How to Make Sure Your Checked Bag Arrives When You Do (Or Soon After)

If you are checking a bag, assume it will get lost — at least for a little while. Split up your most important items, try to carry on the things you can’t do without in first day, and don’t put all of your most valuable items in the same bag.

Checked bags will get lost. Not every time, of course, just when you’re the one checking them and when you need their contents the most.

They’re most likely to get lost when:

  • Transferring bags between airlines. It’s an extra complication and condition that needs to go right.
  • You have a short connection, whether because of flight delays or not
  • There are disgruntled employees. When Alaska had a baggage handler job action I had one bag mutilated to shreds and another sent to Reno rather than Seattle.

Airlines are better at tracking bags than they used to be, but things go wrong with bags outside of your control. This becomes especially problematic when the contents are super-important or you’re traveling beyond the ticket you’re flying on when you checked the bags.

Assume your bags will not make it when you do. Carry on clothes that will get you through, along with whatever else is vital.

I’ve had plenty of good luck with checked bags. I’ve left bags in Bankok on a 14 hour overnight without problems. I’ve had Cathay Pacific retrieve and re-tag bags more than once mid-trip to send them to a different destination than they were originally checked to. I’ve usually had no problems. But I always plan as though I will.

In addition to packing items in a carry on as insurance, and being willing to make purchases at your destination when bags do get lost, you should:

  • Have identifying marks on your bag — tags, contact information inside the bag as well, and something unique on the outside so it stands out. You don’t want the airline looking for an unidentified and unidentifiable black bag.
  • Take a photo of your bags, I usually wind up doing this at the airport with my phone as I am turning the bag over to airline employees. That makes it easier to explain what it looks like.

Odds on, you’ll be ok.

And don’t forget that in addition to getting compensation from an airline that lost your bags you may be able to get something from the credit card that you used to purchase the ticket.

With American Express it’s generally up to $500; with Visa Signature it’s $100 per day ($300 maximum) when you’re separated from your bags for over 18 hours; World MasterCard is similar to Visa Signature except that the delay only needs to be 4 hours. Your specific card benefits may vary, but save your receipts and call your card issuer to process a claim.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I checked a my rollaboard (a Samsonite spinner you mentioned a few months back) in FAI and honestly did not expect it to make it for some time. I was surprised when it was one of the first onto the carousel. Why? Here’s my itinerary.

    FAI-ANC on AS
    ORD-CLT on US


  2. It is my understanding that interline bags tend to get very high priority and are not as likely to be mishandled. Most of my bag problems have been on inline connections not interline.

  3. My rule of thumb on interline baggage transfers is that I’ll do it as long as the connection happens in a single terminal, since then the bags only have to be moved from the arrival cart back to the induction area.

    If the connection requires a change in terminals, I don’t risk it, as the chance of my bags going for a ride (or not, as the case may be) increases exponentially.

  4. one guy’s trick was to carry a starter pistol, notifying the airline he had a firearm in his luggage

  5. In the 379 most recent segments where I’ve checked a bag, my bag has been delayed exactly once, and I got a free suit out of it in Lisbon.

    Consequently, I don’t mind checking a bag. You often have to walk right past the baggage claim to get out of an airport anyway. And 100% of the time, I have to piss after a flight, so by the time my wife and I take turns pissing and waiting at the baggage carousel, what time we’ve lost is offset by the ease of walking through the terminal without massive rollaboards and lifting them into the overhead bins.

  6. @Erich that works well. Most of the time I travel with a handgun. It’s in a locked case in my locked bag – TSA approved handgun case in hard sided luggage. Depending on where I am going and the gun laws I bring ammo and a clip. Bag has never been lost and even thought I have medallion status it’s consistently one of the first bags out of the chute. It’s a trick I learned while traveling in entertainment. Sometimes I had to check video cameras as luggage and no way I would ever do that with an unlocked bag.

  7. My bag was stolen off the carousel at terminal 3 in Las Vegas about a year ago. There is no way to get there from the arrival gate before your bags do. The United baggage agent said the thieves probably targeted my bag because it was black, expensive (a Tumi), and had a priority handling tag, which of course was also why it came out first. I couldn’t have missed it by more than a minute or two. I have since purchased a cheap bright blue suitcase at Walmart. All the United people I dealt with were outstanding, as were the Las Vegas police personnel at the airport. And United paid most of my substantial claim. I think they may have added security in the baggage claim area since then.

  8. Just had a learning experience about interlining bags. Bangkok BKK, arrived on Vietnam Airlines, departing OZ 5 hours later. We were told by VN we would have to collect bags, leave arrivals area and return to check in with OZ. Lucky we met someone who told us if we left the airport we could not reenter for 3 hours. Solution: leave the bags on the belt, locate the OZ transfer counter (not easy) and wait for the OZ transfer counter to open 3 hours before flight and they retrieved the bags, retagged them and gave us new luggage claim checks at the gate. Nice job OZ but who would know this is how it works? Glad I figured it out before we left the airport.

  9. So I arrived today on Qantas SYD-BNE-LAX. I was flying on miles (business class) but paid for the taxes with my credit card. My and my girlfriend’s bag did not make it. Seems they forgot a bin of luggage in Brisbane and since there is only 1 flight per day, they should come tomorrow.

    Would I be entitled to any compensation? Qantas refused to give me any as I live LA (US address) but since my friend lives in Canada she got $150 cash from Qantas.

  10. All good suggestions,and in addition to taking a picture of the bag itself, take pictures of what you pack. Having been through the process of filing a claim for a lost bag, U S Airways wanted detailed descriptions of everything you packed including cost, date of purchase, etc. even receipts!

  11. Hi Gary, Could you put up a post (or direct us to one) that describes the baggage delay and lost baggage benefits of the major travel cards? It would be great to add finer points to include would be when traveling on award ticket, paying for someone else’s flight, and traveling on points+cash (thinking DL pay w/ points). Thanks!

  12. I charged the taxes and fees for my free ticket on Chase Sapphire. My bag was lost for 12 days. American wanted description, receipt of purchase etc. so totally useless. Can I file a claim with Chase?

  13. I also would like to see a post / guides on how to get credit card to pay you back. Esp when you’re overseas, travelling on miles…etc And what’s the definitely of lost? Permanently lost? Stolen? Or delayed by x days?

  14. Based on personal experience, interlining bags has as much risk of lost bag as connecting flights within the same airline. The key to guarantee interlining is to provide the bag tag at the transfer desk and ask the agent to confirm the transfer.

    The most interesting experience I had with interlining bags was flying EK/BA/AA from NBO-DUB-LHR-JFK. Unbeknownst to me, the AA baggage handler in LHR added a priority tag onto the bag during the transfer, and it was one of the first bags to come out at JFK. Now that’s service!

  15. I have been told (by a Southwest baggage claim office staffer) that UA and AA track all bags in their computer systems; other domestic airlines do not.

  16. > I have been told (by a Southwest baggage claim office
    > staffer) that UA and AA track all bags in their computer
    > systems; other domestic airlines do not.

    Delta scans bags as they move through their system. I’ve used it from the app on my phone. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get misdirected!

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