Travel Troubleshooter

Carol Grilli’s checked luggage vanished during a recent flight from Rome to Dublin. It took five weeks to find her bag, and Aer Lingus offered her only $259 for the trouble — about a third of the expense of replacing the bag and its contents.

“I was so, so frustrated,” says Grilli, a retired state employee from Smithfield, R.I. “It was utter madness.”

During the spring and summer, airlines mishandled tens of thousands of bags. (Remember those images of the luggage piled up at London’s Heathrow Airport?) Most were located quickly, but some stayed missing for weeks or are still gone. And, too often, airlines were reluctant to compensate their customers for the items, paying only a fraction of the replacement costs.

“Lost luggage issues are top of mind for many travelers, with many airlines blaming understaffed airports for this rise in missing luggage,” says Carol Mueller, a vice president at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. “Usually, passengers can get their lost luggage back in time or receive reimbursement from the airline, but these resolutions often take days or weeks to fulfill.”

It turns out there are ways to speed up the process of retrieving your lost luggage. And you can also ensure that you get the maximum compensation from an airline when your luggage goes missing. As we head into the holiday travel season, it’s the perfect time for a refresher. More lost luggage is probably inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be yours.

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Grilli’s lost luggage meant she and her husband had only one change of clothes on their Italian vacation, so they had to go shopping. Factoring in the cost of new clothes and international phone calls, the tab for their lost bags came to about $800. Aer Lingus found the couple’s luggage a month later, but never fully compensated them for the loss. (The maximum baggage liability for most international flights is approximately $1,780 under the Montreal Convention.)

I asked Aer Lingus twice about Grilli’s luggage. The first time, it didn’t respond. The second time, it sent her another check to cover the rest of her losses.

How much does an airline owe you? It depends. Transportation Department regulations stipulate that your airline may compensate you up to $3,800 for a domestic flight. But you have to show receipts for the lost items, which isn’t always possible. And expenses must be reasonable and verifiable, which allows airlines to deny reimbursements for pricey toiletries and designer clothes. Basically, the airline gets to decide how much to pay you for your loss, and there’s no easy way to appeal its decision.

If you check a bag, make sure you avoid packing certain items. “Keep all valuables, electronics and prescription drugs with you in your carry-on,” advises Christina Tunnah, general manager for the Americas at travel insurance company World Nomads. The reason: Airlines exclude those items from liability when you file a claim.

The best way to eliminate lost luggage is obvious: Avoid checking a bag. If you can downsize your luggage to a carry-on, you’ll never have this problem.

But if you must check your bag, the fastest way to get it back is to track it yourself. That’s how Sumeet Sinha found his luggage when it went missing in Switzerland recently. “I’m a classic over-planner,” says Sinha, who publishes FinPins, an investment blog. “I also love gadgets.” He had purchased an AirTag and slipped it into his checked bag. When the bag went missing, he tracked it to a location in the airport, where it was waiting for him.

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“It had fallen behind a crevice at the back end of the luggage carousel,” he says. “When I got my bag, I kissed my AirTag.”

Luggage manufacturers are openly encouraging their customers to track their bags. Samsara Luggage, for example, offers a small pouch for an AirTag in some of its bags.

“Tracking technology used to be exclusively in the hands of the airlines,” says Atara Dzikowski, Samsara’s CEO. “But everyone is now discovering the technology to avoid lost luggage debacles.”

There are other ways to expedite the return of your luggage, which I discovered on a recent flight from London to Kirkenes, Norway. I only checked one bag, containing liquids that wouldn’t get through the security screening process, and carried everything else on the plane. SAS lost my luggage. It asked me to fill out an online form — and that’s when I realized I had made a few rookie mistakes.

First, SAS wanted a picture of the bar-coded tag they’d given me in London. I checked my boarding pass, and there wasn’t one. Then it asked for a picture of the duffle bag. In my hurry to leave London, I’d forgotten to take a picture of the bag and its contents.

The system also asked for a temporary address in Norway. But I didn’t have one. I was a passenger on the MS Polarlys, a coastal supply ship operated by Hurtigruten. There were so many missing items that I had to file the claim by email instead of using the web form.

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My final newbie mistake, of course, was failing to place an AirTag in my bag. Why didn’t I? No excuse. Of all people, I should have known better.

It didn’t take long for SAS to figure out that it had lost a travel columnist’s bag. A crew member on the Polarlys told me that a few minutes before our departure, a breathless baggage handler screeched to a halt at the dock and hurled my found duffel bag across the water to a deckhand. Well, maybe it wasn’t quite as dramatic, but my bag was missing for fewer than 24 hours, and I’m both grateful and embarrassed. (Everywhere I went, AirTags were out of stock. That’s my excuse.)

But my pain is your gain. Track your luggage, take pictures of it and make sure you have proof that you checked your baggage. The more information you can furnish your airline, the faster it can find your missing luggage