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What happens if an airline loses your luggage?

So the airline lost your luggage. Unfortunately, you're not alone. Much to the chagrin of travelers everywhere, images have recently circulated of mountains of suitcases stacked up at European airports as reports of lost or delayed baggage continue to trend in the wrong direction.

While your odds of having a piece of checked baggage lost or delayed remain slim, it is more likely now than in previous years. Luckily for you, there are several steps you can take before and after luggage is lost to alleviate the pain. We've broken it all down for you below in this handy guide on what to do when an airline loses your luggage.

Before Your Bag is Lost or Delayed


Anytime you check a bag, the airline attaches a tag to it with a barcode that dictates where the bag is going. That code gets scanned into the automated system, and sensors follow the bag's progress from the beginning to the end of the journey. So if the bag goes off track, the sensors should know.

Sometimes this doesn't always pan out, and things go haywire. However, when you checked your bag, the airline should have also given you a ticket for that bag (they often attach this to your boarding pass). Make sure that you hold on to this. If your bag ends up lost or delayed, you can share it with the lost baggage counter, and it will be easier for the airline to track your luggage on the backend and figure out where it is.

Identifiable Bags

You’ll have to file a report when a bag is lost, delayed, or misplaced. In that report, you'll need to describe the bag as best as possible, along with any unique identifiable factors. Then the airlines will use this report to locate your bag and hopefully return it to you before long.

Now there are thousands of different bags, yet they all sort of look the same—make sure yours isn't one of those. If you add a unique identifying marker to your bag, it will often be easier for the airport to locate. Even something as simple as a colorful tag could do the trick. Make sure you have a picture of your bag with that unique marker so you can share it with the lost luggage counter when you file a report.

The Apple Air Tag

We’re big fans of anything that adds to our peace of mind when traveling, so when we found out that we could get real-time updates of our checked bag’s location in the palm of our hand, we jumped at the opportunity.

Apple’s new Air Tags are a relatively cheap and surprisingly reliable little piece of technology. Roughly the size of a quarter, these tracking devices can be attached to a keyring or placed in a checked bag’s pocket. Used with Apple’s proprietary Find My app and Bluetooth signals from anonymous Apple products (of which there are reportedly over a billion), the device’s location is constantly updating.

The tags work best if there are more Apple devices around to ping off. Nevertheless, for only $29, we think it’s a great buy.

Credit Cards with Lost Luggage or Baggage Delay Protection

Losing a bag or having one delayed creates a whole host of headaches. Right off the bat, you're likely without most if not all of your clothes and toiletries. You've got to buy more, and that, of course, is a royal (and pricey) pain.

However, many credit card companies aim to ease this pain point by providing lost or delayed baggage protection. These compensation amounts are almost always secondary coverage, meaning they kick in after the airline's compensation programs do. Some of these aren't widely publicized; others are heavily promoted. The main caveat for both kinds of cards is that you MUST purchase your flights with the credit card that provides the insurance.

In terms of baggage delay protection, the most common benefit is $100 per day for three to five days, and this usually kicks in if the bag has been delayed six hours or more. You can find a list of these cards and their specific benefits here.*

For credit cards with lost luggage insurance, the reimbursement can run anywhere from $1,000 to well over $3,000, depending on the card and the contents of your bag. You can find a list of these cards and their specific benefits here.*

*You should always do your own independent research as these can and do change often.

Travel Insurance

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: get travel insurance.

We know it sucks. You're heading off to slug down rum drinks on an island in Belize or soar in a hot air balloon over Cappadocia, and you don't want to think about insurance. However, it really is a necessary evil, and it really will help you if your bags get lost or delayed (among many other unplanned scenarios).

Before you fly anywhere, purchase a travel insurance plan that covers lost and delayed baggage. Double-check the fine print. This is insurance we're talking about, and not so shockingly, some of these companies tend to be apprehensive about paying out when the time comes. So do your research.

Generally, lost baggage coverage will pay out supplementary to what the airline does (more on that later). Usually, delayed baggage coverage will help you purchase necessary items once your bag is delayed 12 or 24 hours. This is also supplementary to any coverage you receive from the airline.

Here's a list of travel insurers and their specific benefits. Again, we implore you to do more research on your own as these can and do change.

The Carry-On Option

Pack light and carry on. This is something we recommend to all travelers as it provides optimal peace of mind and minimizes the odds of delayed or lost luggage.

Sure, you may not be able to bring all your cute shoes or as many outfits as you hoped, but you won't have to worry about anything being lost or delayed. We can't recommend this option enough, particularly right now with the ongoing delays and airline strikes caused by Covid and the subsequent reboot of travel.

Think about what you can buy at your destination to limit overpacking and discover how you can maximize space by rolling clothes.

Of course, sometimes it's just not possible to pack all your things in a carry-on. We get it; we've been there too. However, if that's the case, it's important to make sure you've packed all your necessities (medications, etc.) and at least one extra outfit into your carry-on. That way, all your bases are covered should anything happen to your checked bag.

After Your Bag is Lost or Delayed

We've all had the feeling. The steady clunk, clunk, clunk of bags sliding on the carousel begins to slow to a crawl. Everyone else has rolled off, presumably already sipping their first vacation cocktail at a rooftop bar, and the panic begins to set in. Deep breaths.

Check nearby carousels

It's not entirely uncommon for bags to take up to an hour to appear on a carousel, so be patient. Unfortunately, sometimes that patience doesn't pay, and it's time to start looking elsewhere.

If your bag doesn't show up on your carousel after 45 minutes or an hour, start looking at those nearby. It's unlikely but not unheard of for bags to show up on different carousels, so take a look.

Report Your Bag as Missing

So, it's official. The bag didn't show up, and now your panic has turned to rage. It's time to start smashing things.

Just kidding. As much as we wish smashing things was an option, it never seems to pan out. Instead, watch this video and try to laugh a bit.

Then, find an airport employee and ask for directions to the lost baggage counters. They usually aren't far from the carousels; just remember that you need to find the counter for the airline of your LAST flight.

When you get to that lost baggage counter, you can report your bag missing. You'll provide your personal and flight details, and the employee behind the counter will get to work trying to locate your bag. You should have held on to your bag ticket, and you can provide this and expedite the process.

The person you're speaking to is most likely yelled at each and every day, so it's not a horrible idea to put on your happiest face to try to make things run more smoothly. They'll either let you know that they've located your bag or that something's gone wrong and that you need to file a report.

The Missing Bag Report

The team at the airline counter will have you file paperwork with them. Try to be as detailed as humanly possible and include reliable contact information, as this can help identify your bag and speed up the process. Those unique, identifiable markers you attached to your bag before you flew can really pay dividends here.

Many of these lost baggage counters have essential kits on hand that they'll give travelers whose bags disappear in space and time; they include things like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and mouthwash.

After you've completed the paperwork (and have a copy of your lost luggage report), it's time to start asking about what the airline will compensate you for. In the short term, most airlines will provide some form of financial compensation per day to help with reasonable expenses. Make sure you understand precisely what's covered by the airline you're flying with, as each one differs.

After you've spoken with the lost baggage counter, you should call your travel insurance and credit card companies so that you know when and exactly how to file with them if you need to.

The Follow Up

After you file your missing baggage report, the ball is in the airline's court. You should have a good understanding of what they will cover and what kind of short and long-term compensation they’ll provide you with.

Keep the receipts for anything you purchased and continuously check the tracking number that the airline provided on your missing bag report. It's also worth continuously checking with the baggage desk you spoke to. Call them periodically to ensure they're working to find your luggage.

If the airline does locate your bag, they need to deliver it to you, as it's now their responsibility.

Filing Lost Baggage Claims

If your bag ends up lost to never again return, the airline must compensate you by law. Most airlines have different definitions of lost; however, it usually refers to a bag still missing after 5 to 15 days.

If your bag is truly lost, the airline will be forced to compensate up to $3,800 within the US or $1,780 for international flights. You'll need to file a new claim with the airline in which you'll have to detail everything in your bag so that a compensation amount can be decided upon.

Filing Credit Card and Trip Insurance Claims

Previously we discussed credit cards with lost or delayed baggage reimbursements and travel insurance policies. Well, unfortunately, the time has come to start filing those reports.

If you've signed up for a credit card with delayed baggage insurance, you should be eligible for compensation if your bag is missing for more than six hours. You can usually file with the credit card company up to 30 days after the incident. Check with your specific credit card for the details; however, you'll most likely need to provide the following:

  1. Proof that the trip was paid for with your credit card.

  2. A copy of your missing baggage report.

  3. Documentation from the airline on what they are doing as well as what they have agreed to compensate you.

  4. All the receipts for anything you've purchased that you hope to have reimbursed.

As mentioned previously, most airlines don't consider a bag officially lost until anywhere from 5 to 15 days after the incident. After that occurs, you can file a report with your credit card for lost luggage reimbursement if it's covered. Call your provider to check on specifics; however, you'll most likely need to provide the following:

  1. Proof that the trip was paid for with your credit card.

  2. A copy of the lost baggage claim with the airline.

  3. The settlement documentation from the airline.

  4. A list of all items that were lost along with their estimated value.

After the airlines and credit card companies have provided you with compensation, you can move on to your trip insurance. Usually, their compensation is tertiary to the airline and credit card provider; however, if you don't have a card with delayed or lost coverage, this would obviously be your second option. Check with your provider regarding specifics of their lost or delayed luggage policies. Usually, when filing a claim, you will need the following:

  1. The delayed bag or lost bag report from the airline.

  2. Documentation from the airport regarding any compensation for the delayed or lost bag.

  3. A list of receipts for all items purchased if the bag is delayed or a list of all items in the bag if it's lost.


Your chances of losing a bag or even having it delayed are truly minuscule, and we in no way intend to make it seem like it happens often. However, it's always good to know what you can do to protect yourself both before and after you fly. So, to put yourself at ease make sure you understand what to do in the worst case scenario.


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