What to do when an airline damages or destroys your luggage

By John Walton, June 13 2012
What to do when an airline damages or destroys your luggage

It's a rare frequent flyer who hasn't had an airline wreck their baggage -- whether it's a giant crack down your "unbreakable" hard-sided case, a rip in your "military-grade" ballistic nylon bag, or a zip disaster that has your meeting clothes making their own way around the carousel.

Naturally, we're often asked for advice on what to do and how to approach the airlines, so we've put together some tips (from bitter, bitter experience) for you. Share your own at the bottom too!

1. Before leaving home, tape a copy of the receipt inside the bag

Always have a copy of your receipt (and potentially the warranty card) taped to the inside of your bag so that you can prove how much you paid for it and when it was bought.

The taping is slightly easier if you've a hard-sided case, but it should be possible to attach the receipt to a soft-sider too.

Try putting the receipt in a zip-lock plastic bag and fixing that the plastic bag to the case to keep the receipt safe from the elements and un-crumpled.

2. Tell the airline desk in baggage claim if you spot the damage

So your bag comes off the belt damaged or destroyed. (You do always check your bag for damage off the belt, right?)

Start with taking pictures, with your mobile phone camera if necessary, and ideally with some airport-identifiable background so you can show where and when it was damaged.

Your best bet is to report it immediately to the airline rep at the baggage counter. Make sure you get some sort of receipt or file number, together with telephone numbers to call to follow up.

See if you can get a shot of the bag (and ideally the airline rep too) in case the airline tries to deny it all. That may sound paranoid, but it's been known to happen!

Insist on a specific "next step" from the airline: will they call you, or will you call them? When? What is the general timescale for things to be fixed? 

Bear in mind that "free-phone" numbers may not always be free from all phones, particularly from mobiles or Skype. If you're overseas, you may also want to get the Australian number for your airline's reps.

3. Always note down names and call details when you speak to the airline

At this point, our usual advice of always making notes of your dealings with the airline is especially sensible.

Make sure you note down the name of the staffer who filed your claim, together with time, location, and any staff ID number you can spot.

And continue to make notes (perhaps on your phone, or in an email chain to a family member, friend or colleague) whenever you deal with the airline, in case the process falls apart and you need to complain.

4. Ask for an emergency replacement bag at the airport if you need it

If your bag is completely destroyed, seriously damaged, or if you're in the middle of a trip, consider insisting on one of the bags they keep at the airport for just such an occurrence.

They're usually relatively cheap bags, but they'll get your things to the hotel. Often, you'll have the choice of several bags of differing styles, so don't just accept the first one brought out.

Make sure you don't sign away your right to a replacement of your existing bag -- there's no way an airline should replace your top-notch business case costing hundreds of dollars with an airport cheapie.

But if your case is in pieces, at least having some case is a useful option.

5. Know what your airline will approve for emergency gear

If your luggage "fell apart" in transit and you've arrived with an empty case, or with oil-stained clothes having a little holiday on the baggage carousel (it's happened to us!), get in writing what the airline will cover in terms of reasonable emergency replacement clothing and necessities.

It all depends on what "reasonable" means for you and for the airline, which is why this is such a contentious issue.

We'd never advise going name brand crazy, but department store clothing would be entirely reasonable for anyone. If you're a senior-level executive, we wouldn't reckon an upmarket suit and shoes unreasonable, but the airline might.

A top tip here: ask the airline reps to suggest somewhere where you can get a full outfit, and ask them to write down the address and perhaps some directions. It's harder for the airline to say you're being "unreasonable" if their own staffer has told you where to head!

6. You usually have 7 days to report damage if you haven't spotted it

Let's face it, you don't always check your bag for damage off the carousel, and in the low light of many industrial-chic terminals you might not have spotted minor damage like a crack or rip anyway.

Yet another reason to not have a black suitcase: cracks and rips are often more easily spotted on coloured luggage.

Airlines usually allow about a week for you to get your luggage home before realising that there's something wrong with it.

At that point, you're probably best doing some Google sleuthing for the best phone number to notify the airline.

7. Airlines are usually obligated to repair your bag or replace it with a similar model

Let's say you're travelling with one of the best bits of luggage available, and the airline seems to have run over it with a jumbo jet.

The airline should replace it with a similar model. Don't let them suggest that your $700 super-light, theoretically super-sturdy bag bought a few months ago should be replaced by something cheaper.

But at the same time, if you have bought $700 luggage, then you might want to start taking it up with the luggage maker as well as (or instead of) the airline. Unless the airline has actually run over it with a 747, seriously expensive luggage shouldn't break under normal wear and tear situations, and it should be covered under warranty.

Unless you're daft enough to travel with conspicuously luxury-branded bags (the sort that have knockoffs), of course, in which case you're pretty much on your own.

What's your worst luggage experience? What tips would you give a colleague or fellow traveller with a damaged or destroyed bag? Which airlines have handled your baggage issues well -- or badly -- in the past? Sound off in a comment below!

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John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

well everytime my samsonite cosmolite leaves the airport, it just acquires more scratches and marks. I reckon the airport staff think its a joke "we'll see how strong it is".

so far our cosmolites havent appeared to be damaged or anything, but we will see in a few years down the track.

we switched over to the cosmolites after arriving at JFK on a Virgin Atlantic flight to find the contents of our luggage strewn on the conveyer belt, clothes, underwear, bras, the lot and running along the moving belt to pick up the things and then waiting by the mouth as more things came out. That was REALLY embarrasing, but we didnt complain to the desk because we werent in the mood.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Yep, that's why I try not to travel with properly expensive luggage. I've seen enough of those Rimowa cases with enormous "did you drive a 747 over it?!" dents that I know there's no such thing as unbreakable luggage.

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