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The Bottom Line: What Do the Airlines Owe You When They've Lost Your Luggage?

It's every traveler's nightmare; the mystery of the disappearing luggage. Here's what you should do when faced with lost or damage bags when flying.

While still lamentable, the lost-luggage situation has improved from the awful years of 1999 and 2000. In 2000, major airlines lost or damaged one bag for every 189 passengers; by 2001, the rate had improved to 219 passengers per mishandled bag.

That's still too many bags going astray. Fortunately, if your luggage is lost, the airline is required to pay you for your missing property. But you'll rarely get the full value of your baggage back.

For most airlines, you must report delayed, damaged, or lost baggage to an airline representative at the airport within 4 hours of arrival; US Airways, United, and American give you 24 hours. If you can't find an airline representative, all the major airlines except Alaska and Southwest have "baggage hot lines" you can call to get help.

Airline Baggage Hotlines

  • America West tel. 800/235-9292
  • American tel. 800/535-5225
  • Continental tel. 800/335-BAGS
  • Delta tel. 800/325-8224
  • Northwest tel. 800/648-4897
  • United tel. 800/221-6903
  • US Airways tel. 800/371-4771

Lost & Misrouted Luggage

On flights within the U.S., airlines are responsible for lost-luggage reimbursement up to $2,500 per person; on international flights, airlines owe you a mere $9.07 per pound, with a ceiling of $640. (That rate was set by an international treaty in 1929.)

Beyond that, airlines owe you nothing for your most valuable items. Most contracts of carriage specifically exempt from compensation things like antiques, art, books, documents, money, cameras, collectibles, electronics, or "fragile or perishable items." If you're traveling with anything you really care about, bring it in a carry-on or purchase additional luggage insurance.

If your luggage is delayed, airlines' customer service commitments require them to call you daily for at least 5 days while they search for the bags; they'll also deliver them to your house or destination free of charge (although this takes some arm-twisting sometimes--if they want you to come to the airport to pick the bag up, politely decline and remind them that they were in the wrong). Alaska and Continental will give you free toiletry kits if your bags are delayed. Alaska, Northwest, United, and US Airways will also reimburse some small clothing and toiletry expenses, usually $50 plus $25 per day for each day after the first, up to a total of $150. (US Airways throws in an extra $25 travel voucher; United only promises it will reimburse 50% of the price of "reasonable purchases.") Ask the airline representative at the airport for specific information.

After 5 days, responsibility for lost bags passes from the individual airports to the airlines' central baggage services. Request the new phone number from the baggage hot line; you may also have to file a request in writing within 21, 30, or 45 days to get your money. Don't wait; file it as soon as you can. If you don't have receipts to prove the value of the items you lost, airlines request that you provide a list of all items in the lost bag, when and where they were purchased, and how much they coast at the time of purchases. You'll also need to send copies of your ticket and baggage claim check.

Airlines' new customer service policies also require that they respond to your lost-baggage claim within 30 days. If they haven't cut a check within a month of your claim, get on the phone with the airline's customer relations department. (See chapter 10 for tips on how to complain effectively.)

If you are flying in segments on two different airlines, the final carrier is responsible for lost or damaged luggage--even when they can prove the first airline is to blame. If your luggage is lost or damaged on international flights with a domestic segment, however, you will receive only the lower international reimbursement. When you're booking a segmented flight, allow yourself at least an hour between connections. Your bags, like you, will be more likely to reach their destination at the scheduled time.

The airlines are not responsible for the theft of individual items from checked luggage, though you can try filing a damaged-bag claim. Baggage handlers will hopefully receive additional scrutiny under the new security laws, but in the past there have been several incidents of airport employees helping themselves to travelers' goods. Lock your bag--and if you can, shrink-wrap it or enclose it in metal mesh. Magellans Travel Supplies (tel. 800/962-4943; sells an exceptionally strong and reliable combination lock by Prestolock, for $9.85.

Damaged Luggage

Airlines aren't responsible for "normal wear and tear" to luggage, and may try to interpret "normal wear and tear" as "Bruno the Baggage Handler tap-dancing on your suitcase." No offense to Bruno, but your best bet is to buy sturdy, dull luggage. (Flashy, expensive bags tend to be less durable and also make you a target for thieves.) If your bags are damaged in transit, alert the airline's staff to the problem before leaving the airport, They may require that their own staff inspect the damage within 24 hours o the bag's arrival for your claim

Last Recourses

If all of this has made you determined to never put a bag on an airport conveyor belt again, you can do one other thing to reassure yourself: buy additional insurance.

If you've purchased homeowner's or renter's insurance, you're probably already covered for the cost of goods lost or stolen during travel. Check your policy carefully before you make your next trip and purchase a rider for your existing policy if you travel a lot and aren't covered for lost or stolen bags. Most insurance providers require you to file a claim with the airline in order to be reimbursed. They will then cover anything in their policy that the airline did not reimburse you for.

Don't, however, buy insurance at the airport check-in counter; typically, it's overpriced, according to Ed Perkins, consumer advocate for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Newsletter. Instead, buy it independently before your trip or from your travel agent. Coverage for lost bags is usually part of a comprehensive travel insurance package. But if you don't need a multifaceted policy, check to see if the company offers separate "baggage insurance." According to the American Society of Travel Agents, the following insurance companies are the largest providers, all of them reputable: CSA (tel. 800/873-9855;; Travel Guard (tel. 800/826-1300;; and Access America (tel. 800/284-8300; and's online partner, HTH Worldwide (tel. 888/243-2358, Travel Guard is the only one of these that offers separate baggage insurance, with a policy called "BagTrak".

In all cases, you'll need to file a police report describing your damaged or lost items as soon as you know about the problem, to get the money back from your insurer.

Buy Back Your Baggage

After 3 months, airlines give up trying to match mystery bags with their owners. They ship unclaimed luggage to a warehouse in Scottsboro, Alabama, where bargain hunters from around the country poke around and get deals on discounted cameras, tennis rackets, business suits, jewelry, skis--if you can pack it, they've got some for sale. You can shop for unclaimed baggage and sign up for e-mail notifications for item-specific sales online at; or call tel. 256/259-1525 for directions to the warehouse.