luggage

Airlines may offer a phone number for you to call about your lost luggage. Some airlines also offer tracking systems. For example, American Airlines has a track your bag feature on its site that allows you to search for your missing bag by record locator or tag. Remember, airlines eventually find most lost luggage. claim receipt. The airline tracking tag contains a 10-digit license plate number that will, if the tag is still attached to your bag, allow an airline to match it to you and return it.

4. Ask the airline about its lost luggage procedures

Airlines have different procedures for tracking and finding lost luggage. You’ll need to find out how your airline does it. Here’s what you need to know:

  • What kind of clothing or toiletries will the airline reimburse? When will the company reimburse them?
  • Can the airline pre-authorize a reimbursement? In other words, can it pay me now for the incidental expenses I will incur?
  • Who is the best person to contact for the status of my lost luggage? Get a name and number if you can.
  • How often does the airline update passengers on their lost luggage?
  • Will the airline deliver the bag to my hotel or residence? Who pays for the delivery?

Remember, airlines love paperwork. So even if you get the go-ahead to buy toiletries and clothes, be sure to keep the receipts. It’s best to take a snapshot of them with your phone and then store them safely.

Some airlines want to get a lost-luggage case off the books as quickly as possible. For example, if United Airlines loses your luggage for more than five days, the airline says you “may” be eligible for $1,500 for the value of your baggage and its contents without requiring any documentation. Ask about any options that will allow you to fast-track a claim.

5. Note the deadlines for declaring your luggage lost

Once your baggage is declared officially lost, contact the airline to determine the next steps. As I already noted, the claims process can be a paperwork nightmare. But you’ll need to create a paper trail all the same. If you don’t have original receipts, then a photo of the bag’s contents might be enough. It depends on the airline and the amount of loss. Once your missing luggage becomes lost, it will take an additional six to eight weeks to receive any reimbursement from the airline.

How much does an airline owe me for my lost luggage?

In my experience of mediating lost luggage cases, airlines often pay far less than passengers expect. Even if you can show original receipts for lost items, airlines will claim the items have depreciated or exclude certain items.

The Department of Transportation doesn’t require any specific compensation — only that airlines not limit the compensation for delayed luggage on domestic flights. I’ve never seen the government compel an airline to pay a certain amount of compensation for lost or delayed luggage.

Passengers can’t pressure an airline to declare a bag as lost. It’s a fairly automated process, and the airline will determine when your bag is officially missing.

Note: Although my advocacy team is ready to help you with your baggage claim, we can’t contact an airline to expedite the baggage search process.

Does travel insurance cover lost luggage?

Yes, virtually all travel insurance will cover lost or misplaced luggage. Most insurance covers many baggage problems, including loss, damage or theft. Generally, travel insurance plans limit liability at $100 to $500 per item, with a maximum of anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per person, depending on the policy. Check your policy for details.

The claims process for lost luggage is significantly easier than an airline’s process. Your insurance provider will direct you to a claim form online. Reimbursement is fast, sometimes as little as 48 hours.

Does my credit card cover lost luggage?

You may also be covered if you paid for your airline tickets with a credit card. For example, the United Explorer card covers up to $3,000 per trip for lost or damaged luggage. You can only file a successful claim if your baggage has been delayed for more than six hours. The card will pay you $100 per day for up to three days for reimbursement of essentials. Most travelers forget that they have a benefit through their credit card, so they don’t even bother.

They found my luggage. Now what?

Congratulations. I told you they’d track down your bags eventually. But you have to ask two more questions before you can let your airline off the hook.

Is my luggage undamaged?

Your bag has been places. Look at the outside to ensure everything is intact. You generally have 24 hours after receiving your bag to let the airline know if anything is wrong and to file a claim. Many airlines require an original receipt. The manufacturer may also cover the damage under your warranty.

Has anything been pilfered?

Make sure nothing is missing from your bag. Again, you’ll have to show an original receipt if something is gone. And you’ll want to file a claim.

What if the airline won’t compensate me?

In rare cases, an airline won’t pay a dime for your lost luggage. But there are ways of moving your claim forward.

Appeal to an executive. I list the names, numbers and emails of the relevant airline executives on this site.

Take your case to social media. That’s what Stacey Greenhill did when United Airlines damaged her luggage on a recent flight. “I went to Twitter and got an immediate response,” she says. “In the end, received full reimbursement cost for my damaged suitcase.”

Talk to an advocate. If that doesn’t work, send the basic outline of your problem to this form on our site. You can also file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

Go to court. As a last resort, you can take your airline to small-claims court.

Note: Sometimes, an airline might have problems with the amount of your claim, as it did in this Southwest Airlines case. Before dragging the airline to court, try to negotiate with it and do everything you can to substantiate your claim.

Good news: We found your luggage, but …

You’re probably wondering what happened to Helms. Two days after he arrived in Prague, CSA found his luggage and delivered it to his hotel.

But that left him $414 in the hole for the clothing and toiletries.

“We filed for expense reimbursement with Czech Airlines,” he says. “I received an immediate canned response that they would process our claim as soon as possible.”

But almost a month later, he hadn’t heard from the airline.

“I followed up, again using their online form,” he says. “I received the same canned response.”

He waited almost another month. This time he sent an email to the CSA Czech Airlines executive contacts we list on our site.

“An airline representative said wait times were longer than normal but promised to get back to me as soon as possible,” he recalls.

He waited another four months. Nothing.

Here’s your refund

CSA’s rules are clear. If it delays your baggage for more than 24 hours, it will refund you up to 40 euros for 24 hours. It offers no compensation for the first 24 hours.

Compensation is reimbursed on the basis of submitted receipts. Purchases of unnecessary items (such as decorative cosmetics, luxury goods, etc.) are not reimbursed. The maximum amount of compensation is EUR 250.

It looks like Helms’ claim fell between the cracks, and the airline covered its incompetence with form letters.

There was nothing unusual about his claim. Helms filed it on time, the items he purchased were reasonable, and he gave the airline all the documentation needed to process the claim.

Usually, when a reimbursement claim goes sideways, it’s because someone bought something the airline wouldn’t cover or filed the claim too late. But I could see no evidence of any of that.

I contacted the airline on his behalf. It “found” the claim and processed a refund of $414 for the clothing and toiletries.

You can prevent lost luggage on your next flight

Lost luggage is uncommon. But this shouldn’t happen at all. If you entrust your belongings to an airline and pay for the privilege, it should return them to you after your flight lands.

These strategies will make lost luggage even less likely for your next trip. You can loss-proof your luggage. And if something happens to your belongings, you can easily track them and find them again.

So you’re probably wondering what I do. I deal with lost luggage cases almost every day. I see the red tape and I hear about the agony of waiting for lost luggage.

And I worry just like everyone else when I check my bags. So I do it as infrequently as possible. If something doesn’t fit in my carry-on luggage, I don’t bring it.

About the art

Aren Elliott wondered what luggage would look like if it was lost on a desert island. “Would an AirTag work out in the middle of nowhere?” he asked.

About the video

What’s the best way to avoid losing your luggage? For video producer Iden Elliott, there was only one point to underscore in this video. (But we had to restrain him from blowing up the luggage, which he wanted to do.)

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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 weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes 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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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