Sat. Oct 1st, 2022

If an airline loses your checked luggage, how do you find it?

Charmaine Chan had to answer that question after Air Mauritius couldn’t track down her bags on a flight from Mauritius to Singapore. She’d watched a luggage handler load her belongings on the plane, but now they were gone.

“I went to the agent in charge,” remembers says Chan, who operates an online phone accessories store. “He walked me out to the aircraft and gave me a small ladder to climb so I could look inside the baggage compartment for myself.”

In the darkness of the plane’s belly, she could see the faint outline of a bag.

“There was my suitcase,” she says.

Well, that’s one way to do it.

During this summer of lost luggage, it’s unlikely that an airline agent would let you search the cargo hold. But Chan’s story illustrates the lengths to which air travelers will go to find their lost baggage.

A recent study by SITA, an IT company, found that 24% of luggage was damaged, delayed, lost, or stolen in 2021.

How does that happen?

In a word, transfers. Bags delayed at transfer accounted for 41% of lost luggage, a four-point increase from the previous year, according to SITA. If you’re switching flights, you run a high risk of losing your luggage.

It’s about to get worse, according to experts.

“This summer will be crazy,” predicts Franziska Wirth, a spokeswoman for Rough Guides. “With a lot of airports worldwide short-staffed, I’m fully expecting more lost bags this summer than in any of the summers before.”

It’s already bad. My consumer advocacy organization is waist-deep in lost-luggage cases. It’s to the point where I had to write a new guide on what to do if an airline loses your checked luggage. But I also wanted to find out what was happening to air travelers like Chan this summer.

So here are a few pro tips for finding all your lost airline luggage.

Avoid lost airline luggage by prepping your bag

Remove all previous barcode stickers from the bag. It can confuse the tracking system, especially if it’s a tag from the same airline. Remove any ropes or strings that can get snagged in the baggage system.

“Have some distinguishing feature of your bag,” advises Peter Drummond, head of baggage at SITA. “Most people have black wheeled bags, so they can all look alike. If your bag is mishandled, it will help the agent report it.”

Also, keep your claim receipt. It contains a 10-digit number that will enable it to be matched and returned to you much faster — as long as the tag is still attached to your bag.

Take pictures

On a recent flight from San Francisco to Jakarta, Indonesia, via Tokyo, United Airlines misplaced Sonita Lontoh’s luggage.

“I didn’t hear any update for a few days and had to survive in a foreign country 10,000-plus miles away from home without some of my personal belongings,” recalls Lontoh, a technology executive from San Francisco.

It took five days and lots of back-and-forth with the airline to find it. But she also learned that a picture would have made it easier to track the luggage.

“I learned that you should always take photos of your luggage so that you have visual proof in case your bag goes missing or is delayed,” she says.

Track your luggage

Don’t rely on the airlines’ unreliable luggage handling systems. That’s the advice of travel professionals like Maria Diego, owner of Diego Travel. She’s been advising her clients to buy a tracker like an AirTag and tuck them into a side pocket.

Diego speaks from experience. Her airline lost her husband’s surfboard on a recent trip to Melbourne, Australia.

“After we waited an hour and a half, the baggage desk person had no idea where his surfboard was,” she remembers. But thanks to an AirTag attached to the surfboard, Diego showed the agent the location of the board.

“They got a hold of the right person to have it put on the plane the next day. Had we not had the AirTag, there’s a huge chance the entire trip would have been ruined for him,” she adds.

Turn on your phone

Many air travelers panic when luggage doesn’t show up on the conveyor belt. But customer service expert Shep Hyken says you should turn on your phone. He did that when his luggage went missing on a recent flight.

“I received a text message from the airline. It said that my bag had not made the flight,” he recalls. “Several hours later, after the next flight landed with my bag, the airline delivered the bag to my hotel.”

Don’t forget insurance

If your airline loses your luggage, chances are you have coverage through your credit card or travel insurance. For example, after 12 hours without luggage, you can file a claim to be reimbursed up to $600 for baggage delay and up to $2,000 for baggage loss if you have an Allianz Travel Insurance policy.

“While you and the airline work to recover and deliver your belongings, a travel insurance policy is waiting to kick in and reimburse you for essential items needed while you wait for your bags to arrive,” says Daniel Durazo, director of external communications at Allianz Partners USA.

Don’t check your luggage

The best way to ensure you never lose your luggage is to never give it to your airline. That’s what Pri Kaushik learned when she flew from Istanbul to Toronto via London last month on Air Canada.

“It was during our connection through Heathrow when our bags got caught in the system crash that led to thousands of checked bags piling up at the Heathrow terminal for days,” remembers Kaushik, co-founder of a financial advice blog.

She and her husband landed in Toronto, unaware of the problem. They waited for their luggage for more than two hours.

“Air Canada failed to inform us of the issue proactively and waited until we were tired and frustrated to complete a missing baggage form,” she says.

It took two weeks of calling, emailing and patiently waiting before their airline returned their luggage.

Lesson learned?

“Based on our experience and everything we read about other passengers going through a similar experience, we have vowed to never check in a bag again unless absolutely necessary,” she says.

When it comes to lost airline luggage, you need a little perspective — and a lot of skepticism

When it comes to lost luggage, a little perspective — and a lot of skepticism — is helpful this summer.

“The chance that your luggage will get lost may be less than 1%,” says Atara Dzikowski, CEO of Samsara Luggage, which integrates AirTags to track luggage. “But when it happens to you it’s 100% inconvenient.”

“It can be costly, time-consuming and frustrating at a time when you’re looking to relax,” she adds.

That’s where the perspective and skepticism come in. Perspective — that it’s statistically unlikely to happen to you. And skepticism — that despite all the claims made by airlines about the reliability of their luggage systems, you might want to track your luggage independently.

Or, to paraphrase Fox Mulder in the X-Files, when it comes to luggage, trust no one.

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