It’s enough to give anyone already nervous about the chaos in the skies yet another reason to pop an antacid: the prospect of delayed, lost or damaged baggage.
The concern is valid.
Especially when an epic winter storm sweeps across the land and one airline has a complete meltdown. Or when an airline insists it has your baggage secure in a distribution center but your tracking device shows it’s been taken to various malls and McDonald’s.
Handing over checked suitcases can almost feel like a leap of faith in circumstances like that.
In the meantime, you’re not totally powerless. There are things you can do and strategies you can take to help avoid losing a bag or at least minimize the impact of delayed, lost, stolen and damaged luggage.
Before you go to the airport
Book nonstop flights: If you’re really concerned about your checked luggage, prioritize nonstop flights or at least layovers with a generous amount of time, said Scott Keyes, the founder of flight deals and travel advice site Scott’s Cheap Flights,
“Bags are most likely to get lost in that transfer between planes at connection, especially if there’s a tight connection.” And he said that’s doubly so for international flights with tight connections.
Consider discount airlines: He said full-service airlines are more likely to lose your bags than the discount airlines, which tend to have more nonstop flights that have a lower likelihood of losing a bag in transit.
Legacy airlines tend to have more connecting flights. Keyes said he wouldn’t make a booking decision based solely on this, but it’s “an interesting side factor to consider.”
Take pictures of your luggage and its contents: Jo Hoban, a travel agent in Spanish Fork, Utah, about 50 miles south of Salt Lake City, told CNN Travel that she advises her clients to “take a picture of their bags because the first things airline offices will ask you is what is the brand name of the bag, what is the color of the bag, the size of the bag and the contents of the bag.”
She also said people should lay out what they are planning to pack on the bed and take a picture of that, too. If the bag is lost, that helps create a content record.
Use baggage tracking: “Many airlines allow you to see the status of your bags in their apps, which can help give you peace of mind that your bag is on the flight with you — or at least give you insight into your bag’s location should it get delayed,” Scott’s Cheap Flights said in an email news release.
You can set up independent tracking yourself. Paula Twidale, senior vice president of travel for AAA, said one option is called AirTag, and it connects with an Apple device so you can track the tag’s location.
Properly ID your suitcases on the inside, too: The consumer advocate group Travelers United says put your info on the inside, too, in case your outside tag gets torn off. Hoban makes the same suggestion.
“I have had a bag taken off the carousel at the airport in Salt Lake [City]. Luckily, I knew the people who took my bag so it was easy to exchange it,” she said. “But again, what if I did not know those people? What if they were total strangers and got my bag home? Hopefully, they’re good, honest people and see that I have a name and phone number in the bag that they can call me and let me know the mistake.”
The power of carry-ons: The airlines can’t lose baggage you never check in. Twidale suggests packing as light as you can and use just carry-ons. You’ll save time leaving the airport and have more peace of mind.
Review your credit card coverage: Before you buy extra travel insurance, Keyes suggested you check your credit card policy for travel protection.
You might get supplemental compensation (for what the airlines don’t cover) not only for lost bags, but also for reimbursements for things you may need to buy while you’re waiting for your bag.
At the airport before you fly
Check your bags in a timely manner: Travelers United says last-minute baggage check-ins can lead to a greater chance of trouble.
“Don’t push the system. The smallest delay can have serious consequences when your luggage is cruising down the conveyor belt and selected for security examination with little time to spare,” its website says.
Work that phone camera again: Keyes suggested that just before handing over your checked suitcases, open them up and take a picture.
“If your bag does get lost, and you’ve got any valuables in there … having a photograph of what was in there is really going to bolster your case to get compensation after the fact.”
Check your baggage tag’s destination: Travelers United also advises you double-check your airline luggage tags and make sure they’re going to where you are going, especially if you’re doing curbside check-in. And the North Carolina Consumers Council reminds people to keep hold of their the baggage claim ticket or sticker.
If your baggage is delayed
Scope out other spots at the airport: If your suitcases aren’t on the designated pick-up carousel, The Points Guy travel advice website suggests checking nearby carousels and if you don’t see them there, try the airline’s baggage office. This is also a good time to put those aforementioned tracking apps to work.
Report your issue and fill out forms at the airport: If your bags haven’t shown up, let the airline know.
“Many times, airline personnel will explain that the luggage has been located but will be delayed until the next flight,” Travelers United says. “If you have the time, wait. If not, fill out the appropriate lost luggage forms at the airport.”
Let the airline deliver your bags: Keyes said if an airline can locate your suitcases but it’s going to be hours before they arrive, make sure the reps have the address where you’ll be and use the airline’s delivery service.
Keep receipts: “If you buy anything to get you through the days without your luggage — from a new swimsuit to toothpaste — keep the receipts. You may need these to get reimbursed,” Scott’s Cheap Flights advises.
If your luggage is lost
Check your airline’s claims and compensation policy: Each airline should have website information on what to do if your bag is lost. For example, this is Delta Air Lines’ page. This is American Airlines’ page. And this is Southwest Airlines’ page. And airlines based outside the United States have their own systems. This is what to do if flying British Airways.
If the airline isn’t being helpful: “If the airline is dragging its feet on compensation … don’t be afraid to complain to the Department of Transportation, Keyes said regarding US airlines. You can file a complaint here.
“They’ve got a special aviation enforcement office where they’re being much more pro-active about protecting consumers and trying to clamp down on airlines when they’re not providing customers with the type of compensation or reimbursement that they’re required to do under federal laws.”
Liability limits: There’s fine print, exceptions and paperwork / documentation hurdles, but you can eventually get cash for your lost bags.
For US domestic flights, the maximum liability amount allowed by DOT regulation is $3,800. Airlines are free to pay more than the limit, but are not required to do so. For international flights, that figure is $1,780. Find out more from the DOT here.
Damaged bags: If you see your luggage is damaged while still at the airport, report it there. Airlines aren’t required to pay for damages to items caused by improper packing, according to the DOT, nor are they responsible for “certain categories of items (for example: fragile items, electronics, cash, perishable items …)”
They are liable for damage to wheels, handles and straps.
This article was first published in August 2022 and is updated periodically.