By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 8/7/2007 3:41:38 PM ET 2007-08-07T19:41:38

Nancy and Larry Trammel last saw their luggage after checking in at New York's JFK airport, shortly before they boarded their flight to Rome on Alitalia Airlines. The couple waited and waited in Rome for their bags, but they never arrived. Left with only the clothes on their backs, and with their 10-day Holland America cruise about to depart, the Trammels did the only thing they could do: They filed a claim with Alitalia and went out to buy new clothes.

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Naked at sea
Lost airline luggage — it's a problem many cruise lines are dealing with more often these days, especially on European cruises. On my recent Mediterranean cruise aboard the Carnival Freedom, 80 passenger suitcases that had been checked on flights into Rome failed to make it to the ship by embarkation day. Some of the bags turned up later and were sent on to our various ports of call, but not all of them made it. Like the Trammels, their owners just had to make do.

"It's a growing problem, particularly on flights connecting within Europe," says John Heald, Carnival Freedom's cruise director. Heald has dealt with many lost-bag problems — he has even joked about it in his popular blog — and he has come up with some creative solutions.

"Many people don't realize it, but most cruise ships have a small supply of clothing on board that guests can borrow, and there is even formal attire for men and women to rent," he says. These reserves can usually tide people over, but sometimes passengers become desperate because their bags are truly lost and they can't find replacement clothes in the ship's supply or even in port. On those occasions, Heald puts in a "shout out" request for clothes during his live "Morning Show" on the shipboard TV. He once put out a call for a pair of extra-large women's underwear, and got back seven pairs from sympathetic passengers. "Cruising can really bring the best out in people," Heald says.

The Trammels got help from their cruise line, too. Holland America loaned them clothes and arranged communications with Alitalia. Even so, the couple racked up a substantial credit card bill buying new clothes.

"I shop at Lane Bryant and trying to find plus-sized clothing in Europe was almost impossible," Nancy says. And when they did find clothes that fit, the Trammels found the prices to be ridiculous. "We paid more than 200 euros for just two pairs of pants," Larry says. The Trammels kept their receipts and filed a claim with Alitalia for the cost of their replacement clothing, which came to almost $1,200.

Two weeks after the Trammels returned from their cruise, Alitalia located their luggage and shipped it back to their home, near New York City. Happy ending, but the Trammels found the whole process frustrating and say that communication with Alitalia was difficult.

"I wanted to get to the bottom of things so I kept calling," Larry says. "It was annoying, you know, because each time it was the same thing: They didn't have updated information on the bags or their system was down. Sometimes there were language issues — I just couldn't understand them and they couldn't understand me."

Airlines do their best to find your luggage before declaring it lost. On average, it takes more than a week; in difficult cases, it can take as long as a month. According to the Air Travel Consumer Report, about 2 percent of all missing bags remain lost. So, what do you do when an airline loses your luggage on your cruise vacation? Here are some tips.

  • If your luggage is lost, report it to the airline immediately. The Department of Transportation strongly suggests you fill out a form with the airline the day your baggage turns up missing. If you flew on more than one carrier, the airline you last flew is usually the one responsible for processing your claim — even if the another carrier lost the bag.
  • If your baggage is declared lost, make an itemized list of everything in your suitcase. Assign a value to each item, including the suitcase itself, using the price you paid, but understand that airlines won't pay full replacement value; they will pay a depreciated value. The maximum claim the airlines are required to pay is $2,800 for baggage lost on a domestic flight and approximately $1,500 for baggage lost on an international flight. The maximum award for international flights changes daily based on that day's value of "Special Drawing Rights" (SDR) per passenger. The daily value of SDR can be found at the International Monetary Fund's exchange rate Web site. Additional information on SDR can be found in every airline's contract of carriage.
  • A similar claims process is involved when luggage is damaged. Open your suitcase right away to check for damaged contents or stolen items. Any damage or lost or stolen items should be reported immediately to the airlines. The same limits apply for damaged luggage as to lost luggage.
  • Tell the cruise line staff that your airline lost your luggage. They can help you keep in touch with the airline regarding the status of your luggage and they can help you get clothing and personal care items.

The Department of Transportation estimates that it takes an airline anywhere from six weeks to three months to pay you for your lost luggage. As for the Trammels, Alitalia has told them a check will be in the mail soon.

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006."

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