Ah, that sinking feeling as your fellow passengers grab their bags and hit the exits, while you stare sadly at the empty baggage carousel. Plenty of us have had our travel excitement deflated by the disappearance of our luggage. So when that conveyor belt grinds to a halt and you’re left empty handed, what do you do next?

1. Pack like you’ll lose your luggage

I’m no pessimist, but it’s wise to pack your bags with the mindset that you and your suitcase might be parting ways for a few days. What can’t you do without for 48 hours? Your documents, a map of your destination, any essential medication (with a doctor’s note if it might raise eyebrows at the border), a change of clothing, wash-bag essentials... cram them all into your hand luggage. (But look out for on-board liquid restrictions and keep that toothpaste under 100ml.)

Take note of the contents of your check-in bag (in case you are asked to verify it’s yours - which sometimes happens when labels get detached during transit). A quick photo before you shut the case, and one of the outside of the bag, takes seconds but can be useful if you ever need to prove your bags were damaged en route (or if you end up claiming for the cost of the contents and need a reminder of your precious belongings).

The uber-paranoid might want to invest in additional luggage identification by registering with Super Smart Tag or Global Bag Tag.

2. Label it up

Put your name and address within a folding tag rather than on full display. If you have a multi-trip stay, consider adding a note (folded away in your tag) giving the dates of your itinerary and accommodation along the way. There’s no point in your suitcase winging its way to Cairo if you’ve sailed down the Nile by the time it arrives.

While it isn’t smart to have designer luggage (oh-so-tempting for opportunist thieves), do personalise it to reduce the likelihood a bleary-eyed traveller will take it by accident. A cheap but jazzy belt tied around the middle will make it noticeable without screaming ‘steal me’.

3. At the airport

There’s still time to buy last-minute travel insurance before you get on that plane. Make sure your policy covers baggage loss and delay, so you can be reimbursed for all the extra undies you buy if your suitcase doesn’t show up. And don’t even think of losing that luggage receipt, usually stuck to the bag of your passport or ticket.

4. Where’s my bag?

So you’ve survived the flight, negotiated passport control and found the baggage carousel, but your bag has departed on a holiday of its own.

First of all, are there any doppelgangers idly circling the conveyor belt? Rucksacks all look the same through a haze of jetlag, so another traveller may have made off with it. If that looks like the case, you might be able to arrange a swap without involving your airline. But if you don’t want to risk that, explain the situation to the airline desk and ask them to make the call.

If there’s no clone bag, have a look on some of the other luggage carousels in case yours has been heaved onto the wrong one. Scan corners of the baggage hall, in case someone has helpfully hauled it off the carousel. Still no luck? Time to brave the airline carrier’s luggage desk.

5. Paperwork time

If you flew a multi-stop journey with more than one airline, check who holds responsibility for your bag: most airlines have signed up to an agreement holding the final carrier responsible for luggage, but a few others may leave responsibility with the airline that started your journey. You’ll be given a form (Property Irregularity Report) to fill in, so give as much detail as possible about your bag’s appearance, size and distinguishing features. Note down a couple of phone numbers - your hotel, your mobile (with dialling code) - so they have no excuse not to update you. They’ll give you a code number and perhaps tell you to keep track of your errant luggage using World Tracer. They may also give you vouchers or money to buy some essentials, but prompt them if they don’t (particularly if your bag doesn’t show up quickly).

Now call your insurer and spill the details to them. If the airline refuses responsibility (sadly, it happens), get written proof of this so you can speed up your claim with your insurer.

Failed to get insured? After all our best advice! If you booked your flight with a credit card, you may be covered for baggage loss so check the fine print.

6. Don’t wait by the phone

Take comfort in knowing that the majority of lost bags turn up within a few days (although an unlucky few have taken rather longer - four years is the record in our Thorn Tree community). Let your hotel or hostel know that your luggage has gone AWOL, to smooth the way if the airline calls with an update or dumps your hold-all on their doorstep. Put in regular phone calls to your airline, and log on to World Tracer, but if these are costing you dear then keep internet café receipts and note down the times of your phone calls so you can find them on your bill. You might be able to get reimbursed for these expenses by your insurer, but you’ll need proof.

The same goes for essentials: pick up soap, new underwear, socks and whatever you need to get through, either using vouchers from the airline or from your own cash with the goal of getting your insurer to reimburse you. But hold off major expenses if you can: you don’t want to buy a new snowboard only for your lost one to find you a day later.

7. I still don’t have it!

You’ve trekked far and wide, bought a new wardrobe in the markets of Bangkok, your trip is reaching an end and there’s still no sign of the missing suitcase. By this point the airline may have changed the status of your luggage from ‘missing’ (there’s hope) to ‘lost’ (not a prayer). Airlines apply different thresholds for when your bags are considered lost; once this happens, you’ll fill in a Baggage Inventory Form and from there you can start the process to get the cost of your contents reimbursed.

This article was first published in February 2012 and was republished in January 2013.

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