INSIDER SECRET: Make sure to book travel with a credit card that offers baggage delay reimbursement. Taking precautions like tagging both the outside and the inside of your bag, avoiding short layovers and using a tracking device can also help protect you against luggage loss.
“How about $5?” I asked the woman selling overflowing piles of tank tops and shorts out of giant netted bags at the Markola market in Accra, Ghana. “$7,” she replied without a beat. I forked it over — because I had no choice. TAP Portugal had lost my luggage and in 95-degree African heat, I was in desperate need of a clean shirt.
Still wearing clothes from the day before, I learned the hard way that when your luggage is lost in an emerging country, you can’t just bop over to H&M or Walgreens to buy your necessities.
In 2017, an average of 5.73 bags per passenger were mishandled by airlines, according to a study by SITA. While numbers have likely improved in the past few years thanks to new and improved RFID tracking technology, there’s always a chance when you let your luggage out of sight that you won’t get it back — at least not immediately post-flight.
After my experience in Ghana, I vowed to try everything in the book to prevent my luggage from being lost or delayed, and to at least be prepared if it was.
If you do have to check a bag, these tips will help you prevent your luggage from disappearing, and help you figure out what to do if it happens:
1. Book with the right credit card
Book your trip with the right credit card so you have baggage delay protection (offered only when your bag is delayed en route to your destination, but not on the way home). Most of cards that offer the benefit, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card, give travelers $100 per day for five days if a bag has been delayed for six hours or more. For a list of cards that offer this benefit, click here.
2. Book nonstop and avoid short layovers
Besides getting to your destination without having to change planes, booking a nonstop flight means your luggage won’t have to change planes either, minimizing the risk of it being lost, damaged or delayed. If you do have to have a layover, try to avoid short ones. If there’s not enough time to get your bag on your next flight, it won’t be flying along with you. If you have to run through the airport to make your connection, you are increasing the odds that your bag will not make it.
3. Tag your bag
Make sure to firmly attach a luggage tag with your contact info clearly printed to the outside of your bag. Some people even swear by attaching two external tags in case one is broken or falls off. You should also put a tag inside your bag as well. Having a copy of your travel itinerary clearly placed in your bag isn’t the worst idea either.
4. Check in early
Make sure to check your bag in early, giving airline employees adequate time to properly check and tag your suitcase.
5. Pack necessities in your carry on
If I’d only packed a change of clothes in my carry on for my Ghana trip, I might not have found myself frantically running around the city searching for a new wardrobe. If you can squeeze it in, pack a full change of clothes as well as important medicines, toiletries and anything that’s not easily/conveniently replaceable or that you can’t live without, like your mouth retainer or prescription eyeglasses. If your suitcase does go missing, you’ll be a lot calmer knowing you have the essentials with you.
6. Use a brightly colored bag
My mother swears by ugly luggage. While you may covet that sleek new black Tumi or gray Away bag, buying one that’s a bold purple or pink, while garish, could not only help you spot your bag on the luggage carousel but make it less likely someone else will pick it up thinking it’s theirs.
7. Invest in a lock
Purchase a suitcase with a lock or buy one made for luggage. That way, if someone mistakenly grabs your luggage instead of their own, they’ll quickly realize it’s not theirs when they can’t open it. It may also protect you against baggage handlers with sticky fingers.
8. Remove old airline tags
You don’t want to confuse airline employees and baggage handlers with old airline tags left on your suitcase. If the main tag rips off for any reason, handlers need to be able to tell exactly where your bag is going. Old tags will be confusing and your luggage could get sent to a different place than your actual destination. Peel them off before traveling. If they’re stuck firmly to your suitcase, cross out the bar codes with permanent market.
9. Double-check airline luggage tags
Everyone can make a mistake, and confirming that your bag tag shows the correct destination before it leaves your sight will not only ensure it arrives at the right spot, but give you peace of mind that your bag, in theory, is also on its way to wherever it is you’re going.
10. Take photos of your luggage
Having a photo to show in case your luggage is lost will really help you out if things go awry. Photograph both the inside and outside and keep the photos on your phone until your luggage is safely back in your possession.
11. Invest in a luggage tracking device
Devices like LugLoc or TrakDot are small enough to stash in your luggage and allow you to monitor exactly where your bags are via an app on your phone.
If your Luggage is Lost/Delayed/Damaged:
1. Stay calm
Airline representatives and baggage handlers are much more likely to help you if you stay calm and offer up a smile. Your luggage probably isn’t gone forever and panicking won’t help.
2. File a claim and document everything
Head to the luggage desk at the airport and immediately file a claim. Make sure to save any and all documentation — I usually also take photos of any paperwork to save it electronically besides holding onto the paper copies. Make sure to save and photograph your boarding pass too. Once your claim is filed, make sure you have a phone number in order to contact the airport.
3. Use an airline app
Some airlines allow you to track your luggage using the airline app. Once you land, you can check to see if your bags have too. The app will notify you if your bags are delayed, and you can track the luggage after you’ve filed a claim, too.
Delta is one of the airlines that offers this service on its app — just navigate to the “Track my Bags” section. Downloading airline apps ahead of time and making sure your current trip appears in the app will make things one step easier if your bags are delayed or lost.
4. Follow up
Many times, the airlines say they’ll call you but don’t. Note a phone number so you can call them. When I was in Ghana, I was told I would get calls about my luggage, but I didn’t. Luckily, I had the phone number and called to find out information regarding my luggage. If I had waited for a call, I might still be waiting.
5. Know your rights
According to AirHelp, compensation for lost or damaged baggage is between $1,525 – $3,500, depending on your country and route. Make sure to read up on what you’re entitled to. AirHelp offers free eligibility checks to find out if and what you’re eligible to claim.
6. Insist they come to you
Getting back to the airport in certain cities may be very irritating, especially if you aren’t close to the airport. While it may not always work, insist they bring your bags to you once they’re found. Most of the time they will.
7. Go Shopping
As annoying as it was to search the city of Accra for clothing, looking back, it was actually fun. Buying new things in a new place can be annoying, but also exciting — especially if your credit card company is footing the bill (see the above section on booking your ticket with the right card).
This story was originally written on Million Mile Secrets. For the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets daily email newsletter.