Gatwick Airport officials apologised after passengers were told to go home without their luggage amid delays of up to five hours to reclaim their baggage.
Frustrated travellers arriving at the West Sussex airport late last night and this morning criticised the lengthy delays on social media.
Some complained about a lack of information, with just a Tannoy message apologising for the "debacle" and families with young children having to wait.
One tweeted: "Great holiday but sour taste after the debacle in baggage reclaim last night. If Carlsberg did airports it wouldn't be Gatwick Airport!"
Another wrote: "I am backing Gatwick for a second runway but if u cant handle passenger influx with one runway, how will u handle 2??"
Affected travellers with British Airways, Monarch, Thomas Cook and Thomson were told their luggage would be sent to their homes.
It is understood that easyJet passengers were also affected but were not advised to leave without their baggage.
A Gatwick Airport spokesman blamed staff shortages with baggage handlers Swissport but said operations were starting to return to normal.
He said: "Due to resourcing issues with the baggage handlers Swissport there were overnight issues and delays with passengers' luggage on some flights.
"Gatwick provided extra staff to help the airlines and their baggage handlers improve their service, as well as providing welfare and water for passengers waiting in the baggage areas, but we are sorry for the delays they faced.
"Baggage operations are now returning to normal."
Swissport was unavailable for immediate comment.