06/05/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Land of the Lost Baggage

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Airlines do everything short of handcuffing passengers to possessions, but travel enough and the fact remains that one day it will happen: You will lose your luggage.

A colleague of mine on a trip to Europe had just such an experience; she got to the baggage carousel and voila! No luggage. Turns out, the routing label -- that strip they attach when you hand your things over at the check-in desk -- fell off somewhere en route and, per airline policy, the bag was pulled aside. It took a few calls to the airline, and she had to wait a day, but her luggage was found and it all had a happy ending.

The easiest way to avoid this unforgettable saga is to travel only with carry-on suitcases. They may be small, you can only have one, and you have to keep it under a certain size and weight level, but with a judicious selection from your wardrobe, you can still wrangle a new look each day for a week abroad. Jeans, white Ts, infinity scarves, and LBDs go a long way.

But for those going for the month-long getaways or just love to have a ton of stuff as a travel companion, check-in is an unavoidable ritual. With it is the possibility, however remote, that you and your bags may be separated. Here are a few tips to get your things back post-haste should the worst-case scenario happen:

1) Personal IDs: Always have your contact info on and in your bags. Most luggage companies include a small slot on their lines where you can slip in a little card with your name and phone number (and in this day and age, email). I have my ID all over my things, not only in that little slot, but also on a separate tag hanging off the handle, and an index card on the inside. Why so many? Luggage can go through some pretty hard knocks on its journey, and things can fall off or get ripped off anywhere between Point A and Point B. Airlines even offer those little paper ones with the stretchy string at the desk, and I use those, too.

2) Identifying luggage: Take a look at most baggage and black seems to be a running theme. The idea behind this is to prevent it from standing out and being a target for thieves. The downside is that with so much luggage looking alike, lost luggage can stay that way. Having a some sort of identifying "thing" on the bag, say some neon blue or yellow tape wrapped around the handle or some other kind of decoration, can make your baggage easy to spot by airline workers. Similar-looking baggage also opens the door for somebody taking yours without knowing it.

3) Identifying clothes: Going back to my friend, she had no ID whatsoever on her bag. Faced with this situation, airline personnel will ask you to describe a particular piece of clothing and then open the suspected luggage for a look. This is unsettling for everyone involved, so the best thing to do is to have a some sort of "unique" item -- say, a really tacky tie or distinctive bandanna -- in one of the easy-to-reach outside pockets. They are light, you can afford to loose them, and they neatly prevent a more thorough search through your unmentionables. My friend had a brilliantly fluorescent purple jacket. Worked like a charm.

If your luggage is lost, get on the phone to your airline at once and if need be, fill out a lost baggage report. Few things can destroy an airline's reputation like lost luggage, and when something goes missing it is a clarion call from embarkation to destination to find it. Some airlines even comp you; if the bag cannot be found, Lufthansa offers 100 euros to passengers separated from their bags to pick up something to tide them over. Depending on where you are, that can equal a tidy sum.

So how does luggage get lost in the first place? The number one way is the routing label, be it lost or damaged. Another way is being victim to a typo on that label. Nearly every airport in the world has a three-letter code as set by the International Air Transport Association, and some of them are very similar: Tokyo is TYO; Toronto YTO. A simple fumble at the check-in keyboard can send your bags to the other side of the planet in a heartbeat. Sometimes the bag is put on the wrong plane. Other times, people literally forget to pick up their bags, something that happens a lot with travelers with several pieces of luggage. Probably the most rare of all is that the item is stolen.

To put you at ease, truly lost luggage is an extremely unlikely event. Among domestic travelers in the United States, 99.5 percent get their checked bags at the carousel, no fuss. Of the 0.5 percent that doesn't, 95 percent are successfully reunited within five days. Of the sliver that remains, that baggage whose owners cannot be found after a three-month search, it ends up in the unlikely destination of Scottsboro, in Alabama. Since 1970, the Unclaimed Baggage Center is the official end-point of unclaimed luggage from planes, trains, ships, and buses. And what do they do with it? They sell it off.

Makes multiple ID tags on your luggage really sensible.