29.4 million luggage items were 'mishandled' last year alone

So there you are, watching the same three pieces of luggage go round and round the airport carousel and wondering if your bags are going to show up. Have you lost forever the handbag you bought for your niece, or that fetching sarong from Phuket or are you going to be left without a stitch of ski gear for the ski holiday you are about to start?

A staggering 29.4 million items of luggage were ‘mishandled’ – that’s delayed, damaged or stolen last year, according to the 2011 Baggage Report from air transport experts SITA. That’s 12 bags for every 1000 passengers.

The good news is that around 98% of all airline luggage does turn up when and where it’s supposed to, according to the International Air Transport Association. IATA also says that missing items usually turn up within 48 hours, thanks to a global tracking system called WorldTracer.

Waiting for luggageHopefully you're one of the lucky ones...
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It’s a huge inconvenience if you are one of the unlucky ones, but there are ways to improve your chances of arriving at the airport at the same time as your luggage.

The best way to avoid lost baggage is to stick to a carry on, especially if you are only away for a few days. Pack a capsule wardrobe and rinse things out overnight or send them to the hotel laundry. Take travel-sized toiletries and toss the empty containers before you return home to make room for any souvenirs you’ve acquired. Another tip is to pack a change of clothes and everything you need to survive for the first 24 hours in your carry-on in the event your luggage gets delayed or lost.

Lonely bagUnclaimed bags are given to auction houses
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If you must take a suitcase, travel with one bag rather than two to lessen the risk and make it the expandable kind to accommodate items bought abroad. Avoid the ubiquitous soft-sided black bag on wheels –it’s all too easy for some weary traveller to pick it up by mistake. If you can’t live without black, tie some bright ribbons to the handle or use colourful stickers or a coloured strap. Some airports offer a baggage wrapping service for extra security.

Make sure your contact details are on the outside and inside of the bag, though leave off your home address. Locks are a moot point – in the US, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) may break them open if they are not of an approved kind.

Take advantage of new technology and get a smart tag. Several companies including Back2you.com offer traceable tags using an online database for the price of an annual subscription which could pay for itself if you travel frequently.

Take a photo of your packed bag and store it on your phone or camera to help airline staff identify it. It’s also worth writing an inventory of what you’ve packed in case you have to make a claim. In a state of stress, you’re not likely to remember everything you packed. If you buy stuff abroad, keep receipts to back up any claim.

Remove all old airline tags from your bag before travel. At check-in, watch airline staff carefully to make sure they attach the correct destination tags to your bag, and that you have the right number of baggage receipts given to you. Hang on to those until your trip is over.

Lots of Bags98% of all checked luggage does end up where and when it belongs
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Sarah Henson-Alford of Melksham, Wiltshire, had backpacked around the world without losing a thing, but when she made the short hop to a friend’s hen night in Scotland, it all went pear-shaped: “I’d checked in online and then dumped my large bag at the oversize counter and forgot to ask for a receipt. My bag never made it to Edinburgh and I was gutted as I’d bought a lovely new dress for the big night out. I had to borrow clothes all weekend. I’ll never leave the airline desk without a receipt again.”

Avoid checking in at the last minute – you may make the plane but your luggage may not. If you have connecting flights, make sure the times are not too tight as your baggage may not get loaded on the changeover. There’s less chance of losing your luggage on a non-stop flight.

If, despite taking precautions, your bags are a no-show on the carousel, see an airline agent immediately and most importantly file a Property Irregularity Form (PIR). Fill out all paperwork before you leave the airport and don’t go without giving the agent your contact numbers and finding out how you can track your bag’s whereabouts, and getting copies of the form. Some airlines offer online tracking services, others have a phone number you can call and you should call it every day. For advice and help you can try consumer bodies, such as the UK-based Civil Aviation Authority.

Persistence paid off for Beth Estes’ husband Ed, who flew to Salt Lake City, while his luggage flew to Chicago. Recalls Beth: “He called the lost luggage phone number on a daily basis and each time he’d talk to someone who said they were entering his information into the computer, and then when he’d call again the next day, there was no information anywhere about his lost luggage. It took him four months but eventually he got it back.”

Before leaving the agents desk, also clarify how your baggage will be returned. Will it be delivered to your hotel or do you have to come and get it? The former is more standard, but be clear on the airline’s procedure.

Student Adeline Roux was returning home to central France from a trip to Miami and was stopping off to visit a friend in Paris for a week en route. Her luggage never showed up in the French capital:“It was annoying as I had to buy new clothes. The airline did find my bag after a couple of days but then they sent it to my address in central France instead of where I was staying in Paris so I had to buy new clothes. I did get some compensation but it didn’t cover the cost of the clothes.”

Ask what immediate compensation you can get for emergency supplies. Some airlines may give you cash, others will have a reimbursement plan to cover your necessities – again, keep receipts.

Broken luggage on carouselBe careful which items you entrust to the baggage handlers
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Airlines are liable for lost luggage after 21 days, although most will offer compensation to cover immediate expenditure before that. Compensation varies for bags lost on domestic (capped in the US at $3,300 per person) and international flights (governed by the Montreal and Warsaw Convention treaties) and there are limits on what they pay out so you may sometimes be better off checking your travel insurance. It goes without saying that you should never pack valuables in your checked bags.

Your household as well as your travel insurance policy may cover luggage, ditto your credit card if you used it to book your airline ticket – find out before purchasing separate cover. In any event, you can only make one claim.

In the US new passenger protection measures introduced this month mean airlines will have to cough up that baggage fee they love to charge now, as well as dole out compensation if they lose your bags.

Where do lost and lonely bags end up if they are unclaimed? The answer is at auction houses and unclaimed baggage stores. In the UK, much of it ends up at Greasby’s Auctions in Tooting, London. Weller’s Auctions in Guildford receive bags from Gatwick and Luton’s lost bags end up at Hertfordshire Auctions. In the US, most of it ends up in Scottsboro, Alabama, where a giant unclaimed baggage warehouse has more than 7,000 items in stock daily.

Conveyor beltMake your luggage easily identifiable with a personal touch
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On a visit to Sudan some years ago with a stopover in Cairo, I was half expecting not to see my luggage again, but there it was on the tarmac at Khartoum - dusty, but safe. Often you’ll have more luck in the developing world than at established airports. Recently, LAX was ranked the worst airport in the US for lost and stolen luggage. Heathrow has enjoyed similar status in the UK, not helped by last winter’s weather chaos.

Sometimes, the most surprising items make it through the system, as actor Gregory Ashton recalls:“I took a theatre production to Hong Kong – The Jolly Folly of Polly, the Scottish Trolley Dolly. We had a £10 trolley we bought in a charity shop and it had to go oversize luggage. On return from Hong Kong, all five of us waited for our luggage to arrive, to no avail. Then one of us noticed that the trolley had made it through. Nothing else – just the £10 trolley.”

As they say, it’s better to travel hopefully but it’s better still if your luggage travels with you.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.