You stand at the airport baggage carousel waiting for your checked luggage. Folks around you grab their bags and disappear. After a while, you realize your bag is lost. It’s one of the worst headaches of air travel.
And this summer, due mostly to airline staffing shortages, it’s wrecking an increasing number of vacations.
The vast majority of lost luggage is found and returned to its owners within 24 hours, according to the airline industry. But that’s not what happened to Ed Mangiaratti and Donna Roy-Mangiaratti of Methuen. Their experience was more than a headache. It felt like an interminable nightmare.
The retired couple returned to Logan Airport on June 18 aboard a Lufthansa flight after a short vacation in Italy. But their bags, checked at the airport in Bologna, didn’t make it to Boston. (They had a connecting flight in Munich.)
The Mangiarattis filed claims for delayed baggage. And a couple days later, Lufthansa found Ed’s bag and returned it. Donna’s bag, however, containing thousands of dollars worth of clothing, jewelry, and her camera (including all her Italy photos), remained lost.
The couple, frustrated by their inability to get Lufthansa to respond to their phone and online inquiries in any meaningful way, twice returned to Logan Airport desperately looking for someone to help. On their second trip, a sympathetic attendant allowed them into a lost-luggage room to see if Donna’s bag was there. It was a shocking sight.
“Piles of luggage, supposedly lost yet each bag had a bar-coded tag in place,” Ed said in an e-mail asking me to help. “No one was doing anything about these bags. They were just sitting there.”
But Donna’s bag wasn’t among them.
Ed said he was perplexed that Lufthansa couldn’t quickly find the bag, given that it was properly tagged with Donna’s identifying information and with an airline-generated barcode, which presumably was scanned and time stamped every time the bag was moved.
For weeks, Ed and Donna spent countless hours trying to track down the bag in Boston, Italy, and Germany, an ordeal punctuated by “calls never answered, messages never returned, and e-mails with no replies,” they said.
“We felt like we were in a state of crisis,” Donna said.
Last week, I made an inquiry to Lufthansa. Two days later, more than six weeks after the couple’s return from Italy, Donna’s suitcase “suddenly appeared on our doorstep with little communication or fanfare,” Ed said.
“We are so relieved to receive this luggage you can’t imagine,” Donna said.
Here’s what you should know about traveling with checked luggage this summer:
How bad is the lost luggage situation?
In its most recent report, for May, the US Department of Transportation showed a one-third increase in “mishandled” baggage on domestic flights compared with the same month last year. Almost 6 of every 1,000 bags were delayed or lost in May, it said. Travel conditions worsened after May, so the reports for this summer are likely to show an even greater number of mishandled bags.
In Europe, widely published press photographs of mountains of lost suitcases at London’s Heathrow Airport and other European locations suggest the problem may be far worse for international travelers, especially on routes that require passengers to change planes for connecting flights. One traveler insurer has reported a 30 percent increase in claims for lost luggage on international flights, compared with before the pandemic.
Keep in mind, however, that even with a surge in mishandled baggage, the system is vastly improved compared with 10 years ago, when many more bags were mishandled. Credit the improvement to advancing technology.
Why are airlines losing so many bags?
As the pandemic has loosened its grip, air travel has increased by about 10 percent over last year and by about one-third over 2020. Airlines, which slashed staffing as air travel plummeted at the beginning of the pandemic, simply haven’t been able to hire enough personnel as the demand for travel has accelerated, and baggage-handling, which is labor intensive, has been particularly hard hit. In an e-mail to me, Lufthansa blamed staffing shortages.
What should I do if my luggage doesn’t show up?
Go to the airline counter and file a delayed baggage claim. You can also file it online. Keep all your flight documents, including boarding pass and the baggage claim tag. Your airline should give you a claim reference number by e-mail or text message. Make sure you have it before leaving the airport. Lufthansa and other airlines allow you to use that reference number on an online portal to track what’s happening in the search for your luggage. You should also get updates by e-mail or text message.
Most airlines require you to fill out a second form, describing your lost suitcase and detailing its contents, if your luggage is not located within a few days.
Spend some time online getting familiar with your airline’s protocols (not what you want to do, I know).
What if I need toiletries and clothing in my luggage?
On domestic flights, you can buy what you need and submit for reimbursement for what the US Department of Transportation says are “reasonable, verifiable and actual incidental expenses,” like toiletries and underwear. There’s no per-day limit on what you can buy, but remember to keep your receipts and be prepared to explain any unusual expenditures. Act promptly because airlines won’t accept claims after a certain period.
The rules governing international flights say airlines should reimburse you for any necessary expenses as a result of the delayed bags, but details are scant.
What if my bag is deemed irretrievably lost?
On domestic flights, federal regulations allow airlines to limit their liability to $3,800, although an airline is free to compensate you for more at its discretion. On international flights, airlines are allowed to limit their liability to about $1,800 for a lost bag. Making a claim will be easier if you have pictures of your now-lost luggage and an inventory of its contents.
Are tracking devices useful?
Yes, they can be, especially if your suitcase is in an unsorted pile at the airport, or if someone walks off with your bag after mistaking it for their own at the carousel. (Some savvy travelers personalize their luggage to avoid such mistakes by adding a distinctive tag, strap, decal, sticker, or ribbon, or by buying unusually colored luggage.)
But if your airline can’t find your suitcase, your tracking device probably isn’t going to crack the case. For details, check out Apple AirTag, Tile Tracker, or Samsung SmartTags.
Do the airlines offer baggage tracking on their apps?
Some do. They allow you to check your baggage status using your mobile boarding pass on your smartphone. But the information you get is only as good as the airline’s, which sometimes isn’t perfect.
What should I put on my luggage tag?
Your name, telephone number, and e-mail address, at a minimum. Some travelers are reluctant to include their home address for security reasons. You may want to put a business card or other detailed information inside your luggage.
Does travel insurance help?
It may, especially if you can document a loss greater than what the airline will pay you under their liability limits. But insurance policies often have exclusions, so make sure you know what you are buying by reading the fine print. One popular insurer, Blue Ribbon Bags, reimburses up to $2,000 per bag for luggage that goes missing, for a fee of $10 per bag. A $1,000 policy costs $5 per bag.
If you have a premium credit card, it might give you some protection for lost luggage too.
What shouldn’t go into a checked bag?
Donna Roy-Mangiaratti said she regrets including valuables in her checked bag, and that she’s learned her lesson. It’s a good idea to pack only clothes and shoes. Valuables and medicine should go into your carry-on.
What’s the best advice on avoiding lost checked luggage?
The biggest risk of a lost bag occurs with connecting flights, particularly when there’s little time between flights. Some travel specialists recommend booking only flights that allow at least 60 to 90 minutes for a domestic connection, and at least two hours for an international one. It improves the chances of your airline getting your luggage transferred in time. Another good idea is to avoid Heathrow and other very large airports. And, of course, flying nonstop greatly reduces risk.
Another possibility is to use a specialized service to ship your luggage to your destination. Or you can always pack light, relying on your carry-on only. That may mean buying a few things when you arrive or doing a wash while on vacation.
But it might save you the kind of hassle that bedeviled the Mangiarattis.