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
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
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
The airlines have a fairly
long list of valuable items which they won't reimburse you for
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
Airlines will commonly seek
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Transporting luggage on a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Computer Equipment and
Documents (personal or
business, negotiable papers)
Items made of paper
including books, maps, securities
Money, gift cards,
Paintings or one of a kind
works of art
Precious metals and
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
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+
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
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.
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4 Feb 2005, last update
17 Apr 2019
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.