Travel expert, Frommer's columnist and ombudsman Chris Elliott tells you that you should never, ever check your bags. He's fed up with baggage charges, baggage limits and lost luggage.
But sometimes you have to check your bags, and sometimes your luggage gets lost. According to the government, in 2009 about 1 in every 250 bags went missing -- a better record than 2008, when it was more like 1 in every 200.
Sometimes a short baggage delay isn't bad. I had a heavy bag misplaced on a trip to San Diego last year. It arrived two hours later, couriered direct to my hotel at no charge. (My sin was to take a flight with a short connection between Delta and American Eagle, which is basically daring the airport to lose your luggage.)
But for every story like mine, there's a story like one from a 2009 report by the British Air Transport Users' Council, of a traveler to Turkey who was charged an amazing $143 to get his late bags delivered to his hotel.
And some bags genuinely get lost, and then you're in a hell of paperwork. Short of sticking to a carry-on, here's what you can do to keep your bags with you.
Tips For Avoiding Losing Your Luggage
Consider insurance. You might have baggage coverage as part of your homeowner's insurance policy, or it may have come with a credit card. The American Express Platinum Card, for instance, comes with baggage insurance. Otherwise, you may want to consider getting baggage insurance from a major insurer. (For more on travel insurance, check out our guide .)
Keep a baggage inventory. This suggestion is impractical for most people, but if you can do it, more power to you. If you lose your bag, your airline will go through an absurd process of asking you about everything in it, in many cases even demanding receipts. Now, you'll be able to get some money back without an itinerary and receipts. But it's always best to work from a position of strength.
Tag your bag properly. Start by putting a luggage tag with your name and cell-phone number on the outside. (You don't need your mailing address.) When you check your bag, make sure that the sticker the agent prints out has the appropriate flight number and destination on it. If you're going to Sydney, Australia, you don't want your bag going to Sydney, Nova Scotia.
Split your necessities. Don't keep all your underwear in one bag. Try to carry on one change of clothes. If you're checking multiple bags, split necessities between them. That way if one gets lost, you won't be entirely out of a category of items.
Keep your bag check. That little sticker you get when you check your bag is absolutely critical. Treat it like gold. If your bag gets lost and you don't have the claim check, the airline may try to pretend you didn't have a bag at all.
Try to fly nonstop. The number-one way luggage gets lost is when transferring between planes. So if you possibly can avoid changing planes, don't. And definitely try to avoid connections that require switching terminals or even airports.
Avoid regional airlines and "code shares." The five worst baggage offenders in 2009 were all little airlines who fly under the name of larger carriers. American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast, Comair, Skywest, and Pinnacle pop up on your tickets as "United Express," "Delta Connection" or even just "Operated by so-and-so." Part of their problem is that their flights are almost all connections between different airlines, which adds complexity to the baggage handling process.
Avoid Spirit Airlines. The Department of Transportation singled out Spirit last year for not resolving baggage claims on time. Spirit argued that they have fixed the problems raised by the DOT, but still, better safe than sorry.
Just ship it. If you're traveling with something really critical and you can't carry it on, just ship it to your destination using UPS or a similar service. Remember that airlines refuse to pay for all sorts of useful things in your bag (see "Stuff Airlines Exclude," below.)
What to Do If Your Bag Is Lost or Damaged
Oh no! I hate that sinking feeling when you're standing by the baggage carousel, and your bag never shows up. In that case, there is one central, cardinal rule.
Never, ever leave the airport without getting a claim number from an airline representative.
Most airlines require that you file a claim within four hours of your bag not appearing. By far the best way to do this is to file the claim at the airport. This may take some sleuthing - you may have to find a representative of a third-party baggage handling service, for instance. But don't leave the baggage area until you have that claim number.
Once you have the claim number, you can check on your airline's website to find the status of your bag, or call their central baggage service number (listed below.) If you need to buy necessities -- toothpaste, underwear -- keep the receipts. You may be able to get $50 for items purchased your first day, and $25 for each of the next four days -- at the airline's discretion, of course.
When your airline does find your bag, you can file a claim for the necessities you bought. You might get money back, and you might not, but it's worth trying. You can usually find the form on your airline's website, or an airport agent or someone at the central baggage hotline number will fax one to you.
If the airline doesn't find your bag in two weeks, file a claim in writing. If you don't file the claim within 21-45 days of losing your bag (depending on the airline), you'll be totally out of luck, so do it on day 14. There's a form on your airline's website -- search the site for "lost baggage" and you'll find it. You'll need to describe everything in the bag, and the airline will ask for receipts. Of course, you will not have receipts for everything in your bag. Try providing printouts of pages from Amazon or online shopping sites showing the value of your items.
Even then, you may not get your money back. According to a 2009 report from the AUC, "too many settlements from airlines continue to not meet the claim made by the passenger." The AUC report recounts one story where a passenger said her bag had items in it worth $1695, but she only got $120 back. In the U.S., the government is trying to stand up for travelers. The Department of Transportation warned airlines in August 2009 to stop stonewalling travelers on reimbursements for lost bags or for items purchased while you're waiting for your bag.
If your airline does stonewall you, try contacting the DOT at www.airconsumer.dot.gov or tel. 202/366-2220 and sending an email to an airline executive. Chris Elliott has a great list of e-mail contacts on his website.
Your Legal Rights
Believe it or not, you have legal rights regarding lost luggage. The delightful "14 CFR Part 254" says that if you've flown on an domestic flight with more than 60 seats, the airline is responsible for paying you up to $3,300 for your lost bags.
International flights are covered by two treaties, the Montreal Convention and the Warsaw Convention. The countries on this list use the Montreal rules -- everyone else is Warsaw. If Montreal applies, the airline is liable up to about $1,734.87 per passenger. If Warsaw, you get $9.07 per pound of your luggage, up to $634.90 per bag.
But there's a big difference hidden in the fine print. On domestic flights, airlines can exclude all sorts of stuff from liability. (You'll find a list below.) But Montreal and Warsaw cover whatever was in your checked bag. The U.S. government sent a note to the airlines in 2009 to stop trying to exclude items from liability on international flights, because that violates the treaty.
And the central problem is that if the bag is lost, it's hard to prove what was in it, or how much it was worth.
Stuff Airlines Excludes
The completely ridiculous list of stuff that airlines try to exclude from liability is one reason that travel experts hate to check bags. Here is a typical, insane list from Frontier Airlines. Basically, if you throw almost anything your bag but clothes and books, they'll throw a fit:
Optics, keys, jewelry, money, silverware, negotiable papers, securities, business documents, files, books, manuscripts, publications, blueprints, precious metals, antiques, heirlooms, irreplaceable items, collectibles, artifacts, paintings/works of art, art supplies, medication, orthotics, surgical supports, samples, natural fur products, [you still paying attention?] photographic/video/electronic equipment and accessories, sound reproduction equipment, CDs, DVDs, musical instruments, computer equipment (including hardware, software and all accessories), hand and power tools, machinery and/or their parts, unsuitably-protected recreational and sporting equipment, bags made from lightweight material not designed for shipping, toys, fragile articles or other similar valuable items and commercial effects.
Remember, that list of exclusions only applies to domestic flights. But it really makes you want to ship your bags, huh?
Baggage Office Phone Numbers
You'll probably have this number anyway, because they'll give it to you at the airport when your luggage gets lost. But just in case, here are the central baggage office phone numbers for the major US airlines. Most of these numbers only work during business hours Monday-Friday, and most airlines exhort you to only call them if your luggage has been missing five days.
- Airtran: 866/247-2428, chose option 1
- Alaska: Call local baggage offices at http://bit.ly/3gkaLj
- Allegiant Air: 866/719-3910
- American: 800/535-5225
- Continental: 800/335-2247
- Delta: 800/325-8224
- Frontier: 800/265-5505, choose option 2
- Hawaiian: 866/389-6654
- JetBlue: 866/538-5438
- Southwest: Check phone numbers for individual airports on Southwest's website
- Spirit: 877/888-5926
- United: 800/221-6903
- US Airways: 866/874-3931
- Virgin America: Find all the phone numbers at www.bit.ly/bkE9a3
Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his Frommers.com columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and daughter, who frequently accompany him on his trips.
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