An empty airport baggage carousel clatters around and around. Everyone but you has hauled their bags off, and finally the horrible truth dawns: Your luggage is lost.
Getting reconnected with your bag is a big deal if you're hopping aboard a cruise that won't spend more than a day in any destination. Here, we offer tips for what to do if an airline or cruise company has lost your luggage -- and how to avoid it in the future.
Start at the Airport
If you arrive in your homeport city and you don't see your luggage, first scan the baggage area. It's possible your luggage got pulled off before you made it through customs; it could even have arrived on a different flight. If you see a gaggle of bags (a baggle?), go see if yours is among them.
No luck? Your next stop should be the airline's baggage customer service desk. (If you had a connecting flight with a different airline, the last airline you flew is the one to deal with.) Here, they may be able to track your bag, using your baggage receipts, to find where it has gone astray. Or pull it out of a back room where it's been waiting for you.
If airline reps confirm your bag is not at the airport, you'll have to fill out a form describing your bag and where it can be delivered to you when it eventually gets to the right destination. Be sure to have your hotel address and/or port call agenda handy to facilitate the delivery.
Get a receipt and a case number, as well as a phone number to call to find out your bag's status. Best case, you've got a pre-cruise stay at a hotel and your luggage shows up that evening.
If the bag can't get to you before your ship embarks, it's possible that the airline can get it to a port where the ship calls. That will depend on when the bag is found and where your ship is going -- although some unlucky travelers' bags haven't caught up to them until their return airport or after they've returned home.
Talk to Guest Services
If you're headed straight to the ship, be sure to visit guest services, or your concierge if you have access to one, to advise them on the situation. Bring your claim paperwork, case number and airline baggage service contact numbers.
Cruise Critic members have generally found cruise lines to be very helpful, like MercedMike, who commented on a message board:
"The HAL Holland America Line staff was wonderful about it, they followed up on the lost bag report, kept in touch with the airline, let us know when our luggage was found and sent on to Aruba. They also offered us free priority laundry and me a free tux rental, as well as notifying the maitre d' of our situation so there would be no questions in the dining room. When we came back from our excursion in Aruba, there were our bags in our room!"
Airlines aren't the only culprits when it comes to lost luggage, though. Cruise lines have been known to misplace bags, as well. You hand your suitcase off to a porter, and it never shows up in your cabin, even after the ship has set sail.
This is also a time to head to guest services. If your bags have been misplaced on a lower deck or sent to the "naughty room" because of contraband items like booze or irons, guest services reps can help you locate them. If your suitcase was inadvertently dropped into the sea and lost forever, front desk folks can break the bad news and offer next steps.
Negotiate for Necessities
Regardless of who lost your luggage, you're now without clothing and toiletries. Time to see what assistance the guilty party can render you.
If the airline lost your bags, depending on the situation, you may be able to negotiate with the airline to give you cash to cover your immediate needs ($50 is common, but airlines are required to offer compensation based on your specific needs) or to provide a toiletries kit or other amenities. Be polite and ask for what you need, within reason, and hopefully you shall receive it.
When our bag was once delayed on a flight from steamy Thailand to freezing Japan, we persisted until the airline rep fetched a puffy down jacket from a stash of Uniqlo togs they kept for just such an occasion.
If the cruise ship is at fault, the line will commonly offer free laundry service to luggageless passengers, but cruisers have also reported receiving free T-shirts, toiletries and shipboard credits.
Despite what the airline or cruise line can supply you in the way of toiletries and T-shirts, your next step will be to go shopping. While men might be offered a free tux rental, women have fewer options for formal nights. And ship boutiques don't usually sell items like underwear or shoes, aside from flip-flops.
With that in mind, if it looks like your luggage is going to be chasing you around the Caribbean, you may want to grab some essentials before boarding. Otherwise, you'll need to dedicate some port time to cobbling together a wardrobe. Look at the silver lining -- it's a shoppertunity!
Travel insurance policies and certain credit cards may offer cash compensation for lost or delayed luggage. Most of them require that luggage be delayed for a minimum number of hours, though, so be sure to check out all the details and exclusions.
If you have receipts for luggage or clothing purchased new for the trip, they can come in handy when making a claim. If you purchase new items after your luggage is lost, be sure to save those receipts, too -- you'll need them for claims, as well. Keep any luggage receipts, claim forms and any other paperwork.
While airline and cruise line reps will promise to follow up, it's your job to stay on top of the situation. Major U.S. airlines have online baggage tracking capability for customers. You can also call to inquire about progress -- or ask the ship's front desk to do it for you. Tweeting can even be helpful, if you're not getting answers any other way. In any case, it can pay to let airline personnel know (politely) if you're a premium customer.
Onboard, if your luggage still hasn't arrived by the designated time, make another trip down to guest services to inquire about its whereabouts. Be pleasant but persistent in your quest for answers.
Know What You're Entitled To
Knowing the fine print of your airline and cruise contracts, as well as your travel insurance policy, will allow you to advocate for yourself -- and prepare you for bad surprises.
Most cruise lines have very limited compensation for a lost or stolen bag. Policies range from Carnival's $50 per bag (maximum $100 per stateroom) to Viking's $500 per passenger. Oceania Cruises flat-out states it is "not responsible for the loss of or damage to guests' luggage." Valuables like electronics, camera gear, jewelry and cash are usually excluded from any line's coverage.
Some cruise lines, including Windstar, Celebrity and Viking, will cover additional amounts (typically up to $5,000) if you notify them in writing of the true value of your property in advance and pay a percentage of its value (usually 1 to 5 percent).
Airlines' maximum responsibility for lost, delayed or damaged bags on U.S. domestic flights is $3,500; for international flights, it's approximately $1,600 (adjusted for inflation every five years).
You can protect yourself further by purchasing travel insurance, either through your cruise line or from outside companies. For example, Carnival's and Royal Caribbean's plans offer up to $1,500 if your bags are lost, stolen or damaged, and up to $500 reimbursement if you have to buy necessary items while your bags are delayed 24-plus hours.
The least expensive plan from independent supplier Allianz provides $500 if your bag is lost, damaged or stolen, and $200 for necessities if your bag is delayed 12-plus hours; its premium plan covers up to $2,000 for luggage and $600 for necessities (with receipts) or the option for a $100 fixed "inconvenience" payment with only proof of luggage delay.
Be Prepared Next Time
Of course, it's always best to avoid losing a bag in the first place. Here are some tips to reduce the chances of your bag going missing and to put you in a better situation if it does.
Fly nonstop. Many Cruise Critic members who found themselves in this fix mention that their bags were lost in the process of getting transferred to a connecting flight. So if you can, choose an itinerary without connections, or one with ample time between flights.
Arrive early. If you can, plan to spend a day or two in your departure port before embarking. It will allow time for your luggage to be delivered or for you to buy essentials should bags go missing.
Tag your bags. When packing, be sure to include your contact information on luggage tags and also put a copy of your itinerary and contact info inside your bag. Tie a ribbon or some other identifying marker to your bag so someone doesn't confuse it with theirs by accident.
Take pictures. Take a photo of your suitcase and the clothes you're bringing when they're laid out to be packed. That way, you've got a record of any items that go missing.
Consider cross-packing. Split up your items by placing some in a travel companion's bag and putting some of their items in yours. Just don't put all of one category (socks, for example) in a single bag. It's less likely that multiple bags will be lost, so you'd at least have some clothing if one is lost.
Carry-on. Never pack medications, money, jewelry, tech equipment or photography equipment in checked luggage. And if you have special toiletries you can't do without, put those in your carry-on, too. (Who would have known what an adventure we would have trying to buy deodorant in Tokyo?!)
Don't Give Up Hope
These days, most bags are eventually found and delivered. But by all means, don't let lost luggage ruin your vacation.
Consider the cruise where about 30 passengers ended up without bags, due to an airline strike. "What matters is that those people were determined to have a great cruise," Cruise Critic member Shorex wrote. "They banded together and formed a club -- the T-shirt club. Somehow they managed with a few onshore purchases and a shipboard clothing discount. The dress code (on a ship with several formal and informal nights) was relaxed for them. They made the best of a bad situation -- made new friends, laughed about what they had no control over -- and had a wonderful time."