Q: Last month my checked bags were lost on a flight from Dallas to Miami. Luckily, I had most of my valuables (laptop, video camera, cashmere sweater) in my carry-on briefcase. Still, I think the airline ought to offer me something for my loss. I read somewhere that airlines must pay passengers $2,500 for lost bags. What am I entitled to? How do I go about getting it?
A: First off, I'd like to commend you for keeping your valuables with you in your carry-ons. You wouldn't believe how many distraught passengers I hear from who have lost laptops, cameras or even heirloom jewelry in their checked baggage. While airlines typically cover the loss of standard items such as clothing or shoes, their "contracts of carriage" state specifically that they WILL NOT reimburse passengers for the loss of electronics, computers, jewelry or cash.
Baggage issues fall into two broad categories: 1) bags that are delayed-for example, those that are routed to Budapest instead of Boston but end up finding their way back to you, and 2) bags that are destroyed, stolen or lost forever. In both cases, it's important to remember to keep all paperwork, receipts for necessary replacement items, claim tags and names of personnel involved in case there is a problem.
Delayed bags. Luckily, about 98 percent of all mishandled bags are eventually returned to owners within a few hours or, in the worst case, a few days. What many passengers don't know is the airline that lost your bag will usually reimburse you for extra clothes or other items you have to buy (within reason) during the interim. Most airlines rarely offer any remuneration these days, but if you ask for it, you'll usually get something.
Destroyed, lost or stolen bags. U.S. government regulations state that if an airline loses your bag for good, it's required to reimburse you a maximum of $1,250 for the depreciated value of the declared contents. However, in their pledges to improve customer service late last year, most of the major airlines voluntarily increased this amount to $2,500.
This doesn't mean the airline will automatically give you $2,500 if it loses your bags. It means this is the airline's limit of liability-or the maximum amount it must pay you if your belongings are never recovered.
When reporting lost luggage to the airline, you must attempt to list the entire contents of your bag (including the bag itself) and the value of each item on the airline lost baggage report. If you have receipts (or credit card statements) for the purchases of these items, you're in great shape. If not, guess, but aim high--most airlines automatically depreciate the value of your claim by about 30 percent.
Once the airline determines your belongings will never be recovered, it should review your claim and cut you a check.
International. Reimbursement is much less generous when passengers are traveling outside the United States, which is governed by an international airline treaty called the Warsaw Convention (look for mention of it in the fine print on the back of your airline ticket).
International travelers are reimbursed for lost baggage based on the weight of their bags. Currently, a paltry $9.07 per pound (or $20 per kilogram) is all you'll get if your bags are lost on an international flight (on either a U.S. or foreign carrier).
Insurance. Some business travelers have no option but to check their product samples or other valuable equipment when flying. To minimize losses of expensive items you can't carry on, most airlines offer what is known as "excess valuation insurance." This typically costs about $1 per $100 in value that you declare when you check the item-in excess of the $2,500 automatic coverage.
If you own a small business and must travel with expensive equipment, ask your business insurance company for a rider that will cover its loss. Also, many homeowners' insurance policies cover the loss or damage of personal belongings in checked baggage.
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Christopher J. McGinnis is the owner of Travel Skills Group, an Atlanta-based communications and consulting firm specializing in the business travel industry. He comments periodically on trends and issues affecting business travelers on the Weather Channel, CNN and other TV and radio networks. Chris also writes business travel columns and newsletters that appear in a variety of media. His latest book, The Unofficial Business Travelers Pocket Guide (McGraw-Hill), was released in August 1998. For more information, see http://www.travelskills.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.