By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 4/13/2010 10:16:17 AM ET 2010-04-13T14:16:17

Erin and Sean Spital last saw their luggage after checking in at New York’s JFK airport, shortly before they boarded their flight to Barcelona on Iberia Airlines. The couple waited until the last bags made their rounds on the luggage carousel, but their bags never arrived. Left with only the clothes on their backs, and with their 7-day Norwegian Cruise Line cruise about to depart, the Spitals did the only thing they could do: They filed a claim with Iberia and went out to buy new clothes.

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Naked truth
Lost airline luggage — it’s a problem all cruise lines are dealing with more often these days, especially on European cruises. I’ve been on a number of Mediterranean cruises where dozens of passengers’ bags never made it to the ships for embarkation. Most bags turn up during various ports of call, but not all of them make it. Like the Spitals, their owners just had to make do.

“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,” says John Heald, Carnival Cruise Lines senior cruise director. 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 Spitals received help from their cruise line, too. As Heald duly noted, sometimes the best in people does come out. For Sean Spital, who is well over six feet tall, finding clothes was difficult. Thankfully a sympathetic Norwegian crew member of the same height was kind enough to loan some pants during the sailing. The cruise line also helped Erin Spital with clothing and arranged for the couple to keep in constant contact with Iberia. Despite all the help, the Spitals racked up a substantial credit card bill at various ports buying new clothes.

Sadly, the Spitals bags never showed up during their weeklong cruise. “We paid more than 400 euros for basics like underwear, shoes, tops, and since it was December, some sweaters,” Erin says. The Spitals kept their receipts and filed a claim with Iberia for the cost of their replacement clothing, which came to almost $1,500.

After returning from their cruise, Sean Spital kept calling Iberia daily to find out where their luggage was. Unfortunately, communication was difficult due to language barriers and changing stories. “They didn’t have updated information on the bags or their system was down. Sometimes I just couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me.”

They were told that due to the heavy snowstorms in Europe and the U.S. in December, many bags became displaced. Three weeks after they returned home, the Spitals received one bag, which had been pilfered of many items including an expensive shaver, Gucci loafers, and cashmere sweaters. The airline has yet to find the other bag.

Bags of shame
Unfortunately for the Spitals, Iberia is ranked the worst airline in Europe for lost luggage. A report in the London Telegraph stated the Spanish carrier lost 19.2 bags for every 1,000 people who boarded its planes during the winter months. Additionally, the carrier was ranked the worst performer in a survey carried out by the Association of European Airlines.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, your luggage has a fairly good chance of taking a different trip than you do. The department’s latest Air Travel Consumer Report shows 155,224 reports of “mishandled” bags in February this year, up from 136,066 in February 2009. While the numbers are still high, overall airlines have improved their baggage handling during the past two years.

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 that 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 other 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 airline. 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 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 Spitals, after three months they finally received a check from Iberia for $900, far from their original claim. They are glad it’s over and have vowed to never fly Iberia again.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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