Avoid Lost Airline Luggage: Why You Shouldn't Check in Your Bag

To avoid mishandled luggage, travelers should opt for carry-on bags.

Aug. 19, 2009 — -- I just got back from two fantastico weeks in Italy -- and not one of the airlines I flew lost a single piece of my luggage.

Of course, I didn't give them the chance.

I put everything I needed in a roller-board and a small "personal item" sized carryon -- and so did my wife and daughter. It can be done, if you pack lightly. And if your spouse is still skeptical, you might suggest that the huge bags she wants to bring will probably cause those Venetian water taxis to tip over.

If this sounds nutty to you, well -- I've just seen too many of my friends who've had vacations ruined due to lost luggage. It's still a problem, even though the airlines seem to be getting better at it. Note I said "seem." That's because the Department of Transportation statistics only tell you how many bags are "mishandled" per 1,000 passengers. They don't say how many of those thousand passengers actually checked a bag.

We do know the number of checked bags is declining, thanks to luggage fees and, the visual evidence. I mean, face it, placing a bag in an overhead bin these days is like shoving a 28-pound turkey into a toaster oven -- maybe it can be done, but it sure won't be pretty.

And don't forget all those flights the airlines have dropped in recent years. Frankly, the loss of those millions of seats means we're not stressing the baggage system like we use to and fewer passengers equals fewer bags which equals fewer angry e-mails to airlines.

Andrew Price knows all about angry e-mails. He is currently head of the International Air Transport Association's Baggage Improvement Program and according to the Wall Street Journal, he's personally experienced lost bags during his first year on the job. Would you believe seven times?

But he doesn't mind. He's got a secret.

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Price's secret is a "generous" travel insurance policy. Now there are many travel policies out there, covering a wide array of trip disasters including medical problems, canceled flights and yes, lost bags. But, these policies can be a little pricey (depending on your coverage, the price of your trip, your age and other factors) and reimbursement for a lost bag could be as little as $500 a bag -- or much more. You will have to determine how quickly your policy will get you what you need, and how much (or how little) a hassle it will be. In other words, read the fine print.

Lost Airline Luggage

But wait a minute -- don't the airlines give you as much as $3,000 a bag?

Some do. But read your carrier's fine print as well.

United's "Missing Property Questionnaire," for example, states that the airline will not be held responsible "for loss of money, jewelry, cameras, electronic/video/photographic equipment, heirlooms" and on and on. Sounds like your old Lands' End polo shirts will pass muster, but I'm not sure what else will.

One other thing: what happens if you think you have a legit claim against an airline, and you get zip?

Ask the musicians who were looking out the window of their United plane only to see baggage handlers tossing their guitars in the air. Dave Carroll said he spent months going through proper channels to get reimbursed -- filling out forms, sending e-mails and making calls -- and got nowhere. Then he decided to shame United into action -- and produced a witty music video trashing the airline. Only after it became an Internet sensation did United suddenly reach out to him. But what about those of us who are tone deaf? What recourse do we have?

And why should we have to resort to YouTube or insurance when we're already paying the airlines to take care of our luggage? Most airlines charge a rather hefty $15 a bag online (make that $20 at the airport) -- shouldn't we expect better?

Well, sure -- and I also expect to win the lottery next week.

But, at least we've learned a few things. Keep reading for my tips.

Lost Luggage Tips

Forget checked-bags -- use a carryon whenever possible.

Do not pack valuables in checked-baggage -- leave the good stuff at home.

If you can afford it, you might give travel insurance (with a bag loss payout) a try -- but read the fine print.

Hang onto your paperwork (tickets, baggage receipts) -- if you file a claim, you'll need it all.

A final thought: one of my employees recently checked a bag, and was startled when the US Airways agent at the counter asked her if she'd packed any medication or anything else she couldn't do without for 24 hours. The agent said the airline had no plans to lose the bag, but smiled ruefully and noted that -- stuff happens.

My employee's first reaction was to grab her bag and never let go -- but after she thought about it, she appreciated the candor -- as well as the heads-up to take any "must-haves" with her.

I appreciate candor, too -- it can go a long way toward avoiding misunderstandings. And it might even cut down on angry e-mails in the inbox -- or keep angry music videos from going viral.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

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