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What to do when an airline loses your luggage

Image: Airport worker surrounded by backlogged luggage
Even if you’ve done everything travel gurus tell you about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure—there are no guarantees you'll avoid problems. Matt Rourke / AP file
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Of all the travails associated with air travel, luggage problems can be among the most vexing.

With airlines flying with full planes and connecting flights often squeaky-tight, luggage delays have spiked in the last year on U.S. domestic flights. Delayed luggage is a real headache, as most air travelers know to their cost.

Worse, your luggage could be lost. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s bad. You lost everything you jammed into that missing bag—things you needed for your trip—and you have to wrangle with the airline about it. And, of course, you have lost the bag.

Even if you’ve done everything travel gurus tell you about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure—you put your name inside and outside your bags, you packed a copy of your itinerary so the airline can find you, you checked the baggage checker to make sure they tagged the bag’s destination correctly, you carried on as much stuff as you could and never let it out of your sight—there are no guarantees you'll avoid problems. If you fly often, delayed, damaged or lost luggage is likely to happen.

If your bag is taking an inordinately long time to come off the baggage carousel, go quickly to the luggage claim office and report it. Get the name of the staffer you talk to, and show the baggage check stubs you’ve been careful to keep. Ask the staffer to fire up the PC and tell you exactly where your bag is—on a later flight, maybe. Ask, too, that a check be done to see if that flight is on time.

Fill out a missing bag form; keep a copy. If the airline staffer tells you your bag is on the next flight and you have time to stick around, ask for a meal voucher. If you leave the airport, take a second, lost-bag form with you, just in case your bag ends up lost. Lost bags all start off categorized as delayed; about 2 percent of delayed bags end up lost.

U.S. Department of Transportation rules give airlines a lot of wiggle room. Policies vary when it comes to how and when an airline will put a delayed bag in your hands and whether and how much they will compensate you for a lost or damaged bag. U.S. airlines are capped at $3,000 per passenger for lost bags on domestic flights, while it’s about $1,500 per passenger on international flights that originate in the U.S. Check your airline’s policies on its Web site; it's best to do this before you travel.

Be prepared to negotiate. Sometimes, airlines will compensate you for reasonable purchases of clothing to replace what’s gone missing (with receipts), then deduct that sum from additional compensation. A rule of thumb is that $1 in cash is equivalent to $2 or $3 in travel vouchers. If you take cash, you may be signing away entitlement to any future recompense; if you take a voucher, read the fine print to make sure it’s something you can easily use for a future flight.