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How to Turn a Luggage Delay Into a Free Shopping Spree

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We’ve all been there — watching as bag after bag tumbles aimlessly on top of others already on the carousel with the same aggravating disregard for order as a monkey has playing Tetris. And as we ponder the effects of gravity and friction on luggage, we wait for the appearance of one familiar bag to snap us out of our mindless gaze.

But sometimes, the baggage stops tumbling, the carousel halts and a hollowness opens up inside us like a boy who realizes the carnival is closed and he’s been left behind. Our journey has not ended after all, and we file in line along with other disgruntled, empty-handed travelers to arrange a yet unknown reunion with everything we deemed necessary for the upcoming days. No one wants to find themselves in this situation, but recently, I discovered a silver lining in that cloud. And that silver had a street value of $684.

My photo inside the minaret at the Uganda National Mosque symbolized how I'd feel in a few days trying to locate my backpack. Image by the author.
My photo from inside the minaret at the Uganda National Mosque symbolized how I’d feel trying to locate my missing backpack.

I had very little flexibility on the return portion of a United Saver award ticket to Africa, so I was stuck with an itinerary that took me from Entebbe (EBB)–Cairo (CAI)–New York (JFK), followed by an airport change from JFK to Newark (EWR) for my final leg to Richmond (RIC).

My awkward NYC connection would later prove to be an issue when trying to track down my missing backpack, which unfortunately never arrived at JFK. The EgyptAir baggage desk confirmed it didn’t make my CAI-JFK flight, so I filled out the missing baggage form at my final destination, Richmond, Virginia. The days that followed had me making many fruitless phone calls to United’s baggage resolution department to locate my backpack before it finally surfaced three days later. In the process though, I managed to work out a fair compensation package for myself, which I’ve detailed below.

A Well-Deserved Shopping Spree: $441

United should seriously consider turning my case into a “challenge” question on a baggage resolution department qualification exam. One agent failed miserably, and was completely unable to grasp the concept of an airport change. I repeatedly explained to no avail that my baggage was supposed to arrive at JFK on an EgyptAir flight, where I would then pass through customs and transit to Newark, where I’d re-check my baggage for the next flight to Richmond on United. Several other agents I spoke to fully understood the dilemma, but failed to figure out how to contact JFK’s baggage department. They all explained that since United did not have a presence at JFK anymore, they had no listing in their directory for any contact at that particular airport.

The — ding ding ding! — winners were the two agents who looked up an EgyptAir listing at another airport that both United and EgyptAir served so we could have the EgyptAir rep from that airport give them the number to the baggage department at JFK. Unfortunately, that yielded no updates either, and my backpack was still supposedly somewhere between Cairo and New York, which at least narrowed my search down to one-third of the planet.

However, it was with these two agents that the conversation was understandably much more pleasant and expanded beyond the whereabouts of my backpack. And with each of these agents, I casually commented on the length of time I’d been in the same pair of underwear and ended up getting $200 in incidental expenses approved.

My shopping spree began, and I focused on clothes I’d get lasting use out of but probably wouldn’t have purchased myself — the $114 Traveler jeans from Banana Republic, which I’ve worn on almost every flight since, would have never made the dressing room if United wasn’t footing the bill. My receipts added up to $441, and the reimbursement was fairly painless due to the pre-approvals I’d gotten.

I was a teenager with her daddy's credit card after getting $400 in expenses approved. Image courtesy of <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-9330658.html">Shutterstock</a>.
I felt like a teenager with her daddy’s credit card after getting $400 in expenses approved by United. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

“Goodwill” from United: $150

Not until my backpack was back in my possession did I bring up the topic of compensation, which airlines carefully term “appreciation” or “goodwill” to avoid the obligation that “compensation” implies. For being a Premier Gold elite with a three-day baggage delay on an award ticket, I was offered a pretty weak 7,000 United MileagePlus miles, worth roughly $105 according to TPG’s latest valuations. I asked instead for a voucher and took the $150 the agent offered since it would qualify for PQMs, PQDs and inch me closer to Million Miler status.

An Extra Boost Courtesy of Citi Price Rewind: $93

A vastly underrated benefit of using Citi credit cards is the Citi Price Rewind, which has essentially changed the way I shop. Rather than wasting time scouring the internet for the lowest price on an item, I now often shop local and pay retail with my Citi Prestige card, then add the items to my Citi Price Rewind account and let them take it from there. In this case, I got $93 of the $441 spent on incidentals returned, including $68 for that $114 pair of jeans!

Bottom Line

In the end, I scored $684 in value from a tough travel situation. It’s entirely possible I could have gotten more, but I never asked for more than what was being offered. $150 did seem pretty low for a three-day baggage delay, but at the time I was more concerned with getting my expenses reimbursed. I also learned in the process that if I had paid the taxes and fees on my award ticket with a Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred card, I would have been eligible for baggage delay compensation from Chase as well. My main point, though, is when travel goes wrong, airlines and credit cards will normally work to make it right — you just have to take the initiative.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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