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Your Rights if Your Bags are Lost

It doesn't often happen, but sometimes it does, and you find yourself without your bags and their contents, which have mysteriously vanished who knows where.

Part 2 of a 2 part article - see part 1 for what to do when your bag first goes missing.



So you've already transitioned from confidently waiting for your bag at the luggage claim carousel, to anxiously waiting for your missing bag to be found over the several days that follow; to now despondently wondering what to do now that your bag has been officially declared lost.

Please read on....

Your Bag is Finally Declared to be Irretrievably Lost

Eventually, if your bag doesn't arrive, you and the airline will have to face up to an ugly truth - your bag has disappeared.  About 2% of all missing bags remain lost, and if you fly enough times, or are sufficiently unlucky, sooner or later, your bag will end up in this category.

When does a missing bag become a lost bag?  Different airlines have different rules of thumb for this, and it depends on your itinerary and just how complicatedly the bag might get misrouted.  It will almost certainly take more than a week for your bag to be deemed lost, and perhaps as much as a month.

The amount of compensation you can get from the airline for lost luggage varies depending on whether you were on a domestic US flight, an international flight, or a domestic flight somewhere else in the world.

What Can You Claim On When Your Bag is Lost

You can't necessarily claim on everything that was in your bag once it has been decided the bag has been lost.

You'll probably have to make an itemized list of what was in your suitcase.  Try and be reasonably accurate here - it would be embarrassing if your suitcase was discovered the day after your claim was filed and, ahem, the six brand new suits you were claiming on were discovered actually to be six well worn pairs of jeans.

Don't forget to claim for the cost of the suitcase itself!

Adjustment for delay reimbursements

If you have already persuaded the airline to pay for things you needed while your bag was missing, they may try and reduce their payout for your lost baggage by the amount they've already paid you to compensate for the delay period.

Certainly, if the airline has paid for a new set of clothes for you, you couldn't then claim the lost set of clothes a second time.  But if you received a $250 payment to cover the cost of your bag being delayed, while the bag was still declared as 'missing' not 'lost', that does not necessarily mean that the total compensation the airline must pay you when your bag is declared as lost should now be reduced by $250.

Your argument would be that the payment for baggage delay and the payment for lost baggage are for two separate events.  If the airline had said to you, when you first reported your bag as missing 'I'm sorry, but your bag is lost' then you could only make one claim, of course.  But when they say to you first that the bag is missing, and then subsequently, a week or two or three later, tell you it is now lost, these are two separate events, with two separate sets of circumstances and costs associated.

Maybe also you bought some cheap junk clothes just to 'get by' with until your own quality clothes, in styles that you like, arrived.  If it ends up that you never get your own clothes, you shouldn't now be penalized for saving the airline money when you bought the cheap interim clothing.

Excluded items

The airlines have a fairly long list of valuable items which they won't reimburse you for (see below).

It is unclear how binding this list of exclusions may be, but it will, for sure, be much harder to get reimbursement if items are on their excluded list.

Note that for international flights, the Montreal Convention of 1999 applies.  This prohibits the airlines from excluding anything in your suitcases; they must reimburse you for anything/everything up to the limit of liability.

Depreciated not replacement value

Airlines will commonly seek to reimburse you for the depreciated, not replacement value, of your possessions.  In other words, if you had a suit that you've owned for two years in your bag, and if it cost you $300 when you bought it, and would cost $400 for a suitable replacement, the airline will try not to give you $400.

It won't even give you $300.  Instead, the airline might say 'this suit is nearly worn out, it is two years old, we'll only give you $150'.

It is important to realize that these are merely bargaining positions the airline is taking.  Don't give in.  If you're now going to be out of pocket $400 for a suit, you're out of pocket $400, no matter what the circumstances of the suit that was lost.

Cash or travel vouchers

See our discussion in part 1 about suggesting/accepting a higher value in airline travel vouchers instead of a lower value in cash, when negotiating how much the airline will reimburse you.

Other insurance coverage

The sad reality is that you'll probably end up quite severely out of pocket after the airline's partial reimbursement of the items you've lost.

However, all is not lost (just your luggage!).  Simply claim the shortfall between what the airline paid you and the actual replacement cost on your regular home owner's or renter's insurance policy.  You might also have free insurance as part of using your credit card to buy the ticket, or included as part of a travel insurance policy that you bought.

Most insurance companies will refuse to pay your claim if someone else has already paid your claim (you can't 'double dip') but you can use your different types of insurance selectively to get best coverage and to avoid impacting on your renewal rate or claims history with your main home owner/renter insurance.

It seems likely that you should be able to claim your loss from your regular insurer and get the deductible covered by the airline at the very least.

Claim Limits

Domestic maximum liability

In the US, effective 27 May 2015, the Department of Transportation has said that airlines are liable for amounts up to at least $3500 for losing your luggage.

This limit was previously $3300 prior to then, $3000 previously from Feb 2007, $2800 between 22 Oct 2004 and 28 February 2007, and $2500 prior to then.  It is expected to be adjusted every two years or so, in line with inflation.

The DoT says the airlines can't limit their liability to any amount less than this, but within their Contract of Carriage, they certainly can limit their liability to exactly this amount, and that may or may not prove to be a binding enforceable limit.

This is a limit per passenger.  That is an important distinction.

If you were traveling with someone else, and if you had some of your items and some of your companion's items in your lost bag, then conceivably you could possibly be able to claim up to $7000 for the lost items - half for you and half for the other person.

This is one of two reasons why, if you're traveling together, it is better to spread your respective items between two suitcases.

The other reason is that if you have half in each suitcase, and only one suitcase is lost, you only lose half of everything rather than the entirety of everything you're traveling with.

International maximum liability

If you are flying internationally, including on flights connecting to international flights, the airlines are liable for up to 1000 'Special Drawing Rights' for lost luggage (as per the original Montreal Convention in 1999, now adjusted up for inflation to 1131 SDRs).  This is also a limit per passenger.

A Special Drawing Right is a sort of international currency equivalent, set by the International Monetary Fund.  The value of an SDR changes daily;  this page shows its current conversion to US dollars (on 20 Nov 08 1 SDR = US$1.476, so the airlines would pay up to $1476; on 15 Oct 2009 the SDR was worth $1.594, increasing your payment to $1594.)

 This 1000 SDR limit is expected to be reviewed every five years, although the first review did not occur until December 2009 (at which time the 1000 SDR limit increased to 1131 SDR, and at the rate in Oct 2017 of $1.412, that means $1600).

This obligation on the airlines is part of the 1999 Montreal Convention, known more formally as the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air.  It came into effect on 4 November 2003, and replaces an earlier Warsaw Convention of 1929 (albeit one which had been modified several times since then).

This 1131 SDR limit can be exceeded if you can prove the airline and its employees was acting recklessly and had reason to expect that damage would result from its actions (a 'please handle with care' sticker for example might help establish the airline's knowledge and increased duty of care).  On the other hand, the airlines won't pay for damage to fragile items that are not adequately packed (whatever that means!).

You might still see references to the earlier Warsaw Convention international limits, which were US$9.07 per pound of baggage (US$20/kg).  This new limit is usually slightly more generous and is no longer weight based.

Special Situations

There are two special situations where you might be able to successfully argue that the airline has a greater obligation to reimburse you for lost luggage and or damage to its contents.

Both revolve around situations where the airline acts either negligently and/or contrary to its own normal practices, and by doing so, increases your risk of loss/damage.  If the increased risk the airline has caused you results in an actual loss occurring, you may be able to argue successfully (to a court if not to the airline itself) that the airline's willful actions negated its ability to shelter behind the otherwise applicable maximum liability limits.

Transporting luggage on a different flight

The first is where an airline transports your luggage on a different flight to your own flight.  This occasionally happens, and if it means that your bag then appears on a luggage carousel and sits there for endless revolutions due to you being on a different (probably later) flight, then the airline's actions have increased your risk of loss.

If the airline's decision to put your luggage on a different flight was not something they shared with you up front and gave you the option to agree/disagree with, and if it wasn't caused by some action on your part (for example changing flights at the last minute, or being late getting to the gate to be boarded onto the flight you were checked in for) then the airline's unilateral actions are increasing your risk and should reasonably be expected to increase their liability too.

If a loss does in fact occur - especially if it appears the loss was the result of someone simply stealing your unattended bag off the carousel or from the pile of unclaimed luggage typically left on the floor by the carousel - things that would not happen if you were present to meet your luggage, you could argue that the airline willfully and negligently failed in to discharge its duty of care to you and your luggage, because its actions deprived you of your normal ability to monitor the luggage carousel for your bag's appearance and to claim it in a timely and secure manner.

Such actions by the airline may serve to void its liability limits, and there's a good chance that a Small Claims Court in particular will be sympathetic to such a claim, and the Court in such a case may choose to increase the airline's liability up from the default statutory limit to the actual replacement costs incurred by you of replacing the items lost.

Forcing you to check a carry-on bag

The second scenario arises when an airline forces you to check a bag that you had expected to take onto the plane with you as a carry-on item.

If the bag you are forced to check (in conjunction with any/all other items you are attempting to carry onto the plane) complies with the airline's normal Conditions of Carriage provisions for carry on items (ie it isn't too big or too heavy and you don't have too many other items you are also carrying on with you), but you are forced to check the bag due to whatever operational reason primarily to serve the convenience of the airline (maybe a brief period of heightened security, or a simple lack of space in the aircraft cabin) and if, as a result of checking the bag, you suffer either damage or a loss, then it would seem likely that the airline's deliberate negation of its own Conditions of Carriage contract with you also negates any exclusionary provisions or limits on liability that would otherwise apply.

In particular, airlines seek to exclude themselves from any liability towards the loss of fragile or valuable items in checked baggage.  Accordingly, prudent passengers choose to pack these items in their carry on baggage.  If the airline now insists on checking that carry on bag, it seems fair that they must accept an unlimited liability for the safety of the contents of that bag.

Again, this is a line of reasoning that you may well find a Small Claims Court sympathetic towards accepting.

What if You Can't Agree with the Airline on Your Claim

If you can't agree with the airline about how much you should be reimbursed, there are two things to do.

First, because it is easy and sometimes surprisingly quick, complain to the US Department of Transportation.  You can even do this online.

We've heard stories of such complaints bringing very fast and positive responses from airlines.  But if nothing happens, or you're still not satisfied, your second recourse is to file a claim with your local Small Claims Court.

The Small Claims Court will still be largely influenced by the Department of Transportation or Montreal Convention limits, but it might have a more generous interpretation of how much you can claim, up to these limits, and especially on matters such as our example above with the used suit - they're more likely to agree that you should be reimbursed its full replacement cost, not its depreciated value.

In other words, if you're claiming $10,000 from the airline for baggage lost on a domestic flight, and the airline is only offering you $3500, it is unlikely that the Small Claims Court will choose to break the DoT limit.

But if you're asking for $2000 and the airline is only offering $1000, the Court will certainly consider why you think you should get $2000 rather than $1000 and would be able to award you the full $2000 if it chose to.

In particular, you should argue that instead of being paid the depreciated value of items, you should be paid their full replacement value, as is common practice with insurance claims, and as more fairly reflects your out of pocket expense.  The fact that you're 'benefitting' (in a very small way) by getting newer replacements of the items you lost can be considered to offset the overall inconvenience and unpleasantness of the baggage loss.  A bit like shoes, sometimes there's something very comforting with an older item of clothing that still has many years of life associated with it, and replacing this, involuntarily, as a result of the airline losing it is in no way a benefit to you at all!

You have no guarantee of winning your action in the Small Claims Court, of course, but if your claim is fair and well documented, then the chances are probably more in your favor than not.

Be careful, if accepting any money from the airline, to ensure that you don't have to sign an indemnity waiver which says that, in accepting the money offered, you agree that this is a full and fair settlement and won't seek to get more money later - unless of course you do fairly agree and have no intention of seeking more compensation subsequently.  Sometimes you might have to refuse to accept an airline payment because it has 'strings attached'.

Note also the preceding section on special situations.  These special situations have not been tested in authoritative Appellate Courts (as far as I am aware) and may or may not prevail in any such future cases, although on the face of them, they appear to have a good chance of success.

Happily, in the case of Small Claims Courts, where equity is as much an issue as are any other considerations, you may find such reasoning persuasive and accepted by the Court.

How to Minimize the Risk of Baggage Loss

Sadly, there's nothing you can do to stop the airlines from losing your baggage.  But you can help them find it again if it does get lost, and there are a couple of minor things you can do to help reduce the chance of your bags going astray

Reducing the chance of your bags disappearing

Take anything that might confuse automatic bag scanning machines off the bag.  If you have bits of old luggage labels still on your bags anywhere, be sure to remove them.

When checking your bags in, carefully watch to make sure that each bag is properly tagged with its bag tag, and check you get your copies of the tags, and that they correctly show your destination and flight.

Try not to check in late for a flight, and try and make sure you don't have very tight connections if you're changing planes on your journey.

Making it easier for your bag to be found again

Make your bag as distinctive as possible.  One more generic black soft sided wheeled bag, in a warehouse full of generic black soft sided wheeled bags, is going to be much harder to find than one with purple and yellow stripes.

Well, you don't have to paint purple and yellow stripes on your bag, but anything you can do to make it more obvious would be a good idea, starting off with, next time you buy a suitcase, perhaps considering a color other than black.

We always put a MyTag on our bags.  This large bright yellow tag with our name printed in bold letters makes the bag much easier to see, and the MyTag is unlikely to come off due to its sturdy tie.

Check that whatever address information you have on the outside of your bag is current and correct.  This might sound trivial, but it is surprising how many people have out of date information on their bag labels.

Include your contact information inside your bag, too, in case the label on the outside of the bag gets torn off.

We suggest you have both your contact information and also a trip itinerary inside your bag.  Put both these things in a large (eg 9x12) envelope on the top of everything else, and prominently label the envelope 'Contact Details if Luggage Lost'.  The reason for trip itinerary information is that if your bag is lost on the early part of your trip, it will be easier for it to be sent to you while you're still traveling.

When to Expect Payment

Once you've finally agreed on everything with the airline, don't expect your payment immediately.  It can take the airlines several months to then actually send you the agreed payment.

Is this fair?  No.  But it is, sadly, typical practice for the airlines, and there's very little you can do to try and encourage them to be more responsive.

How to Minimize the Inconvenience of Luggage Loss

You've probably read this before, but it is worth repeating.  Never put anything in checked luggage that you can't survive without or replace.

This means making sure you have an adequate supply of medications in your carry-on, plus things like trip vouchers, ID and credit cards, maybe even camera and used film.  In my case, I never check my computer, and similarly, I never check my computer's power supply or other essential peripherals.  I also make sure I have both my cell phone and charger with me.

Because the airlines will try to limit their liability if they lose your bags, make sure you also carry with you anything small and expensive, and anything which the airlines might exclude from reimbursing you if lost (this includes many electronic items as well as jewelry).

Things the Airlines Try to Refuse Liability For

Different airlines may have slightly different lists, but in general, they will usually attempt to refuse liability for the loss, delay, or damage to the following :

  • Antiques

  • Antlers

  • Business Equipment

  • Chinawear, glas, ceramics, pottery

  • Computer Equipment and related items

  • Documents (personal or business, negotiable papers)

  • Electronic and Mechanical Equipment

  • Eyeglasses, binoculars, sunglasses

  • Film

  • Fragile Items

  • Irreplaceable Items

  • Items made of paper including books, maps, securities

  • Jewelry

  • Keys

  • Manuscripts

  • Medication

  • Money, gift cards, gift certificates

  • Musical instruments

  • Paintings or one of a kind works of art

  • Perishable Items

  • Pets/Animals

  • Photographs

  • Photographic Equipment

  • Precious metals and stones

  • Recreational and sporting goods

  • Samples

  • Securities

  • Silverware

  • Tools

  • Watches

Note that these lists of things they won't be responsible for may not comply with the obligations placed on them by the US Department of Transportation.

The regulation that applies is wide-ranging and very clear in its intent.  It doesn't say "except for fragile items" and neither does it say "except for expensive items" or anything else.  Instead, it says the airline "shall not limit its liability" - which is of course exactly what the airline is attempting to do.

Bonus - Consequential Damages

So your bag was delayed or lost.  By the time you discovered the bag was not going to arrive onto the carousel, and by the time you finally finished filling out a claim at the airline's baggage service counter, the last shuttle or bus had already come and gone, and you had to take a taxi to your hotel.

That should be considered a consequential damage - 'damage' in the legal sense of a harm, not necessarily 'damage' in the sense of knocking a chip off an item.  It would seem that the intention of the DoT regulation is that you should be able to claim the taxi fare as a consequential damage.

Don't Buy Airline Insurance

Most airlines will offer to sell you insurance to extend their liability to a higher value than would otherwise be the case.  This insurance typically will cost you $1 - $2 per each extra $100 of cover, and is still subject to the same exclusions (see above).

This is a very poor value for insurance cover.  Fewer than one in ten thousand bags end up being totally lost, which means the cost to the airline of selling you this premium is actually 1 per $100, but they sell it to you for $1+ per $100!

Wouldn't you like to be able to sell things for one hundred times (or more) their cost price?

What's more, you probably don't need this, at any price!  If you're worried about your possible risk, check with your regular insurer and see if your householder's insurance policy will cover you for items lost by the airline.  Chances are, in just about every case, you already have this cover (although subject to whatever deductible that might apply).

What Happens if the Airline Finds Your Bag After Reimbursing You for its Loss

Most likely, when accepting payment from the airline for your lost luggage, you are also signing over ownership to your lost property to the airline, in case they subsequently find it.

In such a case, it is very unlikely the airline would even tell you if they subsequently found your bag.  Instead, they'll probably sell it, at a very low price, to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, AL.  And, no, there's no way you can ask the UBC to look out for your bag.  They have thousands of items come in every day, and no system for trying to match bags to their lost owners.


Never pack anything irreplaceable in your checked luggage, because there is always a small chance it might be lost or broken or stolen.

If something does go wrong, you can negotiate with the airline to get the fairest resolution to your inconvenience.  Don't necessarily believe their first offer is their best offer.

Don't expect to profit on the deal, but any unreimbursed loss can probably be claimed from your regular householder's insurance policy.

Read more in Part 1

In Part 1 we explain the process to follow when your bag is first delayed, and what to do to ensure the airline best compensates you for any clothing or other items you might need to purchase prior to your bag's return.

You need to know these things, because just about every bag that is permanently lost starts off as missing.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 4 Feb 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 delayed
Your Rights if your luggage is lost
Luggage Transportation Services
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