An airline losing your bag can be a very stressful experience, regardless if you’re flying for business or leisure.

Thankfully, it is almost always temporary, with 97% of all missing luggage returned to their owners within two days of being missing.

If an airline does lose your bag, though, even if it is likely to be temporary, you should report to the check-in counter and inform your airline as soon as you think your bag has been lost.

Additionally, the airline is legally required to compensate you if they lose or damage your bags.

When and how much compensation you’re entitled to depends on the airline’s policy and liability limits.

You’re entitled to up to $3,800 for a domestic flight and up to $1,780 for an international one.  

3 Steps to Take When an Airline Loses Your Bag

Perform the following actions when an airline loses your bag. 

1. Inform an Airline Agent

Find the airline baggage desk and report your missing luggage to the agent.

You’ll be asked to provide them with a copy of the bag tag that you received at the airport.

The agent will look up your information and attempt to inform you where your luggage is. 

2. File a Complaint to Your Airline.

You should report your missing luggage to your airline too.

Legally, you have up to 7 days to report missing luggage, but it’s better to report as early as possible.

If you don’t receive your luggage back even after 72 hours, you should contact the airline again and provide specific details of what your bags contained. 

3. Demand compensation

Most of the time, when missing luggage is found, it’s classified as ‘delayed’ rather than ‘lost.’

But before it’s recovered, you may be legally entitled to compensation from the airline, as most airlines will declare a bag as officially lost between five and fourteen days after your flight.

The Department of Transport states that airlines are required to compensate passengers for luggage that’s been damaged, delayed, or lost.

When an Airline Considers a Bag Lost

Most airlines declare a bag officially lost between five and fourteen days after the flight.

But the exact policy depends on the airline.

When your bag gets declared as lost also depends on whether you were on a domestic or international flight, or whether one or multiple airlines were responsible for the flight. 

If your airline doesn’t declare your bags officially lost even after their stated official policy, your airline may be subject to enforcement action by the Department of Transportation. 

It’s Rare for an Airline to Lose Your Luggage

It’s relatively uncommon for airlines to lose your luggage.

Luggage Hero reports there were more than 684,000 lost and mishandled bags by major US airlines in the first three months of 2022.

This equals 0.7% of all bags being lost or mishandled. 

Your Rights If an Airline Loses Your Bag

Once the airline declares your bag is lost, they’re responsible for compensating you for all the bag’s contents, subject to depreciation and maximum liability limits.

Airlines sometimes ask for receipts or other proof of valuable items lost in your bag.

You’re also entitled to compensation for any transport fees you paid for that bag to the airlines. 

You Are Entitled to Compensation if an Airline Loses Your Bag

The Department of Transportation permits airlines to limit their liability for a lost, damaged, delayed bag on a domestic flight to $3,800.

But an airline is legally free to pay you more if they wish. 

For international flights, the Montreal Convention states that passengers are entitled to a maximum of $1,780 for a missing bag. 

Chances of Getting Your Bag Back

You are extremely likely to receive your bag back.

97% of “lost” luggage is returned to its owner in 2 days, with only 3% of luggage never being returned.

Suing an Airline for Lost Luggage

You can sue an airline according to the limits of liability stated in your airline ticket.

Most of the time, you won’t need to sue an airline, as airlines will quickly locate and return your luggage.

In the rare instances they can’t, they should promptly pay you the compensation you’re entitled to. 

What Happens When an Airline Damages Your Luggage

Airlines will repair or reimburse passengers for damaged bags and their contents if the damage occurs while under airline control.

If your bag or its content can’t be repaired, the airline will negotiate compensation with you according to the value of your luggage and depreciation. 

Most airlines don’t accept liability for items like electronics, cash, perishable items, and other valuables.

Your airline’s contract of carriage will list the exclusions. 

U.S. Airlines That Lose the Most Luggage

American Airlines loses the most luggage out of all U.S. airlines.

American Airlines lose 850 bags per every 100,000 bags, followed by JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, and United Airlines. 

6 Steps to Avoid Losing Your Luggage

The following tips will help prevent you from losing your luggage. 

1. Tag Your Bags

Ensure your luggage is properly tagged.

Remove old tags and ensure your new tag is attached to an easy-to-read place. 

2. Use a Luggage Tracker device

Including a luggage tracker device along with other details in your bag is a good idea.

A luggage tracker lets you easily locate your luggage, while including details of your flight on the bag will make it easier for baggage handlers to figure out where your bag needs to be if it gets lost. 

The Apple AirTag is the most popular option with travelers.

3. Check in Early

The last person to check in is also the last person to have their luggage loaded.

That doesn’t guarantee their luggage won’t get lost, but it decreases the chances of it happening.

So try to check your bags in early so that your bags are loaded on time. 

4. Plan a Longer Layover

A longer layover ensures the luggage handlers are less likely to lose your bags while transferring them onto the new plane. 

5. Ensure Your Bag Won’t Easily Get Trapped or Stuck

Remove or secure long straps or other zips that could get snagged or caught while transported over a conveyor belt.

It’s especially common for backpacks to get stuck.

6. Make Your Bag Easily Recognizable

Most people are in a hurry to collect their bags after a long flight, which means that sometimes, they might accidentally grab the wrong bags.

So make your bags easily recognizable by attaching a large, colorful tag or place any other easily identifiable features on your bag.

In conclusion:

  • You should immediately report your missing luggage to the airline and the baggage counter.
  • Most airlines only report your bags as missing between 5 and 14 days after not being found.
  • Once declared missing, the airline is legally required to compensate you for your bag and its contents – subject to depreciation and liability limits.
  • You can sue an airline if they fail to provide this compensation, but most will provide it quickly.
  • The airline will negotiate the compensation with you, but they won’t pay for certain items, like electronics, and perishable goods, if they’re in the airlines’ exclusion list.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).