Know Your Lost Luggage Rights
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Know Your Lost Luggage Rights

I recently traveled to Austria for business. True to the season, my flights suffered weather delays that even included an unexpected detour to the lovely city of Green Bay, WI.  Fortunately, I still managed to catch my flight out of Chicago. Unfortunately, my luggage didn’t. I arrived in Munich, tired from the 9-hour flight, and then had to spend another hour and a half waiting in a long line to arrange for my suitcase to follow me should it ever arrive in Europe.

As much as I travel and in spite of having bag delays before, I realized I didn’t actually know what my rights were. With very little digging, here’s what I discovered about delayed luggage, as well as a couple of tips just in case.

Delayed bags: Airlines are required to provide you monetary compensation for even a delayed bag, but the compensation varies from airline to airline. Some pay an amount per day; others will reimburse (with receipts!) based on what was critical in the suitcase. Some will give you cash on the spot. Find out before you leave the airport what you are allowed. They’ll also give you a few essentials: toothbrush, shampoo, deodorant, a one-size fits ALL t-shirt.  You’re on your own for everything else no matter how much you protest. One important note: you MUST submit a written report within four hours of the flight’s arrival, or the airline can deny your claim.

Lost bags: These are the ones that never show up again. For domestic flights, the maximum is $3,300. For international flights, it’s $1,742. And yes, I think those numbers should be reversed, too. Unfortunately, even for modest shoppers, it doesn’t take much to hit $1,700 when you add up a suitcase full of clothes, shoes, toiletries, the suitcase itself, and any valuables that you foolishly packed instead of carried with you. It will not be a moneymaker. Generally, you’ll need to keep receipts for anything you purchase and the airlines will reimburse you. Be aware that they do not volunteer this information! So ask what the amount is and what the process is for reimbursement. Trust me, this will require enormous persistence on your part to collect. In fact, some travelers find that taking the airlines to small claims court is the best recourse.

Bag fees: It’s sort of an unwritten understanding that if you have to pay to check your bag, it will arrive when and where it’s supposed to. If your bag doesn’t, you get the fees refunded—but only if it’s lost. If it’s delayed, they’re not obligated to reimburse you.

How to be prepared if the worst happens:
Take a photo of your bag: I have photos on my phone, so I don’t have to remember size, style, color, or brand. As intimate as I am with my suitcase, I’m not good with detail.

Tag it: Those little paper luggage slips at the ticket counter? They’re truly valuable. I always fill one out for my destination the first night, and I have my home address on a second one, just in case the bag keeps missing me.

Don’t check valuables: Never, ever, ever. Even if you never suffer from lost luggage, stuff gets stolen out of checked bags. Frankly, I’m always amazed that suitcases don’t disappear in baggage claim given that most airports never ask to see your baggage claim stub when you leave the baggage area. They’d get dirty laundry in mine, plus my favorite pink jacket.

Emergency essentials: I now always have an extra pair of clean underwear and a shirt to wear in my carryon bag. After my last lost bag fiasco, I’m also carrying my swimsuit and goggles since I truly missed my morning swim more than my makeup.

Be patient and be nice: I know this seems impossible when you’re exhausted and it feels like your vacation is now ruined. Just remember that the airline didn’t want to lose your bag anymore than you wanted them to. Every delayed bag costs the airline hundreds of dollars to track, ship, and deliver it to you again, and that’s without the monetary compensation.  Besides, the person helping you isn’t the one who lost the bag. And that person has some discretion on what to give you. Being human, they’re more likely to give the patient person the upper limits and the ranting person the lower limits.

Carry on your bag: I used to never check my bag because it slowed me down. The quantity of what I need for a business trip–and a bit of laziness–has changed that. If you have a choice, though, it’s still the safest way to travel. Just don’t forget your bag on the plane.

Good luck!