Don't Let Careless Airlines Ruin Your Vacation

Amanda had been looking forward to her trip to Ireland for months. She'd bought her tickets, made her hotel reservations, and planned activities in three different cities. Everything was well planned...

But her trip hit a snag before it even started.

Amanda was supposed to fly from Baltimore to Philadelphia, and then on to Dublin. But the flight from Baltimore was so delayed, the airline put her and her fellow travelers in cabs to Philadelphia in hopes they wouldn't miss their connections.

Amanda got to Philadelphia 30 minutes before her flight. She checked her bags, making sure to tell the man working the baggage counter that she was going to Dublin, not Tel Aviv (the flights were leaving around the same time). She boarded her plane in the nick of time and settled in, ready to put a stressful day behind her.

But when Amanda arrived at baggage claim in Dublin, she waited... and waited... and waited. Her luggage was nowhere to be found.

She's not alone...

On average, airlines across the globe lose two bags per every 1,000 passengers each year. This includes bags that are "delayed" but make it to their destinations eventually, as well as the few that are really never found again. In 2018, that came to about 24.8 million mishandled bags, according to air transport IT company SITA.

That's nuts. It's a lot of lost luggage. And nothing ruins a vacation like arriving at your destination without your carefully packed suitcase. Of course, what happens to your bags once you hand them off to baggage check is out of your control. But there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of mishandled bags before you get on the plane...

Book a nonstop flight (or give yourself a longer layover). If you're struggling to make your connection, chances are your bags will be, too. Websites like SmarterTravel recommend at least a two-hour layover, but flying nonstop eliminates the chance of your bags being mishandled while they're moved from one aircraft to the next. If you can't fly nonstop, try to get a direct flight so you and your bags don't have to change planes. And avoid switching airlines between flights, as this also increases the likelihood of your bags being lost.

Arrive early to the airport. Besides tight connections, the biggest cause of baggage problems is late check-ins. Arrive several hours early for your flight to give yourself and the airline plenty of time to check your bags (this was likely the problem in Amanda's case). When you do check your bags, keep the baggage receipt. It has important information for airline employees if they need to fill out an "incident report" (a form stating your bags didn't make it to your destination).

And pay attention to what flights are leaving around the same time. In Amanda's case, she knew a flight to Tel Aviv was leaving from Philadelphia around the same time as her flight to Dublin. After she explained that to the airline, it was able to locate her luggage in Israel and return it to her within a few days.

Take pictures. Before you hand over your bags to the airline, take pictures of the exteriors and packed interiors of each one. If a bag is lost, it's much easier to fill out an incident report when you can show the airline employees exactly what your luggage looks like. (This is especially helpful if you're traveling to a country where English isn't widely spoken.) And you'll have an easier time filling out compensation forms if you can prove exactly what you packed.

Make your suitcase easy to identify. In addition to the luggage tag, slip a business card or a card with your identifying information inside the suitcase. If the luggage tag falls off, the airline will still know how to contact you if they find your bag. It's also a good idea to put the phone numbers of each hotel you'll be staying at in case you can't be reached. And consider purchasing a suitcase in a color other than black or navy. Not only is it easier to identify if your luggage is lost... thieves are more likely to grab a bag that looks like everyone else's at baggage claim.

Don't check anything you can't live without – or anything at all. Remember, when it comes down to it, the only person who's going to look out for your luggage is you. And the only way to be sure your bag will make it to your destination is to stick with carry-ons only. If you do decide to check your luggage, make sure you have enough medication, clothing, and toiletries to last several days – long enough that you have time to buy more if your bags don't arrive when you do.

Of course, sometimes you do everything you can and the airline still loses your bags. If you find yourself in that situation, the two most important things to remember are...

  • Don't panic.
  • Don't leave the airport without reporting your luggage missing.

As hard as it might be, try to remain calm. Remember, 97% of delayed suitcases eventually turn up. (Most airlines don't even consider bags "lost" until they've been missing for at least five days.) So in all likelihood, you'll have your luggage back before long. Most airline companies will even arrange to have your luggage delivered to you when it turns up... or offer you compensation for picking it up at the airport yourself.

But do head straight to the baggage counter to report your missing belongings. Many airlines require your bag be reported missing within a set amount of time – this can range from between four and 24 hours. So no matter how tired you are after your flight, don't leave the airport without reporting your luggage missing. And make sure you get a copy of the incident report from the airline before you leave.

Also, be sure to ask about compensation for interim expenses. Most airlines will reimburse you for buying toiletries and for other reasonable expenses, provided you keep your receipts and fill out a reimbursement form within 30 days of reporting your bags missing. Remember, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines aren't allowed to set arbitrary daily reimbursement amounts for interim expenses.

Be your own advocate and be prepared to go to bat for yourself to get your money – and your luggage – back.

Do you have more travel tips? We'd love to hear them... [email protected].

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health and Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 7, 2019