Between staff shortages in airports, canceled flights, and long security queues, this summer has been a particularly stressful time for air travel. Now, missing and delayed luggage rates are increasing too.

In April, US airlines lost, damaged, delayed, or mishandled nearly 220,000 checked bags, an increase of 135% from the same period in 2021, according to a June report from the US Department of Transportation. In airports in Canada and Europe, too, passengers have been sharing images of piles of unclaimed luggage in baggage halls, many with days-old travel tags, as airports struggle to recruit and train ground handlers. Air Canada said the increase in delayed bags is part of the "phenomenon being seen around the world as the air transport system reawakens after COVID."

So how can you minimize the risk of missing luggage when traveling this year? Even though more and more of us are traveling with only carry-on bags these days, there are still times when we need to check a bag or when we're forced to hand over our hand luggage at the gate. The risk of checking luggage is that your bag is delayed or lost, temporarily or permanently. International and connecting flights are particularly at risk now, especially when there are delays or passengers are switched to alternative flights. 

If your luggage, here's what you can do next...

Check-in employee attaches a luggage tag
Your airline's baggage handler should have a record of your luggage © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Contact the baggage handler

First, find the baggage handler for your airline. If you're lucky, you're one of the airline's hubs, or the airline has its own baggage claim staff at another airport. In these cases, you'll have a direct line to your luggage. But, more statistically likely, you'll need to find one of the outsourced ground-handling companies that the airline contracts to manage luggage at an airport where they have no staff.

From here, the baggage claim staff will try to find your bag. If the systems are all working, the airline will have a record of your bag associated with your PNR, that six-character record locator code you need to check-in or manage your booking. It's also helpful if you've kept your baggage tag.

Best case: they look it up, discover your bag just missed the flight, and it'll be on the next one. Depending on the circumstances, you have the option to wait around for it or to ask the airline to deliver it to you as soon as possible, likely by courier. This should be at their cost and minimal inconvenience to you.

Worst case: they have no idea. If this happens, you'll need to describe your bag using standard descriptors based on color and style (green, two wheels, medium-sized). Then you'll get a reference code that looks like it's made up of the three-letter airport code, the two-character airline code, and a series of digits. A system called WorldTracer is most commonly used.

(Extra worst case: the contracted baggage people arent there. In that case, you'll have to find their office, which is probably in departures. It's a lot easier to start all this off at the airport than once you get to your home or hotel, even if the airlines say you have 24 or 48 hours after your arrival.)

Travelers during boarding at the airport
Follow up regularly with your airline when tracing lost luggage © Getty Images

Keep records and follow up

It's then up to the airline to get your bag back to you, but as ever, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, so be politely squeaky: keep records and follow up regularly.

Start making notes with the details of the name and positions of the people you talk to. If they make any promises, make a note. Insist on a baggage-specific phone number that's free to call from wherever you'll be (don't be deterred by having to go through the interactive voice nonsense with the airline's main number — most will have a direct dial number for the baggage office at XYZ airport). Make sure the airline has your entire itinerary for at least a week, and think about where it makes the most sense to reunite you with your bags — are you in hostels for a few nights but going to see Aunt Susie after that? Following up with the airline itself via its Twitter account (if it has one) is a good option, so you have written records of what's happening.

Expert packers will advise packing a change of clothes in your carry-on in case of scenarios like this, but you'll probably still need to buy some essentials. The airline should reimburse you for these items, a policy usually subject to a ''Reasonable amount'' clause. Ask for a leaflet or a printout for guidance, and here's a tip: ask the representative if they can make suggestions for where some reasonably priced clothing can be found. If you run into an airline being stingy about this policy, you can always say, ''but your own representative suggested the H&M at Central Plaza.'' At that point, it's a matter of waiting for your bag to catch up with you. Follow up daily with the airline, noting every interaction and what was said.

Happy airplane traveler taking her suitcases from conveyor belt.
Tag your bag © Getty Images

Tips to minimize the hassle of lost luggage

I've been fortunate: my bag has gone missing only twice in a decade as an aviation journalist shuttling around the world. So, here are a handful of helpful hints to minimize the chances and impacts of your luggage being lost:

  • Avoid short connections, particularly if you're traveling in a season when there's often weather disruption, like high summer or the depths of winter.
  • Pack a change of clothes and anything you'll need in the first couple of days in your cabin baggage.
  • Never buy a plain black bag: it's much easier to find a green one with orange polka dots in the sea of luggage during a disruption.
  • Tag your bag inside and out with your name, home address, email, phone numbers, and contact details for the first week of your trip. If your bag has one of those little windows for a contact card, that's great, but if it's a hard shell, consider writing your details on the case in permanent marker. If you're worried about being burgled at home while on holiday, ask a reliable friend if you can put their details instead, or use the hotel details: ''Anne Li, guest arriving 14 March''and the address/phone.
  • Always have a picture of your bag on your phone: save it as a favorite so you can show it to the baggage claim agent if necessary.
  • If your luggage is permanently lost, note that you'll need to provide receipts for compensation, so if you're packing anything expensive, it's best to have those tucked away somewhere else. If your bag's expensive, keep the receipt and tape a photocopy between the lining and the bag itself.
  • Always keep your baggage tag receipt, snapping a picture of it if you're prone to losing to random bits of paper.
  • Always double-check the destination on your bag tag, especially if you're on a connection not served nonstop from your departure airport — I was once going to Abu Dhabi (AUH), but the agent initially tagged my bag to Abuja (ABU), which could have been interesting…
  • You know those mini-barcode tags that the check-in staffer peels off and sticks on your bag? Pull them off after your flight, or take a thick marker and strike through the barcode, to avoid the automated systems getting confused.

This article was first published Jun 15, 2019 and updated Jul 12, 2022.

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