NEW YORK - If an airline loses your luggage, your first stop should be the baggage claim office to report it missing. Your next move might be to buy a change of clothes.
But while airlines are required to reimburse passengers for clothing and toiletries in the event of a lost or delayed bag, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, getting that cash back may require persistence.
Many airlines' contract of carriage - the contract between carriers and passengers - don't specify clothing reimbursement in detail, but standard DOT policy demands they provide some compensation.
"Some airlines were declining for necessities, like clothing, needed immediately," said Bill Mosely, spokesman for the DOT. "(Airlines) cannot limit them to only outbound flights or how soon they expect the bags to arrive."
Mosely said some airlines also try to deny compensation to passengers for purchases made within the first 24 hours following the reported loss. But he said that's a violation of DOT regulations. Passengers should be able to purchase necessities after they file a missing bag claim, rather than having to wait to see if the bag turns up.
"It's not a new rule or new policy," Mosely said. "We expect (airlines) to compensate the consumer for their loses."
While the majority of checked bags reach their destination without incident, a total of 2,193,711 bags were reported mishandled by all airlines last year in the United States, with 188,254 reports filed in January alone.
A maximum liability of $3,300 for domestic flights can be claimed by the passenger should checked luggage be lost in transit. International limits are lower, roughly $100 for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of luggage, for a maximum total of $640.
Passengers can buy excess valuation for luggage as secondary insurance. A dollar buys $100 worth of extra insurance on domestic flights, with a ceiling of $17 for $1,700 in coverage.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, a consumer travel Web site, said the DOT has been much more aggressive with airlines over passengers' rights under Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. According to Hobica, the department has been actively advocating on passengers' behalf when demonstrating a need for necessities.
"You can't just offer a tube of toothpaste and a pair of clean underwear," he said. "You have to treat (passengers) more fairly."
Note, however, that airlines are not required to refund baggage fees when they lose your bags.
While airlines are required to reimburse for clothing, the amount is negotiable. Hobica advises passengers to keep receipts for all clothing and personal items that they ever expect to take on a trip, since airlines will ask you prove the value of your clothing. "They won't buy you a new wardrobe, but you are entitled to a change of clothes," he said.
Mosely said the DOT has a hands-off approach on reimbursement rates. "How they arrive at their figure, we do not stipulate," he said.
And even though passengers are entitled to recoup funds, don't expect the airlines to fork over cash easily, said Anna Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. Passenger confusion and frustration often work in the airlines' favor. When customers don't follow up claims, airlines benefit.
There's also no guarantee airlines will accept your claim.
On a recent flight from Los Angeles to New York City, my carry-on bag was checked at the gate last-minute and was then left at the connecting airport, Philadelphia.
By the time my luggage was delivered to me two nights later, I had bought a shirt to wear to work. I submitted a receipt but my carrier refused to compensate me for two reasons. One, I was an inbound flight passenger, and the airline said in a letter that passengers on the home leg of a round trip presumably have clothes at home; and two, my receipt for the shirt was time-stamped several hours after the airline logged in the delivery of my bags. I was not home to receive the bag on that first delivery attempt, however, so I am challenging the denial of the claim.
"Everything is extremely difficult for the consumer," Banas said. "It's up to the consumer to do all the legwork. They have to jump through a million hoops."
In the event an airline denies a claim, Mosely suggests filing a claim with the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement Office.
"If there are a pattern of complaints that indicate an airline might be violating DOT consumer rules, the department would investigate," he said. "If we found there was a violation, they would take enforcement action."
You can avoid these hassles altogether by not checking luggage at all. "If you're traveling domestically, go to Kinko's and send it ahead of time," Hobica said. "It's usually cheaper and easier to track."
You can also reduce the likelihood of lost baggage by arriving early so there's ample time for your luggage to be screened and sent to the correct gate, according to Susan Foster, author of "Smart Packing for Today's Traveler."
"Allow two hours," Foster said. "Maybe have lunch in a real restaurant rather than taking some crappy food on a plane."
Foster always packs a survival kit in her carry-on, including phone charger, medication, clean shirt and underwear, everything she needs to "hit the ground and do what I need to do."
"I don't want to miss a day," she said.