Last year, a passenger on an American Airlines flight received $3,500 in compensation after discovering her suitcase was ruined; at baggage claim, she found some of her clothes had been shredded, half of her belongings were missing, and the suitcase was covered in both grease and toothpaste. Meanwhile, in more disconcerting news, a passenger on a United flight discovered something that looked a lot like bloodstains all over their checked bag, according to one Reddit thread.
While we may never know what happens with our bags after we leave them at check-in, if you discover your suitcase is damaged, you should absolutely file a claim with an airline. We’ll warn you: The process may not be easy, but at the very least, you may be provided with a replacement bag or offered partial reimbursement for a new one.
Take photos of your luggage before and after a flight
Before you leave for the airport—and for your protection—you should always take photos of your suitcase; it will help to have evidence that your suitcase was undamaged before the flight. You should record a video that demonstrates that your bag’s wheels and handle work, too.
“I recently flew with a brand new (and expensive) case,” u/blackdog_86 wrote on a Reddit thread. “When I picked it up off the carousel, it was really badly damaged … I went and complained, and they said that without photos of the case from the day of check-in, they couldn’t do anything as there was no way to prove they had damaged the case.”
If you’re at check-in, take a photo or video of your bag that includes your boarding pass so that the condition of your bag is time-stamped.
If an airline loses your luggage, it might also benefit the search to have a photo of your suitcase, particularly if it’s a black bag that might be overlooked in a sea of similar baggage. “If you can’t find your bags it’s a lot easier just to show the baggage claim representative a picture of your luggage then try to describe it to them,” u/frenchjello wrote on another Reddit thread.
Here’s the thing: Depending on the airline, generally, you are not entitled to compensation for normal wear-and-tear. In other words, if your luggage arrives at baggage claim scuffed or stained, you probably can’t file for reimbursement. (On their websites, airlines like United and American state that if your bag is of “poor quality” or overpacked, you are not entitled to reimbursement, either.) On the other hand, large holes, cracks or damage to wheels are likely covered.
Immediately head to an airline counter to file a claim
Once you realize your luggage is missing a wheel, again, take a photo of the damage and head to the airline’s counter at baggage claim. Typically, at the counter, an airline representative will examine the bag and grant you a claim number. An airline might also require that you complete a questionnaire to complete your claim.
You should provide the attendant with photos or videos you’ve taken of the case prior to your flight. If you have it somewhere in your email inbox, you should also provide a copy of a receipt for your luggage; if your claim is successful, they’ll likely reimburse you based on its price and age, as USA Today’s Dawn Gilbertson writes. At the very least, you should make them aware of the store where you purchased the luggage, which might affect your compensation.
It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t leave the airport with a damaged bag; nearly every airline recommends that you file a claim in-person so that an attendant can inspect it. Several airlines also place a limit on time as to how late you can report a claim; Southwest, for example, will allow up to four hours after your arrival time, while United will allow up to 24 hours for domestic flights. (You can still contact them by phone after you’ve left the airport, but the process will be difficult without the airline’s ability to inspect your bag. In this instance, it’s likely you will have to provide additional photos of the damage.)
If you’re flying internationally and have left the airport, you might have a little extra time allotted; both American and United permit up to seven days after your arrival for overseas travel. In these instances, if you’ve already exited the airport, you should contact your airline’s baggage resolution center by phone to report a claim.
Follow up on the claim
Technically, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, you’re entitled up to $3,500 in compensation for damaged or lost bags for domestic flights, but it’s highly, highly unlikely that you’d receive anywhere close to that amount.
If you’re lucky, an airline might remedy the situation in person and before you’ve even left the airport. As USA Today writes, some airlines like American have “stock” bags at their baggage resolution centers; if your luggage is seriously damaged, they’ll offer it as recompense—but you can turn this offer down.
What you’re entitled to ultimately depends on the airline and the damage, but there is no exact number. (If you have receipts, photos, and videos, however, you’re probably much more likely to receive a better offer.) Generally, an airline might offer to partially or fully reimburse a repair or the purchase of a new bag entirely; you’ll have to send over receipts, so the process won’t be quick. But before you do either, you should confirm with an airline that they will guarantee reimbursement and record the names of any airline staff you speak with.
With your file claim number in hand, you should also follow up if you haven’t heard back within a week. Using the claim number, you should contact an airline and send over any receipts or photos you have if you weren’t able to provide them at the baggage counter.
Lastly, check to see if your credit card offers any kind of travel protections for bag damage. And when all else fails, publicize your case on social media like Twitter; it can’t hurt to bring more attention to your claim, especially in egregious instances of bag damage.