How to Get a Lost Bag Back or Get Money for Your Loss

Losing a bag can be a little like the five stages of grief (denial, anger, etc.) but you don’t necessarily have to wind up at “acceptance” – not if you follow this simple 3-step guide.

LISTEN: How’s this for timing? Rick Seaney just had a big bag problem of his own.

First – Before Your Trip

  • Don’t pack anything you don’t want to lose: Keep your valuables at home, on your person, or in a carry-on you don’t let out of your sight.
  • ID your bag: Slip a business card in your bag. Outside tags can get mangled or ripped off during handling.
  • Photograph your bag: Keep an image on your phone in case it goes missing and you have to describe the bag.

Second – When the Bag is Lost or Damaged

Many airlines devote an entire page to their lost baggage policy; if you can’t find it on your airline’s website, Google the carrier name and “lost bag.” Or call them.

  • Don’t leave the airport: If the bag is lost, the quicker you make a report, the better. If the bag is damaged, the airline could claim that fabric rip in your suitcase occurred during the ride home. We know you’re tired after a long flight, but make the report.
  • Make a report: Go to the baggage office, usually located by the baggage carousel on the same floor. The representative will give you the paperwork. Fill it out carefully; you want your contact information to be crystal clear. Take a copy of the report home with you.
  • Find someone, anyone: What if you’re in a small airport and the baggage office appears to be closed for the night? Find any airline representative for assistance or call the airline, being careful to note when you made the call and who you spoke with.

Third – Your Compensation

It will usually take an airline a week or so to declare a bag officially lost since most only go missing for a day or two.  But lost or delayed, you are due some compensation.

  • Delayed bag: According to the Department of Transportation, “You are entitled to reasonable reimbursement for expenses you incur while waiting for the delayed bag, such as the purchase of toiletries and a change of underwear.” This can actually vary by airline (I’m aware of one that paid for a T-shirt and slacks when a bag was gone for a couple of days). If you expect the airline to reimburse you for these expenses, buy only what you need – and save your receipts.
  • Lost bag:  Once a bag is declared missing, DOT regulations require airlines to pay up to $3,330 per missing bag for domestic flights but the phrase to remember is “up to.” The DOT notes that “airlines don’t automatically pay the full amount of every claim they receive. Like insurance companies, airlines consider the depreciated value of your possessions, not their original price or the replacement costs.” Do not exaggerate a claim because that might allow the airline to deny all compensation.

Note: Some airlines may offer a choice of cash payout or travel vouchers; if the vouchers tempt you, be sure you understand (and maybe even get in writing) all possible restrictions including blackout dates.

  • See more on this topic in Rick’s latest column for ABCNews.com. See all his ABC columns here.

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Published: July 30, 2014