In 2022, as the airline industry tried to find its footing again after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, about eight bags out of every 1000 were misplaced, delayed, tampered with, or damaged. That might not seem like high odds, but it amounts to millions of bags globally. U.S. airlines mishandled 200,000 bags in April last year. So, what can you do to reduce the risks and ensure lost luggage doesn't derail your travel plans, waylay your budget, and stress you out too much? We cover tagging, trackers, and other top tips to ensure the precious contents of your bag stay by your side.
Old tags and stickers confuse the baggage handlers that direct bags to the right areas. And when you place your bag on the scale to be weighed, hurrying airline staff may not notice that you've got irrelevant labels, so make sure you remove all evidence of previous flights. If you're self-checking, ensure you attach the tag to the handle of your luggage correctly. Some airlines are phasing out paper tags in favor of e-tags, which should eventually help your cause. In the meantime, it's a good idea to have a permanent luggage tag with your name, email address, and number legible; these updated contact details should also be visible inside your bag if the tag detaches.
Your airline's smartphone app may give you info about luggage tracking, but you can also make use of real-time tracking devices such as Apple's popular AirTags and Chipolo ONE Spot. If luggage does get lost, you won't have to rely on an agent to tell you its latest whereabouts. You'll be able to see where your bag is on a map that's constantly updated by passing iPhone users. This is an affordable route when you weigh up potential lost luggage costs.
If you're the Marie Kondo of packing light, more power to you. Traveling with only a carry-on can almost entirely eliminate the problem of lost luggage. But if you do check in a bag, make sure you put an extra set of clothes, your valuables, and essentials like chronic medication in your hand luggage. Liquids in carry-on bags must also be at most 3.4 ounces. Use compression packing cubes to maximize the space. Search your airline's policies on carry-on dimensions so you don't have to unnecessarily face a situation where you have to check in a small bag.
Add a personal touch to make identifying your luggage much more straightforward. Most people opt for black luggage because it's a forgiving color, but it also increases the chances of a mix-up. A fellow traveler could make an honest mistake and grab your bag instead of their own. A unique ribbon, colorful tape, stretch luggage cover, or handle wrap can make a big difference.
There are many upsides to arriving at the airport early. If you're too late, your checked bag might not make it on the plane. And if you're traveling with just a carry-on, there may not be enough space on board, and your hand luggage will have to go to the hold. This is a reminder to label your carry-on too, and put items you can't be separated from into the personal item that fits below the seat in front of you. Arrive at the airport 1.5 hours before a domestic flight and 3 hours before an international flight to beat the baggage cut-off time. Too early, and your bag might go to a hold area which could also become an issue.
Direct flights are ideal and cut out unlucky accidents. But if you have to change airlines to get to your destination, make sure you don't leave too little time between flights. Short layovers increase the chance that your checked bag misses a flight. A window of at least an hour should do.
Take time-stamped photos of the inside and outside of your checked bags as well as baggage stubs, and store them in the cloud for access from anywhere with an internet connection. Pictures of the interior will assist in worst case scenarios where you need to file claims with the airline for reimbursement. Pictures of the exterior are only helpful if they distinguish your generic bag from others like it. Unique identifiers come in handy here.
The airline will cover some of your losses if they can't locate your bag within two to three weeks of it going missing. Most cover the costs of purchasing clothes and toiletries if the bag is delayed for over 24 hours, so hold onto your receipts—about $50 per day for five days. If you pay for your flights with a credit card that offers complimentary baggage insurance, you'll get broader compensation in the event of lost or delayed luggage. You can also buy a travel insurance policy for peace of mind—read the policy to see if it's comprehensive and offers further coverage.
File a claim with your card issuer or insurance provider and the airline before you leave the airport. Get a copy of the report and a contact number for customer service. Employees can tell you when your bag might arrive and you can note your preferred delivery address for when it does.
No matter how organized you are, mishaps happen, and your luggage may end up being declared lost. Mentally prepare for this possibility. In the U.S. the Department of Transportation currently caps compensation at $3,800 per piece of luggage. Different airlines have differing procedures which are listed online, but ask a staff member to clarify the process.