Taking extra precautions in terms of baggage handling and baggage problems can make a difference when traveling. Know your rights and travel smarter.
Between the time passengers check in their luggage and the time they claim it at their destination, it may have passed through a maze of conveyor belts, baggage carts, and forklifts; when airborne, it may have tumbled around the cargo compartment in rough air. In all fairness to the airlines, however, relatively few bags are damaged or lost. With some common sense packing and other precautions, checked baggage will probably arrive safely and baggage problems can be avoided.
Pack to avoid baggage problems. Some items should never be put into checked bags in the cargo system—money, jewelry, cameras, medicine, liquids, glass, negotiable securities, or any other things that are valuable, irreplaceable, delicate, or of sentimental value. These and anything else absolutely needed for a trip should be packed in a carry-on bag that will fit under the seat. Remember, the only way to be sure valuables are not damaged or lost is to keep them with you.
Some seasoned travelers recommend carrying enough clothing and personal items with them in carry-on luggage to last 48 hours.
Baggage check-in time limits
This is a little-known rule, but it can be very important. All airlines have baggage check-in time limits which specify how long before a flight bags must be checked in order for the airline to be responsible for timely delivery of that baggage to its destination. This also helps to avoid baggage problems.
Baggage limits and excess luggage charges
On domestic flights you are normally limited to a total of three pieces of luggage (this includes checked and carry-on bags). Again, this varies by airline.
The bags checked should be labeled—inside and out—with your name, address and phone number. Add the name and address of a person to contact at your destination if it’s practical. Almost all bags misplaced by airlines do turn up sooner or later. With proper labeling, the baggage problem and the bag and its owner can usually be reunited within a few hours.
Some airlines provide boxes for bulky items and garment bags. These boxes help bags arrive intact and are often free for the asking, but may also be available for a nominal fee.
Lock bags to help prevent pilferage. (If TSA decides to check baggage, these locks that are not able to be opened with a TSA skeleton key will be cut off.) Remove any shoulder straps and stow them inside to prevent your bags from getting hung up in the baggage-handling machinery, creating a baggage problem. But if bags do arrive with broken locks or torn sides, check inside immediately. If something is missing, report it to the airline right away. Plus, airlines are responsible for the damage to the exterior of baggage.
If planning to check any electrical equipment, small appliances, pottery, glassware, musical instruments or other fragile items, they should be packed in a container specifically designed to survive rough handling—preferably a factory-sealed carton or a padded hard-shell carrying case.
At check-in, the airline will put baggage destination tags on checked luggage and provide the stubs to use as claim checks. Each tag has a three-letter airport code and flight number that show the baggage sorters to what airport and on which flight the checked luggage should go. Double-check the tag and flight number before checked bags go down the conveyor belt. (The airline will be glad to provide the code for any destination when buying tickets, or at the check-in counter.)
Remove all the previously attached baggage tags from bags. They may confuse busy baggage handlers and create baggage problems. Don’t lose claim checks—they are the only proof that bags were checked with the airline.
Make sure to ask about these situations:
Some airlines do not interline baggage (transfer them between airlines). This normally affects Southwest, Spirit, Allegiant, and baggage transfers between AA and Delta, as well as most charter flights. In Europe, most budget airlines do not transfer baggage between connecting flights on different airlines.
Some international flights require baggage to clear customs before the final destination. Local rules may require that passengers carry their own bag after customs to the transit counter for further connections.
Here are some rules from a Travelers United columnist, Ned Levi, about baggage tips:
Don’t ignore airline baggage size limitations
Many airlines formerly relied on linear baggage limits (length+width+depth), but now impose individual limits on length, width and depth. That surprises unknowing air travelers like a fellow passenger on an American Airlines flight not long ago. American broke her camera that was packed in her carry-on, which she was required to check, but assumed no liability for the fragile item.
Don’t ignore airline baggage weight limitations
In the US, airlines rarely impose a weight limit on carry-on bags. Outside the U.S., many airlines have a carry-on weight limit and enforce it. Before flights, make sure carry-on bags meet the most restrictive baggage rules of all the airlines on the trip to avoid baggage problems. If a carry-on bag is too heavy,
passengers will have to lighten it or check it. On most airlines, if they have to check an overweight carry-on, they’ll likely be required to pay a baggage fee.
Checked-baggage weight limits haven’t changed much in a long time, but the penalties have risen sharply in recent years. On American Airlines, for example, an overweight bag will cost $100 to $200 in fees.
Don’t ignore airline liability rules
If it’s fragile, valuable, electronic, medicine, photographic equipment, perishable, jewelry, cash, unique or irreplaceable, the airlines won’t accept liability for its loss or damage. In addition to these liability exemptions, the airlines have low liability limits for lost or damaged baggage and belongings. For U.S. domestic flights, the limit is $3,500 per passenger.
Don’t ignore government airport security regulations
Government security regulations control what may be brought and how it can be taken aboard flights. Like other governments’ security agencies, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) publishes a prohibited items list — [https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/prohibited-items].
Some items on the list are banned from checked bags, others from carry-ons, and still others are totally banned. Special liquid/gel limitations continue to be enforced. Remember these when traveling so you don’t create baggage problems, potentially delaying your trip.
Some travelers try to sneak things past security agents. The problem with doing that or ignoring the regulations is that passengers could be detained long enough to miss a flight, lose their TSA PreCheck or Global Entry privileges, or worse, according to how severe the violation is considered. Always obey the rules.
Don’t ignore the difficulty that airport security personnel have examining baggage
Despite advances in x-ray scanning technology hardware and software, including automatic color coding to aid bag content recognition, the way air travelers pack their bags can make it harder, thus creating baggage problems, or easier for security personnel to determine what’s in them.
When it’s difficult to judge what’s in bags, security personnel will require them to be hand-checked. When checked baggage is opened, belongings can be repacked poorly, and some items may be lost. For carry-ons, if time is tight, the delay from hand-checking bags could mean that travelers will miss a flight.
When baggage is packed with high density objects, such as wires, electronics, small tools, batteries, etc., placed on top of each other, security personnel can’t identify them on their x-ray monitor. Those bags will require hand-checking. To avoid this, pack belongings layered in organizers to prevent them from shifting in baggage. Spread high-density belongings across each bag, at the bottom. This aids their recognition and helps avoid the need to have bags hand-checked.
Don’t ignore health needs when traveling
I know travelers who, unfortunately, packed medications in their checked bag, which then never made it to their destination. Replacing missing prescription medications can be difficult and expensive when traveling internationally. It can waste precious time better spent vacationing or making a business deal. Pack them in carry-on.
The two most important takeaways? Passengers should use the most restrictive size limitations from among the airlines on which they think they might fly to guide future baggage purchases. And, when packing for a trip by air, if passengers must have something when they arrive or if it’s irreplaceable, always pack it in carry-on. These tips can help you avoid baggage problems and make traveling easier for you.
Excess baggage charges can be a big surprise
Airlines use different methods for determining what is and is not excess, and then different calculations to come up with excess baggage charges.
American Airlines domestic excess baggage information: The limits are 10 pieces of baggage, whether checked or carried on the aircraft, with a maximum of one carry-on (with two different specific maximum sizes).
- Bag 1 $25
- Bag 2 $25
- Bag 3 $150
- Bag 4+ $200
Oversized and overweight baggage is charged more fees. AA calculates the size limits of bags by adding the total outside dimensions of each bag, length + width + height. Oversized bags larger than 62 inches (158 cm) will incur a charge of $200 in the US, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Central and South America.
Overweight bags also result in additional fees. First class and business class bags are allowed up to 70 lbs. In the US, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Central and South America, coach bags are limited to 50 lbs. Overweight bags between 51 and 70 lbs. will cost an additional $100 per bag. Bags weighing between 71 and 100 lbs. are charged a fee of $200 apiece. Knowing these rules can help you avoid baggage problems.
These overweight and oversized rules differ for other regions of the world. Make sure to check with each airline’s website for specifics to avoid baggage problems. If there are still questions, call the airline’s reservation line for more information.
Musical instruments may be transported in place of one of the bags included in free baggage allowance. If the instrument takes you over the three-bag limit or is longer than 39 inches, you must pay excess baggage charges. Large items such as a cello or bass fiddle may require purchase of an additional seat.
Delta’s musical instrument rule states: Musical instruments or equipment can be checked if the total linear dimension (length + width + height) does not exceed 150 inches (381 cm), and provided the weight, including the case, does not exceed 165 lbs (75 kg).
Certain sports equipment may also be substituted for one of the free bags. The following qualifies: Archery equipment, backpack, boogie board or kneeboard, bowling equipment (includes one ball, bag and one pair of shoes), fishing equipment (includes two rods, reel, net, tackle box and one pair of boots), golf equipment (one bag, 14 clubs, 12 balls and one pair of shoes contained in self-provided travel bag or box), hockey or lacrosse stick, shooting equipment, skateboard, ski equipment (one pair of skis, poles, boots and bindings), or snowboard. This equipment may exceed 62 inches in length with no oversize charges.
The following sports equipment always is subject to excess baggage charges:
Antlers, bicycle, empty scuba tank, surfboard, windsurfing and hang-gliding items.
Bicycles may be packed in a bag or box. Most airlines sell both bicycle boxes and bags. The bicycles are then sent for an additional $150 excess luggage charge. Most airlines follow similar rules. Check the airline website for specific sports equipment rules.
Most airlines do not offer excess valuation on most items of sports equipment.
Except for toiletries and medicines totaling no more than 75 ounces, it is illegal, extremely dangerous and creates baggage problems to carry on board or check in your luggage any of the following hazardous materials:
Aerosols—Polishes, waxes, degreasers, cleaners, etc.
Corrosives—Acids, cleaners, wet cell batteries, etc.
Flammables—Paints, thinners, lighter fluid, liquid reservoir lighters, cleaners, adhesives, camp stoves or portable gas equipment with fuel, etc.
Explosives—Fireworks, flares, signal devices, loaded firearms, gunpowder, etc. (Small arms ammunition for personal use may be transported in checked luggage securely packed in material designed for that purpose. These may not be placed in carry-on bags.)
Radioactives—Betascopes, radiopharmaceuticals, uninstalled pacemakers, etc.
Compressed gas—Tear gas or protective-type sprays, oxygen cylinders, divers’ tanks (unless empty), etc.
Infectious substances, poisonous materials.
Matches (both ‘strike anywhere’ matches and safety or book matches) may only be carried on your person.
The following types of ammunition are not accepted on most airlines:
- Gun powder; such as Pyrodex or Black Powder
- Ammunition with explosive or incendiary projectiles
- Ammunition, including case, exceeding 11 pounds (5 kg) gross weight per passenger
If passengers must travel with any of these materials, check with the airline’s air freight department to see if special arrangements can be made and then you can avoid packed or carry-on baggage problems.
A violation of the hazardous materials restrictions can result in a civil penalty of up to $25,000 for each violation or a criminal penalty of up to $500,000 and/or up to five years in jail.
Baggage limits in the USA vs. foreign limits
When traveling from the United States to a foreign country and then traveling by air on another flight later in your trip, be aware that baggage limits for transatlantic flights on many airlines are simply based on the number of pieces of luggage one checked onto the flight.
When traveling within Asia or Europe, many airlines have much more restrictive limits.
When traveling on a codeshare flight and within alliances, baggage rules should be governed by either the marketing carrier or the major carrier on your route. These rules are complex. Basically, American passengers who purchase a ticket in the US from a US carrier will follow the US-carrier rules. If extra fees are collected during travels, they can be refunded according to DOT. Save receipts and request refunds upon your return home to help recoup your baggage problem losses.
Sending luggage ahead
Some seasoned travelers send their bulky items ahead by UPS, US Postal Service, Federal Express or other shipper. This allows them to avoid the hassles of lugging luggage and baggage problems. Just let the hotel, condominium office, or someone else at the destination know the package is being delivered and ask them to hold it until you arrive.
On the return trip, call UPS or FedEx and they will pick up the box for its journey home.
The shipping ahead method comes in especially handy when dealing with bulky children’s items for a winter trip, like snowsuits and snow boots. Some travelers ship mountain bikes and skis ahead. The added expense is often worth the ease of travel and peace of mind.
Carry-on baggage notes
According to the DOT, there is no single federal standard for carry-on baggage, so check with the airline for any limits it places on the size, weight and number of carry-on bags.
Inquire about your specific flights. The limitations vary depending on the type of aircraft.
Check for each airline you are flying. Rules vary from one to another.
During holidays, especially the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the Sunday after Christmas, under-seat and above-seat capacity are pushed to their limits. Plan to carry less onto the plane with you and board early.
NOTE: There is no airline liability for lost carry-on baggage. If anything is lost, stolen or damaged it will be strictly your personal responsibility. However, some airlines will accept liability for carry-on luggage given to a flight attendant for storage and the baggage problem happened as a result of that.
When considering what to take on a trip, note these items, on most airlines, are considered Free Personal Items: Purse, laptop computer bag, overcoat, umbrella, reading material, infant necessities, canes, 35mm-type camera (not including camera bag), binoculars, crutches, braces, collapsible walkers, one golf club (that fits in overhead compartment), one infant seat or child restraint seat, a wheelchair or stroller or walker.
When flying a commuter airline, there are additional limitations on carry-on baggage based on the size of the aircraft. Passengers with carry-on luggage that is too big to bring onto the plane are allowed to “gate check” that luggage. It will be taken before boarding and will be set out next to the deplaning stairs where it may be picked up upon arrival without having to wait at the baggage carousel.
Baggage liability limits excess insurance
If baggage is lost or damaged on a domestic flight, the airline may invoke a $3,500 liability cap on its valuation. This is the official cap according to DOT rules. This amount was accurate as of 2016, however, it will automatically increase according to inflation.
International baggage liability limits are defined according to the Montreal Convention and are based on Special Drawing Rights (SDR). The current (as of June 2016) valuation pegs damage liability at about $1,575.
For domestic flights, many airlines exclude fragile, perishable or valuable items from their compensation requirements. For international flights, there are no such exclusions. All checked items are protected up to the SDR cap.
When luggage and its contents are worth more than that amount, check into Excess Valuation from the airline at check-in. This will increase the carrier’s potential liability.
Excess Valuation Insurance is sold by most airlines for $1 to $2 for each $100 of coverage. There is normally a limit of $5,000 on this excess coverage. Check carefully to see exactly what the airlines do and do not cover, especially if traveling with a computer, art, antiques or other valuables.
The airline may refuse to sell excess valuation on some items that are especially valuable or breakable, such as antiques, musical instruments, jewelry, manuscripts, negotiable securities and cash. Whatever is not covered by the airline’s insurance normally can be covered by your household goods insurance or a personal effects policy.
NOTE: Your personal household goods or homeowner policy in most cases will cover items lost or damaged by the airlines (less any deductible).
Some credit and charge cards provide excess baggage insurance offering extra protection. Check with the card company to find out whether excess baggage insurance is included.
These policies vary greatly and rarely cover items such as computers or anything associated with your business. Business owners should carefully review their insurance policies to make sure that portable computers are insured against loss and damage. Also, anyone traveling with portable computers should keep backup disks separate from the computer.
A claim must be supported by receipts. The airlines will only reimburse you for the depreciated value of items lost.
Some insurance professionals suggest passengers first submit any insurance claims against household insurance rather than against the airline. The insurance company will then deal with the airline. This helps two ways—many policies cover replacement value (airlines never do) and travel/credit card/personal effects insurance companies probably have more clout with the airlines than individual travelers.
The Montreal Convention Treaty and rules regarding checked-luggage on international flights
On international trips, liability limits are set by the Warsaw Convention, a 1920s treaty regulating air commerce. Unless travelers buy excess valuation, the liability limits are 250 French gold francs per kilo (a kilo is about 2.2 pounds) of checked baggage, and the airlines have a formula for converting this limit into U.S. dollars. For example, as of press time, the limit was 1,131 SDR per passenger, or about $1,575 per person on international flights.
This international limit also applies to domestic segments of an international journey. This is the case even if the domestic and international flights are on separate tickets and passengers claim and recheck their bag between the two flights.
Keep in mind that the liability limits are maximums. If the depreciated value of property is worth less than the liability limit, this lower amount is what passengers will be offered. If the airline’s settlement doesn’t fully reimburse the loss, check homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policies; they sometimes cover losses away from the residence. Some credit card companies and travel agencies offer optional or even automatic supplemental baggage coverage.
Baggage problems – Damaged bags
Damaged checked baggage is covered by the same $3,500 liability limitation according to DOT.
This coverage includes torn straps, broken zippers, damaged wheels, broken handles, as well as punctures, dents and tears of the baggage itself.
Always file a claim, whether the baggage office thinks the damage is reimbursable or not. Current DOT rules are far more consumer friendly than they used to be. The compensation level of $3,500 is enough money to replace almost any checked bag.
Baggage problems – Delayed bags
If passengers and their suitcase don’t connect at their destination, don’t panic. The airlines have very sophisticated systems that track down about 98 percent of the bags they misplace and return them to their owners within hours.
If bags don’t come off the conveyor belt, report this baggage problem to the airline before leaving the airport. Fill out a form describing the bag, listing its contents (be as accurate as possible; however, this is not the final listing that any payments will be based upon), and providing other identification information for the baggage-tracing staff. Be sure to keep a copy of this form for records.
Have the airline fill out a form even if they say the bag will be on the next flight. Make sure to get the appropriate phone number for baggage service, not the reservations number. And get the name of the person who took the report.
Airlines will go to great lengths to deliver any delayed bags to passengers at their destination city at their home, hotel or other accommodation. The delay is usually only a few hours.
If the delay is longer, the airlines will absorb reasonable expenses you incur while they look for your missing belongings. Again, this reimbursement is based on “reasonable costs” and is limited by the $3,500 liability limitation. Normally, the airlines consider basic clothing and toiletries as reasonable.
Most carriers set guidelines for their airport employees that allow them to disburse some money at the airport for emergency purchases. The amount depends on whether or not passengers are away from home and how long it takes to track down and return your bags. These rules vary significantly.
If the airline does not provide a cash advance, passengers should be reasonable in what they buy if there are baggage problems. Purchase only necessities and keep all receipts.
If the airline misplaces sporting equipment such as skis or scuba equipment for use on a vacation, it will pay for the rental of replacements. For replacement clothing, the carrier may offer to absorb only a portion of the purchase cost, arguing that you will be able to use the new clothes in the future. However, they will often pay for rental clothing if passengers can locate a shop making such rentals.
Costs of fresh foods or any other perishable goods that are ruined because their delivery was delayed won’t be reimbursed. Airlines may be liable if they lose or damage perishable items, but they won’t accept responsibility for spoilage caused by temporary loss.
For international flights, the Montreal Convention liability limits apply.
If passengers can’t resolve the claim with the airline’s airport staff, keep a record of the names of the employees with whom you dealt, and hold on to all travel documents and receipts for any money you spent in connection with the mishandling. (It’s okay to surrender your baggage claim tags to the airline when you fill out a form at the airport, as long as you get a copy of the form and it notes that you gave up the tags.) Call or write the airline’s consumer office when you get home. If you still do not get satisfaction from the airline, contact DOT — http://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm.
Baggage problems – Lost luggage
Once your bag is declared officially lost, passengers will have to submit a claim. Some airlines will proceed using the form filled out when the bag was only thought to be delayed; others may require you to fill out a different form.
Baggage is considered lost according to the Montreal Convention after 21 days. There is no prescribed rule for domestic baggage. However, after a month most airlines will settle lost baggage problems and claims.
NOTE: Know the description of checked luggage—the size, style, color, brand name and type of bag. Airline personnel and friends tell me it is amazing how many people can not identify their lost bags. One travel writer friend notes that some “admittedly paranoid” travelers have snapshots of their bags to give to agents in case the bags are lost. This can help them a lot when baggage problems arise.
Check on this: failure to complete the second form when required could delay your claim. The airline will usually refer your claim form to a central office, and the negotiations between you and the airline will begin.
Airlines don’t automatically pay the full amount of every claim they receive. They use the information on claims forms to estimate the value of lost belongings, and like insurance companies, consider the depreciated value of possessions, not replacement costs.
If passengers are tempted to exaggerate a claim, don’t. Airlines may completely deny claims they believe are inflated or fraudulent. They often ask for sales receipts and other documentation to back up claims, especially if a large amount of money is involved. If travelers don’t keep extensive records, they can expect to dicker with the airline over the value of their goods.
Generally, it takes an airline from three weeks to two months to pay for lost luggage. During this period, stay in touch with the company both to show concern and to be sure they’re following up on the baggage problems.
Even though the airlines lose relatively few bags, when they lose yours, you’ll want to keep a watchful eye on the treatment of your claim.
When flying on an itinerary that includes several different airlines, it will be the final airline that will be responsible for handling any lost luggage claim. The investigation may prove that one of the other airlines was actually at fault, but all policies, rules and regulations of the last airline will be those passengers will be required to follow.
NOTE: This makes a significant difference if the flight originated in the United States and landed in Europe after the passenger changed planes in New York. The lost luggage falls under international Montreal Convention rules and the loss will be limited to SDR 1,131 (or about $1,575) per person rather than the $3,500 limit that would have been in effect had the bag been lost in the United States. This rule applies even if it is proven that the luggage was lost in the United States.