Bummed Out In Baggage Claim

The incidence of lost luggage is up dramatically. Here's how to speed recovery

You know your trip is in trouble when only a trickle of suitcases from your flight arrives in baggage claim. Then the conveyor belt halts, never to start up again. Such was the welcome to Miami my husband and I and at least 50 other fliers received after a recent US Airways (LCC ) flight from Philadelphia. To make matters worse, there was just one beleaguered agent to process lost-luggage claims.

Unfortunately, this scene is being played out much too frequently. Complaints about lost, delayed, and damaged luggage are at an all-time high, according to the Transportation Dept. The most recent Airline Quality Rating report, issued by Wichita State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, found that 6.5 bags per 1,000 passengers were mishandled in 2006, compared with 4 per 1,000 in 2003.

Short of not checking your luggage in the first place, you can't do much to prevent it from going missing. However, you can take steps both before you board and after you find yourself bagless to improve the chances of recovery.

DO THE PAPERWORK

For starters, use that camera in your cell phone to take a picture of your suitcase so you can give a good description. Monica Beaupre, a spokeswoman for American Express (AXP ), says you should also put a copy of your itinerary in your bag. That way the airline can identify and find the owner even if the tags get separated from the luggage.

Pay careful attention when your bag is tagged at check-in, an obvious safeguard that many travelers overlook in their excitement or haste. "It only takes one keystroke to get the airport code wrong at the ticket counter," says Joe Brancatelli, editor of JoeSentMe, a business travel Web site.

What do you do when you arrive at the airport and your bags don't? "Never, ever leave until you file the appropriate paperwork and get copies," Brancatelli says. "The minute you leave, the airlines will say you forfeited your rights."

Instead of waiting on a long claims line in the baggage area, hightail it to the ticket counter, where the agents should be able to help. After you file your report, make sure you get the number for the local baggage claim counter. "Do not settle for the 800 number," Brancatelli says.

You can avoid a lot of the hassle if you have purchased a comprehensive travel insurance plan such as one from AIG Travel Guard, which will pay for essential items if your bag is delayed, and up to $2,500 if the bag is gone for good. The most expensive policy is about 8% of the overall cost of your trip. Your credit card may come in handy, too. Issuers of certain American Express, MasterCard, and Visa cards will hound the airlines about tracking down the lost bags.

NOW HEAR THIS

Let's assume the bags turn up, but items are missing. In the meantime, your trip was ruined by not having access to your prescriptions and your most flattering bathing suit. How do you get compensated? Last December, Nanette Bentley, a media-relations specialist at billing services firm Convergys (CVG ) in Cincinnati, flew Delta Air Lines (DALRQ ) to New Delhi. Her bags never made it during the business part of the trip, which meant she spent meetings in dirty travel clothes and tennis shoes. Once her luggage appeared, several flash drives worth $150 were gone.

After returning home, Bentley faxed top officials at Delta demanding compensation for her $8,000 tickets as well as the missing items. She also copied members of the press. "It's a technique I've used when going through the regular customer-service channels haven't worked," Bentley says. Eight weeks later she received 125,000 frequent-flier miles and a check to cover the cost of the stolen items.

Although we were eventually reunited with our bags, I didn't put the matter to rest until I had e-mailed my dissatisfaction to US Airways' customer-service chief and Philadelphia operations manager from a personal e-mail account, not mentioning my media affiliation. For added impact, I included fellow passengers' e-mail addresses, which I had collected while we were waiting in the lost-luggage line.

Within two weeks, US Airways had sent me $1,200 in vouchers. Several fellow travelers told me they were compensated, too. It didn't make up for the hassle, but I felt like my voice was heard.

By Lauren Young

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