Know your rights as well as the airlines' responsibilities well before takeoff.

businessman rolling luggage
Credit: JGI / Tom Grill / Getty Images

It's the scenario we all dread at the airport: checking in luggage at the beginning of your flight, only to be told once you reach your final destination that your luggage didn't make it. With the sheer volume of baggage being transferred daily by airlines, it's probable to assume that, at some point, you could experience having your luggage damaged, delayed, or lost altogether. However, some of the stress and aggravation that comes with any of these unwelcome scenarios can be minimized should you be prepared. Before you board, consider insurance. "In the event a traveler finds themselves with delayed or lost luggage, it is important to save all applicable documentation, such as receipts for their purchased replacement items," says Cory Sobczyk, vice president of business development for travel insurance brand Arch RoamRight. "If a traveler is concerned about baggage related mishaps, there are two types of coverages they should look for when shopping for a travel insurance plan: baggage delay and baggage, and personal effects coverage—often referred to as lost, damaged, or stolen baggage coverage." Sobczyk also points out that nearly three million bags were mishandled last year alone.

Although airlines are held responsible for any luggage that they allow passengers to check, the reality is that their liability for your load is limited. Knowing what your options are should you discover that your luggage has failed to reach its intended destination in a timely matter, has incurred damage en route, or has gone missing entirely is key information. Follow these guidelines in accordance with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

For Delayed Luggage

It's always a good idea to check the website or app for your airline before you fly, familiarizing yourself with their particular policies with respect to passenger luggage mishaps. Should you happen to check baggage that does not arrive at your destination when you do, it is advised that you first locate and make contact with the baggage claim desk located within the airport. You should file a delayed baggage claim immediately, once it is determined that all of the luggage associated with your flight has been unloaded with the exception of yours. You will need to complete a PIR, or property irregularity report, which will require that you provide the following information: your reservation number, your baggage tag number, a description of your baggage (manufacturer, size, color), an address where you will be staying, and your contact information.

If you are en route home, you probably won't need an overnight kit but you can request one (which has toiletries such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, razor). Airlines do offer an allowance in the form of cash or store vouchers for replacement clothes and other reasonable expenses, so be sure to request it and keep your receipts for any items that you do purchase; you'll need them if you file a refund request. You should be provided with a number through baggage claim that you can call once you leave the airport to check on the status of your delayed luggage. It is suggested that you wait at least 24 hours for the airline to track down your luggage. It may take a few days for the airline to locate your luggage and make the necessary arrangements to reunite you with your belongings, so be prepared to wait, and be patient. Within two days of your luggage being delayed, you'll need to claim your rights formally in writing and request payment for expenses associated with the delay of your luggage. It should be noted that there is a cap on how much you can claim, so be sure to check with your airline for their policies and allowances.

For Damaged Luggage

We all know that our precious cargo can take a bit of a beating with every trip. Although airlines are not responsible for reasonable wear and tear to checked luggage, note any significant damage to the wheels, handles, straps, and other parts—and you can file a claim against the airline. Fragile items such as electronics, cash, perishable items, or other valuables may not be covered by your airline, so be sure to check the liability policy for specifics. For damage incurred to a passenger's luggage while it is in the care of the airline during transportation, the airline is required to repair the damage including reimbursement for damaged contents. Liability on the part of the airline varies depending on whether you are flying domestically or internationally. To maximize your protection, you might want to consider purchasing insurance for your luggage and its contents.

For Lost Luggage

It takes 21 days for an airline to officially declare your luggage lost, so expect to exercise some patience while things are sorted. Although having your luggage lost is a nightmare for you, the airline could have just temporarily misplaced it and it could show up at a later point in time, so this three-week holding period allows time for all of that to get sorted out and determined. Once the 21-day period has passed, and your luggage is officially declared lost by the airline, you will then need to file a claim. Note that you will only have seven days from the date that your luggage is declared officially lost to file your claim. You will need to submit a letter to expedite your claim, stating your address or company name, your flight number and the airline you traveled with, your departure and arrival date, the amount of compensation you are requesting for damages, and copies of receipts for any items that need to be replaced. There is a cap on the amount of money you can request for damages, so be sure to keep that in mind. Templates of claims letters can be found online, and once completed you can submit either directly to the airline or to your travel insurance provider.

Whereas Arch RoamRight doesn't require original documents for filing claims, Sobczyk does recommend that you take pictures of all your receipts to be on the safe side. "You will also need written verification from your airline confirming the length of the delay or verifying the damage or loss," Sobczyk adds. "While this may sound daunting, it is very simple to do through the customer service page on the airline's website."


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