What Is the Process When Your Luggage Is Stolen or Lost?

Written by |

Clark Howard’s “never check luggage on a flight” policy is extreme — especially for a two-week trip. But he never has to worry about lost, damaged or stolen luggage.

I checked a bag on a flight last year. And through a series of colossal blunders, I nearly lost some semi-valuable items forever. Fortunately, I placed a Samsung SmartTag in my bag, which Team Clark recommends. And I tracked it down.

My airline had pawned off my bag to a different airline to be sold out of state within 24 hours of my initial flight, seemingly without even trying to figure out whose bag it was.

It’s a real risk. Fly enough and it becomes pretty likely to happen. Close to 1% of checked luggage gets lost, stolen or damaged. The recent trend has been worse, not better, for luggage. And 55% of U.S. airline passengers have experienced an airline losing their bags at least once.

And when it does happen, much of the responsibility is on you. This is a situation where being proactive is paramount. So what do you do if you ever run into this misfortune?

What Do I Do If My Luggage Gets Lost or Stolen?

What do I do if my luggage gets lost or stolen?

That’s what a listener recently asked Clark.

Asked Mario in Michigan: “On a recent trip, our suitcase was stolen off the luggage carousel at the airport. The airline told us to file a claim for the items in the suitcase.

“What will the process entail? Will they assign a claims adjuster to the case or will they reimburse us based on the amount on the receipts we provide? Is there anything we should do to ensure we receive proper reimbursement?”

Steps To Follow If Your Luggage Is Missing

You arrive at your destination and check the baggage carousel. Your luggage never shows. Here’s what you do:

  • Visit the airline’s luggage office and file a missing luggage report. You’ll get a reference number. It’s a good idea to tell the luggage office worker where you want your bag delivered if it shows up (hotel, home, etc.).
  • Compile a list of the items in your luggage. It’s a good idea to take a picture of your luggage and its contents before you check your bag. If your luggage never turns up, you can prove what was inside your bag.
  • Gather receipts. Lost a $1,000 suit? The airline probably won’t take your word unless you have a receipt. You also want to keep receipts for incidentals. (If your luggage takes three days to show up, and you buy essential toiletries to hold you over, keep proof of that.) Do the same with the receipt for your checked luggage fee if you paid to check your luggage.
  • Initiate a compensation claim. Yes, you have to proactively start a second claim aside from the one you make at the airport when notice your luggage is missing. Airlines differ on when they consider your luggage lost and not missing. It’s typically between five and 14 days. Ask for the rules when you initiate your missing luggage report.
  • Be prepared to politely stand your ground. You may have to negotiate the value of your compensation. The more proof you have the better. The Department of Transportation caps compensation at $3,800 for domestic flights and about $1,700 for international flights. That doesn’t mean you’ll get anything close to that.
  • Check your credit cards and/or travel insurance. You may have some coverage for lost, damaged or stolen luggage from a credit card or travel insurance policy.

Clark’s Advice on Lost or Stolen Luggage

Airlines aren’t known for being customer-friendly. That’s even more true now. The COVID-19 pandemic crushed flight demand, leading to early retirement packages and layoffs for airline personnel.

When “revenge travel” became a trend after lockdowns ended and people felt more confident, airlines struggled to re-staff enough to meet everyone’s needs.


You must be as proactive as possible. Clark would prefer that you don’t check a bag unless necessary. But if you do, try to put an Apple AirTag, Samsung SmartTag or Tile device in it. That way you can track where it is.

And when you engage the airline employees, be polite but firm. And be prepared to be persistent and follow up.

“If they offer you an amount of money that is not what you feel is fair, push back. Politely, but push back. And explain why you feel your claim should be for more money,” Clark says.

“And if the airline does not pay on a timely basis and they stonewall you, be prepared to file a claim against the airline with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The airline will be forced to answer and the answer usually will be, ‘We have now issued a check to Mario for this amount of money. Hope he’s happy.'”

Airlines Aren’t Incentivized To Pay You

For airlines, making people get frustrated and give up saves money.

At one point, you had to go through security after you claimed your bag at a baggage carousel. You’d go through a claim check to ensure it was in fact your bag.

“They’ve decided I guess it was cheaper to pay for luggage stolen off the carousel than to have the security there to make sure that a thief is not running off with your bag,” Clark says.

Getting timely and fair compensation for your luggage and the items lost or stolen often isn’t easy.

“In my case, my wife and I laugh that if my bag was stolen, the claim would be for like $35 because that’s all my clothes would be worth in total,” Clark says. “But for a normal earthling, you can have a normal claim and documentation you’ve already provided is fantastic with receipts.”

Final Thoughts

To recap, it’s best to avoid checking luggage. Otherwise, it’s probably a matter of time before an airline loses your luggage.

If you find yourself in that situation, file a missing luggage claim before you leave the airport. Be prepared to follow up. Collect as much proof as you can for what was in your bag and how much it’s worth.

If your bag never shows up, you’ll file a second compensation claim. And if that doesn’t work, get help from the Department of Transportation.


best travel rewards credit card Best Travel Credit Cards: Top Rewards Picks for 2024 - The best travel rewards credit cards! Compare the latest sign-up bonus offers to start earning free flights, hotel stays and more.