The 3 stages of lost-luggage grief: What to do when you and your bag go on separate adventures

Lost luggage at the start of your trip sounds like an ordeal – and it is - but you’ll never truly know how much, until you’ve experienced it firsthand.

As a travel editor, I’ve seen a few journalists fall prey to this travel nightmare. And I've sighed in anguish for them as well as relief, grateful to not be the one staring at the empty airport luggage carousel. Waiting. Hoping.

Until my recent media trip to the French Alps. Tag, I was it. 

So what was meant to be three-days spent skiing and seeing what the kings of the all-inclusive, Club Med had up their sleeve with the opening of their new Grand Massif ski resort, turned into a rigmarole of coming up with a plan B, forking out in Euros and rotating and washing the little I had with me as I tried to get updates on my bag’s whereabout. (Read the full review here - subscribe to the free Travaller24 newsletter for more top trends and destination guides here)

What I learned hard and fast is that there are three stages of grief that you will undoubtedly go through during a situation like this – here they are along with a few coping tips picked up along the way.

ALSO SEE: How affordable are skiing holidays for South Africans, really? 

Stage 1: Denial

When travelling in a group the dynamics are usually that you get clued up on the itinerary and stick to the unspoken, golden rule – don’t be the late one holding up the train, bus or plane.

There I stood, cautiously optimistic. After my second walk around the carousel, watching one lonely black hardtop bag – similar to mine, but not mine – circling in the now near-deserted baggage hall at Geneva International – I was forced to accept my fate. My group stood to one side. Waiting.

Among the five of us, one of them had previously been through a lost luggage ordeal – the odds were not in my favour. Yet we flew business class, with our bags marked priority.

What the heck was going on Air France and SAA? 

What to do: I headed straight to the lost baggage office. You must report your bag and get a tracking reference immediately. Your check-in baggage tag should allow the airline’s online systems to detail where and why you bag is delayed. It also makes sense to fill out any online claim forms as soon as possible.

My bag, however was absent without a trace – coming up naught on the system.

At this point, the default assumption was that it had been mixed up with another Air France flight in Joburg, meant to have taken off before ours but it had been delayed due to bad weather the night before. Our initial departure was delayed as a result. Therefore, factor in conditions at your point of departure – the weather or flight backlogs can all impact baggage arrival.

Coping Tip: When your domestic and international legs have been booked with separate carriers – don’t assume the bags will be checked straight through despite the check-in attendant saying so.

Flying into South Africa with two separate carriers would mean your bags need to be collected in Joburg and re-checked if you’re carrying on to either Cape Town or Durban with another domestic carrier for example.

Before leaving the airport, make sure you know how to check on your bag's status. 

Stage 2: Stoic disbelief

After flying in from Charles de Gaulle International to Geneva International, we had an hour transfer back over the Swiss border into the French Alps.

Being a relatively seasoned traveller, I keep my key essentials such as face wash (under 100ml for international flights), toothbrush and a change of clothes in my cabin baggage for all long-haul flights.

I felt relatively okay to spend one night without my main bag, as the Club Med staff and airport perssonnel tried to assure me it would arrive by the following day. Club Med also put together a small care package with deodorant and toothpaste for me. Inform your hotel of your dilemma and they might do the same – even if they’re not obliged to.

What to do: Various carriers offer some form of compensation for essential purchases when your bags are delayed – but be vigilant to stick to the essentials as they might refuse your claim. In Air France’s case they reimbursed me the full amount, which I kept to under 100 Euros.

And in considering the factors of your point of departure to determine what could have happened with your bag, so too consider the location you’re heading to without your bag.

Coping tip: Find a pharmacy or the equivalent of a Clicks and stock up on the essentials as soon as you can. We were staying in a remote location, with limited options to replenish my essential items. Had I not had my extra set of clothes I would have been in even more of a bind. There was only one on-site boutique store and it was hellish expensive in Euro, not stocking swimming costumes or underwear and ski items costing around 300 euro.  Not knowing if I would be compensated or not I wasn’t prepared to fork out that amount of money - especially since I had forked out on some snow threads just before the trip.

I ended up borrowing a set of ski-clothes from a fabulously generous and helpful Club Med Gentil Organisateuror or GO as they’re known, a term on par with resort guest relations. Either way, I could opt to accept the GO’s kindness or give up the chance to actually try out the powdery slopes of Samoens. I chose to ski.

Stage 3: Anger and frustration


After two days of the same clothes, same shoes and having to wear a borrowed ski suit, all the while not knowing where my bag was, this final stage saw me fuming and my patience worn completely out.

What to do: Just breathe. I was on a short, work media trip, but if you're on an extended holiday the best thing to do is keep checking with the airline as often as possible, without allowing the situation to ruin your holiday even further. 

The reality is you are at the mercy of the airline. What I found most annoying was that in this technologically advanced age we live in – nobody was able to confirm if my bag had made it onto the same plane as me or not. For five days there was what can best be described as an information black hole. Daily the Club Med staff checked and daily they were left without any info.

Coping Tip: Not ideal, but reside to take it as it comes, do not lose your cool however hard that may be – keeping in mind it is essentially not the fault of those on the ground trying to assist you. I would only find out once back on South African soil, some five days later that my bag took a journey of its own.

It went to London (I imagine it popped in for tea with the Queen), stopped in at Paris (Louvre or the Eiffel Tower must have been on its itinerary) and then finally made its way to Geneva (Seems it missed out on one Grand Massif party though). And finally it had a little staycation in Johannesburg (I bet it soaked in the tub, before heading back to drought-hit Cape Town).

We would be reunited with each other - a full 10 days later - a little more worldly, wiser and thankfully completely in tact. And if I had to compare border-crossing stamps on this particular adventure, suffice to say my luggage would have this one bagged.

Here are SA’s local airlines' conditions of carriage for delayed, damaged or lost luggage:

  • Delayed luggage

More often than no bags are delayed. In most cases the airline will offer to get the bag to your hotel/place of residence as soon as possible and free of charge. However, just make 100% sure of this, so you aren't saddled with a nasty delivery charge. If you suspect they may charge you for delivery, arrange to pick it up from the airport yourself instead.

  • Damaged

Most airlines are quite specific about what counts as 'damaged luggage.'  Usually airlines will not accept responsibility or pay compensation for damage caused to items protruding from, or attached to bags, or for damage caused as a result of badly packed bags.

So, if a wheel is missing or a zip torn, there really is very little chance of claiming for damages. However, if there is serious and obvious damage, or signs of tampering report it to the airline immediately for credibility purposes. Customer services would most likely want to inspect the bag and would be able to give you an indication of how viable your chances of a claim are. 

Once you've done this and have your baggage repaired, keep all receipts to attach it to your claim form. 

  • Lost

If your 'delayed' luggage cannot be traced by the airline and is not returned to you in the amount of time specified by the airline, it's safe to assume that it is indeed... well... lost. 

In this case, make sure you fill out the correct form, which my differ from any other forms you filled in for the delayed luggage, and file a claim as soon as possible. 

Rules and regulations regarding these claims and what you can expect compensation-wise differ from airline to airline, so take a look at these baggage claim guidelines for South Africa's main airlines.


  • Window period for claim

SAA requires passengers to report the incident immediately, or within 7 days, to the SAA Lost Property office, where you’ll receive a unique reporting number.

Thereafter, complete a claim form and take it to the Passenger Claims office. It will take up to 21 working days to finalise all claims.

  • Compensation:

SAA will reimbursement for essential items upon submission of receipts only. The airline's interim expense allowance for a maximum of five days is $75 per day  for economy Class passengers  and $100 per day for Business Class passengers.

  • Not liable for:

Of course airlines have to cover their backs when it comes to certain items, so make sure you know what their claim limits are. SAA specifies the following in their Conditions of Carriage: South African Airways does not take responsibility for the loss of valuable items in checked luggage including money, passports or visas, computer equipment, electronic devices, cell phones, fragile items, business documents and jewellery.


  • Window period for claim

Lost or delayed Baggage must be reported immediately on arrival. In cases where Baggage has been delayed, any damage or losses have to be reported within 24 hours of receipt of the Baggage by the owner. Passengers will also be required to submit a Passenger/Property Irregularity Report along with receipts for reasonable essential expenses purchased.

  • Compensation

Guests will be compensated for lost Baggage to a maximum of R140.00 per kilogram of Checked Baggage up to a maximum of R2 500 per claim. No compensation will be paid for delayed Baggage, including any consequential or indirect losses resulting there from.

  • Waiting period

Claims can take up to 21 days to be finalised.

  • Not liable for

The loss of valuable items in checked luggage including money, passports or visas, computer equipment, electronic devices, cell phones, fragile items, business documents and jewellery. 


  • Window period for claim

For any claims regarding damage to checked baggage you will have to notify Kulula's Lost Property department as soon as you discover the damage, and at the latest within seven days of receipt of the baggage. In the case of delayed or lost luggage, you should actually file the claim while still at the airport, but have a 21-day grace period if this is not possible.

  • Compensation

If Kulula admits responsibility for the loss or damage of your luggage, you can expect compensation of about $20 per kilogram for checked luggage, and $400 per person for unchecked luggage.

  • Waiting period

If luggage is merely delayed, it should arrive at the airport with the very next Kulula flight from your departure destination. However, if the luggage cannot be traced, processing a claim could take up to 7 days.

  • Not liable for:

Kulula's contract of carriage states that they will not be liable for the following: fragile or perishable items, items having a special value, such as money, jewellery, precious metals, computers, cellular phones, personal electronic devices, negotiable papers, securities, or other valuables, business documents, passports and other identification documents, or samples, whether or not such baggage was handed over to a member of our staff or to our agents.



  • Window period for claim

Complaints about damage to checked baggage must be made in writing within seven days of receiving the baggage. Complaints about delay to checked baggage must be made in writing within 21 days of the baggage being made available to you.

  • Compensation

On local flights operatred by Comair, if British Airways admits responsibility for the loss or damage of your luggage, compensation of $20 per kilogram for checked luggage, and $400 per person for unchecked luggage is available.

In the case of destruction, loss of, or damage or delay to baggage on a flight operated by British Airways the airline will pay up to £1 100 or €1 320, or  $1 625.

  • Waiting period

Not specified

  • Not liable for:

Fragile or perishable items, items with a special value, such as money, jewellery, precious metals, computers, personal electronic devices, share certificates, bonds and other valuable documents, business documents, or passports and other identification documents. It says in line with other airlines, we cannot accept claims for damage or loss to items in checked baggage which are fragile, perishable or of special value. 

*Traveller24 Editor Selene Brophy was hosted by Club Med for the opening of the Grand Massif Samoens flagship resort, including flights and stay.

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