What To Do When Your Luggage Is Lost
Even though I travel nearly full-time, I was totally caught off guard on a recent work trip to Myrtle Beach when my luggage was delayed. I learned a lot about lost and delayed luggage very quickly, and I wanted to share my tips with you on how to prepare for having your luggage lost (it is inevitable) as well as what to do when your luggage is lost or delayed. Many of these tips will also apply if you have a canceled flight and are unable to retrieve your luggage for an overnight stay.
*Note: Airline requirements vary by country; the laws cited here are applicable to US airlines and domestic flights. Your rights will vary by country.*
Lost Luggage & What to Do
Be Prepared for Lost Luggage
There are two kinds of luggage when you are flying: carry-on and potentially lost checked luggage. It helps to think of your checked bag as being potentially lost so you can be prepared when it happens, and you’ll have items you need in your carry-on.
There are certain things that should never be packed in your checked luggage. Whether your luggage is lost, delayed, or just rifled through by an unscrupulous baggage handle, don’t check anything you can’t live without.
Medication - whether prescription or over-the-counter, if there’s a medication you need while traveling, keep it on you at all times.
Documents - don’t pack any important documents, such as passports or visas, that you will need to show while traveling.
Valuables - it’s best to leave valuables at home while traveling, but if you must bring them along, keep them in your carry-on bag.
Likewise, there are things you should always have on hand, in case of lost or delayed luggage, or a canceled flight. I always try to have a change of clothes, plus toiletries to get me through an overnight hotel stay should my flight be canceled or my luggage is lost. You do not want to be shopping for underwear at 11 pm after landing in a new country. (However, do you think I took my own advice on that recent flight to Myrtle Beach when my bag was lost. Embarrassingly, no).
Lastly, there are a few other things you can do to make things easier if or when your luggage is lost or delayed. Make sure you have downloaded the phone app for the airline you are flying. Most major airlines now let you track your bag, so having this information can be incredibly useful.
It’s also helpful to have a photo of your bag, a list of contents, and a photo of the contents. If your luggage is never recovered, it will be important to provide an itemized list of the contents. This can also help if your luggage is damaged by the airline.
Checking a Carry-on Bag
With ever-changing airline rules and fares, more and more passengers are forced to gate-check their carryon bags. If you buy a restricted fare, or do not have priority boarding, expect to have your bag gate-checked. This is the same thing as checking a bag, so the rules above apply as you won’t see your bag until baggage claim at your final destination. For this reason, assume you will have to check your bag and keep any valuables, medication, and documents in your personal item that stays with you at all times. Otherwise, you will be frantically trying to shift items from your carryon to your personal item, while everyone waits for you to board. Don’t be that person!
How Can the Airline Help With Delayed or Lost Luggage?
Once everyone else has claimed their bags, and you’re still watching the conveyor belt go round and round with no sign of your bag, it’s time to head to the baggage claim office. It goes without saying that you should hang on to your baggage claim ticket that you are given upon departure. The airline personnel at the baggage claim office should be able to figure out if your luggage is lost, or merely delayed.
You should file a lost baggage claim as soon as possible to start the retrieval process. Do NOT leave the airport until you have documentation from the airline. Most airlines have a short window to report lost or damaged bags. You will receive a claim number, and contact information that you should not lose.
If your bag is simply delayed, and you expect to be reunited with it in the next 24 hours, then the airline should at a minimum provide an overnight kit, sometimes called a distressed passenger amenity kit. The contents of this kit will vary by each airline, but you can expect to receive some of the following items:
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Bathroom toiletries like soap and shampoo
You can also request an allowance for expenses. According to the Department of Transportation, airlines are “required to compensate passengers for reasonable, verifiable, and actual incidental expenses that they may incur while their bags are delayed.” You don’t actually need permission, but it helps to have a conversation with an airline employee to find out what you can buy. It’s perfectly reasonable to pick up a fresh change of clothes, and more if your bags are delayed beyond a day. Keep in mind that you will need to submit all receipts in order for the airline to reimburse you for your purchases. Travel insurance can also come in handy here; if you land the night before a cruise and can’t just have your late luggage delivered, you may need to purchase above and beyond what the airline allows for delay expenses.
Chances are, you will eventually be reunited with your luggage. However, airlines will typically declare a bag officially lost after five to 14 days. At that time, you’ll need to provide an itemized list of your luggage contents so that you can be reimbursed for the value of those items, including the luggage itself. If you’re like me, and you tend to pack last-minute by throwing a bunch of random things in your bag, this can be difficult. This is why snapping a quick photo of your bag with contents before a trip can be useful. You may be asked to provide purchase receipts for high-value items, and the airline is allowed to calculate for depreciation. And while it may seem nominal, the airline must also reimburse you for any fees that you paid to check the bag in the first place.