You arrive at your destination, ready to finally unwind on your long-awaited vacation, only to find that your suitcase hasn’t made the trip with you. While it’s not the end of the world, it’s not a fun circumstance to find yourself in. Before you panic, keep in mind that you have rights as a flyer, backed by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)—one of which is compensation for delayed, damaged, or lost luggage.
What to do when your luggage is lost
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The DOT says that most airlines don’t consider a bag lost anywhere from five and 14 days after the flight, although this can vary from one airline to another. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything until then. During this state of limbo, your bag is considered “delayed”—which means you are liable for compensation.
The first step after realizing your luggage isn’t at your destination is to take a deep breath. The second is to check with the airline to see if your bag will arrive on its next plane to your current locale. Again, it’s normal to be frustrated, but don’t take it out on the agent helping you—they didn’t lose your bag.
Next, report your luggage missing. You’ll want to do this immediately, and if you had a connecting flight, make sure you report it to the airline you used for the first leg of your trip.
Make sure to provide a detailed description of the size, color and material of the bag, including any identifying tags or features. If you have a picture of your luggage (and you should), provide that as well. You also want to make sure the claim has your address and contact information. Save the lost luggage desk’s phone number, as well as the reference or claim number for your case.
Ask the airline to reimburse you
You’re entitled to compensation for “reasonable, verifiable, and actual incidental expenses that may incur while [your]bags are delayed,” meaning if you had a suit you needed for a wedding or work event, you can buy one, keep the receipt, and get reimbursed for it by the airline up to $3,800 per passenger for U.S. domestic flights. The same limit applies to lost or damaged luggage. Make sure to keep receipts of everything you purchase. If and when the airline considers your luggage lost, they’re responsible for compensating you for whatever you had in your bag as well as refunding you for any baggage fees.
Don’t let the airline bully you. The DOT says airlines are not allowed to set an arbitrary daily amount for the temporary expenses. So if Delta says they will reimburse you up to only $50 for each day that your bag is delayed, then you tell them that they’re breaking DOT rules.
Here are some airline’s reimbursement policies:
- Alaska Airlines: Reimbursement for travel essentials
- American Airlines: Reimbursement for items you need immediately while away from home without your bags
- Delta Air Lines: Reasonable expense reimbursements of generally $50 per day for the first five days
- United Airlines: Reimbursement for expenses based on acceptable proof of claim
- Southwest Airlines: Reimbursement of reasonable expenses you may have incurred
Use credit card insurance
After the initial airline reimbursement, you may also be able to take advantage of your credit card or airline’s travel insurance to buy any other needed clothes and other items.
You should check your card’s benefits guide for complete information. Chase Sapphire Preferred, for example, will cover the cardholder and immediate family members for lost or damaged luggage, even if you weren’t traveling together, up to $3,000. For delays of over six hours, they cover toiletries and clothing by passenger carrier up to $100 a day for five days. Again, be sure to keep your receipts.
According to the latest DOT report, airlines had 219,795 “mishandled bags” (lost, damaged, delayed, or pilfered) in April 2023. American Airlines Network had the most mishandled bags per every 100.