What to Do When the Airline Loses Your Bag

PHOTO: Baggage claim conveyor at Philadelphia International Airport in this 2010 file photo.

Ever lose a bag on a flight? It's happened to many of us, but lost bags are actually getting rarer. Which doesn't help one bit if it happens to you.

But there are things you can do to make the process smoother like following these five steps that will help prevent your bag from getting lost, help get it back if it does go missing, even help you get some money if you never see it again.

Step One: Before You Fly

Do these two things before you get on the plane:

1. Don't pack valuables: Some airlines state in the contract of carriage that they will not transport expensive or unique items. Besides, good stuff has been known to go missing from checked-bags. If you must bring something irreplaceable or expensive, keep it on your person or in a carry-on bag.

2. Stick a business card in your bag: Exterior tags can get damaged or torn off. Make it easy for the airline to reunite you with lost luggage.

3. Take a picture of your bag: So many bags look alike but a smartphone photo can jog your memory if you have to describe the bag once it's gone.

Step Two: Make a report.

Do not leave the airport without making a report: Calling in a claim from home, even if it's the same day, is not good enough. The Department of Transportation has more tips here.

Go to the baggage claim office: This is usually on the same floor as the carousel; that's where you'll fill out the missing baggage claim form. Get a copy before you leave.

If no one is in the office: Look for another airline employee and tell them your bag is gone. If it's late at night in a small airport and everyone's gone home, call the airline and make a verbal report, but be sure to jot down a note or two including the time of your call and the name of the person you spoke to.

Step Three: Determine if your bag is truly lost.

There are different levels of compensation depending on whether your bag is lost or merely missing. Most bags are located within a day or so and many arrive on the very next flight. If your bag is truly lost, you may have to wait a week (or two) before the airline makes it official.

By the way, if you want to see how your airline stacks up against others regarding mishandled bags, the Department of Transportation publishes monthly statistics and you can see the latest figures here.

Step Four: Which airline to contact.

If you flew non-stop and had a baggage problem, you know who to contact. But if you flew a connecting flight with multiple airlines or codeshare partners it can be confusing. Example: A friend flew from Los Angeles to Chicago on one airline, then another to Italy; when her bag went missing, she didn't know which carrier was at fault.

Doesn't matter. Lost bags are the responsibility of the airline that flies you to your ultimate destination, so direct all calls and email inquiries to the last carrier.

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.

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