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7 steps to take when an airline loses your luggage

June 25, 2022
18 min read
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.

This summer has been a season of flight delays and cancellations, and lost baggage and time. This week, London's Heathrow Airport (LHR) asked airlines to cancel 10% of their flights to address a growing “baggage mountain."

As of last week, more than 15,000 passengers on 90 flights were affected by missing luggage.

Even if you are among the lucky ones who have not yet experienced something like the Heathrow craziness, it's important to be aware of the possibility.

When a bag is “lost, delayed, damaged or pilfered," the Bureau of Transportation Statistics refers to these items as being "mishandled."

Nearly 700,000 bags were mishandled in the first quarter of 2022, according to data published earlier this month by the Department of Transportation.

Although that seems like a large number, the likelihood that an airline will actually lose your bag (as in, you never see it again) still remains small. Airlines mishandled 4.35 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2021, up slightly from 3.5 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2020, according to the most recent data available from SITA, a leading specialist in air transport communications and information technology.

An increase in lost bags is to be expected, thanks to the resumption of both intentional and domestic travel, but it's good to know that statistics favor a temporary misplacement of your bags versus something more permanent.

This is all to say that when your bag doesn’t appear at baggage claim, chances are it's temporarily lost and will eventually be returned. Even so, here are some key things you can do when your bag is delayed — or lost — by an airline.

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How to determine if your luggage is lost

To start, you need to know how to determine whether your bags are, in fact, missing. This sounds silly but there are some instances where bags appear to be lost even when they're not. Before the panic sets in, start with these important steps:

Be patient

Airport baggage procedures can be exceedingly complex at large hubs, so waiting for 30 or even 45 minutes for bags is not only normal but expected. Luggage can come in waves from a single flight as well, so just because your suitcase didn’t arrive initially doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lost. Patience goes a long way, especially in times of distress.

For example, patience was the only thing that got TPG reporter Caroline Tanner through a stressful experience when she flew from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD) en route to Cuba's José Martí International Airport (HAV). She missed her connecting flight in Miami International Airport (MIA) due to a blizzard in Chicago, but the airline still sent her unaccompanied luggage (and every other connecting passenger's luggage) to Cuba.

There was nothing Caroline or any of her travel mates could do besides go to Target and buy new clothes since they were stuck in Miami overnight without their belongings.

In the end, it all worked out, and their luggage was waiting for them in a back room at HAV when they finally arrived.

Look elsewhere

If your bag doesn’t come off its designated carousel, there’s a slim chance it could have made the flight but been offloaded elsewhere. Therefore, we recommend taking a quick look at other carousels to see if the bag somehow beat you there. It could also be waiting in the airline’s baggage office or another holding area.

In theory, something like this should not happen, but it’s worth double-checking before reporting your bag as missing to the airline.

Read more: 9 tips for traveling with valuable luggage and handbags

Stay calm

If you’ve done the first two steps and still can’t find your bag, it’s time to alert the airline. Before you do, take a deep breath and try to stay calm so as to not elevate the situation further.

Traveling is stressful enough and if your bags don’t arrive, that only ups the anxiety levels. However, getting worked up will not help the situation — and could exacerbate the problem. When you’re in a sufficiently calm state of mind, it’s time to act.

(Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

How to report a missing bag

Here are the steps to report a missing bag:

1. Locate the baggage desk for the airline that operated your final flight.

The first step is to find the airline baggage desk. If your entire trip was on a single airline, this should be simple.

However, if you were on a connecting itinerary with more than one airline, the claim must be filed with the operating carrier of your last flight since that airline is ultimately responsible for delivering your bag to you, even if the bag never made it into its system.

Keep in mind that if you’ve flown into a small airport, you may need to report the missing bag to a contract agency that works with multiple airlines. Just look for the logo of the carrier that operated your last flight.

2. Inform the agent about your missing bag.

Once you’ve figured out where to report it, inform the agent that your luggage didn’t arrive as expected. Provide your copy of the bag tag that you received at check-in and have the agent look up your information. Alternatively, you could also proactively research your bag’s status in an airline’s app if possible.

This step may tell you your luggage is en route but if not, move on to step three.

Related: From clutch bags to phone cases: Rimowa isn't just about luggage anymore

3. File a missing baggage report.

If an agent can’t provide any insight into the whereabouts of your bag, you need to file a missing baggage report.

When you do this, include every bit of information you can about your bag and your travel plans, including the size, color and material of the bag and any identifying tags. Since most bags look alike, consider adding a distinct feature, such as tying a colorful ribbon along the handles to differentiate your black bag from all of the other black suitcases.

Ensure the report has your local address and contact information, and be sure to get the phone number of the lost luggage desk as well as some type of reference or tracking number.

Many airlines have everything in a computer for easy tracking, but if your luggage is missing in a small airport with less technology — like Curacao International Airport (CUR), as my wife and I experienced a few years ago — you may wind up with the yellow copy of a triplicate form.

4. Ask what the airline will cover.

While you’re filing a report, be sure to ask what the airline is willing to provide for compensation as well as to what extent it will reimburse you.

For example, some carriers will keep amenity kits on hand in baggage offices to pass out to customers with missing luggage. Others will even provide courtesy car seats if your child's seat was delayed — which is exactly what happened to me on a trip to New Mexico. In addition, they should provide some reimbursement for reasonable expenses.

Be sure to double-check your airline's policy for delayed bags, some of which are outlined below:

  • Alaska Airlines: Allows reimbursement for “travel essentials.”
  • American Airlines: Allows reimbursement “for items you need immediately while away from home without your bags.”
  • Delta Air Lines: Allows “reasonable expense reimbursements” of generally $50 per day for the first five days.
  • United Airlines: Allows “reimbursement for expenses” based on acceptable proof of claim.
  • Southwest Airlines: Allows for "reimbursement of reasonable expenses you may have incurred."

The agent with whom you file the missing bag report should be able to provide you with the guidelines for the given carrier, including whether or not you’re eligible for a refund of any checked baggage fee you paid.

Just note that if you’re arriving back home after a vacation or business trip, the airline usually won’t cover any expenses for delayed baggage aside from returning your bag to you.

Finally, if you’re traveling on Delta or Alaska, be sure to submit a baggage guarantee claim since both carriers will offer 2,500 bonus miles if your bags aren’t delivered to the carousel within 20 minutes of arrival in most circumstances.

Related: What to do if an airline damages your luggage

What to do if your baggage is delayed

(Photo by Pakkawit Anantaya/EyeEm/Getty Images)

As noted above, some “lost” bags may be simply delayed in getting to you. Ideally, a carrier’s baggage agent (or even the airline’s app) can tell you exactly where the bag was last scanned. It may only be a matter of hours or just a day or two before you are reunited with your suitcase.

Once you’ve reported it to the airline, here are a few tips for handling a delay:

Related: Is expensive luggage worth it?

Make them come to you

One of the most important things to include in your claim form is your local address. Do not offer or agree to return to the airport to retrieve your bags.

Even if the agent claims it will be on the next flight and asks you to wait at the airport, politely but firmly decline that suggestion.

If your bag hasn’t arrived with you, the airline’s baggage office (or contract agency) is now responsible for returning it to you and should be willing to cover the cost of doing so.

For example, when my bag and my daughter’s car seat were delayed arriving at Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ), American Airlines arranged to have the bags delivered 65 miles north to our hotel in Santa Fe.

This tactic may work when you’re continuing on a flight to another city.

Several years ago, my wife and I flew from Orlando International Airport (MCO) to Sydney Airport (SYD) via Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on a Delta award ticket. We then booked a separate one-way ticket from Sydney to Adelaide Airport (ADL) in Australia on Virgin Australia, as Delta couldn't include this flight on our award ticket.

Unfortunately, our bags were somehow left in LA, and we were nervous they wouldn’t be able to get to us in Adelaide. Fortunately, they arrived roughly 30 hours later; they were put on the next day’s flight from LAX to SYD, before being transferred to a Virgin Australia flight and driven to our hotel.

Go shopping and keep receipts

Once you’ve reported your bag as missing, the waiting game begins. However, as was the case with Caroline in Miami, you may need to pick up the essentials while your bag is located. Luckily, things like a change of clothes, a toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant are usually considered “reasonable” purchases, so you should be reimbursed.

Even so, airlines usually require original receipts for every purchase you make, so this isn’t an invitation to pick up a six-pack or go out to a nice dinner. Focus on the bare essentials in the hopes that your bag will arrive soon.

Continue to track your bag

(Screenshot from Delta)

Once you’ve picked up these items and reached your hotel or other accommodation, you may want to check the status of your bag yourself and see if there’s an update. Many carriers have moved toward automated systems for tracking luggage (which should help not only locate missing bags but also help ensure they don’t get mishandled in the first place).

If you have your original bag tag or a reference number associated with the missing bag report you submitted, you may be able to stay updated online.

Here are links to the major carriers’ online bag search tools:

  • American: Enter your first name, last name and file number.
  • Delta: Enter your last name and bag tag number, confirmation number or file reference number.
  • United: Enter your file reference number and first and last name.

Escalate when necessary

If you aren’t getting any updates through the online system and can’t get any details from the local airport, consider escalating the claim through other channels.

For example, when my bag didn’t make a connecting flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Montreal-Trudeau International Airport (YUL) and wasn’t loaded on any of the next three nonstop flights, I contacted DeltaAssist via Twitter; the service promptly investigated the situation and made sure it was added to the next flight.

You can also try calling customer service and, if you have elite status with the carrier, you may get a more proactive agent who’s willing to help.

If you still aren’t getting anywhere and it’s been longer than 24 hours, I recommend filing (or at least threatening to file) a complaint with the DOT. While this almost certainly won’t help resolve your claim any quicker, it will draw greater attention to the matter.

Since these complaints are compiled and reported each month, airlines have an incentive to keep them at a minimum. Even if your bag is eventually located, you should report any hassles or frustrations you encounter during the process.

Related: Here’s why this TPG editor loves checking bags

(Photo by Mongkol Chuewong/Getty Images)

How to use credit card coverage

Although airlines may try to limit the reimbursement they provide for reasonable expenses when your bags are delayed, there are some credit cards that cover baggage delays, including lower-fee cards.

Here’s a sample of travel rewards credit cards with baggage delay coverage, along with pertinent details of the policy:

CardLength of delayMaximum amountWho’s covered?
Chase Sapphire ReserveSix hours.$100 per day for five days.Cardholder and immediate family.
Chase Sapphire Preferred CardSix hours.$100 per day for five days.Cardholder and immediate family.
United Explorer CardSix hours.$100 per day for three days.Cardholder and immediate family.
Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit cardSix hours.$100 per day for five days.Cardholder and immediate family.

As you can see, these cards can add some nice value if your bags are mishandled. However, their benefits don't kick in unless you purchased part of (or sometimes the entire) flight with that specific card, so be sure to investigate the individual policy to understand what is and is not covered.

Also, remember this is secondary coverage and thus only applies after you’ve submitted claims with the airline that delayed your luggage.

Read more: Checked bag changes: Frontier cuts allowance, Delta tests free luggage

What to do if your luggage is lost

Generally speaking, an airline will classify your bag as truly lost after 14 to 21 days — though it may happen sooner. Once this determination is made, you can then file a claim against the airline for lost (rather than delayed) baggage; this typically allows for higher compensation.

You’ll need to submit a new claim now that the bag is truly lost, and this process tends to be more detailed.

Most claim forms will ask you to list everything that was in the bag, including purchase dates and even original receipts for items over a certain dollar amount. Keep in mind that depreciation does apply; don’t expect to get full reimbursement for a suit you bought five years ago for $300.

Remember, this isn’t a chance to fleece the airline, as there are specific rules in place to govern this type of situation. Plus, the compensation amounts you're eligible for depend on the country of travel.

For example, if you’re traveling wholly within the U.S., carriers must set their limits for compensation for lost baggage at no less than $3,500. Amounts vary by country.

Airline-specific rules

As previously mentioned, the above limits are not set payments for when an airline completely loses your bag. You still need to submit the claim with details of the contents of your luggage.

Additionally, if an airline has already paid for your expenses while your bag was thought to be delayed, that amount will likely be deducted from your final payout.

There are exceptions if you’re flying specific carriers.

For example, United offers a flat-fee payment option of $1,500 if it can’t locate your bag within three days and it doesn't require any further documentation; the amount is intended to cover your bag and its contents without forcing you to take the time to tally up the replacement value of every single thing.

Of course, this amount may be lower than what the contents and bag are worth, but think of it as a plea deal — you’re agreeing to accept a lower payment in exchange for a simpler process with no questions asked.

The above advice related to credit cards applies here as well, as many top travel rewards credit cards will cover baggage loss if you paid for some or all of the trip with your card.

These policies vary widely by issuer and card, so be sure to read the specific policy of the card you used to purchase the trip before submitting a claim. (Note: This coverage is generally secondary, meaning the issuer will pay out after you receive compensation from the airline.)

(Photo bn Mongkol Chuewong/Getty Images)

What to do if your flight is canceled and you already checked your bag

If you don't check bags frequently, you may not know what happens to checked luggage that was loaded onto a plane before a cancellation occurred.

If you've already checked a bag and your flight is suddenly canceled, plan on retrieving your bag from the baggage carousel where the bags that were checked will be reloaded. Airlines will attempt to reroute the bag to your final destination, or their system may do so automatically, depending on the airline and airport.

Read more: Carry-on luggage showdown: Away vs. Roam

How to reduce the chances of lost or delayed luggage

The aforementioned tips are applicable when your bag is mishandled, but there are some important steps you can take to minimize the chances of this happening long before you even get to the airport.

1. Keep the itinerary simple.

Is it worth saving $50 to book a multistop itinerary on three different airlines with tight connections when you could book a simple one-stop flight on a single carrier? When you involve more than one airline, it becomes easier for them to blame one another when your bag doesn’t make it.

In other words, don’t book an itinerary like the one above (though my checked bags arrived in Istanbul on schedule after traveling on four flights across three Star Alliance airlines with two overnight layovers).

2. Keep essential (and valuable) items in your carry-on.

If you absolutely need it, don’t check it. Medication, jewelry, electronics, cash … all of it should be in your carry-on bag or personal item. Most insurance policies and airline reimbursement policies won’t cover these items if your bag is delayed or lost, so you’re much better off keeping them on your person.

3. Always bring a carry-on.

If you’re checking a bag, you should still pack a carry-on to ensure you have the important items you need when you arrive. My family lost almost a full day in Australia shopping for clothes while we waited for Delta to deliver our bags. Ideally, you won’t need to rely on these items, but it’s a good fallback.

As Caroline said, "I would rather die than check a bag." Of course, she is speaking hyperbolically, but she would rather struggle each time to fit everything into a carry-on bag than check a bag.

Read more: The airline couldn't find my luggage — luckily I had Apple AirTags

Additional reporting by Caroline Tanner and Benét J. Wilson.

Featured image by Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.