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It’s a situation every traveler dreads: You’ve spent a long day flying, and you’re ready to collect your luggage and head to your hotel. After half an hour of bags slowly trickling out onto the baggage carousel, the band stops and you’re standing there without your bags.
You take one lap around the baggage carousel and check the nearby baggage claims, but your bag is nowhere to be found. What should you do now?
Here’s everything you need to know about delayed baggage compensation and how each airline handles delayed luggage.
How is “delayed baggage” defined?
With billions of bags checked globally on airlines annually, delayed baggage is inevitable. But the chances that your bag will be delayed are relatively small.
Only one in every 200 bags is delayed, according to SITA, a leader in air transport communications and information technology.
If your luggage doesn’t arrive on the same flight as you, it’s considered delayed. Your bag won’t be considered lost until it cannot be located for a specific number of days as determined by the airline, usually between 5-14 days after your flight.
» Learn more: Why you might want travel delay insurance this year
What baggage delay compensation am I entitled to?
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, you are entitled to compensation for reasonable incidental expenses you incur because of your delayed baggage, up to the maximum liability limits, set by statute.
For U.S. domestic flights, this is $3,800 per passenger. The Montreal Convention determines liability limits for most international flights and are currently around $1,700 per passenger.
DOT also notes that airlines cannot set an arbitrary limit on incidental expenses that they will reimburse when baggage is delayed.
Airlines can offer more reimbursement than this amount, but they are not required to.
» Learn more: Is an AirTag good for lost luggage?
What you should do if your baggage is delayed
If your baggage did not arrive as expected at the baggage claim, you should proceed to your airline's baggage service office at the airport. Filing a claim is the first step in getting your bags back and ensuring that you can later claim for incidental expenses against the airline.
The airline will ask you to produce your baggage claim check ticket, describe your bag’s appearance using a standardized coding system and collect your address for luggage delivery.
Once the airline has opened a missing baggage claim, you will receive a claim number, which will be different from your bag tag number.
Many airlines offer passengers with delayed luggage amenity kits with essentials like a toothbrush and toothpaste, a t-shirt, hand sanitizer and a comb.
These kits probably won’t be all of the essentials you need, but they sometimes contain what you need to get to bed if you arrive at your destination late at night and don’t want to run to the store until the morning.
If the airline does not have a baggage service desk at the airport or if the baggage service desk is closed, call your airline’s customer service phone number to file a baggage claim. Some airlines also allow you to submit a claim online.
Per International Air Transport Association rules, the last airline that carried your baggage is responsible for delivering your baggage and servicing any claims.
Even if you purchased your ticket, checked in and flew most of your itinerary with just one airline, if another airline operates the final leg of your flight, that airline is responsible for handling your baggage claim.
Individual airline policies on delayed baggage
Most airlines give guidance on the compensation they offer for delayed luggage and expense reimbursement. While the airline may provide a specific dollar amount of what it believes is a reasonable amount of expenses, remember that U.S. statute and/or the Montreal Convention govern the liability limits for airlines.
Here is what the major U.S. airlines typically provide customers when it comes to delayed baggage compensation.
Alaska Airlines indicates that you can get reimbursed for essentials when your baggage is delayed, including for toiletries and clothing.
To claim expense reimbursement, you must present your receipts at the airport to the baggage office where you filed the delayed baggage claim. Here are a few things to keep in mind with Alaska Airlines:
Keep all receipts for travel essentials.
Receipts must be presented to the airport baggage service office.
The baggage service office can be contacted at 1-877-815-8253.
American Airlines will reimburse customers for items needed if bags are delayed.
You must submit itemized receipts within 30 days of your baggage delay. If you submit a reimbursement request to American, here are a few things to remember:
American will only reimburse you for “reasonable and necessary items.”
To seek reimbursement, you must be traveling away from your home.
Keep all receipts, which must be original, dated and itemized.
Any reimbursement will be deducted from your settlement amount if your bag is lost.
Delta Air Lines
Delta will reimburse you for reasonable expenses incurred if your bag is delayed, which the airline defines as up to $50 per day for up to five days. You must submit receipts for all expenses claimed. Here are the highlights of Delta’s policy:
You must submit a baggage claim form to receive reimbursement for expenses.
Delta will provide a rebate for any checked bag fees you paid if your bag is delayed more than 12 hours.
Any reimbursements will be deducted from your final claim settlement if your bag is deemed lost.
Southwest Airlines does not make an explicit customer service promise about compensation for delayed luggage, but it is referenced in its Contract of Carriage.
Therefore, it’s worth it to at least ask for reimbursement by submitting a delayed baggage claim. Like the other carriers, you will need to provide receipts.
Here are a few key points from Southwest’s Contract of Carriage:
Southwest will compensate you for “reasonable, documented damages” you incur because of a delayed bag.
You must make a reasonable effort to reduce the damages caused by the delay of your bag.
If Southwest determines your bag is lost, it will provide reimbursement of the original purchase price minus any depreciation.
United Airlines allows you to claim reimbursement of reasonable expenses that you incur because of a baggage delay. Here are a few notes from United’s policy:
To submit a claim for reimbursements, you must be traveling to a location that is not your home airport.
You must submit receipts with your claim for reimbursement for expenses.
If your bag can’t be located after five days, you can claim it as lost and United will pay you $1,500 per bag, without requiring further documentation. However, any reimbursement you’ve received for delayed bags will be deducted from this amount.
» Learn more: The Guide to Baggage Insurance
Travel insurance for delayed luggage compensation
While many airlines will reimburse you for expenses associated with delayed bags, travel insurance can also cover these expenses. Delayed baggage insurance is often included in comprehensive travel insurance plans, and it may be able to reimburse you at a higher limit than the airline, depending on your specific policy. This can be useful if you travel with higher-value items.
Many travelers may already have baggage delay insurance simply by holding a travel credit card — be sure to check your card’s terms and conditions to find out if that’s the case.
Delayed baggage compensation, recapped
If an airline doesn’t deliver your luggage when you get off the plane, you’re entitled to claim reimbursement of reasonable expenses while your baggage is delayed. But don’t expect to be able to go on a shopping spree or get a large cash payout.
While airlines will likely reimburse you for a toothbrush, toothpaste and undergarments, it probably won't cover the cost of a designer handbag or limited-edition sneakers.
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