Let's face it. We've all done it. In part because travel can be so disorienting, it's easy to disembark a plane without all of our "personal belongings" as the flight attendants refer to them in their deplaning announcements (are there "impersonal belongings"? how about we just call them our belongings).
Judging from anecdotal evidence, most people do not get their stuff back. Leave it on the plane and it's gone forever.
But there are steps you can take to beat the odds.
The best strategy is to be proactive, and to act immediately. Should you discover your mistake before leaving the airport, rush back to the gate and see if the plane is still there. Explain the situation to a gate agent. Cleaners may already be on board, or may have collected your item and sent it to the airline's baggage office.
If you discover your loss after leaving the airport, immediately head back to the airport and inquire at the airline's baggage department. It's the single most effective step you can make, other than prevention.
Sure, you can call the baggage claim office, assuming you can find the number quickly, or you can file a report by email with some airlines, but it's far more effective to do so in person. Baggage office phone lines are often busy or go unanswered.
If this is not possible, here are contact methods to locate your missing item on various airlines.
Airtran: System Baggage Service — 1-866-AIR-CHAT (1-866-247-2428) Option #1 or for voice mail — 1-800-965-2107 x8900
Alaska Airlines: the airline requests that you fill out this form
American: follow instructions here: American
British Aiways: follow instructions here: British Airways
Delta: follow instructions here: Delta
JetBlue: follow instructions here: JetBlue
Southwest: Contact the specific airport's baggage department. Click here and then click on “Airport Information” in the upper left hand navigation area. Scroll down to find baggage numbers and airport lost and found numbers.
United: follow instructions here: United
US Airways: Your best bet is to call their central reservation number and ask for the number for the airport's baggage office, although you may not be able to get through to the office if they're busy (800-428-4322) in addition to reporting items here.
For airlines not listed here, the best advice is to call the 800 number and ask for the number for the airport baggage office if you cannot immediately return to the airport.
We're not going to remind you to check carefully the area around your seat, in the overhead bin, and in the seat pocket in front of you. You've heard that a million times before and apparently it doesn't work.
Never, ever place anything in the seat back pocket in the first place. Just pretend it's filled with sticky used napkins and chewing gum (which it probably is). This is the black hole of any airplane, the place where most items get left behind.
Get out your label machine and print out your phone number and "reward" on anything you can't afford to lose: cell phones, laptops, DVD players, cameras, etc.
These services provide labels with a tracking number and toll free number, offer an unspecified reward, include shipping back to you, but can be pricey. Trackitback, which claims an 85% retrieval rate (usually within 24 hours), charges $19.95 for lifetime coverage of one item, or $70 for 5 items.
Remember that if you paid for your item with an American Express card within the last 90 days and it is gone forever, they'll replace it as long as you have the original receipt (so keep those receipts)! There's a $1000 limit however. American Express Purchase Protection. Some Visa cards also offer this and do some Mastercards.
And for a real life story of how someone did get his laptop back after leaving it on a plane after having exited the airport, with some industry insider background, this is interesting.