When Will Your Checked Bags Get Lost, and What Can You Do About It?

When readers shared their own travel tips and several really stood out as worth highlighting.

Jordan said,

Always expect the unexpected when traveling. If you are checking a bag, make sure you pack extra clothes and other neccesary items into a carry-on in case/when things dont go as planned.

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.

  • Transferring bags between airlines. It’s an extra complication and condition that needs to go right.
  • Short connections, whether because of flight delays or not
  • 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.

Some years back I flew a rather roundabout award itinerary to Phuket, Thailand. I overnighted in New York near JFK airport and then flew JFK – San Francisco (I had not yet ever flown United’s “p.s.” premium service and had a ‘free’ chance to do it in first class) – Osaka (that was the only thing available on the day I needed to fly out of either San Francisco or Los Angeles).

It turns out I was thrilled to take that Osaka flight, the purser was probably the best United crew member I’ve ever come across. I had been getting over a cold, I slept most of the flight, and he saved me movies (old tapes you used to stick in the seats) and an ice cream sundae.

My flight out of JFK was delayed because of congestion in New York airspace. Gee, that never happens! And we were also delayed by fog in San Francisco which cut down the airport’s capacity — they couldn’t do simultaneous takeoffs and landings. I made my connection but one bag did not.

When I arrived in Osaka I was met on the jetway by a United employee who let me know my bag was still in San Francisco. I was overnighting and heading to Phuket the next day. It was on one ticket fortunately. The agent took down all of my information and promised the bag would be delivered a day later. Heh.

Three days later the bag made it to the Phuket airport, United first flew it to Osaka and then onward on Thai Airways. But they didn’t authorize delivery of the bag and I was staying at a resort 90 minutes from the airport.

I wound up sending the hotel to collect the bags, and they charged me for an ‘extra’ airport pickup, and quite reasonably so.

My first day outside of Phuket I went into town and bought some clothes and swimwear. I submitted the cost to United, along with the cost of the airport pickup of the bags, and I wound up with a check back for my full cost within a week along with a note explaining this as an ‘exception’ (that they normally would only pay half my cost). Indeed I did not even have a receipt for the clothes purchased in Thailand.

Holiday wasn’t ruined and I didn’t even wind up out of pocket, but I was modest in my purchases largely because I expected I would be.

Jordan‘s advice is sound. 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.


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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Taking a picture of your bag is HUGE. I have been on both sides of the lost bag issue as a customer and as an intern at an airline. The number of people who cannot accurately describe their bag (color, shape, material, identifying marks, tags, etc.) is astounding. Having a picture makes sure everyone is clear on what is missing and allows some airlines to print pictures or email to other stations.

    Also, make sure to book directly with the airline so your info is on the bag tag, not expedia’s address.

    And, the simple stuff, check the tag the agent puts on your bag if you are connecting. Make sure the airports are correct and it is tagged to your final destination!

  2. Or you could take my approach to packing. Take an empty suitcase and buy new clothes. That’s what I did for my last Florida vacation.

  3. Agree about photographing your bag, and taking clothing/toiletries in your carry-on. My checked bags have gone awry several times, but I’ve always managed to get them back relatively soon, and with all contents still in the bag. No bag “beat-up” either. Most of the time I travel with carry-on luggage only; much easier. I can do carry-on only for several weeks of travel in multiple climates; knowing what to pack and how to pack it saves endless headaches.

  4. Gary, Here are some of my useful travel hints.
    1. When traveling with spouse never carry the same credit cards.
    2. take a picture of your passport or license and leave it on the chip in your camera. If the camera is lost this can help someone identify the owner.
    3. when I carry medications I try to portion pack them in those vacuum bags.Keeps them dry.
    4.This can be risky but I have a secure file but I take a picture of my passport all my credit cards I am taking and other important documents and keep them on a secure app on my phone.
    5. This is one based on your advice I take pictures of a returned rental car. I keep the pictures until payment clears.

  5. Another reason for packing clothes in the carry on – you might have enough time for a shower in the DFW Terminal A Admirals Club. Something like 7 shower heads in there. It’s a nice alternative to coming home unshaven and stinky from a long overseas trip.

  6. If you are travelling with a companion and need to check baggage, always take two bags and split your things between the two bags. Happened to me several times that one of the bags hasn’t made it on the flight. That way at least you have half your things!

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