Tips for getting your lost luggage back

Carol Grilli’s checked luggage went missing on a recent flight from Rome to Dublin. It took her five weeks to locate her bag, and Aer Lingus only offered her $259 for the trouble – about a third of the cost of replacing the bag and its contents.

“I was so, so frustrated,” says Grilli, a retired government employee from Smithfield, RI. “It was utter madness.”

During the spring and summer, airlines mishandled tens of thousands of bags. (Remember the pictures of the luggage piled up at London’s Heathrow Airport?) Most were found quickly, but some remained missing for weeks or are still missing. And all too often, airlines have been reluctant to reimburse their customers for the items, paying only a fraction of the replacement cost.

“Lost baggage problems are a top priority for many travelers, with many airlines blaming understaffed airports for this increase in missing bags,” said Carol Mueller, vice president at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. “Typically, passengers can get their lost luggage back in time or get a refund from the airline, but these resolutions often take days or weeks to be fulfilled.”

It turns out there are ways to speed up the process of recovering your lost luggage. And you can also make sure you get the maximum compensation from an airline if your luggage is lost. As we head into the holiday travel season, it’s the perfect time for a refresher. More lost luggage is probably inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be your own.

Grilli’s lost luggage meant that she and her husband only had one change of clothes during their Italian holiday, so they had to go shopping. Taking into account the cost of new clothes and international phone calls, the bill for her lost bags came to about $800. Aer Lingus found the couple’s luggage a month later but never fully compensated them for the loss. (Maximum baggage liability for most international flights is approximately $1,780 under the Montreal Convention.)

I asked Aer Lingus twice about Grilli’s luggage. It didn’t respond the first time. The second time, it sent her another check to cover the rest of her losses.

How much does an airline owe you? It depends. Department of Transportation regulations state that your airline can compensate you up to $3,800 for a domestic flight. However, you will need to show receipts for the lost items, which is not always possible. And spending must be reasonable and verifiable, allowing airlines to refuse reimbursements for expensive toiletries and designer clothes. Basically, the airline decides how much you pay for your loss and there is no easy way to appeal that decision.

When checking a bag, make sure you don’t pack certain items. “Keep all valuables, electronics, and prescription medication in your carry-on,” advises Christina Tunnah, general manager for the Americas at travel insurance company World Nomads. The reason: airlines exclude these items from liability in the event of a damage report.

The best way to eliminate lost luggage is obvious: avoid checking a bag. If you can downsize your luggage to a carry-on bag, you will never have this problem.

Will an AirTag save my lost luggage?

But if you need to check in your luggage, the quickest way to get it back is to track it yourself. This is how Sumeet Sinha recently found his luggage that had disappeared in Switzerland. “I’m a classic over-planner,” says Sinha, who publishes FinPins, an investment blog. “I also love gadgets.” He had bought an AirTag and put it in his checked bag. When the bag disappeared, he tracked her to a location in the airport where she was waiting for him.

“He had fallen behind a gap at the back of the baggage carousel,” he says. “When I got my bag, I kissed my AirTag.”

Luggage manufacturers openly encourage their customers to track their bags. For example, Samsara Luggage offers a small pocket for an AirTag in some of their bags.

“Previously, tracking technology was solely in the hands of airlines,” said Atara Dzikowski, CEO of Samsara. “But now everyone is discovering the technology to avoid baggage loss debacle.”

There are other ways to expedite the return of your luggage which I recently discovered on a flight from London to Kirkenes, Norway. I only checked one bag that contained liquids that wouldn’t go through security and took everything else with me on the plane. SAS lost my luggage. It asked me to fill out an online form – and that’s when I realized I’d made some rookie mistakes.

First SAS wanted a picture of the barcode label they had given me in London. I checked my boarding pass and there was none. Then it asked for a picture of the duffel bag. In my haste to leave London I forgot to take a picture of the bag and its contents.

The system also asked for a temporary address in Norway. But I didn’t have any. I was a passenger on the MS Polarlys, a Hurtigruten coastal supply ship. There were so many items missing that I had to email the claim instead of using the web form.

My last rookie mistake, of course, was not putting an AirTag in my bag. Why didn’t I? No apology. I of all people should have known better.

It wasn’t long before SAS found out that a travel columnist’s bag had been lost. A crew member on the Polarlys told me that a few minutes before we left, a breathless baggage handler pulled up to the dock with screeching tires and threw my found duffel bag across the water at a sailor. Well, maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but my bag was gone in less than 24 hours and I’m both grateful and embarrassed. (AirTags were sold out everywhere I went. That’s my apology.)

But my pain is your gain. Track your luggage, take photos of it and make sure you have proof that you checked your luggage. The more information you can give your airline, the faster they can locate your missing luggage.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning a trip. For travel health advice information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interactive map of travel advice by destination and the CDC’s travel health advice website.

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