Air travel experts share their advice for dealing with missing checked baggage — and minimizing the risk in the first place.
For many years, people felt relatively secure about checking their luggage for a flight. But the chaos of air travel this summer has thrown cold water on that confidence.
The odds of airlines losing your luggage have reportedly “skyrocketed” this year, with massive increases in the numbers of “mishandled” ― i.e., lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered ― bags.
“During the pandemic, many airports and airlines were forced to reduce their workforce in reaction to the restrictions the world was facing,” Alex Miller, founder and CEO of Upgraded Points, told HuffPost. “Now, as these restrictions have been lifted, people are returning to their travels again, leaving airports and airlines struggling to cope with the surge of passengers. This combination of an increased demand, with a shortage of staff, as recruitment hasn’t been able to counterbalance the increase, is leaving many travelers to arrive at their destination without their luggage.”
The result is countless airport photos showing mounds of lost luggage and a lot of frustrated travelers.
Of course, the obvious solution is to pack less and avoid checking a bag, but sometimes that’s just not an option. So what should you do if you find yourself in this situation and end up separated from your bag? Below, experts share their advice.
File a missing bag report.
“The first thing you should do if you notice that your baggage did not arrive at your destination is to report it immediately,” Miller advised. “The airline that you flew on is responsible for ensuring your luggage is delivered to your destination.”
Go to the airline’s baggage desk and have the customer service representative see if they can locate your luggage. It’s possible it was delayed but will arrive on a later flight. Or perhaps it arrived early and was placed in a separate area.
You might also be able to determine your bag’s location on the airline’s mobile app. If the bag is still missing, however, it’s time to file a claim.
“Once you’ve informed airline staff about your missing baggage, it is essential that you file a missing baggage report,” Miller added. “You should provide a detailed description of your luggage, including size, color and material of the bag. The report should also include your current address and contact information so the airline can contact you. You should also keep a note of any reference or tracking number that you receive from the lost luggage desk.”
Find out what compensation you’re owed.
“Immediately filing a missing bag report with the airline will both prompt them to begin searching for your bag and start the clock for when you’ll be able to claim compensation,” noted Scott Keyes, author of “Take More Vacations” and founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “If it’s been missing for between five to 14 days, at that point you’re entitled to reimbursement of the missing bag and its contents, up to $3,800 for domestic flights and $1,780 for international flights.”
In addition to talking to the airline, he recommended checking to see if your credit card offers any compensation for delayed or lost baggage as well.
“Many automatically include this, as long as you used it to pay for the flight,” Keyes noted.
If you have travel insurance, read through all the terms regarding luggage.
“Travel insurance policies often include coverage for any lost or missing baggage,” Miller said. “After you have filed a claim with the airline, always double check for any additional claims that can be made on your insurance.”
Keep all receipts.
Lost luggage not only disrupts vacation plans by stranding people without the belongings they packed, but it also forces travelers to spend money on new things so that they don’t have to repeatedly rewear their flight outfit or forego toothbrushing for days on end.
The good news is you may be entitled to reimbursement ― so long as your purchases are “reasonable.”
“Keep receipts for any daily purchases you had to make as a result of the missing bag,” Keyes advised. “This may include clothes, toiletries or other daily items.”
File a complaint if necessary.
“If the airline is dragging its feet on providing compensation for a missing bag, don’t be afraid to file a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation,” Keyes said.
The agency’s “Air Travel Service Complaint or Comment Form” allows travelers to flag bad airline service as it relates to baggage, as well as other issues, like refund practices, discrimination, overbooking, family seating and more.
You might also try getting the airline’s attention through social media. Sometimes tweeting at the company or sending a direct message yields real results.
As frustrating as it is to be separated from your luggage, there are mechanisms in place to get it back to you.
When staffing shortages at London’s Heathrow Airport led to mass cancellations and a sea of stranded bags, Delta Air Lines flew a plane from London to Detroit packed with 1,000 pieces of luggage and zero passengers.
Travel experts are also hopeful for the future of flying with checked baggage.
“This problem will likely persist throughout the summer and then improve around Labor Day,” Keyes said. “That’s because travel demand is at its peak through mid-August and only begins to taper off once school begins again in parts of the country. It’s unlikely we’ll be seeing nearly as many lost bags come autumn.”
Try to minimize the risk
“There are a few proactive steps you can take to avoid lost luggage in the first place ― setting aside the most obvious advice of avoiding checking a bag if you can,” Keyes said.
Consider the advice below to minimize your risk of winding up on vacation or back home from a trip without your things:
Prioritize nonstop flights.
“If you haven’t booked a flight yet, prioritize nonstop flights or at least flights that don’t have tight connections,” Keyes said. “That transfer between airplanes is the place in the system where bags are most likely to get lost.”
Avoid flying with multiple airlines if possible as well. Sometimes it’s cheaper to map out multiple stops and transfers, but weigh the costs compared to the risk of losing your luggage.
Get to the airport extra early.
“At the airport, try to arrive early ― 90 minutes or more before your flight time, more for international flights ― to ensure your bag has plenty of time to make it onboard,” Keyes said.
Even if you aren’t checking a bag, getting to the airport early is important these days, as there have been countless reports of security lines that stretch out the door. Having that extra buffer of time will cut down on stress as you wait in long, slow lines.
“If you have a GPS tracker, like Apple’s AirTags, throw one in so you can keep easy tabs on where your bag is, especially if it gets lost,” Keyes advised.
Indeed, Airtags have become one of this summer’s most popular travel accessories. But be sure to use this product only for its intended purpose ― tracking items, not people.
Take a photo of your bag.
“Before handing over your bag, open it up and take a quick picture with your camera phone,” Keyes said. “That way, if the bag does end up getting lost, you’ll have photographic proof of any important contents that you’ll want to later claim compensation for.”
Take a photo of the outside of the bag as well. Make sure the tag the airline prints has the correct airport code, name and frequent flyer number, and take a picture of that. And don’t forget to hold on to any receipts.
Pack any valuables in your carry-on.
“Valuables and necessities should be packed in your carry-on,” Miller said. “Items such as physical cash, medication, electronics, jewelry and anything important to you should be carried with you at all times. Most airlines do not take responsibility for such items and will not issue reimbursements for them, so just avoid packing them into your checked baggage entirely to be on the safe side.”
Make sure to pack toiletries and at least one outfit and pair of underwear in your carry-on as well. It’s better to be prepared than end up wearing the same clothes again if your suitcase gets lost.
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