Missing bag? Fear not – handle it like a pro

10 June 2023
Missing bag? Fear not – handle it like a pro

If you’ve ever stood at the baggage carousel while everyone on your flight snags their bags and heads out the door leaving you behind, you know the pain, shock, and worry that you’ll never see your things again. It’s one of the most powerless feelings experienced by a traveler and the number one reason people don’t check their bags.

While it’s not often you’ll find yourself in that position, it’s important to note that the mishandled baggage rate doubled globally in 2022 as airlines and airport staff scrambled to recover from the pandemic. It was so bad in the summer of 2022, that travelers and industry experts still refer to that period as the ‘summer of lost luggage’.

Note: The term mishandled refers to items that are missing, delayed, damaged, or pilfered. Pretty broad, right? At least it’s not a misnomer for lost, as in permanently.

How bad is it really?

According to The Points Guy, approximately seven out of every 1,000 bags are lost or mishandled in 2022. That number rises to nine out of every 1,000 if you’re flying on American Airlines (the largest airline in the world!). That’s according to data from the Air Travel Consumer Report published by the Department of Transportation.

Even worse, Chris Elliott’s consumer advocacy group has been seeing lots of lost luggage cases lately. With the summer of travel 2023 predicted as one of the busiest ever, along with understaffed airports worldwide, the expectation is for more lost bag reports than ever before. 

Pro tip: Baggage delays at the point of transfer account for nearly half of all lost luggage. If you’re switching flights (e.g., not taking non-stop flights), you run a greater risk of losing your luggage.

Before we dive into what to do if your bag goes missing, let’s review how to avoid it altogether.

Tips to avoid a lost bag

The only sure way to avoid a lost bag is to never let it out of your hands.

To be sure, all that carry-on luggage slows down the boarding and deplaning processes, and let’s face it, some travelers just prefer the comfort of checking a bag. They don’t want the hassle of lugging it on their flight, finding space and lifting it into the bins, then lugging it back off again. 

If you’re a traveler that prefers to check your bag, let’s review the latest tips to help ensure it isn’t mishandled:

  1. Book flights with fewer connections to reduce the chances of your bag getting lost en route.
  2. Before you pack the bag, go over it thoroughly for any stickers (those small ones with the bar codes, especially). Some are easy to miss and you don’t want anything on your bag that can confuse routing.
  3. Take photos of your bag from a couple of angles. This will help airline staff identify the bag if it’s left behind in a room or pile of luggage. (Hint: it will also help with a lost luggage claim, if necessary.)
  4. Don’t check your bag more than 4 hours prior to the flight. If you do, it goes into a holding place and that adds a layer of risk that it could be left behind.
  5. Tuck a tracking device in your bag. The Apple AirTag has become hugely popular, and Android users have Tile. (See a guide to AirTag alternatives for Android.)

Interesting: On a recent flight where I checked a bag (on the way home, of course), I noticed the airline’s app was tracking my bag. It works by adding the bag information to your reservation when you drop it off at the counter and it’s updated every time the bag is scanned on the journey. Not all airlines offer this integrated service, but the big three (United, American, and Delta) do and others are implementing the service.  
Maybe the airlines really do care about the customer experience 🤔

What do to if your bag is lost

If your checked item fails to appear at the baggage carousel, here’s what you need to do.

1. Head to the airline service counter

First, don’t panic. The airlines find 97% of lost luggage, so it’s very likely that you’ll get your bag back.

It’s important to report the bag missing before you leave the airport. Doing this at the airport — and having the photo of your bag — can often speed up the process of locating it and returning it to you. Often before you leave the airport. 

Many airlines have a form online, which can be convenient, but you really want to speak with someone. You want to get the name of the airline employee who helped you with the form and a contact phone number. 

Pro tip: Take a picture of the form you fill out before you submit it!

Note the deadlines for when the airline officially declares your luggage lost too. You may need that for a claim. Also, keep your baggage claim ticket and boarding passes handy. You’ll need those to make a claim too.

2. Contact your travel insurance company or credit card

Virtually all travel insurance plans cover lost or misplaced luggage to some extent.

You may also have additional coverage with your travel card, which most travelers forget about. For example, the United Explorer card will pay you $100 a day for up to three days if your bag is delayed more than six hours. You can at least get started enjoying your trip while the airline tracks your bag down.

The process for making a claim with your travel insurance company is significantly easier than the airline’s process, and your provider will have you fill out the claim online as well. As for how much reimbursement you can expect, check your policy for details. 

Pro tip: You can improve the process by having photos of your bag and the contents. 

3. Know your rights

If your bag is delayed, the airlines are required to compensate you for “reasonable, verifiable, and actual incidental expenses” incurred while your bag is delayed. The expenses are subject to the maximum liability limit of $3,800 per passenger.

The trick is that the airlines don’t immediately declare luggage lost. Partly because they very often do find it. 

The airline will classify mishandled luggage as missing and begin a search process that can take days or longer. After your initial claim, the airline can take anywhere from 5 to 14 days depending on the airline to declare a bag officially lost.

Fun fact: As a practical detail, the airline will refund the baggage fee you paid if your bag goes missing too. How kind of them, right?

The Department of Transportation does not require the airlines a specific level of compensation and passengers have no power to pressure an airline to declare a bag as lost. It’s a relatively ‘automated’ process and the airline will determine when the bag is officially missing.

Always pack these essentials in your carry-on

If you want to check your bag, be sure to have these three essentials in your carry-on EVERY time you fly:

  1. Some change of clothing – you may not need a full change of clothes, but some underwear, a fresh t-shirt, that sort of thing depending on your comfort level.
  2. Toiletry kit – you probably travel with this in your carry-on anyway, but you may want something a little more complete. Think toothpaste, toothbrush, contact case — whatever you cannot live without for a couple of days.
  3. Charging things – again, probably a no-brainer, but be sure you can charge the devices you need to stay safe and moving along your journey.

A lost bag is a drag, but it’s helpful to know that airlines find 97% of misplaced bags. There’s a high probability that you’ll see your things again. 

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Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.