What to do when your luggage is delayed or lost by an airline

Nov 19, 2021

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.

If you’re even a semifrequent traveler, you’ve probably experienced that dreaded moment at baggage claim at least once: The bags for your flight start flowing onto the carousel and one by one, they’re picked up by your fellow passengers. The crowd dwindles in direct correlation with the number of bags on the belt and soon it’s just you — with maybe a few other unlucky souls — as the carousel grinds to a halt. Your heart sinks as you realize your bag didn’t arrive with you.

While this is definitely cause for action, don’t immediately give up hope. There are many steps you can take to minimize the stress and hassle of a situation like this.

Related: Which credit cards cover baggage delays?

But first, let’s address some semantics upfront. The likelihood that an airline will actually lose your bag (as in, you never see it again) is very small. According to a report by SITA, a leading specialist in air transport communications and information technology, airlines “mishandled” just 3.5 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2020, down 37.5% from 2019, although these numbers were definitely affected by the pandemic. And of these mishandled bags, only 4% were truly lost for good. The air transport industry’s annual bill for mishandled bags was $600 million in 2020, an 85% decrease from $4.2 billion in 2007.

In this post, I’m using the word “loses” in the same way that SITA uses the word “mishandles,” as this most closely corresponds to the common vernacular used by travelers. After all, you’ve probably never received a call or text from a friend or family member saying, “Guess what? The airline mishandled my bag!”

When your bag doesn’t appear at baggage claim, it is temporarily lost and chances are quite good it will eventually be returned. My suggestions start with what to do when you first realize your bag didn’t travel with you — but you’ll notice that one of the last applies if your bag is ultimately deemed lost for good. These are the key things you can do when your bag is delayed — or lost — by an airline.

In This Post

How to determine if your luggage is lost

For starters, it’s important to determine whether your bags are, in fact, missing. Start with these important steps:

Be patient

Airport baggage procedures can be exceedingly complex at large hubs, so waiting 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 mean it’s lost.

Look elsewhere

If your bag doesn’t come off the designated carousel, there’s a chance — albeit a slim one — that it could have made the flight but been offloaded elsewhere (it’s happened to me). Take a quick look at other carousels and check to see if the bag somehow beat you there and is waiting in the airline’s baggage office or another holding area, which also happened to me at Washington Reagan (DCA).

It’s even possible your bag took an earlier flight. A few years ago, I arrived back in Orlando (MCO) one night from a work trip and was surprised to see my bag sitting there already. I had arrived at my departure airport so early that the airline sent it on an earlier flight. Though these things rarely happen, it’s worth double-checking before reporting your bag as missing to the airline.

Stay calm

Portrait of businessman in a vacation mood, wearing beach shorts, garlands and sunglasses, sitting in yoga pose and waiting for the flight at the airport.
You may not be this calm, but keeping your cool is an important first step when your baggage doesn’t arrive. (Image by izusek/Getty Images)

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 remember this credo: Stay calm. We’ve unfortunately seen incidents when passengers who don’t keep their cool end up in fisticuffs. 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.

How to report a missing bag

As soon as you ascertain the bag did not make the trip with you, you should immediately report it. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

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. 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 in the computer (if possible). You could also proactively research your bag’s status in an airline’s app if that’s an option. There’s a chance your luggage is en route. But if not, move on to the next step.

3. File a missing baggage report.

If the agent can’t provide any insight into the whereabouts of your bag, file a missing baggage report. When you do this, include every bit of information you can about your bag and your travel plans. Provide a detailed description of the size, color and material of the bag, including any identifying tags. 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 (CUR), as my wife and I experienced a few years ago — you may wind up with the yellow copy of a triplicate form.

And again, remember the “stay calm” tip. The staff member to whom you are reporting the missing bag had nothing to do with the mishandling, so being rude to them will get you nowhere. As my wife likes to say, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar!” (Yes, she was raised in the South.)

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. Many carriers will keep amenity kits on hand in baggage offices to pass out to customers with missing bags and some will even provide courtesy car seats if your child 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.

Here’s an overview of each major airline’s published policies for delayed bags:

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

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), as you should be able to simply go home and have access to all of the essential items you’ll need.

Finally, if you’re traveling on Delta or Alaska, be sure to submit a baggage guarantee claim — both carriers will offer 2,500 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

Baggage arrives from Delta Air Lines Inc. flights at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Friday, March 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif. © 2019 Patrick T. Fallon for The Points Guy
Follow these suggestions if your baggage is delayed. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/The Points Guy)

As noted above, the majority of “lost” bags are 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 and it may only be a matter of hours or just a day or two before you and your suitcase are reunited. Once you’ve reported it with the airline, here are a few tips for handling a delay:

Make them come to you

One of the most important things to include in your claim 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 in 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 getting it to you and should be willing to cover the cost of a courier to do so. Once when my bag and my daughter’s car seat were delayed arriving into Albuquerque, New Mexico (ABQ), American Airlines arranged to have them delivered 65 miles north to our hotel in Santa Fe.

This may even work when you’re continuing on a flight to another city. Back in November of 2011, my wife and I flew from Orlando (MCO) to Sydney (SYD) via Los Angeles (LAX) on a Delta award ticket. We then booked a separate one-way ticket from Sydney (SYD) to Adelaide, Australia (ADL), on Virgin Australia, as Delta wasn’t able (at the time) to include this flight on our award ticket.

Unfortunately, our bags somehow were left in Los Angeles and we were nervous they wouldn’t be able to get to us in Adelaide. Fortunately, they arrived roughly 30 hours later, having been put on the next day’s flight from LAX to SYD, transferred to a Virgin Australia flight and then driven to our hotel. I was a Diamond Medallion member at the time and Delta did have a partnership with Virgin Australia (which was suspended in September 2020) so, as always, your experience may vary.

Go shopping and keep receipts

Once you’ve reported your bag as missing, the waiting game begins. However, to help pass the time, you may need to find a store to pick up the essentials while your bag is located. A change of clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant … these should all fall under the category of “reasonable” and will be reimbursed without question.

That being said, just about every airline will 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

American is just one airline with online self-tracking features for lost bags.
American is just one airline with online self-tracking features for lost bags. (Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

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. When my bag didn’t make a connecting flight from New York-JFK to Montreal (YUL) back in 2014 and wasn’t loaded on any of the next three nonstop flights, I took to Twitter and contacted DeltaAssist, which promptly investigated 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’d recommend filing (or at least threatening to file) a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. 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, any hassles or frustrations you encounter during the process should be reported.

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

How to use credit card coverage

Airlines may try to limit the reimbursement they provide for reasonable expenses when your bags are delayed, but fortunately there are a handful of credit cards that cover baggage delays in their suite of protection benefits. Once your bags are delayed by a certain amount of time (generally six to 12 hours, depending on the card), you can be reimbursed for expenses you incur as a result of the delay. The best part is that this isn’t limited to expensive premium cards; it’s provided by a couple of lower-fee ones as well.

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

Card Length of delay Maximum amount Who’s covered?
Chase Sapphire Reserve 6 hours $100 per day for five days Cardholder and immediate family
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 6 hours $100 per day for five days Cardholder and immediate family
United Explorer Card 6 hours $100 per day for three days Cardholder and immediate family
Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card 6 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, you typically need to purchase part of (or sometimes the entire) flight with the card in order for its baggage delay perks to kick in, so be sure to investigate the individual policy to understand what is and is not covered. And remember, this is secondary coverage and thus only applies after you’ve submitted claims with the airline that delayed your 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’re now able to file a claim against the airline for lost (rather than delayed) baggage and 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

U.S. Code of Federal Regulations

If you’re traveling wholly within the U.S., 14 CFR Part 254 specifies that carriers must set their limits for compensation for lost baggage at no less than $3,500. But that doesn’t mean you’re automatically getting that amount when your bag is lost; it simply means airlines are obligated to pay at least that amount if you can prove your bag’s contents were more valuable.

Montreal Convention

This agreement, drafted in 1999 and modified as recently as 2009, currently has 137 signatory nations from around the world. If you’re traveling internationally between two countries that have signed the Montreal Convention, the airline’s liability for lost baggage is capped at 1,131 Special Drawing Rights. This is an international reserve asset created by the International Monetary Fund in 1969 and based on current valuations, this amount is roughly $1,580.

Warsaw Convention

This agreement, first adopted in 1929 and modified several times since, applies if either your departure point or final destination falls outside the 137 nations that have signed onto the Montreal Convention. Unfortunately, this doesn’t explicitly address checked luggage, though I’ve read interpretations that lump this into “cargo” and thus limit liability to 17 SDRs (roughly $24) per kilogram.

Airline-specific rules

As previously mentioned, the above limits are not set payments when an airline loses your bag for good. You still need to submit the claim with details of the contents of your luggage. In addition, 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. But 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 without requiring any further documentation. This is meant 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. Once again, 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 (and note this coverage is generally secondary, meaning the issuer will pay out after you receive compensation from the airline).

Related: The 10 incredible deals I found at the Unclaimed Baggage Store

How to reduce the chances of lost or delayed luggage

This type of itinerary (which my wife and I flew in December 2013) isn't going to help avoid baggage problems.
This type of itinerary (which my wife and I flew in December 2013) isn’t going to help avoid baggage problems. (Image courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper)

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 back in 2011 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.

Additional reporting by Benét J. Wilson.

Featured photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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