The Disappearing Luggage Principle – What to do if your luggage is lost or delayed

Updated October 18, 2016

It’s downright horrifying to realize you don’t have your bags when you arrive in a new city. The logistics of traveling is complicated enough without having to do without your luggage, but hey, it happens.

The first thing to remember is not to panic. Take it from me, you’re less likely to make good decisions when you’re freaking out. Fortunately, there are tried and true systems in place to locate lost luggage – the airlines have been losing bags since commercial flight began and usually they know just what to do.

The first thing you need to do when you realize your bag isn’t coming down the chute is to visit the airport’s baggage claims office in the baggage claim area.

Here are some more tips on  what to do if your luggage is lost or delayed:

What to do if your baggage is delayed

Rule Number One: remember that 98% of all misplaced luggage is returned eventually. Those are great odds – so don’t sweat it too hard.

There are three possible scenarios for what’s happened to your bags:

  1. They didn’t make the flight: They should arrive on the next flight but you’re likely to have to wait a few hours to a day to get them back (unless the airport doesn’t have daily service from your departure city in which case it could be longer). If there are no more flights period to where you’ve landed, trust me, you have bigger issues to worry about than bag delays.
  2. They were put on a wrong flight: They’ve likely gone to another airport, causing you a potentially longer wait since the bags will have to be rerouted, and there may not be a direct flight from where they are to your current location.
  3. They were on your flight but for some reason didn’t make it to the right carousel: This is the best possible scenario since you should only have to wait a few minutes for the staff to track them down.


Airlines usually will, but aren’t obliged to deliver your lost bags to you when they come around – so be nice to the attendant who’s helping you. It does make a difference. Some airlines will even reimburse you for expenses tallied due to the loss. Be sure to ask them about delivery and reimbursement when filing your claim.

Don’t leave the airport without information on how to check the status of your delayed bags – some airlines will have you call, some will have you check online and you’ll probably need a reference number. Make sure you’ve got all the relevant information before you leave the airport.

What to do if your baggage is lost

If the airlines doesn’t know where your bag is, don’t panic. Have we said that enough? Panic never helps. Secondly, start a written “lost luggage” claim, sometimes different than a “missing luggage” claim. There’s a specific sum that Airlines are liable to pay you if they cannot locate your stuff. It caps at about $3000 for US domestic flights but the limits vary for international flights as they are set by international tariff law. If you have travel insurance (and you should for more than lost luggage expenses) you need to file your claim with the airline first.

To get reimbursed, it’s helpful to have an inventory of everything you had in your bag, so they can return to you the maximum extent of what you lost. Receipts from your wares are extremely helpful, especially if the item was expensive, like a laptop. Of course the airlines won’t reimburse for certain expensive items like heirlooms, jewelry and other valuables, so if you must travel with these things, keep them in your carry-on.


What to do if your baggage is stolen

The best way to keep bag theft from happening is to head directly to the carousel as soon as you deplane. Most airlines now scan luggage as its off-loaded so they have a record for these sorts of instances.

If you suspect your bag’s been stolen, confirm that it’s been unloaded with the bag claim office, and then go immediately to the police, not the airport personnel, and file a report. You’ll need it to collect from the insurance company.

How to make it easier on yourself

The best way to keep a lost, delayed or stolen bag situation from getting worse to nip it in the bud. Here are a few things you can do to either prevent these situations from happening or else keep them from becoming more trouble than they need to be.

  • Keep your name on—and in—all your pieces, in indelible ink.
  • Make an inventory of what’s in your bag. If it gets lost, the airlines, or insurance company, will want to know what’s inside (so they can reimburse you!). A list will make the process of remembering easy. Keep the list with your other important docs on your person or in your carry-on. You can also scan it or take a picture of the list and keep it in your cloud if you’d rather not cart around so many papers.
  • Write down the size, color and brand of your bag. It’s amazing how unhelpful your memory is when called upon to describe your baggage. A picture or two wouldn’t hurt either.
  • If your bag isn’t eye-catching, embellish it. Make it stand out from the other nondescript black luggage coming down the ramp with colorful tags, ribbons or iron-on patches.
  • Keep your claim ticket. I know they’re small, but stick them to your passport or your wallet, or anything but your boarding pass, which you’ll probably lose track of as soon as you’re on the plane. It’ll make the lost bag claim go a lot smoother if you can provide them with the barcode of your bag.
  • Try not to check in late for your flight. The airport crew may be crafty but they’re not time travelers. If you’re too late, they may not have sufficient time to get your bag on the plane. You can run through the airport, your bag cannot.
  • Avoid short connection times. Again, the process for getting a bag from one flight to another flight may be quick for a body, but a bag has to be unloaded, scanned, transported, handled, scanned again and loaded. Quick connections may seem ideal for someone with legs but may end up causing problems for your poor helpless baggage.
  • Keep your important documents, major valuables, money and passports on you (in your carry-on bag).
  • Get travel insurance. Having a little protection on the road makes your life easier in the long run. Trust us.
  • One final way to prevent a lost or delayed baggage situation is to carry-on only and keep your suitcase with you. Take it with you on the plane so it doesn’t end up here.

If you ultimately find yourself without your luggage be sure to file a claim immediately. Be kind to airport staff – they know what to do in these situations and will help you out.

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