What Should I Do If My Luggage is Delayed, Lost or Damaged by My Airline?
Realizing that your luggage is missing or damaged when you get off the plane will likely create knots in your stomach as you navigate a potentially stressful situation and figure out what you need and can live without while you wait.
Hopefully, your bag will only be delayed a few hours but that’s not always the case.
Here are several steps you can take to prevent delayed or lost checked bags. Additionally, you can learn what to do if your bags are lost, delayed, damaged, or pilfered and what assistance you’re eligible for.
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Lost Luggage Statistics
The chances of airlines losing your checked luggage are very slim. Approximately 0.5% of checked bags are mishandled, but not seeing your bag on the baggage carousel is never comforting. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) defines a mishandled bag as being delayed, damaged, or pilfered.
Additionally, the DOT publishes monthly and quarterly air travel consumer reports about several factors including mishandled luggage.
While there are variations in certain months due to bad weather and other circumstances, the most and least reliable airlines for luggage are consistent.
Best Airlines for Checked Bags
The top 5 airlines with the lowest number of mishandled bags are:
- Allegiant Air
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Frontier Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
Discount airlines tend to have fewer lost bags as they operate a higher proportion of direct flights as bags are more likely to get delayed at a connecting airport than the departing airport.
Worst Airlines for Checked Bags
These five airlines tend to have the most missing baggage claims (ranked worst to least worse):
- American Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- United Airlines
The rankings include codeshare partners for the respective airlines too. According to these ratings, flying on American Airlines means you’re most likely to encounter checked baggage problems.
What To Do Before You Fly
There are several steps you can take before heading to the airport that can make it easier to identify your bag and avoid luggage delays.
Don’t Use a Black Suitcase
An overwhelming majority of suitcases are black which makes it easier for innocent passengers to confuse your bag for theirs. Luggage thieves are also more likely to steal this travel gear as it’s easier to get away with the crime.
It can also be harder to describe precisely how your suitcase looks compared to the other stack of black luggage that’s in the unclaimed baggage area. Identifying your bag also becomes more challenging when it’s a common brand with similar dimensions as most flyers.
Instead, consider looking for a unique design or a relatively uncommon color. For example, you may also avoid navy and gray which are popular alternatives as they are effective at hiding dust and scuffs similar to black-colored gear.
Use Colorful Luggage Markers
Consider buying unique luggage tags from the store, a loyalty program you have elite travel status with, or getting personalized ones from an online marketplace like Etsy. You may also tie a handkerchief or something else around the handle that somebody else is likely to replicate.
Just make sure it’s securely fastened and not excessively frilly which presents a risk of getting it snagged on one of the airport’s numerous luggage conveyor belts.
Place Contact Information Inside Your Bag
In addition to having exterior markers, consider putting a tag or a card inside your suitcase that makes it easy to claim ownership if the outer tags go missing.
When airline staff cannot identify your bag, it’s common to open it up and look for a contact card to track down the owner. Consider placing a business card or your contact details in multiple places.
Remove Old Luggage Barcodes
Detaching all luggage barcodes from a previous trip removes an element of confusion so baggage handlers can scan the correct one at various waypoints. Performing this task at home can also save time if you need to remove them before the airline accepts your bag at check-in.
Install a Tracking Device
A recent travel trend is installing Apple AirTags which are the size of a coin and transmit the device’s location to Apple devices using the Find My app.
You can buy AirTags directly from the Apple Store or on Amazon for $29 each. They are small enough to place in a pocket, key loop, or between a lining.
Take a Picture of the Contents
Using your phone to photograph what’s inside can help identify your bag. It can also help you file an accurate claim if some of your contents are stolen or the bag is never found.
Keeping a list of your valuable items is also helpful. Don’t forget to update the list when packing for the return flight and bringing home a souvenir.
It’s also wise not to place your most valuable items in a checked bag but in your carry-on instead to avoid the possibility of theft or disputed claims.
Arrive at the Airport Early
Cutting it close by arriving at the airport just in the nick of time leaves little room for airport security delays and you risk getting to the gate late. Even if you make it, your luggage may not.
Airlines generally recommend arriving at least 45 minutes early for domestic flights and 60 minutes for international departures. Coming at least two hours before take-off to give the baggage team more time to get your bag to the gate.
Checked bags on direct flights are more likely to reach the destination on time as you don’t need to shuffle planes. Ironically, discount airlines have fewer mishandled baggage incidents overall as the majority of their routes are non-stop.
If you need to connect, consider opting for a longer connection window instead of a tight layover of 45 to 60 minutes when possible to give your bag more time to make the flight.
While you may not desire a long layover, the wait can go by faster when you have airport lounge access.
Consider Carry-On Only
Only flying with carry-on luggage when possible also removes the risks of checked baggage. Even if you need to check your bag at the gate, you pick it up at the gate when deplaning instead of heading to the baggage claim.
What to Do After Your Bag is Missing
Here are some initial steps you can take when you can’t find your checked bag in the baggage claim area and the kiosk screen states all bags have been unloaded from your flight.
Notify the Airline
Most airlines require being notified within 24 hours for domestic flights and seven days for international flights. However, that notification period can be shorter as American Airlines and Southwest Airlines require initial notification within four hours of arriving at your final airport.
Your best course of action is to contact the airline immediately.
Before leaving the airport, go to your airline’s service desk to inquire about your missing luggage and fill out a lost luggage claim form. Many airports have a missing luggage desk in baggage claim but you may need to go to the check-in desk at smaller locations during off-peak periods.
Try calling the airline if you can’t find an agent to discuss the next steps. Then, depending on the outcome, you may complete extra paperwork or return to pick up your bag.
Hopefully, your bag is arriving on the next flight and you will have it within several hours instead of several days. For reference, most airlines don’t declare a bag missing until 5-14 days after the initial delay starts.
What About Lost Unchecked Items?
If you forget a carry-on or personal item on the plane or in an airport lounge, you should notify the airline as soon as possible. Preferably, an airline representative will search the area before you leave the airport.
When the item can’t be found immediately, the airline will keep your missing item claim open for 14-30 days. If it’s found, they will place it in a lost and found and coordinate a delivery plan that can require going to the airport.
Airlines are not responsible for missing items that are unchecked and are ineligible for reimbursement.
Submit a Missing Baggage Delay Claim
To submit a claim, you will likely need to provide this information:
- Missing baggage claim reference number
- Receipts for your flight and checked bags
- Receipts for incidental purchases (must be original, itemized, and dated)
Be sure to read the claim terms and conditions, so you gather the necessary documents and don’t miss any filing deadlines.
You will need to specify if the claim is for baggage delays, lost or damaged luggage, or missing items.
Request Home Delivery
Once your bag is located, see if an airline courier can deliver your bag to your house or hotel once it arrives. Usually, they will. This service is typically free and saves you the time and expense of returning to the airport.
If you don’t pick up your bag and the airline doesn’t contact you, it will eventually ship to a warehouse after being at the airport for five days. For instance, there are no exterior or interior luggage tags that can identify you.
When you don’t visit or contact the warehouse, your luggage may be sold through UnclaimedBaggage.com approximately three months after it initially goes missing.
Review Baggage Delay Benefits
Depending on how long your bag is delayed, you can get reimbursed for necessary expenses such as clothing and toiletries.
Federal law requires airlines to reimburse incidental expenses but the carrier can draft their own policy about when you’re eligible for compensation and the daily compensation limit for incidentals.
Usually, bags still missing after five days are eligible for compensation but you may need to fill out another form to initiate the reimbursement. It’s also possible to file a claim when your bag is delivered before day 5 as airlines offer several different claim forms.
You may qualify for reimbursement sooner from your credit card or travel insurance benefits. But, depending on the benefit, the coverage may be secondary and may only apply after the airline compensates your claim.
Airline Delayed Baggage Policies
The maximum liability for domestic flights is $3,800 per passenger and 1,288 special drawing rights (approximately $1,700) for international flights when luggage is lost, damaged, or delayed.
The DOT suggests airlines can pay out more but are not required. For example, you might get reimbursed up to $5,000 for domestic flights if you file an excess value declaration.
Reimbursement policies vary by airline and each situation is evaluated on a case-by-case basis so you will need to speak with the airline to review your compensation options.
Not every damage claim or reported missing item is eligible for reimbursement even when you file a damage claim on time. Some of the exceptions include:
- Fragile items
- Improperly packed items (i.e., sports gear or musical instruments in a soft case)
- Manufacturer defects
- Normal wear and tear
- Precious metals
- Random search damage (you must file a claim with the TSA for security checkpoint damage or theft)
Here is a snapshot of the four major domestic carriers (American, Delta, United, and Southwest).
American Airlines Luggage Reimbursement
American Airlines will reimburse up to $3,800 on standard claims or $5,000 on excess value claims (additional coverage must be purchased at check-in). The reporting deadlines for the first report depend on if the bag is lost/delayed or damaged.
Delayed bags must be reported within four hours of arrival (12 hours if you use Bags VIP Luxury Delivery). You will need to notify them about any damage within 24 hours of receiving your bag.
After filing your first report, you will need to submit a follow-up request for repairs or compensation within 30 days.
Delta Air Lines Luggage Reimbursement
With Delta Air Lines, you can receive 2,500 SkyMiles when it takes more than 20 minutes for checked bags to get from the aircraft to baggage claim (domestic flights only). You have three days to complete a Bags on Time claim.
In addition to earning SkyMiles, you will also receive a baggage fee credit when your luggage is delayed by at least 12 hours. This credit only applies to bags that you pay checked bag fees for.
You will need to report damaged or missing items within 24 hours for domestic flights and seven days for foreign flights. The search process can take up to 14 days.
Southwest Airlines Luggage Reimbursement
While your first two checked bags always fly for free, Southwest Airlines compensates reasonable incidental expenses when your bag is delayed, damaged, or missing.
For domestic itineraries, you must initially notify within four hours and can visit the in-airport baggage service office. On international excursions, contact must be made within seven days for damage claims and 21 days for delays.
United Airlines Luggage Reimbursement
United Airlines offers $1,500 in reimbursement if your bag is still missing after five days. This streamlined option doesn’t require extensive documentation and might be worth it to avoid the hassle of submitting a claim.
You will need to submit an in-depth claim with itemized receipts if you want a higher reimbursement amount up to the $3,800 maximum for domestic flights and $1,900 for international travel.
What To Do If Your Bag is Damaged or Lost?
This section covers what to do if some of your belongings are unusable or (even worse) the airline can’t find your luggage.
Whether or not your bag is delayed, you will need to report damages to the airline as soon as possible. Ideally, when you’re still in the airport, the agent can start the claims process and inspect your travel gear to rule out normal wear and tear or overpacking.
The reporting deadlines differ by airline for domestic and international itineraries when you have already left the airport. Time is still important as you will need to provide a reason for the reporting delay. You will contact the airline that operated your last flight to report damages.
Submit Damage Claim Paperwork
After the initial report, you will fill out a damaged property form within 30 days to provide in-depth details about your luggage dimensions and interior contents.
In addition to keeping the damaged bag and contents until our claim is resolved, some of the details you will need to provide include:
- Purchase date and the original value of your luggage and damaged contents
- Receipts for items costing more than $100
- Receipts for missing contents
- History of previous luggage claims from the last 5 years
You will also need to disclose if you have submitted a claim with another airline or insurance company for this incident.
You can anticipate receiving reimbursement up to the domestic and international DOT baggage limits. However, you will most likely receive prorated compensation based on the depreciation of your belongings. Therefore, newer items are worth more than older ones.
If it’s only minor damage, the airline may pay for repairs instead of replacing your item.
Disputing Luggage Claims
If you’re not pleased with the outcome after the airline has reviewed your damaged claim form or haven’t been receiving timely progress updates, there are several steps you can take.
You should be able to track your progress through the airline website or app. It’s also possible to call customer support and elite members (i.e., American Airlines AAdvantage or Delta SkyMiles) are more likely to receive hands-on attention.
Another option is contacting the airline through a social media channel when private communication doesn’t help.
If you’re still unsatisfied, you can file a service complaint through the Department of Transportation for the airline to respond to.
Does Baggage Insurance Help?
You may consider buying travel insurance for medical coverage and trip protection benefits. Most policies include baggage delay and loss benefits but the coverage amounts, covered reasons, and waiting period differ by policy.
For example, your baggage delay benefits may activate for necessary expenses after 12 hours of luggage delays. You will likely need to submit receipts for purchases exceeding $25.
It’s also possible to receive reimbursement for lost luggage but these limits may apply:
- Per-person coverage limit
- Per-item coverage limit
- Per-day coverage limit
These policies can be worth it when your airline has many exclusions, you’re bringing high-value items, or flying internationally as the reimbursement maximums are lower.
Credit Card Baggage Insurance
Booking flights using the best credit cards with travel insurance can reimburse for baggage delays, damage, and theft. This coverage can be secondary to the airline baggage policy but provides additional peace of mind. In particular, if your card has delayed baggage benefits.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card ($95 annual fee) offers up to $100 per day for five days when your bag is delayed at least six hours. You can also receive up to $500 per ticket in unreimbursed trip delay expenses like meals and lodging.
A premium travel credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® ($550 annual fee) or The Platinum Card® from American Express ($695 annual fee) provides more coverage benefits. They can offer reimbursement for lost luggage and higher limits on travel delays.
What Happens to Checked Bags When a Flight is Canceled?
It can feel like your checked luggage is held hostage when you miss a connection or your flight gets canceled at the departure airport.
After all, you usually won’t get your bag back until you arrive at the final destination which can be stressful if you need to stay overnight in an airport or get re-routed through a different connecting airport.
The Vacationer Tip
Airlines can also provide compensation where your flight gets delayed or canceled. Our guide covers your flight delay and cancellation rights. We also provide tips on how to avoid airline flight delays and cancellations.
Your Original Flight is Delayed and You Go Through a Different Airport
In most situations, the airline continues transporting your bag to your final destination when your first flight is delayed and you might be routed through a different airport.
For example, instead of going through Chicago to get to San Francisco as the flight delay is just long enough that you won’t make your connections, your rescheduled flight sends you through Washington-Dulles instead as there is an open seat on that connection.
Your checked bag will still be transferred through Chicago on your original flight and may be waiting on you in San Francisco; You will need to visit the baggage claim desk to retrieve it from a storage locker holding other stranded bags.
Your Flight Gets Canceled
It’s also possible that your flight gets canceled entirely due to bad weather or a computer glitch. When it can be several days before the airline can find an available flight, the airline will return all the checked bags to the baggage claim.
The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to reimburse incidental expenses due to significant delays or damages, however, the reimbursement policies vary by carrier. The baggage liability limits are $3,800 for domestic itineraries and 1,288 special drawing rights (SDRs) for international itineraries.
The passenger reimbursement rights are different for foreign-based airlines.
Checked bag fees are non-reimbursable but you normally won’t pay them until check-in. It’s possible to receive a refund or credit if your bag is delayed for an extended period.
Optional baggage insurance from a travel insurance company can be worth it for international flights or packing expensive items. However, you will usually work with the airline first for reimbursement and this additional cost may not be worth it just for extra protection if you’re unlikely to file a claim.
Additionally, a credit card with travel insurance benefits can provide sufficient coverage at no extra cost
The Vacationer’s Final Thoughts
Baggage delays are an inconvenience and significant delays and damages can be stressful and time-consuming to resolve. Flying direct, taking a picture of the contents, and thoroughly labeling your luggage can prevent mishaps.
When you encounter trouble, communicate with the airline immediately to resolve the problem. Any credit cards and travel insurance benefits can also be valuable when monetary compensation is necessary.
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