Here's how to find your lost luggage and what compensation airlines owe you if they lose your luggage.

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There's nothing more of a headache than when an airline loses track of your checked luggage and you arrive at your destination, but your belongings don't.

But travel experts say lost or delayed luggage can actually present an opportunity: go shopping with the airline's money.

“When your suitcase is delayed, you're basically allowed to buy the things you need in the meantime,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Going.com, a travel advice site.

Of the 362.6 million bags checked on direct flights with the 10 largest airlines and their partners between January and September, 2.25 million were lost or damaged, according to a report from the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection.

The rate of bag mishandling was even worse this year: Airlines lost or damaged 93,275 more bags between January and September 2023 compared to the same period the previous year, according to the same report.

The plus side is that federal regulations actually require airlines to compensate passengers for expenses they incur when their bags don't get from point A to point B as promised in the airlines' contracts of carriage.

Specifically, under the Department of Transportation regulationsIf a bag is delayed, airlines must reimburse customers for “reasonable, verifiable and actual incidental expenses” and cannot set limits on daily expenses, such as $50, for each day a bag is delayed.

Rolexes probably not covered

That's the advantage of having an airline temporarily misplace your bag: you basically get to go shopping for free.

“You're not going to buy a Rolex, a lot of people wouldn't consider that reasonable. But if you need a new set of clothes and a new hairbrush, those are things that absolutely should be reimbursed by the airlines,” Keyes said. “Personally, I wouldn't spend thousands and thousands because the airline might fight you or say it's not a reasonable expense, but you don't need to scrimp and save and only shop at the dollar store.”

Reasonable expenses may include the cost of lost or delayed clothing, toiletries and more.

“At first glance, when your bag doesn't show up and is delayed, it seems like a headache, then you step back and say it's actually an opportunity,” Keyes said.

It's similar to when an airline, after canceling a leg of your trip, rebooks you at no additional cost on a more favorable flight that would have otherwise cost you more money.

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When is a suitcase considered lost?

The exact number varies from airline to airline, but most allow between five and 14 days to attempt to locate a particular piece of luggage before declaring it lost, at which point passengers are entitled to a refund for the lost items.

Under DOT regulations, passengers on domestic flights are entitled to claim up to $3,800 depending on the total combined value of the items they were traveling with.

Airlines will typically request an accounting of items, particularly valuables, contained in lost bags, or proof of the contents through photographs or receipts.

“You won't automatically get $3,800, but if you have things in there that add up to that amount, you'll get it back,” LegalShield attorney Ben Farrow told CBS MoneyWatch. “If you packed fancy tuxedos and a ball gown, and things of value that you could prove were there, they'd pay up to $3,800.”

On international flights, even though most passengers carry more items when traveling abroad, the maximum reimbursement limit is about $1,700, according to a treaty called the Montreal Convention.

Wheelchairs, walkers, prostheses

An exception to the limit applies for passengers traveling with prostheses or assistive devices such as walkers and wheelchairs.

If an airline loses a passenger's assistive device on a domestic flight, the company is responsible for the full cost of the device, even if it exceeds $3,800.

International flights are less clear. Assistive devices lost on flights abroad are “subject to the maximum limit of liability established by the applicable international treaty.” according to the DOT.

How to get a refund

When the conveyor belt at the baggage claim area stops spinning and your suitcase has not appeared, immediately submit a lost baggage claim ticket to the airline.

Know your rights, outlined above, and if an airline tries to give you a $50 voucher, refuse it.

Generally speaking, the more information and documentation you can provide to the airline, the better your chances of receiving a full refund.

“Especially if it's electronics or equipment, having the model numbers, serial numbers and photographs is much better,” Teresa Murray, US PIRG consumer advocate, told CBS MoneyWatch. “They won't expect receipts for things you bought five years ago, but you'll need to have some kind of breakdown.”

Delta

Submit a form to report your delayed, damaged or lost bags to the airline here.

To receive reimbursement for expenses incurred related to Delta delayed baggage, save your provisional cost receipts and submit them through the airline's “Out-of-Pocket Expenses” form. Receipts are required for reimbursement, the airline notes on its site.

Delta states on its website that “reasonable expenses are generally determined at $50” per day, although it acknowledges that is not a limit it can impose.

United

Report lost or delayed luggage to the United Baggage Service counter at the airport or online using your bag's checked baggage tag number.

The airline states on its site that “if your baggage is delayed, we will reimburse you for any surprise costs if you send us receipts.”

Submit provisional cost receipts while your bag is missing here. Claims are typically processed within four to six weeks, the airline notes.

Passengers can file claims for permanently lost bags after five days here describing the bag, listing what is inside, and presenting evidence of its contents, if possible.

American

The airline advises passengers to report the loss of their bags within four hours of arriving at their destination. Report lost luggage to the airline's baggage service office before leaving the airport and use the identification number they provide. file claims online for your refund.

South west

First, file a report in person at the airport or online. Please do so within four hours of arrival. Submit receipts for reimbursement through the same portal. After five days, file a claim for compensation for lost suitcases.

Rules of the game

To prepare for a scenario in which an airline misplaces or permanently loses your luggage, follow these tips from travel and consumer rights experts.

  • Always take a quick photo of the outside of your bag, as well as its contents, before closing it and checking with the airline.
  • Book a non-stop flight to simplify baggage check logistics.
  • Pay for your ticket and checked baggage by credit card; Card companies often offer customer protections in addition to airline guarantees.
  • Keep medications and other valuables in your carry-on bag.
  • Use a AirTag or similar tracking device to monitor the whereabouts of your bag.


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