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Lost baggage: how to track it down and get compensation

Luggage chaos is everywhere this summer. Here’s how to avoid losing your baggage – and what to do if it happens

Ed Cunningham
Written by
Ed Cunningham

The chaos at airports around the world seems to have reached ridiculous proportions – and that goes for baggage handling, too. The other week, Delta Air Lines apparently flew an entire plane filled with just bags from London to Detroit, while pictures emerged of a small mountain of luggage at London Heathrow. It’s all a bit of a mess, to say the least.

Having your bags lost or delayed has always been one of the most stressful, irritating things that can happen as a plane traveller. But these days it seems to be happening much, much more often. So what can you do? Well, here’s our comprehensive guide to lost baggage: from how to not lose your bags in the first place, to how to track them down and get compensation if you do.

What to do if an airline loses your bags

1. Pre-departure travel hacks to prevent lost luggage

There are a few things you can do before you fly to make it less likely your luggage will be lost. First things first, we’d suggest seriously reconsider whether you actually need to put stuff in the hold – if you can get by on hand luggage, definitely do that.

If you do need hold luggage, you should make sure your stuff is as identifiable as possible. The head of a German airport recently claimed that plain black suitcases were making identifying lost luggage more time-intensive. In other words, there’s never been a better excuse to go wild glamming up your hols with a brightly-coloured suitcase or some distinctive ribbon. At the very least, get a hardy, easily identifiable luggage tag.

Other things you can do is to take pictures of your luggage (and its contents) and plaster your case (including any tags) with as many copies of your name and mobile phone number as possible. But don’t include your home address or phone number, otherwise potential thieves could find out that you aren’t home.

If you want to be super sure about taking your bags on holiday – or if you’re transporting particularly valuable stuff – taking out travel insurance can reassure you that, even if your bag is lost, you won’t be out of pocket. Although, obviously, this depends on individual insurance policies and coverage.

And while it might seem a bit like tempting fate, you can buy digital bag tags that let you track your luggage on your phone. These will let you know whether your luggage has arrived at the right airport or terminal. You’ll want one with a long battery life – like Apple’s AirTag, for instance, which claims a battery life of an entire year. That’s plenty of time to track down your bag.

Tracking your bags if they get lost
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Tracking your bags if they get lost

There are a few ways to keep track of your bags once they’ve been checked in. The first – and simplest – is to use the airline’s own system for tracking bags. Most airlines have a website page where you can track bags, requiring your name and the bag tag reference given to you at check-in.

So what happens if your bag is lost? You’ve waited around a bit at the designated carousel for your flight, your luggage hasn’t turned up, and it’s obvious that no new bags are being loaded onto the belt.

The absolute first thing to do is find out whether your lost baggage has actually arrived at your destination airport. Go to your airline’s help desk – which is usually in the baggage reclaim hall.

Provide the help desk with the bag tag you were given at check-in and they’ll be able to tell you whether your bag has arrived at the airport – or, for that matter, if it was even loaded onto on your plane. 

If your bag is at the right airport, that’s good news. Your luggage might be still on the way to the baggage reclaim or it might have ended on the wrong carousel (or another terminal entirely), but it should be reasonably easily found.

And if you do have digital luggage tags that let you track your own luggage, then it’s worth double-checking that the airline staff have got it right.

If your bag isn’t at the airport but the help desk knows where it is, they’ll be able to advise on the next steps, which will include submitting a lost baggage report.

If the help desk knows where your bag is but it isn’t at your destination airport, airlines are usually required to send your bag on to you, free of charge. If that’s the case, you’ll need to leave an address and your baggage tag details.

The alternative is that they ask you to wait until the next plane, but we’d advise against doing this. The airline cannot usually guarantee the bag is on the next flight, so you could end up waiting all over again. It’s better to leave it with them and get on with your journey.

If the help desk doesn’t know where the bag is, you’ll need to submit a lost luggage report. Be sure to include everything you can remember about the physical features of the bag, and make sure to get some kind of tracking code or reference number – or even the telephone number of the help desk – so that you can stay up to date with how the bag search is going.

And make sure you’re in the know about your rights and potential compensation. Which brings us nicely to…


3. Do airlines reimburse for lost luggage?

In short, yes. You have a legal right to compensation not just for lost luggage, but for delayed or damaged bags, too. Airlines are legally required by international treaties to reimburse travellers.

The amount of lost baggage compensation varies per airline – and it’s perfectly acceptable to ask the help desk how much the airline will cover.

If you have to leave the airport without your bags, you’ll typically get an allowance of ‘reasonable expenses’. This will cover stuff that you wouldn’t have had to buy if you had received your bags – things like toiletries and a change of clothes, but probably not luxury purchases or meals in restaurants. Oh, and make sure you keep the receipts.

4. How to claim compensation if your luggage gets lost

Hopefully you’ll receive your bags within a few days. But if the airline’s cut-off period passes and your bag is declared truly lost, then you can claim the value of the contents of your lost belongings.

You’ll have to try and list everything that was in the bag – and bear in mind that compensation will be based on their current value, rather than what they were worth when you bought them. The total amount you can claim varies depending on the airline and country, so check with the airline.

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