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7 tips for avoiding lost baggage

In the wake of one of the worst years ever for lost bags, TODAY travel editor Peter Greenberg offers advice.

Air travel is booming once again, but the rate at which airlines are losing luggage is sky-high. Lost or damaged bags, it turns out, are the third most common complaint of air travel, after delays and cancellations.

Indeed, about one U.S. passenger in 150 had a mishandled bag last year, with the total number of bags reported mishandled in 2006 likely to top out close to 4 million. That would be the highest year since 1990. And while the lost bag rate has increased every year since 2002, 2006 was on track to be an improvement over the previous year up until August, when a ban on carry-on liquids and gels caused a 30 percent increase in bags checked nationally. Though the U.S. Transportation Security Administration relaxed those rules in September, both the number of bags checked and the number of bags reported mishandled have remained high. 

So what's a traveler to do?

Here are some tips to prevent lost bags:

1. Don’t check your bags. Pack light, taking only carry-on luggage.2. Ship your luggage ahead to your destination, with services like FedEx, Luggage Concierge or Virtual Bellhop. It can cost $40 a bag and up, but it saves you hours of time. No need to stand in line checking luggage, or waiting for it upon landing. You can even have friends pick you up at the departures terminal.

3. Never pack items you have to have in 24 hours — medicine, for example — or the suit you need for that presentation in the morning.

4. Never pack valuable or precious items like jewelry, electronics or cash in checked luggage because if the bag is lost, you can't claim them. 

5. Put your name and address on the inside of your bag as well as the outside and include a copy of your itinerary just in case the baggage tag gets torn off.

6. Take a photo of your bag with your cell phone before you check it in case you need it later for show-and-tell.

7. After you've reclaimed your bag on the other side, check it before you leave the baggage claim area just to make sure all your stuff is inside. 

If your bag is lost
If your bag does get lost, the first thing to know is that do you have rights. If you are without your bag for 24 hours, many airlines will reimburse you for some clothing and toiletries, but you MUST KEEP RECEIPTS!  But know that what you get is all based on your class of service and your frequent flier status. 

There is a little-known deal you can get through most major airlines called “excess valuation,” which even the reservation agents do not know about. Only counter agents do, and you should ask for it when you check in and check your bag. It provides up to $5,000 additional coverage, at a rate of approximately $1 per $100 in value. 

Another important note: Most baggage thieves go inside your bag and take things out. You don't figure out what's missing until you get home or to your hotel. And once that happens, it’s your word against the airline’s that you’ve lost anything. So check your bag before you leave the airport and if anything is missing, go right to the baggage claim office and file a complaint.

When filing a lost bag complaint, they normally give you a lost bag form to fill out with an 800 number to call and check up on your bag. The airlines won't like me for saying it, but do not leave the office without getting the number of THAT OFFICE, and the name of the baggage claim agent who helped you — for one reason — when they hopefully do find your bag and get ready to deliver it, they aren't going to do it immediately, as they claim they will. They subcontract out the service to bring your bag back to you, and who knows who is in charge of that? It’s important to follow up, and often.

If your bag is lost for good, airlines are only required to reimburse you up to $2,800 per incident, not per bag, and it’s not based on replacement value; they will give you the depreciated value. It’s also important to note that exceptions are made on things like jewelry, electronics, furs and negotiable documents. You can also go to your homeowners policy after the airline settles with you, to try to recoup the rest of your loss. If you’re still not satisfied with the outcome, you can take the airline to small-claims court.