It’s every traveler’s worst nightmare. You’re standing by the luggage conveyor belt, expectantly, as everybody else’s bags tumble out and are claimed by their owners. But yours still hasn’t emerged. Eventually, you realize no new bags are appearing on the belt, and almost every bag has been taken. That feeling of panic and nausea starts to rise up from the pit of your stomach.
Or perhaps you were waiting at the side of a coach or ferry while the driver hauled out everybody else’s bags, but yours mysteriously wasn’t there anymore.
Most frequent travelers have been there. Losing a bag is one of the most common – and stressful – experiences you can have while traveling. After all, your bag is your world. You carefully fitted into it all the essentials you couldn’t live without, and very possibly souvenirs for friends or items of sentimental value, too.
That’s why, apart from being very disruptive to your travel plans, it’s also very upsetting.
Buy a durable luggage tag and put your full name, address, and phone number with an international dialing code on it. Sometimes the paper tags airlines hand out can get ripped off during transit or while they’re being hauled onto luggage carts on the runway. If your luggage is clearly labeled, it makes it a million times easier for it to be identified and returned to you.
You can buy rip-proof luggage tags. Leather or metal are the strongest materials. But you can also buy luggage tags that sync with tracking apps, which use Bluetooth tech to tell you exactly where your bag is.
To cover all bases, also make a photocopy of your passport and put it in your bag on top of your belongings, in case anybody opens your luggage to try to identify the owner (very often operators open your case to look for clues). Also, write your address and phone number clearly on the photocopy.
If you’re traveling on a train, boat, or bus, try to put your luggage in a spot where you can keep your eyes on it, if at all possible. Sometimes the only option is for it to go in the hold, in which case, try to sit somewhere where you can keep an eye on what’s being unloaded from the bus or boat at each stop.
You can negate the chances of losing your luggage because somebody mistook your luggage for theirs by customizing your bag. After all, thousands of people might have the exact same bag as yours. If it’s a backpack, you can customize it by ironing on an embroidery patch, such as the flag of your home country, a place you’ve been, or collect embroidery patches of all the countries you’ve visited.
If it’s a suitcase, you can put stickers on it, or another cheap solution is to stick bands of colorful electrical tape to it to differentiate it from everybody else’s.
If there are any vital items you need for your journey, make sure they’re packed in your hand luggage. Apart from the obvious things like passports and jewelry (which shouldn’t go in your hold luggage anyway in case of theft), think about stuff like maps to the guesthouse/hostel/hotel you’re going to be staying at, reservation documents, etc. so even if your bag is gone, you can still get to your accommodation.
Once you have got all your travel essentials together, it is a great idea to write a list of all the items you have in both your hold bag and your carry-on bag! That way when you get to your destination you can check through your list and have peace of mind that all your items have arrived with you.
For any of your valuable items, such as laptops/tablets, etc. it is really good to keep the receipt in a safe place. This helps if the worst were to happen and something was lost or damaged… if you have the receipt the insurance company or airline will be able to accurately give you the compensation you’re entitled to!
Speaking of insurance companies, before you travel, make sure you get a comprehensive policy to cover any mishaps! It is important to shop around to ensure you get the best deal. Also, if you are traveling with any ‘out of the ordinary’ items, such as skis, musical instruments, or photography equipment, you must ensure these items and their full value are covered by the policy. You can’t go wrong by checking the fine print!
You can also try to mitigate your luggage getting damaged. Although you can’t do much about how luggage handlers might mistreat your bag, you can try to pick the most robust bag possible.
Often with backpacks, the damage is caused by a strap getting caught somewhere then being ripped off; sometimes splitting the bag. There are many types of backpacks that have one big pocket that zips up around the straps and handles while in transit to ensure they don’t get caught on anything.
As a general rule, ultra-strong nylon with YKK-grade zippers is the heaviest duty.
If you’re buying a suitcase, look for a polycarbonate, aluminum, ABS, or polypropylene case. They are lightweight but very durable. It’s worth the investment over a plastic one that could get damaged more easily.
If you’re at an airport and are certain your suitcase is missing, immediately go to report it at the Lost Luggage desk. You can ask the staff where to find the desk.
Give them a clear description of the bag and its contents, including color, size and if it has your name tag on it and/or your contact details inside the case.
They might be able to reunite you with your case right then and there but if they can’t, they’ll ask you to fill in a form describing the bag, its contents, and your address in the location you’re in as well as your home address (this is important because they often will deliver the bag right to your hotel/hostel if they find it).
Also, contact the airline to inform them of the lost luggage. The next step is to check your travel insurance to see if you’re covered for lost or delayed luggage. If you’re covered, they’ll usually refund you for essential items you’ll need to purchase (within reason) while your bag is missing, such as a toothbrush, underwear, etc. Make sure you check your policy first and keep all your receipts!
The procedure is similar if your bag is lost at a coach station or ferry terminal. Report it at the Lost Baggage office and ensure you also report it to the operator.
If the airline is to blame for your lost or delayed baggage, you may qualify for compensation. You must, however, report the problem to the airline and usually do it within seven days. Airlines will typically refund you for toiletries and part of the cost of replacing the contents and bag.
However, they won’t usually pay for ‘new for old’ replacements, anything really valuable or fragile, or for any stress caused by the loss or delay. Typically the compensation is modest; usually no more than $1,200.
The rules for compensation will vary according to whether the operator is a coach company or a ferry company and what their individual policy is. Read the small print on their respective website or ask them directly.
The procedure for damaged bags is firstly to report it at the airport/bus terminal/port, contact the operator directly and also contact your travel insurer as soon as possible, describing the nature of the damage. Take photos of the damage too.
You need to show a copy of your boarding card/ticket, and (if flying) show the luggage label the check-in staff handed to you that corresponds to the barcode they put on your bag (this is usually stuck to your passport or boarding documents).
You also need a copy of the form you used to report the issue, and/or an email from the operator in response to your report. As I previously mentioned, also show all the receipts for any essential items you purchased.
If you can, show proof of purchase for any missing goods such as receipts or credit card statements. If the bag is damaged, get an estimate for repairs from a luggage repair business.
For further advice, look no further than Backpacker Travel’s comprehensive guide on How to Make a Travel Claim this should give you all the information you require should something go awry.
The only remaining thing you can do now is cross your fingers and wait. Most passengers are usually reunited with their luggage eventually, although it may take days, weeks or even months. It’s OK to follow it up every now and again with the operator to ensure they’re still working on it.
With a bit of luck, you’ll have your bag back again, just try to be as patient as you can and keep politely reminding the operator at reasonable intervals.