What to do When the Airlines Lose Your Bag

When United lost his bag last March, Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan didn't panic. After all, something like 98 percent of all missing bags eventually turn up.

So he waited. And waited. "Basically, there was no progress finding it whatsoever for nearly six weeks," said Dr. Wheelan. "Then, it suddenly turned up."

Suddenly? Well, right after the professor filed suit in small claims court.

Video: Passenger sues American Airlines over lost bag.Play
Washington state woman sues American Airlines for $5 million dollars

Wheelan wasn't looking for instant-millionaire status; all he wanted was his $25 bag fee back, plus court costs (total: $97). And it worked. Said the professor, "I suspect that the bag would never have turned up were it not for the lawsuit," not to mention the subsequent news coverage.

If that sounds a bit extreme, then maybe you haven't heard about the Washington state woman who's filed a $5 million class action suit against American Airlines over a "lost bag." But the airline says there's more to this story.

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American Airlines says the woman behind the $5 million dollar lawsuit did get her bag back, the day after it went missing.

By the way, American Airlines allows you to put in a claim for the bag fee if your luggage is lost. And the Department of Transportation is proposing that bag fees be refunded in the event of delays, flight cancellations and lost or delayed bags.

So here are some ideas on what to do -- or rather, what not to do -- if your bag is lost.

#1: Do Not Leave the Airport

This is a mistake many people make. It was a long flight, they're tired and frustrated when the bag does not appear on the carousel and they decide to go home, get some sleep and deal with it in the morning.

Sorry, but as tired as you are, do not leave. Stay at the airport, hunt down an airline rep if you don't spot one immediately, and make a report. Some carriers allow you to make the report within 24 hours, but do you really want to waste all that time going through the automated call system?

Stay at the airport and make the report. This is especially true if you have a complaint about a damaged bag. If you leave, the airline will just make you come back with the broken suitcase, and there might even be questions about whether the bag was somehow damaged after it left the airport.

By the way, if you have reason to believe your bag was damaged by a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer, there's a whole different claims process involved.

#2: Do Not Scream and Yell at Airline Employees

Keep your cool. The people you report your missing bag to are not the ones who lost it, so don't take it out on them. Besides, these are the people who can help reunite you with your Samsonite, so it pays to be nice.

Plus, if you're upset, you may not be doing yourself any favors, since you might not provide the clear and accurate description of your missing bag that'll make finding it easier.

Besides, it's human nature for folks to try harder to help the "good guys" so be sure you're one of them. Why do anything to jeopardize your chances of getting your bag back?

#3: Do Not Say, 'I Had a Lot of Valuables in My Lost Bag'

It may be true you had a lot of valuables in your now-missing suitcase, and maybe you even have them neatly itemized, but it doesn't matter. Most airlines take no responsibility for valuables.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: do not pack valuables in a checked bag. Put them in a carry-on, or better yet, on your person. Best of all, leave them at home. Here's why: many airlines officially don't accept certain valuables in checked bags. Sure, people still pack these things, but if anything happens to them, it's not the airline's problem.

And you might be surprised to find out what's considered a "valuable" they won't cover. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that jewelry and electronics are, but so are the following items according to American Airlines' contract of carriage (and other airlines have similar restrictions): books and documents; computer software; eyeglasses, sunglasses and contact lenses; furs, keys, medicines, cameras and cash.

What to Do About Lost Bags on Airlines

Same for heirlooms, so leave great-grandmother's homemade quilt home, too. If it gets lost, you won't be compensated.

And by the way, per the Department of Transportation, airline liability per bag is only $3,300. That could be the price of one good camera, if such an item was covered. And, as noted in the DOT's "Consumer Guide to Air Travel", "Airlines consider the depreciated value of your possessions, not their original price or the replacement costs."

This could be where your credit card comes in handy. American Express, for example, offers some additional checked-bag and even carryon insurance coverage that does cover valuables, and your homeowner's policy is worth a second look. Many airlines offer additional coverage as well. No matter what you do, though, please read the fine print.

Let me repeat: do not pack valuables. If these are must-haves, why not ship them via UPS or Federal Express? Just be sure you know what compensation the shippers offer should any of their packages go astray.

#4: Do Not Say, 'I Don't Know What's in My Bag'

If your bag is lost, the airline will want an itemized list of what was in it (another good reason to pack light).

The more detailed you are about the contents (and the bag itself), the better. Include clothing sizes, colors, types of shoes, that sort of thing. And you know that all black bags look alike, so take a picture of it with your cell phone. And while you're at it, take a close-up picture of your baggage claim tag, in case you lose the little sticker they give you.

I've heard that some people who travel a lot create a packing list template that they use for a quick reference when getting their stuff together; this would sure be a handy reference to have when filling out those tedious airline claim forms.

Finally, make sure you have a legible ID tag, outside and inside your bag.

#5: Do Not Give Up on Your Bag

Your airline is supposed to stay in touch with you, but if not, be proactive and be polite. Reference your official lost bag claim number in all correspondence and if you are using e-mail, be brief and to the point; include all pertinent information such as dates and flight numbers. Stay on the case.

If worse comes to worst (and you're feeling especially creative), you could do what Dave Carroll did and create a music video that becomes a YouTube hit. (Surely you remember "United Breaks Guitars"?)

Or do what I do: I never lose a bag, because I never check a bag. With me, it's a carryon all the way. However, if I did ever lose a bag, I'd be tempted to visit an Alabama store by the name of Unclaimed Baggage Center.

This unique emporium sells the contents of unclaimed bags. Among the items they've offered over the years: a 40-carat emerald. Now do you know why you shouldn't pack valuables?

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.