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Other passengers are leaving the carousel with their bags, but yours never shows.

This article tells you what to expect when you file your missing bag claim, and what you can expect from the airline in return.

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Your Rights if Your Bags are Delayed

You'd think with all the latest bag-tag bar-coding, real-time tracking, and security matching against passengers, lost and delayed bags would be a thing of the past.

Alas, for many reasons, bags still go missing and sometimes still get lost.

Use this information to minimize the likelihood and inconvenience to you of a lost/delayed bag.

Part 1 of a 2 part series - part 2 tells you what to do if your bag ultimately ends up as lost forever.



Most of the time, our bag obediently appears on the carousel.  But, once in a rare while, it doesn't.

Not many people know - and the airlines surely don't want to tell you - that airlines are obliged to cover all expenses caused by lost - or delayed - baggage up to $3,500 per passenger on domestic flights in such a case.  This article tells you what to expect, and how to hopefully persuade the airline to be more helpful.

The First Part of the Process - Your Bag Doesn't Arrive

So there you are, waiting for your bag by the carousel, and it doesn't appear.

What you need to do at this stage is beat the rush to get to the lost luggage claim counter.  Often you'll find that you're not the only person with missing/lost luggage, and you'll almost never find more than two people working the counter (and often only one).  If there are three or four people ahead of you in line, and if each claim takes 5 - 10 minutes to process, you could find yourself spending up to an hour just waiting to file a claim.

So, while you're waiting for your bag, look around and find out where you'll have to go if your bag doesn't arrive.  And as soon as bags seem to stop coming up, hot-foot it over to the claim counter to be the first in line.

Note that just because one of your bags arrives, that does not guarantee that any other bags you also checked will also arrive.  As soon as it seems that no more bags are coming, rush to the claim counter.  You can always go back to the carousel if necessary - if there are two of you traveling together, one of you can stay behind at the carousel while the other of you goes ahead to start the paperwork.

Which Claim Counter Do You Go To?

This might seem obvious, but if you flew on two (or more) flights, operated by two (or more) airlines, and perhaps with codeshares so that your ticket says you flew with one airline, but the plane was operated by another, which airline do you file your claim with?

Believe it or not, good sense prevails in this case.  The last airline to fly you is the airline that will be responsible for solving your baggage problem.  The airline that flew you the final leg to your destination will at least have an airport office, but the airline you started your journey with (perhaps in a different country) may be totally unknown at your destination.

So go to the counter for the airline you flew with to your destination.  All the airlines have agreed, among themselves, that no matter who is at fault, the last airline the passenger flies is the one that will solve the problem.

What To Expect at the Claim Counter

At this point, your bag is either delayed or missing.  If it is delayed, that means the airline knows exactly where your bag is, and also is 99% sure as to when your bag will arrive at your destination.

Hopefully your bag is only delayed.  But don't panic if it is declared missing.

Good News?  Your Bag is 'Only' Delayed

Sometimes, the baggage claim staff may be a bit careless with the facts, and will try and tell you 'Oh yes, don't worry.  Whenever bags miss this flight, they put them on the next flight, which is due in another hour.  If you just wait for an extra sixty minutes, your bag should arrive at that time.'

Don't accept this statement without querying it carefully.  Ask 'Can you confirm, then, that you have located my bag in your system, and that it is (currently loaded onto that flight/due to be loaded on that flight) for sure?'  Get a feeling for what they're doing with their computer.  If they haven't keyed your bag tag number into their computer and paged through a screen or two of data, you know they're just making it up as they go along.

Next, if they've absolutely assured you that your bag 100% will arrive on a specific flight, consider if you want to stick around the airport or not.  Chances are you've already spent close on an hour at the airport between landing, waiting for your bag, and now this.  And when the rep says 'your bag will arrive in an hour' he probably means 'the plane is scheduled to land in an hour'.  Even if the flight arrives on time (have him check) there's still perhaps 30 minutes from when it lands to when your bag arrives on the carousel.

Maybe you'd rather go to your hotel or wherever rather than hang around the airport for another hour (or two or three).  Or maybe you have a touring schedule that doesn't allow you to stay longer at the airport.  In such a case, refuse to stay and insist they send the bag on to you.  You are not obliged to stay at the airport, but they are obliged to send your bag on to you.

Alternatively, if you're willing to stay, ask if they can give you a meal voucher or something so you can go to a restaurant while waiting for the hour.  It is usually cheaper for the airline to buy you a meal than it is to pay a courier service to deliver your bag to you (you might need to point this out to them!), so they should agree to this.  You might need to point that out to them.  :)

However, perhaps the promised delay in your bag arriving might be longer than an hour.  Maybe it will be on the same flight, the next day.  What happens then?  Read on, below, to understand your rights as regards buying essential items and seeking compensation for them.

Bad News.  Your Bag is Missing

Maybe the bag claim representative is unable to tell you what has happened to your bag.

You might think that with all the bar-coding, scanning, bag-matching, and security in general, it is impossible for bags and passengers to get separated.  Unfortunately, it is still very possible for this to happen, and - suggestion - don't get into a detailed and heated discussion on this point with the lost baggage claim representative at the airport!  It isn't his fault and it isn't something he can control or fix.  By all means write a letter to the airline subsequently, but for now, concentrate on resolving your missing bag problem as best you can.

One more admonition.  If the baggage claim representative does tell you your bag is currently completely lost, don't panic.  98% of all bags that are missing at this stage will be found in the next four or five days, and most of those will be found in the first 24 - 48 hours.

Note - although your bag may be found quickly, that is not the same as arriving in your hands quickly - there might still be another day or more of delay as between when your bag is found and when it is delivered to you.

Are You at Home or Somewhere Else?

If your bag disappeared on your final flight home, the airline isn't going to feel a need to provide much in the way of temporary assistance, for the obvious reason that you probably have more of everything you might need at home.  BUT - and it is a big but.  The US Department of Transportation imposes the exact same obligation on airlines to reimburse you for the cost of any essential items you have needed to buy, no matter if you've returned home or are somewhere else.

If you have to spend money on buying things directly related to your baggage delay, you're entitled to reimbursement the same as when your bags are delayed on outbound flights away from home.

However, the concept of what is essential probably shifts.  You might consider a change of underwear to be essential when you're away from home, but this would be harder to justify when you've returned home.

On the other hand, if you're a man and you have an electric shaver in your bag, buying a new electric shaver is much easier to justify as an essential purchase.  Doubtless there may be some similar essentials if you're a woman.

If you're at your home airport, you only need to consider the first two of the three points that follow.  But if you're somewhere else, your focus at this point is on establishing all three of these things :

(a)  How to keep in contact with the airline, and how the airline can keep in contact with you, until such time as your bag's status is resolved?

Most airlines now have websites where you can key in their lost bag tracking number and get real time information on the status of the bag.  A few airlines force you to rely on old fashioned phone calls, and usually they do not have 24 hour service at their lost bag centers.  Get - and give - as much contact information as possible.

(b)  What the process will be between now and the time at which your bag will either be delivered to you or declared lost for good?

Ask them when is the soonest they might get an update on the bag's status.  Ask what hours their lost bag service center is open for taking phone calls.

Ask them how they will get your bag to you, and how long it takes from when the bag arrives on a flight to when it is delivered to your hotel/home/wherever.

Also ask them how long it would be before your bag is declared lost and gone for good.  Will you then need to fill out a lost bag form (almost certainly, yes)?  If so, and just in case the worst does come to the worst, can you take a copy of that form with you now, so as to avoid an extra trip to the airport?

(c)  The paperwork is important.

Be sure to do everything the airline requires you to do, and document every step of the way.  Airlines will sometimes try and avoid liability because you failed to file a specific form within a particular time period, so don't delay.

Keep details of everyone you talk to and the conversations you had.  Each time you have any contact, you should make a note of the date/time, who you spoke to (ask for their 'agent sine' and what city they are in), the number you called them at or where you saw them, and a quick summary of the conversation.

These notes are hardly legally binding, but if you show due diligence and care in everything you've done, it makes you a more credible claimant and may encourage a Small Claims Court in particular to choose to 'reward' your diligence in their finding.

For sure keep receipts for everything.

(d)  What level of reimbursement can you expect for anything you need to buy between now and when your bags arrive?

In the good old days, a delayed bag was a good thing - you could go on a shopping spree and the airline would pay for the cost of quite a lot of clothing and toiletries.  I've managed to get several free suits that way.  These days, don't plan to profit or benefit from your bag's delay at all.

The airline will expect you to meet them at least halfway in dealing with your delayed bag.  You'll also find their definition of what 'halfway' might be can vary depending on if you're a very frequent flier with them, or someone they've never knowingly dealt with before, and if you bought the most expensive first class fare, or the cheapest discounted coach ticket.

Try and get a feeling for reimbursement guidelines from the person at the airport.  He will probably try and avoid this question - it is a difficult question, and there are probably people behind you waiting for their turn, too.  But insist on understanding what you can and should do immediately, and then what extra you can do the next day and the next day, until such time as your bag arrives or is declared lost.  Explain your reasonable needs and ask how to resolve them.  Try and get their policy in writing - there's a chance their written policy may be different - more generous - than what you are being told, or, if read carefully, you'll see that the policy has non-binding statements that are voided by provisional vague clauses such as "in special circumstances" or "at our discretion".

The 'special circumstances' are when you know your rights and refuse to be bluffed by an official seeming policy offering you nothing other than a half squeezed out tube of toothpaste, a well chewed toothbrush, and an insincere apology!

The DoT requires airline policies to be in writing, and have been known to fine airlines that can't provide them on request.  So a refusal/inability to give you a copy of their policies definitely strengthens your case if the matter progresses to a DoT complaint, and if you end up pressing your case with a more senior airline staff member, being able to tell them that the first person you spoke to was unable to give you a copy of the airline's policies will also send them a warning that they are creating added problems for themselves if they don't quickly settle.

What the Department of Transportation Says

On 9 October 2011 the DoT restated the obligations it imposes on airlines, and added commentary to the effect that it takes breaches of these obligations very seriously.

The essential element of their statement says (underlinings are added by us) :

This notice is intended to give guidance to air carriers on their policies relating to the reimbursement of passengers’ expenses in cases where baggage has been lost, damaged or delayed.  We have learned that a number of airlines have adopted policies that purport to limit reimbursement for such expenses in a variety of ways.  These policies may be contained in contracts of carriage or, more often, in informal printed advisory handouts available from ticket counters or carrier agents.  For example, we are aware of one such advisory handout that denies any reimbursement “for necessities” where the baggage is “expected” to reach the passenger within 24 hours of filing a delayed baggage report and limits reimbursement to actual expenses up to a fixed maximum amount per day after the first day.  Also, some carriers may be providing reimbursement to passengers for incidental expenses incurred only after the outbound leg of a roundtrip.

The Department’s baggage liability rule, 14 CFR Part 254, contains no such limitations, and it is the enforcement policy of the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings (Aviation Enforcement Office) to consider any arbitrary limits on expense reimbursement incurred in cases involving lost, damaged or delayed baggage to violate Part 254 and to constitute an unfair and deceptive practice and unfair method of competition in violation of 49 U.S.C. 41712.  Section 254.4 states that an air carrier “shall not limit its liability for provable direct or consequential damages” relating to lost, damaged or delayed baggage to less than $3,300 per passenger.  To meet the requirements of Part 254 and the requirements implicit in 49 U.S.C. 41712, carriers should remain willing to cover all reasonable, actual and verifiable expenses related to baggage loss, damage or delay up to the amount stated in Part 254.   

The key points are that airlines have to pay up to $3500 (as of May 27, 2015 - this amount is regularly adjusted up) to you, whether your baggage is lost, damaged, or delayed.  The $3500 is to cover all reasonable, actual and verifiable expenses.

You can see the simple short regulation that establishes this liability here.

Now what doe these three words - reasonable, actual, verifiable - mean?

The easy two words are 'actual' and 'verifiable'.  That means you need to actually incur costs - ie, spend money - and must be able to show receipts that clearly indicate the items purchased.

You can't just claim compensation for 'pain and suffering and mental anguish'.  You can only claim for things you spend money on, and which you can verify.

Now, what about reasonable?  Does it mean reasonable in your opinion, or in the airline's opinion - probably there'll be a huge gap in interpretation between those perspectives!  Don't get greedy; be fair, and view every expense as if you will have to justify it to a judge in a small claims court (as indeed you may).

Most airlines seem to require a 24 hour delay in getting your bags to you before they'll start to consider reimbursing you for new clothing.  They do this based on their definition of 'reasonable', and unless there are special circumstances that mean it is not reasonable to wear the clothing you traveled in for another day, they are probably correct.

But there can be cases where it is reasonable to immediately buy new clothes.

If, for example, you were traveling in casual clothes to fly somewhere on Sunday, but on Monday you have an important business meeting to attend, you clearly need to buy some business attire.  This has happened to me several times.

If you've flown from a tropical climate to a winter climate, or, vice versa, if you've flown from winter at home to a lovely tropical beach, maybe your appropriate seasonal wear is in your suitcase and it is reasonable to immediately purchase heavy clothing for winter, or light clothing and swimwear for summer.

Ask if they have any overnight kits or immediate cash advance or something they can give you if it seems you'll be without your bag overnight.

What About Expensive and Fragile Items?

Airlines often seek limit their liability for damage to or loss of electronics and fragile items in baggage.

But the DoT regulation allows no exception for any type of item within a lost or delayed bag.  Anything and everything is viewed the same.

So if it is reasonable that you should urgently replace a camera or laptop or any other item, then the airline is as obliged to reimburse you for that as it is to reimburse you for a toothbrush and toothpaste.

If you're on a 'trip of a lifetime' vacation that you want to film/photograph, then it might well be reasonable to replace your camera with another one immediately.  If you're traveling for business and need your laptop or tablet to give business presentations or to remain connected to your office, then urgently replacing that too might also be reasonable.

Suggested Claim Strategy

My suggestion is to be conspicuously fair with the small things, in the hope that the airline, in turn, will be fair with the big things.  This may or may not be naivety on my part!

I usually tell the airline that I won't bother to claim the cost of a replacement toothbrush or overnight toiletries, or any small things like that, and offer to wash out socks and underwear that night in the hotel rather than insist on everything new for the next morning.  This seems like a generous offer on my part, but in reality, I know the airline is unlikely to give me anything much, and it is difficult, absent special circumstances, to justify much as being reasonably necessary until the bag has been missing for 24 hours.  But by voluntarily appearing to concede something up front, I seem more like a good guy, and someone that hopefully the airline rep will choose to then use his discretion positively with.

After this gracious concession, I add 'obviously, I can't continue like this for ever, and if it looks like you can't get my bag to me tomorrow, I think it only fair to buy a change of clothing for the next day.'  If the person makes any sort of sound of agreement, I then ask them 'could you put that in the record, please so that there are no misunderstandings when I go to claim the expense'.  I back up this request by making sure I have the name of the person I was speaking with, and when I leave the airport, I call the baggage service to confirm that the authorization is in the record.

However, the airline doesn't have discretion in this.  It is required to reimburse us for all such reasonable expenses, but it is often easier to do this from a positive cooperative position than to try to beat up on them.

Also, remember.  This is not a chance for a free $3500 shopping spree.  Buy sensible priced moderate clothing, and only the bare minimum needed, unless you've got the airline's approval to be more generous.

The airline will probably insist on seeing receipts for anything you claim (which they can definitely do under the 'verifiable' element of the regulation), and may even possibly require you to return the items to them in exchange for full reimbursement of their cost.

Cash or Travel Vouchers

The airline will often offer to give you travel vouchers instead of cash, and if it doesn't offer, you should suggest.  My rule of thumb is that $1 in cash should be worth at least $2 in travel vouchers, and generally that seems to be accepted by the airline.

Note that there are different forms of travel vouchers they might give you.  The best sort is an 'MCO' - a 'Miscellaneous Charges Order'.  This is a bit like a gift certificate, and can be used to pay for any and all future charges on the airline (unless it has restrictions written on it).

The airline might try and give you discounted travel vouchers which are capacity controlled and subject to various restrictions and blackouts.  These are not nearly as good as MCOs.  Perhaps - if offered this type of voucher - you might ask for three times the value of your claim.

Don't think you're profiteering by doing this.  These restricted certificates cost the airline next to nothing - their actual direct cost to the airline is perhaps 1/20th of their face value, and maybe even less.  On the other hand, the cost to the airline of writing you out a check for your claim is clearly and exactly the sum involved.  Accepting three times as much restricted travel value is much better to the airline than giving you cash up front.

Maximum Claim Value

The airline isn't going to pay you more, for delayed luggage, than it would for lost luggage.  See our related article about airline luggage liability limits and a technique to possibly double your payout.

What the Airline is Obliged to Do For You

The Department of Transportation has taken an increasing interest in airline policies and practices in the case of how the airlines reimburse passengers with missing bags.

On October 9, 2009, they issued a guidance letter to the airlines asking them to review their policies related to the reimbursement of passengers’ expenses related to lost, damaged, or delayed baggage.

The airlines were warned to not set arbitrary limits on reimbursements, such as the denial of related expenses for baggage that is 'expected' to reach the passenger within 24 hours, or limiting compensation only to passengers on outbound flights (ie, if you're flying home, you have rights for compensation too).   The DOT’s baggage liability rule contains no such limitations and even states that an airline 'shall not limit its liability for provable direct or consequential damages'.  According to the DoT, an airline should remain willing to cover all reasonable, actual, and verifiable expenses related to baggage loss, damage, or delay up to US$3,300 per passenger.

The airlines were given 90 days from the date of the notice to amend their contracts of carriage and related policies to more correctly comply with the regulations.

This was then followed up in October 2011 with their notice that is excerpted from above.

Lastly, if you feel you've been unfairly denied reimbursement by an airline, you should file a complaint with the DoT at :

Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings (C-70)
United States Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave SE
Washington, DC 20590

They also have a webpage with a form you can fill out online.

You should also file a Small Claim in your local Small Claims Court to recover the unpaid sums.

Important Interpretational Issues

To qualify for reimbursement, the amounts you claim have to meet certain requirements :

  • They have to be provable, and direct or consequential - so it has to be an identifiable extra cost that you only had to incur because of the baggage loss/delay, not something you were going to spend money on anyway, and not something that has nothing to do with the lost/delayed items.

  • They have to be reasonable and actual and verifiable - you can't go out and buy five new changes of expensive formal clothing if your bag was delayed just an hour ago and you were simply going to a beach destination for a weekend break.  That is not reasonable.  But, in the same example, you could buy a change of clothing for the next day, and you'd be expected to buy suitable casual sort of attire similar to what you have in your bags.

  • You can only claim for money you actually spent.  You can't borrow something from a friend and then seek some cash reimbursement for that.

  • Your expenses have to be verifiable.  Keep receipts and take pictures of the items you buy.

Read more in Part 2

In Part 2 we explain the airlines' liability for lost luggage, and the various catches and exceptions where they might end up not paying you, at all, for the most valuable things in your luggage.

We also warn you how to avoid paying 100 times the fair cost of extra luggage insurance, and give suggestions for how to minimize the chances of having your luggage go missing in the first place.

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Originally published 28 Jan 2005, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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Your Rights if your luggage is lost
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