Step Five: Your compensation.
If a bag is missing for a short period: The DOT says, "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." Actual compensation varies by airline. I know of one carrier that paid for an inexpensive shirt and pair of pants when a bag went missing two days but don't go crazy; a pair of Manolo Blahniks would probably not be considered a "reasonable" expenditure. Find the compensation form you'll need to fill out on your airline's website by searching "lost bag" or give them a call. Save all receipts; you may need them later.
If a bag is lost: Get ready to negotiate. While it is true airlines are obligated to pay up to $3,330 per missing bag (for domestic flights), the key phrase is "up to." As the Department of Transportation points out, "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." One more thing: If a bag is lost, your bag fee will be refunded but you have to ask, and you may have to fill out a separate form for this. Contact the airline to learn more.
Now for some tips that may help with negotiations.
• Don't exaggerate your claim: If anything seems fishy to the airline, it might try to deny the entire claim on the basis of fraud.
• Be careful what you agree to: The DOT says an airline may offer you a cash settlement or vouchers for future tickets that appear to be worth more than the cash payout. If you want the tickets, grill the airline thoroughly about blackout dates and restrictions. Free tickets aren't much good if you can't use them.
Final thought: If your bag is officially lost, you may have to wait awhile for your reimbursement check as long as three months, per the DOT. That's just one more reason why I always travel with a carry-on - the bag that can't get lost.