How to prevent lost luggage and get compensation if you don’t

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Carol Grilli’s checked luggage went missing on a recent flight from Rome to Dublin. It took five weeks to find her bag and Aer Lingus only offered her $259 for the trouble, about a third of the cost of replacing the bag and its contents.

“I was so, so frustrated,” says Grilli, a retired state employee from Smithfield, RI “It was total madness.”

Over the spring and summer, airlines mishandled tens of thousands of bags. (Remember those images of luggage piled up at London’s Heathrow Airport?) Most were located quickly, but some remained missing for weeks or are still gone. And, too often, airlines were reluctant to compensate their customers for items, paying only a fraction of replacement costs.

“Lost baggage issues are a major concern for many travelers, with many airlines blaming understaffed airports for this increase in missing baggage,” says Carol Mueller, vice president of Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. “Usually passengers can retrieve their lost baggage in time or be reimbursed by the airline, but these resolutions often take days or weeks to complete.”

Turns out there are ways to speed up the process of retrieving your lost luggage. And you can also make sure you get the maximum compensation from an airline if your luggage is lost. As we head into the holiday travel season, now is the perfect time for an encore. More lost luggage is probably inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be yours.

Grilli’s lost luggage meant she and her husband only had one change of clothes while on vacation in Italy, so they had to go shopping. Factoring in the cost of new clothes and international phone calls, the tab for their lost bags came to around $800. Aer Lingus found the couple’s luggage a month later, but never fully compensated them for the loss. (The maximum baggage liability for most international flights is approximately $1,780 under the Montreal Convention.)

I asked Aer Lingus twice about Grilli’s luggage. The first time, he didn’t answer. The second time, he sent her another check to cover the rest of her losses.

How much does an airline owe you? It depends. Department of Transportation regulations state that your airline can compensate you for up to $3,800 for a domestic flight. But you must show receipts for lost items, which is not always possible. And expenses must be reasonable and verifiable, allowing airlines to refuse reimbursement for expensive toiletries and designer clothes. Basically, the airline decides how much to pay for your loss, and there is no easy way to appeal their decision.

If you are checking a bag, be sure to avoid packing certain items. “Keep all valuables, electronics and prescription medications with you in your carry-on,” advises Christina Tunnah, Americas general manager for travel insurance company World Nomads. The reason: Airlines exclude these items from their liability when you file a claim.

The best way to eliminate lost luggage is obvious: avoid checking a bag. If you can reduce the size of your luggage to a hand luggage, you will never have this problem.

Will an AirTag save my lost luggage?

But if you need to check in your bag, the quickest way to get it back is to track it yourself. This is how Sumeet Sinha found his luggage when they disappeared in Switzerland recently. “I’m a classic over-planner,” says Sinha, who publishes FinPins, an investment blog. “I also like gadgets.” He had purchased an AirTag and slipped it into his checked bag. When the bag disappeared, he followed it to a place in the airport, where he was waiting for it.

“He had fallen behind a crevice at the back of the baggage carousel,” he said. “When I got my bag, I kissed my AirTag.”

Luggage manufacturers openly encourage their customers to track their luggage. Samsara Baggage, for example, offers a small pocket for an AirTag in some of its bags.

“Previously, tracking technology was exclusively in the hands of airlines,” says Atara Dzikowski, CEO of Samsara. “But everyone is now discovering the technology to avoid lost luggage debacles.”

There are other ways to speed up the return of your luggage, which I discovered on a recent flight from London to Kirkenes, Norway. I checked in only one bag, containing liquids that would not pass the security screening process, and carried everything else on the plane. SAS lost my luggage. He asked me to fill out an online form – and that’s when I realized I had made some rookie mistakes.

First, SAS wanted a picture of the barcode label they gave me in London. I checked my boarding pass and there was none. Then he asked for a picture of the gym bag. In my haste to leave London, I had forgotten to take a picture of the bag and its contents.

The system also requested a temporary address in Norway. But I had none. I was a passenger on the MS Polarlys, an inshore supply vessel operated by Hurtigruten. There were so many missing items that I had to file the claim via email instead of using the web form.

My last rookie mistake, of course, was not putting an AirTag in my bag. Why didn’t I? No excuses. Of all the people, I should have known better.

It didn’t take long for SAS to realize he had lost a travel columnist’s bag. A member of the Polarlys crew told me that a few minutes before we left, a breathless baggage handler stopped screaming on the dock and threw my found duffel bag through the water at a deckhand. Well, maybe it wasn’t so dramatic, but my bag has been missing for less than 24 hours, and I’m both grateful and embarrassed. (Everywhere I went AirTags were sold out. That’s my excuse.)

But my pain is your gain. Track your bags, take photos of them and make sure you have proof that you checked your bags. The more information you provide to your airline, the faster they can find your missing baggage.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

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