On par with a canceled flight, lost luggage has the kind of trip-ruining potential that makes most travelers cringe. And judging by the stuffed overhead compartments on most planes, consumers do everything they can to ensure they never have to part with their belongings. But here's the reality: The odds of losing your bags are pretty slim. In fact, according to an Air Travel Consumer Report issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines reported only 3.71 cases of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers in the first half of 2014. That gives you a less than a 1 percent chance of losing your luggage. But if you're stuck at the airport looking at an empty luggage carousel with no suitcase in sight, it can feel like the odds aren't really in your favor. Here are four ways to increase your chances of seeing your bag at your final destination, plus a few tips for what to do if it's disappeared.
Get to the airport early and avoid tight connections
If you know you need to check a bag, give yourself plenty of time at the airport. Delta Air Lines recommends arriving at the airport at least 75 minutes before your flight's departure if you're traveling within the United States. This gives your bag plenty of time to get through its Transportation and Security Administration screening and onto the tarmac. And before you send the bag on to the conveyer belt at check-in, make sure the routing label is correct and that it lists your final destination. While the airline industry has toyed with the idea of using digital luggage tags, or plastic reusable e-tags that display a bar code and passenger details, it hasn't adopted this technology yet, meaning you'll have to rely on the gate agent to get it right.
If you have to make a connection, try to avoid short layovers; the odds of losing your bag only increase. Why? Because if your inbound flight is late, that also shortens the amount of time baggage handlers have to transfer your suitcase from one plane to the next. If you're making a connection at an international airport, you may be responsible for retrieving your luggage from baggage claim and getting it rechecked, which means you'll need an even longer layover. When you check in for your first flight, ask the airline representatives if your bags will get transferred automatically.
Prep your bag
It's not novel advice, but embellishing your bag with bright belts, ribbons or other unique identifiers is one of the best ways to ensure your suitcase isn't accidentally taken by one of your fellow travelers. After all, if it's not the airline misplacing your luggage, it's probably a hasty flier. Plus, bright or unusual decoration might also catch the eye of a baggage handler who would've otherwise left it on the baggage cart. After you prep the outside of your bag, don't forget to prep the inside, too. Include a copy of your itinerary with your contact information inside the bag so that if the ID tag on the outside gets damaged, airline representatives still have a way of contacting you.
Travel experts suggest going into your trip assuming your bag will go missing, meaning you should avoid packing any irreplaceable items or medications that would be dangerous to lose in your suitcase. Keep your valuable belongings stowed in your purse or backpack (the one small personal item you'll never be forced to check at the gate). Before you pack everything in your suitcase, snap a picture of all the items inside. Cataloguing your possessions will help you provide a monetary estimate to the airline should your bag disappear. After you're all packed, take another photo of the outside of the suitcase and, if you can, try standing next to it in the picture: It may seem silly to take a selfie with your luggage, but this photo will give the airline a better idea of the exact size of your bag, in addition to its general color and shape.
Invest in a tracking device
Electronic luggage tags may not be on the market yet, but several luggage tracking devices have already made their way onto every frequent flier's must-have list. Several companies sell variations of a tracking device, including Trakdot, LugLoc and PocketFinder, but all essentially employ GPS technology and companion smartphone apps to help you keep tabs on your bag. Most are small, meaning they won't take up too much room in your suitcase, and run anywhere from $49.99 and $129.95. While these tools won't prevent your bag from getting lost, they can help you locate your stuff if it's missing (and speed up the recovery process for the airline).
See: How to Pack Light
Know your rights
If you arrive at baggage claim to find your luggage isn't on the carousel, file a report with the airline before you leave the airport. And make sure that the airline representative helping you gives you a copy of the report, as well as their name and a phone number for you to follow up (even if you're assured that your bag is likely on the next inbound flight from your origin destination). Before you leave, also double check that whenever your bag is located it will be delivered to you at no additional charge.
While the Department of Transportation does ensure that airlines reimburse consumers for lost bags (a maximum of $3,300 per passenger on domestic flights and $1,131 per passenger on international flights), it does not offer guidelines for delayed bags. Depending on the airline, you may receive money to buy necessary toiletries. If the airline doesn't provide cash on the spot, ask which items are eligible for reimbursement and save your receipts.
If your bag is officially declared lost, you'll have to fill out a second, more detailed report, which will help the airline estimate the value of your bag and its contents. You'll also want to notify your homeowners or renters insurance provider: lost luggage falls under the off-premises coverage, meaning you could be eligible for some compensation from your insurance company, too. On the bright side, if the airline loses your luggage, it's obligated to reimburse you for the checked baggage fees thanks to a mandate by the DOT.