Mishandled bags have always plagued travelers, but pandemic challenges have given airline employees extra obstacles to get passengers their bags.

Already dealing with lack of staffing, flight crews have hit another hurdle as the omicron variant has sent workers into quarantine. During the holidays, rapidly rising cases meant even fewer employees were available to keep flight operations running smoothly, causing thousands of delays and cancellations, which are ongoing.

All of these factors are causing overall issues with passenger luggage, according to Jen Moyse, senior director of product for the travel app TripIt.

“Bags are being more frequently loaded, unloaded, rerouted and returned, and there seem to be more opportunities for an item to become temporarily (or in some cases permanently) lost,” Moyse said in an email.

While full reports aren’t out yet on how much luggage was lost last year, Department of Transportation data show the situation looks better than it did pre-pandemic, before the holidays, at least. From January through September 2019, 2.3 million bags were lost or damaged. For that same time period in 2021, 1.36 million bags were lost or damaged.

Still, anecdotally, everyone seems to know someone who has had a bag gone rogue on a recent flight. Lauren LaBar, the travel and experience manager at the travel concierge app Upaway, says it is taking airlines longer to track down and return bags to passengers as of late.

Before the pandemic, travelers could expect about a 24-hour turnaround. Now, LaBar says, the process is taking multiple days or sometimes close to a week. In recent conversations with airlines on behalf of their customers, Upaway employees have even been told airlines couldn’t guarantee misplaced bag delivery for at least two weeks.

If you’re one of the unlucky travelers dealing with damaged, lost or delayed luggage, here’s how to handle the situation.

What you can do if your bag is lost

When your bag is missing, the airline is responsible for getting your items back. Thanks to airlines’ tracking systems, they should know where your bag is and when it will arrive.

Step one is to file a claim at your airline’s baggage desk at the airport. LaBar says it is critical to get a copy of the report and a customer service contact number to follow up. You should also provide your preferred delivery address; many airlines will get your bag to you free.

You can track your bag through some airlines’ app or website. There is also the airline’s call center, but lately it has been difficult to connect with a representative in a timely fashion.

As the airline tries to find your bag, Moyse says, you should review your airline’s policies for baggage-fee reimbursement.

From traveling light to booking your flight directly through the airline, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind during particularly messy travel seasons. (The Washington Post)

What you are entitled to from the airlines

Moyse says with most airlines, passengers qualify for compensation after their bags are lost for more than 24 hours. That may be to cover costs of buying clothes or toiletries for your trip, or to compensate for your permanently lost or damaged belongings.

At the very least, LaBar says, most airlines will reimburse your checked bag fee if your luggage isn’t returned within a certain time frame.

Before you start buying essentials while your bag is missing, remember that there is a lot of red tape involved with getting reimbursed. Every airline has its own standards on reimbursing passengers and will refund only the purchases considered “reasonable.” But, LaBar says, travelers should be covered for about $50 per day for the first five days.

Hold onto the original, dated receipts of expenses from items you purchased because of your missing luggage debacle, LaBar says, to increase the likelihood of your compensation claim getting approved. Keep track of things like your ticket receipt and baggage claim number.

If your stuff is permanently lost or damaged, LaBar says, you will need to provide an inventory of the packed items and their approximate dollar value to get compensation.

According to the Department of Transportation, airlines are liable for up to $3,800 for lost, damaged or delayed bags. International flights fall under different rules; the maximum baggage liability is about $1,780. (Airlines can pay you more than that, but they’re not required to by law.)

Aside from the airlines, you may be able to get help from your credit card company. If you bought your flight with a credit card, Lindsey Renken, co-founder and chief executive of the travel app Airheart, says to check with the card to see whether they have a lost luggage policy. Some cards — such as ones with travel perks — may come with that benefit.

Before travel, consider buying insurance

While you need coronavirus-specific travel insurance to cover getting sick before you depart or getting stuck after a positive test abroad, a standard travel insurance policy should cover basic issues such as baggage loss theft and delay. Travelers can compare policies to see which provide higher or lower thresholds for lost baggage.

In fact, John Rose, chief risk officer for the travel management company ALTOUR, says one of the most-used assistance services in a travel insurance policy is helping with missing luggage.

Rose says travelers should look to third-party travel insurance for their baggage protection needs. Major insurers have assistance centers dedicated to helping policyholders; you shouldn’t face the same lengthy wait times to get help on the phone as you would by calling your airline these days.

Remember: Buying travel insurance does not mean you will get all of your money back if something goes wrong. Insurance companies probably will not pay out the full market value of your lost belongings, Renken says.

Plan travel strategically

Before you leave the house, make sure your bag is identifiable. Moyse says to put up-to-date contact information both on a luggage tag and inside the bag in case the tag rips off.

LaBar also suggests taking a photo of your suitcase before you check it; this can be helpful to reference if you need to fill out a lost luggage claim, which will request the color, make, size and additional details about your bag.

Of course, you can also skip checking a bag to avoid lost luggage woes. If you never hand it over to the airlines, they never have the chance to lose it. But that can be more challenging as overhead bin space becomes limited and passengers are asked to gate-check their bags.

Plus, not everyone can pare down enough to make a carry-on work. If you’re going to check a bag, Renken says, you should pack valuable items and essentials such as medication in your carry-on.

To take your lost luggage defense one step further, Renken recommends that travelers take a nonstop flight whenever possible. The fewer transfers you have to make, the fewer chances your bag has to get mishandled.