Ask Gadling: What to do when the airline loses your luggage?

Just like death and taxes, another fact of life is that when you travel with checked bags, the airline will lose them sooner or later. Now, before you panic and picture yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere without your bags, you’ll be happy to know that the airlines manage to return almost all lost bags – but it does pay to know what to do when disaster strikes.

So, you are at the airport, watching bags come down the carousel, and an hour later, you come to realization that no more bags are coming, and that your bags may be missing. Don’t panic just yet – the first thing you’ll want to do is check the oversized or overflow luggage location. This is where larger bags are delivered, along with bags that may have shown up early (it does happen). Also, if a bag arrived damaged, they’ll place them here.

If they are not here, the next step is to trace your bag. This is where the baggage tag receipt on your ticket matters – this receipt contains the tracking number required to locate the bag. Don’t worry too much if you lost it, the number is also attached to your ticket number in the computer systems, but the tag is required to actually prove you handed the airline your bag.

At most airports, you’ll need to locate the luggage desk and patiently wait in line. At some major airports, you can also check your baggage location on self service terminals. As soon as you land, the clock starts ticking – almost every airline gives you a mere four hours to file a missing bag claim and get a search started.

Self service baggage kiosks work very much like the check-in terminals at the departure lounge. Once you feed the terminal the baggage locator number or itinerary number, it’ll tell you where your bags are.

Where could your bag be?

Once you start tracking your luggage, the results could be:

  • Bags delayed – on next flight to the destination
  • Bags misrouted – will need to be sent back to the correct destination
  • Bags not found

Getting your bags back

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

In most cases, your bags will be found in the system, and you’ll know where they are. Usually by the time you land at the airport, the airline already knows they screwed up, and they may even have them on their next flight.

In the case of a misrouted bag, your airport baggage desk will put in a request for the bag to be sent to the right airport – but like with delayed bags, once your tag is scanned, the airline may already know they messed things up. If the bags were sent to an international destination with limited flights, it could take a couple of days to get them back on a plane.

If your bags are not found during a trace, it usually means the bag lost its paper tag. In most cases, the baggage handlers will simply find one of the smaller tags (now you know why the agents stick those all over your bag) and send it on its way.

In the worst case, the bag will end up in a stack of other bags with no identifiers. This is where it becomes very important for you to accurately describe your bag because someone is going to have to manually search for it based on looks.

More importantly, this is where luggage tags with your name will help. Simply telling the airline that your bag was black with wheels won’t help them at all. Always attach name tags on the outside and labels with your name on the inside.

If you want to make life easier, consider these tips:

  • Avoid boring black bags, or get black bags and make them stand out using tape or markers
  • Always tag your bags with sturdy baggage name tags
  • Place name stickers inside your bags
  • Photograph your bags using your phone – this will make it easier to describe them to the baggage agent

Actually getting reunited with your bags

This is where things become tough – because in many cases, you’ll now need to leave the airport without your bags. Unless you know that your bags are already on a plane heading towards you, there is nothing else you can do but wait.

If you are on a trip away from home, ask the baggage clerk for a lost baggage kit – just don’t expect any luxuries here. You’ll usually get some very basic amenities and a t-shirt.

When you fill in the lost baggage form, be sure to tell the airline where to deliver your bag when it has been retrieved. Do not settle for them telling you to come and get it yourself. Make it clear you are on vacation and don’t want the extra expense of having to come back to the airport. Almost all airlines have regular courier services that will deliver lost bags.

You will need a physical address for this, and you will need to allow the airline at least 72 hours for the delivery. If you are on a trip that involves lots of different destinations, consider sending your bags to your next destination instead of risking sending them to a hotel you left two days ago.

The practical side of arriving with no luggage

You probably spent a day carefully packing your bag, and making sure you’d arrive with everything you could possibly need. And now you don’t have any of those things. Thankfully you are a smart traveler, so you did not pack any medication, important chargers or a laptop in your luggage. And since you are smart, you also have one spare set of clothes in your carry-on luggage. Sure, the thought of wearing the same underwear for two days may seem gross, but you’ll survive.

Thankfully, if you are without bags, the airline will reimburse you for expenses. This does not mean you can walk into the local department store and spend $1000 on a new suit – it merely means you can get some basics, and get out of your flying clothes. The airline will also cover basic toiletries and medical expenses.

The airline will not pay anything up front, and it could take several months to receive a check covering the costs, so always be sure you travel with enough money in the event something goes wrong. The last thing you want is to burn through all your vacation cash replacing lost clothes.

The most important thing to do is just relax – there is no denying that arriving without your bags is a major inconvenience, but do not let it spoil your vacation. The bags will probably turn up within a day and all will be well.

One word you must never forget when dealing with compensation: receipts. Keep every single receipt for every purchase you want to claim. Without a receipt, the airline will not compensate you.

Baggage gone for good – now what?

This is the nightmare scenario – the airline could lose your bags for good. In some cases this could be related to theft, in others it could be a lost luggage tag and no way to actually locate your bag. This is where it becomes OK to panic a little, just remember that panic won’t bring your bags back. If the airline has not returned your bags within 72 hours and has not been able to locate them, you can consider them gone.

Airlines are great at limiting their liability. This means they limit how much money they’ll pay you, and they’ll also limit the contents of your bag eligible for compensation. Excluded items include:

Money, jewelry, cameras, negotiable papers/securities, electronic/video/ photographic equipment, heirlooms, antiques, artifacts, works of art, silverware, irreplaceable books/publications/manuscripts/business documents, precious metals and other similar valuable and commercial effects.

Bottom line? Any of those items should be carried on board the plane.

As soon as you get back home, you should file a claim with the airline. Like any claim, the airline will do its best to make life tough, and will require large amounts of proof, so hang on to your ticket receipt, boarding passes, luggage claim tags and print our credit card receipts for ticket purchases.

If the airline does refuse to pay up, contact your credit card company and find out which of your items were possibly covered with credit card insurance. You’d be surprised how easy this process can be.

Travel insurance could be another way to claim the full value of your loss – but be sure to read all the fine print before you sign up for a policy, in many cases, insurance will exclude luggage and many items in your bags.

And if you’d like one final depressing piece of news – airlines will almost never refund your baggage fee. This means you pay them to do something, they fail, and they keep your money anyway. In those cases, you’ll also want to consider a credit card chargeback. Just be sure to document everything, as your credit card company will want proof that the bag was indeed delayed or lost.

Who to contact when your bags go missing?

American Airlines
Continental Airlines
Delta Airlines
Southwest Airlines
Spirit Airlines (Spirit does not offer a dedicated lost luggage help page)
United Airlines
U.S. Airways
Virgin America

Airlines losing 3000 bags – every hour of every day

In 2009, the worlds airlines lost a whopping 25 million pieces of passenger luggage. That comes down to just under 3000 bags every hour of every day, all year long. These shocking statistics were published by SITA – one of the operators of airline and airport computer systems, using data from the World Traver luggage database.

SITA breaks down the reasons behind bags not arriving at their destination:

  • During aircraft transfers – 52%
  • Failed to load – 16%
  • Ticketing error / bag switch / security / other – 13%
  • Airport / customs / weather / space-weight restriction – 6%
  • Loading / offloading error – 7%
  • Arrival station mishandling – 3%
  • Tagging error – 3%

There is some good news though – 96.6% of all bags do manage to reach their owner – eventually. This still leaves over 800,000 bags that end up going unclaimed. Bags that never arrive are often simply abandoned by their owners, or fall victim to theft at the airport. After six months, all unclaimed bags are donated, sold or destroyed.

The real good news is that airlines have managed to lose fewer bags. Compared to 2008, airlines managed to decrease lost bag numbers by 23.8%. Of course, part of this is due to decreasing passenger numbers, but the worldwide decline in air travel was just 2.9%.

Bottom line is that airlines are investing heavily in luggage management, and even though they may never reach a perfect score, the current trend is very positive one – and one that will benefit everyone that checks bags. Of course, as luggage fees have started increasing, it is also refreshing to see that airlines are actually doing something with all that new money.

Don’t forget to follow our tips on keeping your luggage safe at the airport!

Gadling gear review – Wordlock luggage lock

Hands up if you ever arrived at your destination (or back home) and couldn’t remember the 4-digit combination to your luggage. Wordlock is a product that could finally make locking and unlocking your luggage a lot easier.

The lock uses 4 letter dials to protect your luggage instead of dials with numbers. The lock has 10,000 possible combinations (same as with numbers) which means you can pick words like TEST, BYTE or HATS to safeguard your items.

The locks support the Travel Sentry key system, which means TSA inspectors will be able to open the bag without pulling out their bolt cutters.

Each lock is made of sturdy vinyl coated metal with a 1 1/2″ shackle. The locks are available in 5 colors (seen above) and retail for $9.99. The locks are are available directly from the Wordlock site and in store or online at several major retailers.

Daily gear deals – $10 car emergency kit, camping kit and more

Here are the hottest gadget deals for today, Saturday July 4th 2009. Remember, these deals are often only valid for one day, so act fast before they are gone.

Not everyone is flying this summer, so be safe with this Sears WeatherHandler 44 piece car emergency kit for just $10. Order for in-store pickup to avoid shipping charges. Click here for this deal.

Walmart is selling a 2 person camping kit, consisting of a tent, 2 sleeping bags, a lamp, 2 folding chairs, 2 pads and 2 forks (yeah, weird eh!). I’m not going to pretend that this is suitable for your next trip up Mount Everest, but at $138 it is pretty decent value for the beginning camper. Shipping is just a buck. Click here for this deal.

This Archos 10″ Netbook
runs on a 1.6GHz processor and comes with a roomy 160GB hard drive. Windows XP Home is installed on it. Click here for this deal.

Ever arrived at your destination only to spend the first 10 minutes trying to remember the combination of your luggage lock? The Wordlock may be just what you need. This combination lock uses words instead of numbers to lock your bags, and is TSA compliant, all for just under $10. Click here for this deal.

And on behalf of the entire Gadling team, please let me wish you a happy and safe Fourth of July!