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At a loss? You don't have to be

Whether your checked bag gets mishandled is, of course, mostly out of your control. But you can take steps to improve your bag's chances of arriving when you do. Start by avoiding air travel during holidays and bad weather, which can overload baggage systems. Here are other possible problems and some strategies to counter them, from industry experts:

Your bag gets left behind.

Strategies:

Check in early. Many airlines won't accept bags later than 30 or 45 minutes before flight time. (Southwest is one exception.) A rule of thumb: If you have to run to catch your flight, your checked bag may not make it.

Don't pack prohibited items and don't lock your bag, unless you use locks approved by the Transportation Security Administration. If your bag requires extra screening, it may not make your flight. For rules, visit vwww.tsa.gov.

Your bag is misrouted.

Strategies: Fly nonstop. There's less chance for error.

Avoid tight connections. Allow at least an hour between domestic flights and two hours between international flights, especially at large hub airports.

Don't switch flights at the last minute. If you do, your bags may wind up on your original flight.

The bag's identification tag falls off.

Strategies: Put your name and a phone number inside your bag as well as outside. If you'll be away for a while, put your itinerary inside in an envelope, with contacts, to help the airline find you.

Carry a record of your bag's size, brand and unique features and make a mental note of its contents. The more details, the better.

Someone mistakes your bag for theirs at the luggage carousel.

Strategies: Buy a unique bag. Avoid upright black bags with wheels and a handle. These are the most common models.

Put a brightly colored ribbon, luggage tag, adhesive tape or other distinctive marking on your bag.

You need to file a mishandled-bag report.

Strategies: Know your rights. By law, carriers are liable for up to $2,800 per passenger for delayed, lost or damaged bags on domestic flights. For details, visit vairconsumer.ost.dot.gov and choose "Travel Tips & Publications," then "Fly Rights." If your bag is delayed overnight, ask for vouchers to pay for toiletries, clothing and other expenses.

Act promptly. Some airlines may disavow liability unless you file a report within 24 hours, or as little as four hours after the flight arrives.

— Jane Engle

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